When trans advocate Ryan K. Sallans was asked by a nervous father to talk in private, Sallans didn’t hesitate to drive out to meet him. In the middle of a McDonalds in the American heartland, surrounded by billboards of Bible verses, the father tells Sallans, “Religion is very important to me and I don’t know how to how to love my kid, and support their decisions, when I know those decisions are going to make them go to hell.”
In Transforming Manhood (Scout), Sallans documents the painful and gratifying moments of being an educator on the trans experience, as well as how his life has changed since the success of his autobiography Second Son. Sallans took time out of his busy schedule to advise the worried father, even with opposite beliefs. Throughout the book, Sallans attests to the importance of empathy and listening to others in a safe space.
From meeting his wife Lily to being stalked and threatened, to reflect on his journey as a public figure, Sallans latest book captivates readers as it teaches.
- What prompted you to write Transforming Manhood?
My work as a speaker is grounded in storytelling, but there is only so much you can share in a lecture. Writing books is a way to take people on the deeper journey so that they can more fully understand transgender identities and experiences. My first memoir, Second Son took readers on the journey from my childhood through the fourth year into my transition. There is so much more that has happened in my life since Second Son that I knew I had to write another book. I chose the theme and arch of relationships because I’ve been witnessing and experiencing society turn on one another using words, judgement and labels. I felt it was necessary for me to share what I have learned through my transition and interactions with people to try and open up minds and hearts and look beyond gender or a person’s physicality.
- Was the writing process different for this book than your first memoir Second Son?
The writing process for Transforming Manhood was the hardest piece of writing I have done yet in my life. It was difficult to write about the MOST vulnerable moments in my life. Every single chapter was about vulnerability. I also dived into topics that many people who identify as transgender would like to have conversations around but are afraid to for fear of being shut down and/or shunned.
- If you write another book, what story would you like to tell next?
This question should really be “when” I write another book. Writing is an important part of my life and my work, so I do not see myself stopping any time soon. When writing, you never really know where the book will take you or what the final arch or theme will be. Both of my books started out with a different focus, but in the end turned into what they are through what came out as the central story. I am not quite sure what story I will tell next since it hinges on what I learn about myself and this world as I continue to interact with everything around me.
- Has it been difficult to share so much of your personal story publicly?
I am actually in awe of what happens for me either when I write a book or go out in front of an audience, versus when I am just hanging out at home or going to a restaurant for dinner. The performer comes out of me when the metaphorical curtains are pulled back either when writing or when I am in front of an audience. I love to share my story because it connects with complete strangers, it provides inspiration, and it assists in opening minds and hearts. I also love how my story helps raise awareness in others regarding issues they are personally struggling with. I am driven to help create change by opening up about my own successes, failures and challenges. The messages I get from people online or the stories that are then shared with me after a talk lets me know this is important work, this is needed work.
- How have your loved ones felt about being written about in your books?
I feel like I should get a t-shirt printed that says “Caution, you are in the presence of a memoirist.” I know it is difficult and weird for my family and loved ones to be written about in my books. They are being written about from my own perspective, my own experiences in those interactions and the memories that I have. I acknowledge in Transforming Manhood that if they were to write the story, I know there would be differences just because we all walk away from our interactions with something different. A story isn’t a story without everything around you and what you learn through your relationships, so my only hope is that they can appreciate why I am driven to share our lives. For example, I really love what I have been able to capture and what I have been able to share both through Second Son and Transforming Manhood regarding my parents. I take the reader through the full range of emotions, from being rejected, to the moments they began to open up, to finally the breakthrough where they are able to love me for all of who I am. I hope it gives families hope and allows them to recognize change is a life-long process.
- Why do you think there are so few stories of “after” transition, and the life beyond?
I think there are a couple reasons why we lack stories that go beyond transition. The first is that the new wave of trans rights in the US has many people just now accessing gender-affirming care, so they are new in their transition. The second is that we are currently hyper-focused on “the transition,” and not what is beyond that. As a transgender author that transitioned in 2005, I feel fortunate to be one of the first to write a story that dives into life post-transition. I can only hope my book offers insight that will assist those newly transitioning and also help affirm feelings and experiences of many of us from the older generations.
- How have you found inspiration in the writing of trans people that came before you?
When I first pulled the photography book Body Alchemy by Loren Cameron off a bookshelf in an LGBTQ bookstore in Boston, I was immediately inspired. His self-portraits and portraits of other trans men who wrote about their lives was eye-opening and revealing. I found this book in 2004, it was published in 1996. The courage that each individual in the book had to not only transition when our community was largely underground due to discrimination and erasure, and then to share their faces and stories with the public, set the stage for visibility. I wouldn’t be where I am today without each of them. These men are now in their late 40’s through 70’s and they still inspire me today.
- What is the one message you’d like readers to take away from Transforming Manhood?
I am inscribing signed copies of the book with the phrase, “Be open to the world around you.” One of my undergraduate degrees is in cultural anthropology. Through my degree, I learned the importance of being the observer and going into communities to learn their culture and how they communicate, work with or against each other, and form leadership. This is part of cultural relativism where we do not center ourselves and our ways of viewing things as the authority. Today, especially with the internet, we are becoming more and more ethnocentric, meaning whatever we think or whatever opinion we have should be the way everyone else also thinks and feels. My hope with this book is for readers to become more mindful and open to the fact that it is impossible for all of us to think alike, use the same language, and see things the exact same way. We need to push up against each other in order to continually expand understanding and create change; we are all part of the evolutionary process. I want us all to start building relationships again with people different from ourselves or people we perceive as different from ourselves because THAT is how we create change and open up hearts. The online world is wonderful for connecting, but also is terrible as it keeps us from truly engaging and communicating with each other. It also keeps us in the “now” instead of allowing us to have time to reflect, learn and then communicate. Defensiveness is driving us right now and it is impossible to truly communicate with one another if there are walls put up in front of us.
About Ryan K. Sallans
Ryan Sallans is a renowned transgender speaker and author specializing in health care, campus inclusion and workplace issues impacting the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) community.
Since 2005, Ryan has been inspiring individuals around the world through the programming that he offers. His work as a speaker is rooted in storytelling and branches out to interlace personal stories with research and data focused on creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ individuals, employees and patients. He is hosted as a keynote speaker across the country for conferences and diversity and inclusion events highlighting finding similarities through our differences.
Ryan also serves as the Lead Subject Matter Expert and script writer for e-learning courses used around the nation to train healthcare professionals and staff seeking continuing education around serving the LGBTQ community. These courses are now part of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Healthcare Equality Index (HEI).