Black Transmen founder ‘didn’t know there were other guys like me’
Carter Brown says he began his transition in 2001, the same year he met his wife, Esperanza.
But Espy — as she’s known to family and friends — differs on the timeline: “He was already there when we met,” she says of her husband.
When he was younger, Carter says, he knew he just wasn’t a girl. But he had no role models, unlike transwomen did. By the time he transitioned, Carter still hadn’t met another transman. But there was no question he was a man who was attracted to women.
Espy isn’t as clear about her own orientation. She’s a cisgender woman attracted to her husband. But is she straight? She thinks a little before answering: “No.”
Lesbian? “Oh, no.” Bisexual? “No. Not that,” she says, shaking her head. “Maybe pansexual.” That term seems more inclusive, she says, and includes her attraction to her transgender husband.
In some ways, the Browns are just a typical suburban couple raising a daughter.
For 10 years after transitioning, Carter says, they just disappeared into the community. He had a good job. She was finishing her graduate degree.
They might still be that typical American couple living a peaceful suburban life — if Carter hadn’t been outed by a coworker.
Carter says he had been in the mortgage industry for years and was doing quite well. He changed companies a few times and received one promotion after another. Years beyond his transition, he was earning a six-figure income.
Things were going great until one day a coworker recognized Carter from another company where they worked together years earlier. She remembered him having a different name and presenting as a different sex, and she decided to share that information with the owner of the company she and Carter were currently working for.
Carter thought he had put his past behind him. But the mortgage industry is fairly small. He says now it’s not surprising that he crossed the paths with some of the same people he had worked for before.
Carter says he probably didn’t handle the situation well when the company’s owner confronted him: “I was caught off guard,” he says. “I was shocked, humiliated.”
He says his boss asked him if he had a vagina. Not until much later did he even realize how inappropriate that question was in the workplace.
That was 2008, and the real estate market was crashing. The company’s owner told him he was downsizing and Carter’s services would no longer be needed.
Of course, Carter was the only one laid off — a familiar story for many transpeople.
As he worked to get back on his feet, Carter began to see the problems facing the trans community in ways he’d never seen them before. He got another job, but he also began searching for others in his community.
By 2011, Carter could clearly see need for a group specific to the community of black transmen. He had looked diligently and was unable to find a group like that anywhere — either online or off. When he realized nothing like that existed, Carter decided he would create the first one.
What followed, he says, was “a wave of men.”
When Carter staged the first conference for black transmen that year, hundreds attended from around the country. The conference is now an annual event that has grown every year.
Common concerns, special issues
Espy says all LGBT people share some common concerns, on issues like coming out and family acceptance. And some issues, she adds, are common to all transpeople, like the cost of transitioning and learning to present.
But there are other issues that are very specific to black transmen, and some issues that black transmen have in common with cisgender black men.
“I’m more concerned about my safety as a black male than as a transman,” Carter says, explaining that learning to navigate society as a black man is something he could only experience after transitioning.
“A butch female is not as frightening” as a black man, he says.
Espy says she and her husband also are sometimes faced with the expectations of the black community in general. That community, she notes, doesn’t expect black women to transition.
“It’s something white people do,” she says. “We [blacks] don’t have the money and we don’t have the time.”
Espy says the black community thinks of transitioning as a luxury they can’t afford because of the cost, both in money and in time. Blacks, she says, see themselves having to spend more of their time working just to get by with no time or money for luxuries.
Licensed professional counselor Feleshia Porter works with many trans clients. She agrees some issues are unique to black transmen, while others are shared.
The black community, Feleshia notes, is “deeply steeped in religion,” with a “strong patriarchal” tradition.
On the other hand, the counselor says, transmen “socially blend quickly.” She attributes that to the powerful effect of testosterone on the body: once a transman can grow a beard, he can pass quickly.
But all transmen face one common challenge, Feleshia says — “being a man on the planet without a penis.” It is a challenge that is slowly being overcome as surgical techniques improve.
Feleshia also says that black transmen living in the South also have to learn how to be black men living in the South. For instance, she notes, black men in the South are more likely to be arrested.
All transmen need to build confidence as a man, Feleshia adds: “Learn to look ’em in the eye and don’t show fear.”
Historically, the counselor notes, transmen were invisible. They existed — and often still do exist — in the lesbian community as really butch women, “studs” who in reality were more trans than lesbian. Once those lesbian “studs” begin to transition, though they usually have to give up the lesbian community to become straight men living in a heteronormative world. It takes a lot of confidence to live in that world, Feleshia adds.
Carter’s organization, Black Transmen, and its annual conference help those transmen begin to build a community of their own and grow the confidence they need to live in the world. Carter has dedicated himself to the cause of black transmen, leaving his job late last year to work full time as executive director of the organization he founded.
The fourth annual Black Transmen Conference is being held April 27-May 3 at the Doubletree Hotel, near NorthPark in Dallas. Carter says the hotel is already sold out, with people from around the world coming to town to attend the conference.
All trans and cisgender people are welcome.
“You’re not just welcome to come,” Espy stresses. “We need you to come.”
Carter says his group’s conference is a call to unify.
“It’s urgent we stand up without apologies and humanize trans lives,” he says.
Both agree with Porter that issues overlap and hope a variety of LGBT community members will share some of their time with those coming to Dallas for the week from around the world.
For more information on the conference and group, visit BlackTransmen.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 24, 2015.