LGBT Month Feature: Eli Strong talks about appearance on American Transgender
Social worker Eli Strong in May was featured on the National Geographic documentary “American Transgender,” which followed the day-to-day lives of Strong and two other transgender people.
Strong, 30, was born a female but came out as a lesbian as a teenager and as an adult decided to undergo hormone treatments and surgeries to transition to male.
Social work was not the first career choice for Strong, who attended the University of Alabama. He was originally a pre-med major but was not completely happy with that choice.
A friend, who was an occupational psychologist, persuaded Strong to take a personality test that indicated he should go into public speaking, athletics, medicine or social work. So Strong switched to social work and found it was a natural fit.
His grades were so good he was accepted into an accelerated, one-year social work master’s degree program. Strong also won a scholarship from an LGBT student organization that helped defray costs.
That was fine for Strong, who is an avid Alabama football fan. Pursuing a master’s degree would allow him to buy discount student tickets for another year.
Strong interned at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. and was recently promoted to database administrator at Avalere Health, a D.C. healthcare advisory services company. He is married to Amanda Baker.
Strong recently visited National Association of Social Workers on June 12 to talk about his experiences on “American Transgender” and answer questions social workers posted on Facebook.
Q: How did the documentary makers at National Geographic find you?
Strong: They were already focusing on two people in San Francisco and they were looking for someone on the East Coast. I am a co-facilitator for a (Washington, D.C. area) transmasculine social and support group. And the associate producer emailed our webmaster and we said they could put out a call on our listserv. She had brief telephone interviews with all those interested in participating. And the folks at National Geographic said my interview stood out. Really, what I think sold them was that I was from a conservative, Catholic, Sicilian family in Alabama. The fact that my family supported me wholly and I seemed happy about life showed what was possible.
Q: What was it like being filmed? Did it feel intrusive?
Strong: Filming for the entire documentary took place over the course of several months. But they only filmed me five or six days, spread over that time. We did two days in Washington, D.C., and then the trip home to Alabama. My mom (Ramona Graffeo) didn’t want to participate, at first, because she tends to be more of a private person. She didn’t have an issue with me being trans or the subject matter of the show, it was more the idea of being on camera and having cameras in her home. After discussing it for only a few minutes, she and I both agreed on the impact this documentary could have. The way we looked at it is that if this project could reach one transguy or one parent of a transgender person and show them that suicide is not the only option and that a family doesn’t have to be torn apart, then the filming was worth any temporary discomfort. Sometimes the support and love of family can be a good chunk of being successful in life. As far as the intrusiveness factor, while it was slightly strange at times it didn’t feel that intrusive, although there were a couple of times the camera got abnormally close to my face. Most of the reason it wasn’t intrusive is that National Geographic was good at allowing me to set my boundaries. There were one or two things I told them that I wouldn’t discuss, because I didn’t want the show or my life to be sensationalized, and they respected that.
Q: How did your family, friends and the public react to “American Transgender”?
Strong: If you had asked me last week I would have told you I had only run into one person in West Virginia when I was camping in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area that recognized me. I was at a cavern and she said she had seen me on television. I didn’t know whether to be a little frightened or not. Was she liberal or not? She said she really enjoyed the show and found it really inspiring. This weekend, however, Washington D.C. celebrated LGBT Pride. We went out Saturday night and one person saw an article about me in the Washington Blade. On Sunday there was a street festival and I was working at the table for my transmasculine group. About 10 or 11 people recognized me and came up and discussed the show. Honestly, the only thing negative I have seen has been that I got one hate email that was sent to the Washington Blade and myself. Another complaint has been that the film showed what appeared to be all white and middle class transgender people. From those folks who already knew me, and from most of the trans community, there has been nothing but positive feedback.
Q: Where did you grow up? When did you feel you were different?
Strong: I was born in Mobile, Ala. and grew up throughout the state. When did I begin to feel different? That is harder to peg. Even when I was a child other children would ask me whether I was a girl or a boy. That happened with adults as well. Growing up in Alabama I didn’t have a language for what it meant when I realized I was attracted to women at age 16. I had a girlfriend in high school; she was my first love and we are still friends today. Later I attended the University of Alabama where I was first a pre-med/biology major. I got very involved in LGBT activism, among other activities, and even pledged a historically African-American sorority – Sigma Gamma Rho. But I still felt like something was missing. Although I had tried to completely embrace living as a lesbian I had a feeling that I wasn’t completely me. Not to sound cliché but I read “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg and it made me realize I might be a guy. I really didn’t identify as transgender in Alabama except to a handful of trusted friends because it scared me what that might mean. Both because I didn’t want to get assaulted in any way and I didn’t want to admit it to myself. It was pretty scary. Then I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005 to start my internship at HRC and I was able to get away from the fear and judgment in Alabama. I also met a transgender person face-to-face for the first time and I was able to have a conversation and be me. I was also concerned about coming out to my mom again. She had already found out I was a lesbian when I was 16 and we had gotten through it and she was accepting me. But I saw this as so much harder for her to deal with. It’s one thing to tell your parents that you are attracted to women. It’s another thing to decide to change the way the outside world sees you. There are many stories of gay folks knowing they were gay from jump but that wasn’t me. And I certainly didn’t have the language for being transgender when I was younger.
Q: Can you describe what the process of transitioning from a female to male was like for you?
Strong: I am now 30 and my transition really began when I was 23. I have to say my social work education and training played a key role in the early stages of my transition. I wanted to be as responsible as I could about my transition so that I could avoid hurting myself or anyone else. It was also important to me to be monitored by a healthcare professional when I did it. While I was saving for surgery, I took three or four years talking to friends and trying to discover who I was and what kind of a person I wanted to be. There is a common misconception that testosterone can cause depression, anger and “roid rage.” Personally, I have found that what primarily leads to these problems is not dealing with whatever issues you have that aren’t related to transitioning. If you expect your transition to solve all of your problems, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Q: Do you think there is a lack of LGBT focus in social work bachelor’s and master’s degree programs?
Strong: I really can’t answer that because I studied social work in one place. I didn’t see a lot in the curriculum at the University of Alabama at the time, but there were some.
Q: Have you noticed that social workers have preconceived notions about transgender people?
Strong: At times, absolutely. Even In social work there is not enough understanding about what being a transgender person means. While this isn’t necessarily a social worker’s doing, it pisses me off that being transgender is considered a mental disorder. When I first began my transition, it was a pretty commonly held belief that there was a certain script you had to follow with social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists, in order to get quality care. For instance, most transmen felt they had to tell their mental healthcare provider, “I may have the body of a woman but I feel like a male and I am attracted to women and I want to change my sex to reflect that.” But there are a growing number of people who do not want to live in either a male or female box. For instance there are genderqueer people who fall outside of the traditionally accepted male/female paradigm. Some of the genderqueer folks I know are comfortable with both male and female pronouns, some are comfortable with one over the other and some are comfortable with neither. There is also a common misconception that your sexual orientation is the same as, or connected to your gender identity. That is simply not the case. You can be a transgender male who is attracted to males or a transgender women who is attracted to women. Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other orientation is completely independent of your gender identity. People are starting to understand that human gender falls along a range in much the same way that the Kinsey Scale illustrates sexual orientation as a spectrum. There are some people that identify as strictly heterosexual or strictly homosexual, but many people fall somewhere else along the spectrum. I feel like society has gotten better in the last seven and a half years since I began my transition. It might be because I live in a more liberal area, like Washington, D.C., but it sounds like some people are becoming more understanding even in Alabama.
Q: Should there be separate bathrooms or stalls in public places for transgender people?
Strong: Unequivocally, no, there should not be. The reason why is several fold. That would be like creating a separating stall in the women’s bathroom for lesbians. Transwomen are women. Transmen are men. That is the simple fact of it. And besides, in a stall nobody should see what you are doing. In addition, setting up a separate stall or bathroom is akin to setting up a separate, but equal scenario. And as we all know from Brown vs. Board of Education, separate but equal is NOT equal. There are some places in the South that are calling for laws that would require you only be allowed in a bathroom of the sex you were designated on your birth certificate. In addition to that being ludicrous, who is going to be waiting at the entrance of bathrooms to check your birth certificate?
Q: What films and movies do you think best convey the experiences of transgender people?
Strong: That’s a tough one. “Boys Don’t Cry” starring Hillary Swank is a good film but parts of it still upset me, for obvious reasons if you’ve seen it. I thought “TransAmerica” was pretty good but at times it made me uncomfortable because of the relationship between the transgender main character, Bree (Felicity Huffman) and her son Toby (Kevin Zegers), who did not know Bree was his biological father and about to undergo transition surgery. I’d like to point out that part of the reason that is a hard question to answer is because there aren’t a lot of mainstream transgender films. I hope that people will start to consider “American Transgender” as one of those features.
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