Houston’s Transmasculine Community Comes of Age
By Geo Zem
Well, I never thought I’d end up becoming one of those “old timers” that I used to look up to when I was a wee transling, but despite my best efforts, it seems to have happened. So here is the story of how it all got started…
Houston’s transmasculine community has a long and amazing history that can be traced back to our city’s trans mother, Brenda Thomas. Brenda was unapologetically transgender. She made no attempt to alter her deep voice or hide her past. She would swagger in with her cigarette and high heels and fill the room with her personality. Everything about her commanded seniority. Brenda wanted transgender people to take pride in their authentic selves. In the early 1990s, she founded Houston Crossdressers Anonymous, later renamed Houston Transgenders Anonymous, which was Houston’s first peer-led transgender support group. The group was based on a 12-Step model of self-acceptance and although this model was quickly tossed out, the name stuck. Brenda also established the Houston Transgender Unity Banquet in 1992 and went on to lead the Houston Transgender Unity Committee. She won several lifetime achievement awards from LGBTQ organizations throughout the country and was deeply admired by so many of us. One of my most cherished memories of Brenda is when some friends and I met in her home to assemble safe sex packets to distribute at a Pride event. Brenda stated that she had so much work to do and not enough time to do it. Later as she was dying in hospice from complications from AIDS, she reiterated this sentiment. She wanted us to continue everything she’d started and to further advance the transgender community.
For a lot of us back then, our first contact with the community was through HTGA.
When I began attending the group, after learning about it in Outsmart (Houston’s LGBTQ magazine), one thing really stuck out, and that one thing was me. See, the entire concept of a transgender man was a novelty. People had heard about us and knew that we were a sort of opposite of transwomen, but most had never actually seen us. Few of us even knew that others like ourselves existed.
Gradually, more transmen started to trickle in with new ideas. In 1999, after a particularly grueling meeting where the topic centered on women’s shoes, a guy named Troy came up with the idea to have a transmasculine group. Unable to think of a name, an interested transwoman dubbed the group Some Transgenders are Guys, or STAG.
The purpose of STAG was to create a support network for transmasculine members of the Houston community. Now, at the time, it was me, Troy, a guy named Karl who sometimes showed up, and a really interesting transman named Sandy O’Daniel. Sandy was one of those people who always looked old, even in his grade school photos. Like Brenda, with whom he was close friends, Sandy was unapologetically transgender and he was not one to be trifled with. He was very opinionated and like me, believed that transitioning should not be harder than it needed to be. After Troy left Houston, Sandy and I took on the leadership of STAG and made it our goal to build up the transmasculine community and reduce the hardships associated with the transition process. The emotional and psychological aspects were hard enough but finding a doctor, knowing how to administer injections, knowing your rights, and changing your name and gender marker should be laid out and readily available to whoever needed them. We would meet in his home and assemble packets containing blank petitions and court orders and a step-by-step guide to changing your name and gender marker. We created a detailed “how to transition” guide and Sandy’s girlfriend, an RN, taught us how to inject testosterone. Sadly, one year after Brenda’s death, we lost Sandy. My final memories with him were reminiscent of Brenda’s time in hospice, with Sandy sharing his wish that the work that had been put forth by STAG would continue after his death.
One of the issues with the early groups is that they were heteronormative, with prescribed methods of transitioning. If you were a transgender woman, you divorced your wife, had sex reassignment surgery, fell in love with a man, and that’s the end. If you were a transgender man, you had a mastectomy (we didn’t bother with lower surgery, since at the time, it was not all that great), grew a beard, found a girlfriend, and that was that. The very idea that a transgender person might identify as gay or lesbian was anathema. And heaven forbid if you were gender variant. Such things just did not exist, or so it was believed. And even though a lot of us in STAG varied in our transmasculine identities and expressions, there was still an overwhelming belief in what it meant to be a “real man.” But as time went on, the definition of transmasculine was expanding to include a huge variety of gender expressions, all of them valid.
Be Free was formed in 2016 by former members of STAG who were ready to embrace a more expansive view of the transmasculine experience that valued a diversity of expressions. The group was open to all people assigned female at birth who did not identify as female. We met regularly in person to provide support and social events for the transmasculine community. In March 2020, when the Montrose Center suspended all in-person gatherings due to the pandemic, I took a crash course in how to operate Zoom and we transitioned to virtual, never missing a single meeting.
The time away from in-person meetings allowed me to step back and reflect on where the transmasculine community was and how much we had changed over the past two decades. I also had time to think about the direction our community could take as the pandemic abated. How did our vision need to change in order to embrace new understandings of transgender expression while still maintaining our identity as a group for transmasculine persons? Being forced to adopt a virtual meeting format during the height of the pandemic also revealed the power of social media and the need for an online presence. Twenty years ago, Yahoo Groups and Live Journal brought the community together in ways we had never imagined. It makes sense to engage with the community using today’s social media such as Discord and Facebook. Just like with the printed packets Sandy and I used to distribute, one’s work has little value unless it is accessible to the people who would most benefit from it.
In the summer of 2021, Nexus Arrant relocated to Houston from Chicago. Nexus was very involved in Transmasculine Alliance Chicago and brought many new ideas to Houston. George and Nexus connected and Be Free was rebranded as Transmasculine Alliance Houston. Myles Steelman stepped up to help organize and the three of us have been working together ever since. We have published two zines that feature work from our community and we have received significant donations from local philanthropic organizations to provide name and gender marker change and top surgery financial assistance to our community. Our meetings feature a variety of healthcare providers, lawyers, and activists and our monthly socials are totally awesome. I love getting to work with Nexus and Myles.
It has been wonderful to see the community flourish like this. Watching how quickly our group has grown has confirmed my belief that we are on the right path. And I do believe that both Brenda and Sandy would be happy knowing that their work has continued and will go on all these years later.