By Alisa Pierce
Blog Content Contributor
International Men’s Day is about celebrating masculinity and everything that it means to be a man. For men, it means being proud to be who they are despite what others may think of them. It means celebrating their individuality within their own gender. This pride in their gender can come in many different forms. This was made evident to me through an interview with Ryan Kessinger, a senior and applied sociology major at Texas State University. Although many besides his friends and family do not know it, Kessinger was born female. He is now mid-transition in his journey to change his outer appearance to reflect what he has always known to be true; that he is a man.
Kessinger and I sat in a semi-crowded area of Georges in the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University to discuss what International Men’s Day meant to him. We began the conversation by chatting about how and when he realized he was transgender.
“I date the beginning of my understanding of my gender identity to the fall of 2013…” Kessinger began. “While watching a video of a trans man explain what he went through, I began to identify with his experiences… I played with the idea of it for a while, but then put it away. I thought that it wasn’t for me. However, in the fall of 2014, those feelings came back, and at that point, I realized that I couldn’t push it away again. This was something that I needed to address. That’s when I really started to understand and express myself as whom I was. That started my awareness, but as I look back at my life, it is obvious that this has been a part of me since I was a kid.”
This is not unusual for many going through what Kessinger was. The internet brings about waves of information that can help transgender or questioning individuals learn more about themselves and who they want to be. This often answers a lifetime of questions.
“When I was kid, I would ask Santa for two things. One: to be a Jedi. Two: to have a penis,” Kessinger joked. “I also didn’t come out right away. It took a lot of courage to tell others. There was a lot of fear involved.”
A fear that, unfortunately, is all too real for many in the trans community. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), at least one in five transgender people experience employment discrimination. The HRC also stated that in six studies conducted between 1996 and 2006, 20 to 57 percent of transgender respondents experienced work-place discrimination, including being fired, denied a promotion or harassed.
It gets worse when the discrimination is taken out of the work place. A new study from the Williams Institute confirmed that transgender people face significant levels of discrimination and harassment for simply trying to use the bathroom. In an article written by Zach Ford of Think Progress, he states that “The study, which focused on people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming/genderqueer in the Washington, D.C. area, found that an overwhelming majority — 70 percent — had experienced some sort of negative reaction when using a bathroom.”
The article then goes on to state that “The primary experience trans people reported was verbal harassment, with 68 percent reporting they were told they were in the wrong facility, told to leave the facility, questioned about their gender, ridiculed or made fun of, verbally threatened or stared at and given strange looks. Some also shared that the police were called and others noted that they were followed after using a facility. For 9 percent of respondents, actual physical assault has also occurred, including being forcibly removed from the restroom, hit or kicked, intimidated or cornered, or slapped; one respondent reported being sexually assaulted.”
This, accompanied with the fact that 46 percent of the American trans-community has reported attempting suicide, really puts the danger of coming out into perspective. Kessinger, however, says that his experience was considerably more positive than he expected.
“Everyone in my family had incredible responses… My transition was incredibly easy, and that comes from a point of privilege. I come from a level of privilege that many people of color do not, so I experienced less problems than they do. The space that I was in, and being here at the university… So many people were welcoming and for the most part affirmed my gender identity.”
When asked to elaborate on his experiences at Texas State, Kessinger stated, “I really haven’t faced any major discrimination or negative feedback in any way at Texas State. Every department that I’ve spoken with, all of my professors… Everyone that I’ve interacted with has been incredibly welcoming and supportive.”
Kessinger is now involved in the trans and non-binary community of Texas State through the organization Transcend. The organization, he says, gave him a trans and non-binary community that he can no longer imagine himself without. He also praised the Texas State Office of Student Diversion and Inclusion by stating that without their help, the university would not be as accepting as it is now.
After we discussed his transition and discrimination, we began to talk about International Men’s Day.
“I struggled with the concept of being a man for a long time,” Kessinger stated after a short pause. “I was raised as a girl, so I wasn’t exposed to masculinity in a way that I could emulate it. I didn’t know what it meant to me, because what I knew to be a man was only what I saw through social media and television. I saw the gender-norms and hyper-masculinity, so I assumed all men had to act tough, love sports and curse all of the time.”
However, Kessinger realized that those characteristics weren’t his own.
“I realized that wasn’t me. I was seeking validity in my own gender, and I realized that I was no longer engaging in what I truly loved about myself. I realized that I could be man while also embracing the feminine parts of myself.”
As for International Men’s Day, Kessinger said, “I have mixed feelings about International Men’s Day, because I feel mixed about going into spaces and celebrating things that are meant for men. I often struggle with understanding if people are going to recognize me as part of that community, and if they will validate me within the male population. I often ask myself if I want to go into that space and challenge others to accept me, or if I want to skip the trouble.”
“However, I think that it’s also important to know that this is who I am, and that I should also be able to celebrate my masculinity. I would describe International Men’s Day as a chance to come together and celebrate the real definition of what a man is, because a man isn’t just someone who was biologically born male. A man is so much more than that; it’s being emotional and vulnerable, strong and courageous, and so much more. National Men’s Day is not only a chance for men to celebrate and reflect themselves, but also a chance to celebrate and reflect the bigger picture around them.”
So the question remains. What does International Men’s Day mean to you? If you’re like Kessinger, it might mean more than what meets the eye.
For those interested in Transcend, visit the Texas State website to learn more about meetings and ways to get involved.
Featured image by Alisa Pierce.