By Tony Ferraiolo
When I realized I was transgender, I didn’t do cartwheels. I didn’t know anyone else like me. I remember going to the beach and crying, wondering if I wanted to live. Wondering, if my life was so unbearable now, how would it be if I came out as transgender? I thought, ‘who would love me?’ Would I lose all my friends? Would I lose my family? Would I lose my job?’
I felt so hopeless and then something happened. I realized that I had the power to create myself into the person I always wanted to be. I knew I needed to accept myself in order for others to accept me. So I closed my eyes and visualized what “Tony” would be like. I remember first seeing the physical Tony. He was healthy looking, had a goatee and was tattooed. He looked like a very artsy guy. He looked at peace. Tony would be surrounded by people who loved him and accepted him.
Then I went a little deeper in thought. What would he be like emotionally? This was a bit harder because I had to feel it in order to see it. It took me awhile but I was able to feel this sense of calmness, happiness and I wasn't angry. That was the best part for me, no anger. I remember thinking “Wow, I can really be that person, it is all up to me”.
My next thought was, what do I need to do to become that person? I came up with this list...
1. Let go of the anger
2. Forgive everyone who has abused me, including myself
3. Accept myself
4. Believe in myself
5. Surround myself with ONLY those who loved and supported me
6. And as my good friend Jean Dolan said “just be”
So that’s what I did, I took baby steps into creating Tony. Everything I needed to change emotionally was checked off the list. Next it was time to take care of what I needed physically. I needed gender confirming chest surgery. The healthier I was getting, the more intensely horrified I was when I took off my shirt. I hated them; I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I knew what needed to be done, so I did it, I scheduled my surgery. I was fortunate enough to have the money to do this, most people in my community don’t.
I had my surgery on March 9, 2005, a day that I now celebrate as my trans birthday. I’ll never forget the day the doctor took my bandages off and I looked in the mirror at myself. For the first time in my life - my mind and my body matched! It was a life changing moment for me and it truly changed the course of my life’s path.
The celebration of my new body was tainted with sadness when I thought about all my transgender brothers and sisters that would never feel that sense of wholeness just because they don’t have the ability to pay for it. I had a vision of a foundation that would fund gender confirming surgeries based on financial need. It was overwhelming to me to start up a non-profit alone. On a daily basis for over two years, this idea of a foundation would pop in my head. I knew this type of foundation was needed.
In February 2007 I went to a panel discussion at Yale University. Sitting on the panel was Dru Levassuer, a young attorney whose passion and compassion for the transgender community matched mine. I remember sitting back in my chair and feeling a weight lifted, as I thought, “I found my co-founder.” I reached out to Dru and several months later the Jim Collins Foundation was born! Since then, with a lot of hard work from an all-volunteer Board of Directors, we have funded five surgeries. You can visit the foundation’s website to read more about the work we do www.jimcollinsfoundation.org.
In addition to raising funds for life-saving gender confirming surgeries, I also felt the need to reach out to the transgender youth of my community. In 2008, I founded several transgender youth and families support groups in New Haven, Connecticut. Translation, a support group for trans teenagers; Create Yourself, an art group for transgender and gender nonconforming children under the age of twelve; TransPACT, a support group for parents of trans and gender nonconforming children; and The Sibling Group, for siblings of trans and gender nonconforming children. The groups meet concurrently providing a complete support system for families of transgender and gender nonconforming children, drawing families from New York and throughout New England. Over the last five years these groups have served over 125 youth and over 130 parents and/or grandparents.
When most of the kids first come to the group they are beaten down by depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide attempts. This is not because they are transgender but rather because everyone around them is telling them “NO YOU’RE NOT!”
When they first reach out to me the first thing I tell them is “I believe you.” The next thing I tell them is “You are not alone in this anymore, I’m here for you.” I say these things because I mean them. When these kids know someone believes in them, they start believing in themselves. Like anyone else, when you believe in yourself you are unstoppable! It is such an amazing feeling to see them go from hopelessness to hopefulness, just because someone is acknowledging who they are. A lot of people including parents, health providers, and metal health providers say that transgender youth have gender identity issues. I don’t think this is true. I think it is everyone around them that has an issue with their gender identity - these kids know exactly who they are.
The bottom line is… everyone has the power to create themselves. They also have the right to live life as their authentic selves. When you feel like you are alone, reach out to the people who love and honor you. And remember… “Just be.”