Ryan Cassata is a singer-songwriter, actor and activist for the transgender community. As a teenager, Ryan started a YouTube channel to document his life as he started coming out and transitioning. Now, at only 22-years-old, Ryan has amassed an online following of over 60,000 and continues to use his voice to spread awareness on transgender topics and share his music with the world.
After bonding over our common Long Island roots, Ryan and I discussed how he’s shined a light on some of his darkest times.
Ryan, what does it mean to be trans in 2016?
Everyones definition of trans is different. My transgender identity is that I was born female, and I live my life a male. My identity is also androgynous, and I don’t fit in the gender binary, but I can’t say what trans is for anybody else.
With where you are now, what would you say is the most difficult thing you have to deal with?
Related to my transition, it’s using public bathrooms. It was a fear before the bathroom laws came into play, but now the laws have heightened that fear. I can be attacked verbally or physically, and that really scares me. It can easily happen to me because I don’t pass as male nor do I look female. I can’t use the women’s restroom safely because they’ll wonder, “Why is a guy in here?” and I can’t use the men’s restroom safely because they’ll wonder, “Why is a woman in here?”
Where do you find safety for yourself?
I don’t think for a trans person there is ever true safety. Anything can happen, especially since I’m online and recognized. That puts me at more of a risk, but it’s worth it to educate others and move the transgender movement along. I don’t think there really is true safety for me. The place I find safety is when I’m with my family and friends. I feel more safe when there’s a number of people with me.
What inspires you to be so public about your journey?
The first thing I ever saw online about the LGBT community was Matthew Lush’s coming out in a video on YouTube. That inspired me to put my coming out story online. Then I got involved wth the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth Center (LIGALY) and traveled with the Safe Schools team to spread awareness around Long Island. Through that, I was asked to share my story at a conference, and I was the keynote speaker at an event called “On the Bay” in the Hamptons. They covered the story on Go Magazine, which was my first media appearance. Then, Tyra Banks and Larry King’s producer wanted me to come on their shows. At that point, I made the decision I was going to sacrifice my privacy and safety to come out to my entire extended family, school and community with the hope I could reach at least one other transgender youth so they didn’t feel as alone as I did growing up. When I was coming out, there weren’t any transgender people on TV. Once Chaz Bono came out, transgender men were suddenly in the media in a positive way.
I was one of the first people to be shown on TV in a positive way, rather than as a freak. Finally, it was not to show what’s weird about being transgender. It was about these are real people sharing their real stories.
I started to receive hundreds of letters from youth across the world who saw my episode on the “Larry King Live” show. They all had one common message in that they didn’t feel alone when they saw me on TV. I was 15-years-old, and they were able to relate to me because I was so young. Finally, I had purpose to make others not feel as alone as I did. I also spread that message in my music.
This notion of feeling alone seems to be a theme in the transgender community. If so much of the struggle is on feeling alone, what is the feeling you want to have instead?
Feeling connected, feeling a part of, and not feeling like an outcast.
In what ways would things be different if transgender people were considered a part of society?
We wouldn’t have this stupid bathroom law. We would have equal rights. The transgender and gay movements have been around for the same amount of time, but the gay movement progressed quicker. Gay people are more understood by society. For some reason, people can’t understand how someone can feel different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
Sometimes people only see me for my transgender identity when I have so many more identities. Some people fail to see me as a musician. When it comes down to it, I want to be remembered as a singer-songwriter because that’s what is truest to me. That’s the identity that describes me the most out of anything I am. Being transgender is one small part of my identity.
It must be difficult to work so hard in your speeches, songs, video and see that so much focus is put on a part of you that is so minuscule compared to the big picture of who you are.
It is. It’s exhausting. That’s part of the reason I turned American Idol down. I asked them, “Do you want me because I’m a singer that happens to be transgender, or do you want me because I’m transgender and happen to be a singer?” They wanted me because I was transgender. I felt they were going to exploit my identity and community. I’ll skip the opportunity of fortune and fame so that my community is not put at risk.
What is the message you do want to share in your music?
I want my listeners to feel like they’re not alone. Also, I want people to escape from whatever struggles they are going through.
Would you say there are times you still feel you are alone?
Definitely. I haven’t had an easy life, and sometimes I feel alone in my struggles.
I can’t help but notice that in your voice, there’s a bit of a waver. It sounds like a message is there that’s struggling to be voiced, as if there’s something you are holding onto that you want to let go of. I’m curious if there’s something you want to let out.
I’ve been in really dark places in my life. I think that’s why it relates so much to all these kids who struggle like this. That’s what drives me to keep going.
Would you be open to sharing some of those dark moments?
For a period of five years, when I was younger, a lot of people that were close to me died. My step-brother, my guitar teacher, another teacher at school, my grandma, my friend Carl. All these people that were so close to me just died. It was like a curse was on me. There weren’t many people my age that ever experienced someone dying. All these people who died didn’t get to live full lives, and that affected me a lot. When my step-brother died, it was like the end of the world for my family. It tore everybody apart. A lot of my friends didn’t really understand. My mom was also very sick around the same time. She was in and out of the hospital, so part of my thought she was going to be next. I think that really affected me and made me feel alone.
How did you move beyond all those tragic experiences and find hope?
Music is what got me through everything. This one album “Something to Write Home About” by the Get Up Kids, that album got me through everything that was bad. That album just carried me. It saved my life, to be honest. Now, it’s amazing that I get e-mails that my music has saved other peoples’ lives.
If you were to have a magic wand and change one thing about society, what would you change?
I would like everyone to see each other as human. In any crisis, like in 9/11, people come together. I know it’s a possibility for this world for people to see past color, gender, sexuality, and religion, and just see the human. I think the world would truly be at peace.
If you were to have a magic wand and change one thing about yourself, what would you change?
I don’t think I would change anything because all the struggles I was put through has made me useful to other people. I’ve been given these struggles so I can help other people. Everyone is going to go through hard times, and life is not easy, at all. We go through these hard things so we can help other people navigate through them as well. As we keep doing that, life gets easier for everybody. Bad stuff is always going to happen, but at least we can help other people go through it.
(This article is part of a series that highlights courageous LGBT voices in the YouTube community. For other articles in the series, click here.)
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(Some of the questions asked in this interview were taken from “88 Eye-Opening Questions To Boost Your Energy”. To download a free copy, click here.)
Frank Macri is a Certified Professional Coach and Trainer who supports members of the LGBT and expat community who desire fulfillment in their relationships and careers. For more resources, go to www.TheFrankLife.com.