This is the ninth feature in a series that aims to elevate some of the transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who have played a significant role in the ongoing fight for trans and queer liberation. Check out the previous features with CeCe McDonald, Kate Bornstein, Laura Jane Grace, Buck Angel, Calpernia Addams, Ts Madison, Amos Mac and Candis Cayne.
Tiq Milan is a writer, advocate and media personality who lives as one of the most openly visible transgender men of color in mainstream media and the public eye.
Milan's roots are in hip hop and music journalism, where he buit a foundation of pop culture criticism during what he identifies as his life pre-transition. After refocusing his work on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Milan transitioned to living as his authentic self, with his work shifting towards media advocacy and training other trans and GNC advocates -- like activist CeCe McDonald (who was the first subject in this series).
Along with his wife Kim, Milan travels the country educating and empowering audiences about the experiences of trans and GNC people of color, with the pair functioning as "a model of possibility" for "centering love as revolution" as a black queer couple.
In this interview with The Huffington Post, Milan reflects on the trajectory of his life over the last decade since his transition, the lack of mainstream visibility when it comes to trans-masculine experience and the role of ally-ship as related to liberation for trans and GNC people.
The Huffington Post: To start, will you paint a picture of your own personal journey and the kind of work you've engaged in over the years?
The Huffington Post: Well, I’m a writer and I’m an advocate. I’ve been working as a journalist and as an advocate for the LGBT community for the last decade. I started out as a pop culture journalist doing a lot of hip hop work for a bunch of different websites, which gave me access to lots of celebrities and album release parties, things like that. And this was prior to my transition – I was just very androgynous, butch, if you will. And it just became increasingly uncomfortable for me to be in these spaces, you know, because people didn’t know how to react to me because people didn’t know how to identify my gender. And I was in a place where I was still going through a process of figuring out "am I trans?" -- just what this feeling is.
So I took a step back from doing music journalism and started working exclusively with the LGBT community so that I could transition in a way that felt safe for me, and also in a way that could be an example for other people in the community. So I started doing that -- and now I’m here at this spot where I’m a media advocate where my advocacy work and my media work have come together. Now I do a lot of freelancing; I just wrote a piece for The Guardian, I wrote a piece for Ebony, I’ve written for the New York Times – I’ve written for everybody. I also do a lot of hosting – I’m hosting a panel at the Bushwick Film Festival, I hosted at the NewFest, which is New York’s LGBT Film Festival, and I do a lot of on-air commentary. I’ve also done a lot of stuff like MSNBC and CNN. So, that’s basically my resume of the work that I do. I'm also very visible. I live my life really out loud -- I’m out as trans, I’m really out and proud as trans. I talk about my marriage a lot as black, queer people who are in love and who have a really healthy relationship.
I do all of this because I believe that being visible and doing this work means that I can be a model of possibility for somebody else. There’s some young queer kid out there who sees me and knows that they are possible in the world, just like there were older queer folks who I saw as a youngster who really had a huge impact on me today -- people who I’ve never met and may never will. So that’s what’s really important to me and the work that I do -- trying to make a change that’s going to make this world better, particularly for young people and our next generation.
I do all of this because I believe that being visible and doing this work means that I can be a model of possibility for somebody else.
I think the first time I saw you host something, you were emceeing the Verge fashion show at the Brooklyn Museum last summer. Since you do have this background in music and pop culture journalism, I'm curious what kind of role you think pop culture, the entertainment industry, fashion -- these sorts of things -- play in changing hearts and minds surrounding queer and trans experience?
I think it’s important that you ask that because as a journalist, what I believe is that we don’t only document the culture – we create the culture. What we document also creates the culture – we’re kind of setting the pace for what’s cool, what’s not, what’s inclusive, what’s not. And pop culture does that. So, those who are responsible for being the people who are on the pulse of change, that are cultural creators, it’s important that there is inclusivity and that there is visibility of all different kinds of people because that is what changes the world.
When people see different types of folks living different types of lives in pop culture in a way that they’re being celebrated and not exploited, people feel a connection to that. The more queer and trans people you see, the more people are going start to understand us as human beings. I’m not into pandering to straight people or to non-trans people to like respect and see me as a human being -- that’s not what I’m trying to say. But I think people understand that being inclusive in your heart and in your mind, being a part of this cultural change is not not just liberating for me but is also liberating for you.
As a journalist, what I believe is that we don’t only document the culture – we create the culture. What we document also creates the culture – we’re kind of setting the pace for what’s cool what’s not, what’s inclusive, what’s not. And pop culture does that.
I love that and I totally agree. I’d love to hear you talk more about being part of a queer couple who engages in activist work together. How does that shape your work and your experiences?
So my wife and I, we travel the country together telling our story and talking about centering love as a radical act -- centering love as revolution. I think so much that we see in pop culture, particularly when it comes to relationships between men and women -- we don’t identify as straight, we definitely identify as queer – but relationships between masculine and feminine people have always been portrayed as something that’s supposed to be so wrought with strife and conflict. When we first got married there was a lot of “the ball and chain” and “wait until five years from now and you’re gonna hate each other” -- it’s like, you straight folks try and keep people from getting married but you hate it so much! [laughs] You’re so unhappy! So, let us show you how to do it.
My wife Kim, she does the same kind of work as I do so we just felt like us coming together and combining our forces, and also being models of possibility, showing people that black and queer people can love each other. As masculine and feminine people, I can’t tell tell you – every single day we get messages from young queer people that are like “thank you so much” “you are our #relationshipgoals,” “me and my partner aspire to be like you,” “because I see you two love each other I know someone’s going to love me” – every single day there’s somebody telling us these things on social media and that is really inspiring and keeps us going.
Because, you know, I know when I first started by transition my mother’s biggest concern was that nobody is going to love me and that just broke her heart. She was like “I just don’t know, you’re a man but then you’re queer and are you gonna date lesbians or or straight women or somebody hurts you” -- she was just so, so, so concerned that I wasn’t going to find love in my life. And I did! And there was a time in my life -- my relationship prior to Kim was with a woman who was identified as a lesbian and she left me! She left me! Because I transitioned.
Yeah, and it sent me into a deep depression -- and I’m not the only person who has this story. So many trans people have been in this place where they feel like because of their transition, because of their bodies that no one is ever going to love them and what Kim and I are trying to say is yes they will. You are deserving of love and you will find that love in your life. And also speaking to this as a radical act of change – I think too often we don’t center ourselves enough in our lives. So that’s why we do it.
So many trans people have been in this place where they feel like because of their transition, because of their bodies that no one is ever going to love them and what Kim and I are trying to say is yes they will. You are deserving of love and you will find that love in your life.
Thank you so much for sharing that with me. Segueing a bit, in mainstream media and culture we're starting to hear more and more about issues affecting trans women but still not a lot about trans men and I think even less about trans men of color. Why do you think that is and how do we go about changing that?
Well, I think the reason that there is more visibility around trans women and their issues really comes down sexism and misogyny, really. So one, it’s important to understand that like 97% of the decision-making in media is coming from men – and mostly heterosexual men. So we have to deal with male gaze. Femininty and feminine people are always going to be a part of that male gaze. There’s something, I think, in media where they look at femininity as something that’s performative whereas masculinity just is. So there’s that aspect of it, and also femininity is policed more than masculinity. Somebody will see a woman who is 6’3" and will be looking for indications of her femininity, questioning her femininity. But nobody is going to do that to a guy who is 5’4". So we walk in the world differently because masculinity isn’t as policed and people don’t have this feeling that they want to control masculinity in the same way -- people want to control femininity and feminine folks. So I think that’s where it comes from.
Even if we look at these "bathroom bills" -- no one wants to meet in the ladies room. But we are still saying that I would have to go into the ladies room, which lets me know that this was never about trans men! It wasn’t about trans-masculine people. This has always been about controlling who is feminine and who has the authority to embody femininity. And I think that’s the issue. All of these violent attacks -- don’t get me wrong. I definitely know of trans men who have had to deal with sexual assault and sexual violence at the hands of gay men and men in general. And I think that it’s not reported on a lot and I know this has happened to indviduals and it didn’t get reported at all because the stigma of trans men and being in your trans body and having to experience sexual assault is something that’s traumatic in and of itself. So there’s that that’s happening, but the rate of murder and the just insidious hatefulness that’s spewed towards trans women is really at an epidemic. More trans women have been murdered this year than in all of 2015 and it’s only May! And the thing is that’s happening because of mysogny! This is just coming out of a hate for women that is coupled with homophobia in a weird way. So it leaves trans men out of the equation, but oftentimes I think people try to pit trans women and trans men against each other, like who is going to fight for more visibility -- and that’s not what it is. What we have to understand is the problem is the sexist patriarchy this is putting trans women and feminine people in general in a more vulnerable place than me.
How do you think that the public can engage in work that contributes to the liberation of queer and trans people -- what do you say to someone who wants to be an ally or wants to get involved in the fight?
I would tell allies to do their research. Really do their research. I’d have to say there have been too many times where I’ve been in conversations and had to do the whole Trans 101 thing and that shouldn’t have to be the responsibility of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. So I would tell people to do their research, to reach out to organizations, have an understanding of the context, complexities and lived experience of trans people. I think one of the best things an ally can do is just listen! You know, when people tell you who they are you believe them and listen more and ask questions that are going to complicate your reality instead of questioning people in order to invalidate theirs. I think that’s really important. And being an ally is something that has to happen every day -- it’s not something that you can just do one day. It’s every single day. And if people want to literally get involved in the movement, there’s tons of voluntary opportunities that people can get involved with in several different organizations. I know that here in New York City there are several organizations that are always looking for volunteers because oftentimes these organizations are underfunded and they can’t have a lot of staff. And that’s a great way to be to know people who are on the ground doing this work every day and become intimate with the issues that are happening.
You know, when people tell you who they are you believe them and listen more and ask questions that are going to complicate your reality instead of questioning people in order to invalidate theirs.
What are your thoughts about “the trans community,” especially as it’s seen by the mainstream? How do you view where the community is right now at this cultural moment in time, as well as where it’s going?
Well, right now I think the visibility that we have is great, you know. Trans people are really, really visible right now. I’ve worked in media here in New York and LA and Hollywood, and I really, honestly feel that folks are invested in getting it right. It feels like folks who are in positions to make decision and create narratives really want to understand the complexity of the trans experience. But, with that being said, I would still like to see more trans folks behind the camera as opposed to always being in front of it -- being able to control our narratives ourselves. I think we’re in a good place but there is always room for improvement -- it definitely should be more diverse, there’s definitely not enough trans people of color in mainstream media at all. There’s not enough people of color in mainstream media period so obviously we’re feeling that. And there’s not enough visibility around the trans-masculine experience. I think I’m one of the only trans men of color that is as visible as I am and there are so many more of us with such compelling stories that can still take up just as much space. So I would like to see that but I think we’re on the right path -- we really area. People might disagree with that but I think so (laughs).
I just have one more question for you – what does the future hold for Tiq Milan? What do you want your legacy as an activist to be surrounding the work that you do?
Next for me just as far as task-wise, I’ll be hosting a panel for the Bushwick Film Festival next week. I’m working on a book called A Man Of My Design, grinding out those pages so hopefully we’ll see that in the next six months. The summer is usually the time to do a lot of writing and then I’ll be kicking off another speaking tour in the fall, speaking at universities... [But], you know, if something happened to me tomorrow, I would want to be known as a man of the people. Somebody that was authentic and someone that has been dedicated to the progress of this community -- and to justice.
Check Huffington Post Queer Voices regularly for further conversations with other significant and historic trans and gender-nonconforming figures. Missed the first three interviews in this series? Check out the conversations with CeCe McDonald, Kate Bornstein, Laura Jane Grace, Buck Angel, Calpernia Addams, Ts Madison, Amos Mac and Candis Cayne.