Trans and triumphant

Local activist leads from the margins

by Desiree Cooper


Ryan Oliver, 28, can tell you a thing or two about what it really means to be an African American man. Like knowing how to be a "brother to brothers," and showing compassion for other men. And like showing the utmost respect for black women.

"I don't call the black women in my life the b-word," he said. "And I know that I don't have to emulate the man who stands outside of the liquor store in baggy pants and a doo rag in order to be a black man."

At 28, Oliver's view of manhood has been hard-won. From his youth in a violent Detroit neighborhood, to his isolation as a black college student in a white environment, he has struggled to define himself and his masculinity. It's a challenge that's been even more daunting because Oliver is biologically female.

Life under pressure

If there was one word to describe Oliver's childhood, it would be "pressure."

First, there was the pressure to fit in. As a little girl being raised by a mother and grandmother, he had urges that he feared others couldn't understand.

"I remember walking into the men's dept as a young child and having a physical reaction to the clothes," he said. "The suits and ties - I wanted to be a part of that. I never felt connected to my female body. I would buy bra and panty sets because women do that, but it wasn't natural. I wanted boxers."

There was also the pressure to succeed.

"I was the only grandchild to go to college and complete it," said Oliver, who earned both a bachelor's in sociology, and a master's in sociology and education from Eastern Michigan University. "I felt like I was the one who had to break the cycle. Education became my focal point."

And there was the basic pressure to survive in his deteriorating neighborhood on Detroit's east side.

"Around the age of 12, I was noticing my neighborhood in Detroit changing," he said about the 7 mile and Van Dyke area. "I remember there was a drive-by shooting and a girl was killed. The girl's father was a well-known drug dealer. He had to be carried down the street, he was in so much grief."

When Oliver was taunted by a next door neighbor, his mother came to his rescue. Days later, the neighbors attacked his mother as she sat on the front porch. The incident still makes him choke with tears. "I had never been exposed to anything like that," he said.

The summer before he matriculated at Eastern Michigan University, Oliver felt more like a fugitive than a high school graduate. A friend in the neighborhood heard that Oliver was going away to college, and predicted, "You'll be back."

"I said, 'No, I won't'," Oliver remembered. "He said, 'They always come back.' He was saying that when I got to Eastern, I would realize I didn't belong there. There was nothing better out there in the world for me."

A late bloomer, Oliver began to explore his sexuality at EMU. He dated boys, but said that the relationships felt artificial--like he was trying too hard. Finally, one date finally suggested that Oliver might be a lesbian. He scoffed at the notion because it didn't fit with his family's view of the world.

"Girls date boys and I would never do anything that wasn't acceptable," he said of the way he was brought up. "But even after I started exploring the possibilities of dating women, the term 'lesbian' never fit for me."

Exploring his sexuality was liberating, but Oliver began to lose his footing culturally. Suddenly thrust into a predominantly-white environment, his confidence suffered, and he wondered if his childhood friend had been right--would he end up back in his Detroit neighborhood with no options?

He shared his misgivings with his sociology professor. The professor, who had grown up "a poor, white, barefoot girl from Ohio," told him that she'd felt the same way when she went to college. "She was never supposed to amount to anything," Oliver said.

The professor ignited Oliver's passion for sociology. "All the things that I had been feeling suddenly had words," he said. "Educational disparity, prison mentality, racial disparity. It all started to connect."

The man in the mirror

Even after Oliver graduated from college and entered grad school, he couldn't seem to shake a lurking sadness.

"There was something I couldn't put my finger on," he said.

At 24, he attended a conference in Milwaukee of transgendered youth. That's when his true nature began to dawn on him. He realized that he had only adopted the label "lesbian" because of his biological gender. After he began working as a youth services manager at Affirmations in 2008, he slowly transformed his outward appearance to match his male sexual identity. By 2008, Oliver was known to most people as Ryan. But at home, he was still Nikki.

His mother, who always worried about his safety growing up in Detroit, now also had to worry about him as a transgender male. But Ryan is willing to risk his safety in order to be who he is.

"For the longest, I've lived and breathed by my family's rules," he said. "They are low key, they are subtle. They watch the 11 o'clock news, sip tea and go to bed. This is hard for them."

He now uses the passion that was ignited by his college sociology professor to advocate on behalf of the invisible transgendered community.

"I'm committed to there being a more visible trans movement in our society - a more confident movement," said Oliver, who is now working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. "I've grown to learn more about my identity and to be OK with it. I want people to ask me questions and I want people to understand."

Unfortunately, his self awareness hasn't alleviated the sadness he's felt since childhood. "It's still present because I haven't fully transitioned," he said. "I live my life a particular way, but my physical makeup holds me back. For many of us, being trans is a matter of life or death. Once you understand what you are, you can't live in the middle."

He is interested in top surgery and hormone treatments to enhance his masculine appearance. "I want people to look at me and see me as male," he said. "But I'm already a man, no matter what I do."

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