Eli Strong is a Washington-based trans-masculine University of Alabama fanatic and family man who became a television star and local hero last week thanks to a groundbreaking National Geographic documentary, “American Transgender.”
“I really appreciate all of the attention its been getting.” Strong told the Blade this week via phone when we called to chat about the reaction to the documentary, which took audiences into the lives of three transgender people living in different places around the country.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for the last few days,” Strong says. “It’s been a snowball. I was already working with (National Center for Transgender Equality), but as soon as they posted about it, Huffington Post Tweeted about it, [the Washington Blade] Tweeted about it, GLAAD, and suddenly when you Googled it, it went from 10 hits, to just before the documentary aired it was pages and pages.”
Strong sounds both humbled and invigorated by the positive attention the documentary has received in the transgender community.
“I think the documentary can and did do good.”
Strong — now a database coordinator at Avalere, a health care advisory services company in Dupont Circle — came to Washington for an internship at Human Rights Campaign several years ago and followed that with a five-year stint at NARAL Pro-Choice America. However, Strong’s heart is in his home state of Alabama where his accepting family still lives.
We talked Strong’s obsession, football at his alma mater the University of Alabama.
“We lost a couple of good players,” he says, lighting up, recalling being at last season’s national championship game in New Orleans. “But I think It’ll be another good year.”
Strong studied social work at Alabama and received both his bachelor’s degree and masters degree from the University Alabama, as did both his parents. He says his wife — whom he’s celebrating his one-year anniversary with next week — knows that weekends in the fall belong to Alabama football in their house.
“Even in the darkest days of Alabama football, if you put us up against some of the best teams in the country, every year I look at that schedule and I go, ‘We can beat every team on the schedule’ and I feel the same this year.”
When it comes to his involvement in “American Transgender,” though, Strong says he and other trans leaders were “gun-shy” about the special before it aired based on prior television portrayals of the trans community that had been deemed “distasteful” or that “pushed someone to answer questions that they weren’t comfortable with.”
“I have every confidence that its going to turn out positive,” Strong says he told friends concerned about a sensationalized portrayal. “I had been very up front with National Geographic about what I didn’t want to discuss, and they very much respected those boundaries.”
“Those same people have said that it did turn out really well, and that they thought it was very well done and very respectful and very educational,” Strong says. “Some people have even said they’d hoped it be an ongoing series, rather than a one-off documentary show.”
WASHINGTON BLADE: What’s the reaction to “American Transgender” been like since the premier?
ELI STRONG: Everything that’s been said to me directly has been positive. I’ve seen one or two negative comments, but these weren’t people that have probably ever known a trans person. But for all the people that have contacted me directly, it’s been really positive for them.
I was up until about 12:30 that night talking to people all over the country on Facebook just saying, “Thank you for sharing your story and putting that out there.” They said it really meant a lot to them to see someone that had a similar path that they did. I heard from a lot of my family that thought it was really well done.
I feel like in general from the trans population and my family that everyone feels that not only was it a good presentation and that they enjoyed the stories, but that the way that National Geographic actually went about it was very tasteful and respectful of all those involved.
BLADE: You said some people were “gun-shy” that the depiction might be distasteful. What where they afraid of?
STRONG: A lot of people in the trans community had a very large problem when [Thomas Beattie] had gone on “Oprah,” where Oprah said, “Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” and asked about his genitalia. I was very upfront and said, “If you’re not married to me, its not really any of your business.” As a trans person, I’m a whole person, I’m not the sum of what surgery I have and haven’t had.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this project was when I first discussed my participation in the documentary with [the producers] one of the things that made me feel more comfortable was that other than that opening segment on the show, there was no narration. Everything that was narrated was taken directly from mine and Jim and Clare’s direct interviews, and I thought that was a great way to do it, because there would never be a question of, “Is that how they really felt or is NatGeo putting words in their mouth.”
BLADE: What’s it like to go through that process in the D.C. area?
STRONG: I think it makes it both easier and harder. The easier part is something that I find that most people understand immediately. It’s a more liberal place to be. You have more access to groups and to people who are like you and like minds so you can discuss these issues or find people who have gone through the process and things like that. So in that way it’s a little easier. There’s a larger queer community, there are surgeons that are in the area, there are doctors at Whitman Walker that have experience so you don’t have to worry about — like say — had I gone through this in Alabama, with a doctor that may have never treated a trans person, and having a very hard time finding those that do.
But its also harder because living in a much more liberal area, and a much more politically correct area, people in D.C. are much more accustomed to gender variance. That being the case, when I lived in Alabama, even before I identified as male, I was “sirred” constantly. “Yes sir,” or “Can I help you sir.”
I was seen as much more male in Alabama, because the way I presented my gender, was not the way that they saw, it’s how they normally saw male, so to them it’s like, “You fit into this box.”
While in D.C., it’s both positive and negative that they are used to gender variance, but it becomes very frustrating for trans men that when I used to walk into a place and be completely presenting as male, someone would still “ma’am” me, because they would think, “This is a masculine lesbian and I don’t want to offend this person by saying ‘he.’”
It took at least three-and-a-half years of being on testosterone before people completely stopped saying “ma’am” to me.
I will tell you this though, I will take the negatives of D.C. over anywhere else any day when it comes to transition.
BLADE: What kind of legal hurdles does the trans community still face in D.C.?
STRONG: I don’t know so much if it’s the laws as it is the adherence to those laws. In D.C., I am protected from discrimination when it comes to employment, I am protected as far as the fact I can relatively easily get my drivers license changed, get my name changed.
And with outlets like the Washington Blade who have always made it much easier to post your name change documentation at a much lower rate than, say, a regular paper would, that does make it easier, and those laws are all there.
The problem comes in adherence to those laws and training employees on those laws.
There’s a law in D.C. that says you use the restroom as the gender you present as. There’s also a law that says if you have a single-use restroom, they have to be gender neutral. But just because that law exists, doesn’t mean that every business in D.C. follows that law or is even aware of that law. So do you want to bring it up and fight the good fight, or do you want to not make yourself the center of attention, and point this out? Now you’ve just outed yourself. The main factor in making that decision for me is safety. If I feel unsafe in that moment, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to find a way out of that situation. While bathrooms should never be the central issue, its still a big issue, because, in my view, it’s the one place in public where you’re at your most vulnerable. There are a lot of restaurants that I will frequent because they will adhere to that law, without question.
BLADE: How did your involvement with “American Transgender” come about?
STRONG: I am on the coordinating committee for a D.C.-area trans-masculine social and support group. They found us and they simply sent the webmaster and myself an email and said, “Here is our project, can we email your group and ask people to participate?” and we said absolutely.
I think the reason they told me that they really like my story is because it was kind of ironic that I’m from the state of Alabama, and my entire family is about as Republican and very conservative and Catholic — not just Catholic as in I go to church every week, but as in my stepdad is in the Knights of Columbus and my mother is a Eucharistic Minister, and she does announcements every week and they are very involved in the church — and to have as much support as I have had coming from that environment, I think that they really found it very engaging and very hopeful and interesting to show.
BLADE: How did you feel after you watched the full documentary?
STRONG: Proud. I was very proud of not only how it was done, but how it came through once it was all finished. I was proud of my family for stepping up and putting themselves out there. I was very proud of all of the people that had spoken out. I looked around the room and had a lot of friends at the viewing party and I was very proud of them for being there the whole time.
BLADE: Are you a role model?
STRONG: If it’s a positive role model, then sure. I would like to think that I’m a role model, without that sounding really self-centered, only in so much as if something that I say or do can shed a positive light on the community or help somebody out … then sure. As long as it’s a positive one.
BLADE: What advice would you give to young people realizing that they are transgender?
STRONG: Be patient. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with those around you — particularly your family. I feel like a lot of people in the queer community, not just trans folks, but even when I came out as a lesbian at 16, one of the things that I lacked was patience. Even though I’d only kind of admitted it to myself three days before my mom found out, it was me, so I was OK with it so much faster than anybody else was. I didn’t understand, and said, “Well, I’m fine with this, why can’t you be OK with it?”
Just giving those around you the time to sort through it and just talk to them as much as you are able and they are willing.
And having patience with yourself and having patience with the fact that while you feel you weren’t born in the body you should have been, you can’t change that overnight and it can get very frustrating, because it’s expensive to transition and it’s not easy to transition. Just be patient and enjoy the process and try to learn from it as much as you can.
I found that having that patience with a lot of folks has brought us closer together and has made me a lot more sure in knowing who I am and being comfortable with who I am.
I really tried to figure out in that process of, “OK, there is a certain amount of time that I’m going to have to wait to save money and really figure out who I am.” I took advantage of that time to really explore who I was and what kind of person am I going to be. Because this isn’t just the end, just because you go through surgeries and hormones, that’s the beginning of your life, so what kind of life do you want it to be?
BLADE: What’s been the most fulfilling part of transitioning?
STRONG: Two things. One is feeling much more whole and who I am. For a long time, when I realized I was attracted to women, I thought, “Well I must be a lesbian,” and that was it, but I think I wasn’t happy with me. I constantly was battling this screaming voice. Now I feel so much more whole and much more calm.
The other part is not just feeling it myself, but having other people see it. A great secondary plus is that’s how other people see me now, especially my family. It’s great not to be “ma’amed” by a stranger, but to have my mother love me not as her oldest daughter, but as her oldest son.