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Strong’s concordance

Alabama football superfan and D.C. resident comfortable with new role as a trans-masculine role model

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At 30, Eli Strong has become the local face of trans-masculine men for all who watched last week’s ‘American Transgender’ on the National Geographic channel. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

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Movies

Lesbian, bi, trans stories dominate queer crop of summer movies

Comic book adaption, horror thrillers, and more on the way

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Megan Stalter stars in ‘Cora Bora. (Photo courtesy Brainstorm Media)

Summer is almost upon us, and that means it’s time to look ahead toward another season of movies – but for queer movie fans, the typical “popular” summer escapist fare might not have quite the right appeal. Not to worry: the Blade is here to offer up our usual list of titles to watch for.

Backspot (May 31, in theaters) Helmed by nonbinary Toronto filmmaker D.W. Waterson in their feature directorial debut, this Elliot Page-produced sports drama has been described as “Whiplash” for competitive cheerleaders. Focusing on ambitious cheerleader Riley (Devery Jacobs of “Reservation Dogs”), it’s a heavily queer-themed coming-of-age tale that weaves romance with hard-hitting “behind-the-scenes” as she and her girlfriend, selected for an all-star squad, square off against a hard-edged head coach (out queer “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood) who demands a drive toward perfection – forcing Riley to confront her own crippling anxiety to keep her dreams from crumbling into dust. Also starring Shannyn Sossamon (“A Knight’s Tale”), Kudakwashe Rutendo, Thomas Antony Olajide, and Wendy Crewson

Let the Canary Sing (June 4, Paramount Plus) Billed as “the story of music’s most authentic superstar,” this career-spanning profile of queer-adjacent pop icon Cyndi Lauper from award-winning documentarian Alison Ellwood delivers a chronicle of her ascent to stardom and an exploration of her impact and the legacy that she has bestowed through her beloved music, iconic style, unapologetic feminism and fearless advocacy. There’s not much we can say about this one except that it’s a perfect treat for fans – and an enticing invitation for future fans – to get a close-up look at a legend who has truly earned her status.

Queendom (June 14, in theaters/on demand) Filmmaker Agniia Galdanova is behind this award-winning SXSW documentary, which follows queer Russian performance artist Jenna Marvin as she takes to the streets of Moscow to stage theatrical protests against the country’s Putin-led authoritarian regime – all while working behind the scenes to escape her homeland and flee to a place where her queer identity isn’t a crime. Coming in the middle of Pride month, it’s a potent reminder that – in many parts of the world – queer people still live in fear of homophobic suppression, but it’s also an inspiring story about the risky business of speaking truth to power.

Summer Solstice (June 14, in theaters) It should go without saying that telling trans stories is important right now, and this film from Brooklyn-based director Noah Schamus is exactly the kind we need. Following trans man Leo (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) as he hustles his way through a life of auditions, acting classes, barista jobs, and “situationships,” it segues into a thoughtful exploration of interpersonal gender politics when an old friend – cisgender and straight Eleanor (Marianne Rendón), takes her on an impromptu weekend getaway in upstate New York. Dealing with the new dynamics (and old emotions) of relationships after transition, it’s a movie which goes a long way toward revealing both the commonalities and the unique complications that ultimately make any trans story, told authentically, into a human story.

Cora Bora (June 15) If you’re a fan of Max’s queer-friendly queer-favorite series “Hacks,” you’ll need no introduction to the comedic personality at the center of this “dramedy” from director Hannah Pearl Utt. Out bisexual comedian and actress Megan Stalter stars as a “failed girl musician” who sets out not just to revitalize her career prospects but to win back the affections of her ex-girlfriend – and forges a new life path for herself in the process. Stalter, known mostly for her endearingly painful, over-the-top comedic portrayals of deluded-but-inextinguishable confidence, gets an opportunity to show a much wider range of layers here than she’s been allowed to explore before – but don’t worry: she’s still hilarious! Jojo T. Gibbs, Manny Jacinto, Ayden Mayeri, Thomas Mann, Chelsea Peretti, and queer comedy icon Margaret Cho also star.

Fancy Dance (June 21, in theaters/AppleTV) This debut feature from filmmaker Erica Tremblay is also the eagerly awaited return to the big screen of Indigenous American actor Lily Gladstone, whose Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” not only made history but made them into a star. Here, they play a queer hustler who becomes the guardian of her niece (Isabel DeRoy-Olson) when her sister disappears. Trying to stay one step ahead of a deadbeat dad (Shea Wigham, “White Lotus”) and an American justice system that is weighted against the rights of Indigenous women, they hit the road into the backcountry of their Oklahoma reservation on a quest to find the missing mother. The “buzz” is already predicting another Oscar nod for Gladstone, but whether or not that’s just Hollywood hyperbole, it’s sure to be one of the summer’s must-see picks.

Sing Sing (July 12, limited theaters/August 2, wide release) Speaking of last year’s Oscar nominees, powerhouse out-gay-thespian-of-color Colman Domingo is the lynchpin of this based-on-a-true-story prison drama about a wrongly convicted inmate at the notorious correctional facility who finds solace in a rehabilitation theater program, mounting productions with fellow prisoners and rising above the crushing isolation of incarcerated life. Intense and topical, yet also inspirational and uplifting, it debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival alongside Domingo’s other starring vehicle, “Rustin” – and his performance in it was praised as superior, Oscar nod notwithstanding. Consider that alone a recommendation to add this Greg Kwedar-directed real-life tale to your watchlist.

Deadpool & Wolverine (July 26, in theaters) It’s rare for us to include a big-ticket comic book film in our list of upcoming queer titles, but we can’t ignore the appeal of this new Marvel entry in which the two title characters are thrown together for a mission that will rewrite the history of the “MCU” forever. Sure, it sounds like a convenient way to hit the “reset” button and take the blockbuster franchise in a new direction – but it’s also the irresistible culmination of a longstanding “man-crush” held by the “canonically pansexual” Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) for X-Man MVP Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), fueled enthusiastically by both stars since long before this clever concept vehicle ever got greenlit. Directed by Shawn Levy, and also starring nonbinary actor Emma Corrin in their first “villainous” role, it features Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, and Matthew Macfadyen, too – and while it may not be highbrow cinema, based on the irreverent, borderline absurdist tone of both the “Deadpool” comics and the previous film installments made from them, it’s likely to be a lot of fun.

Cuckoo (Aug. 9, in theaters) Last but not least, this German-American co-production – a “Shining”-esque horror tale about a family vacationing in the Alps that find themselves endangered after discovering the resort town in which they are staying harbors a web of disturbing secrets – will undoubtedly draw the attention of hardcore horror fans. But it also has strong, built-in queer appeal in the form of its transgender star, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”), who takes on her first starring film role as the movie’s “final girl.” Dan Stevens, Jessica Henwick, Jan Bluthardt, and Martin Csokas also star, with direction and screenplay both coming from Tilman Singer.

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Out & About

Trans women athletes to be spotlighted at event

‘We Have Always Been Here’ presentation held in Rehoboth

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“We Have Always Been Here,” a presentation by Daria Rawley and Kathy Carpenter Brown will be on Monday, June 3 at 6 p.m. at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Rehoboth.

There will be a PowerPoint presentation about the struggles women athletes, intersex, twin spirited and transgender children assigned male at birth experienced in pursuit of equal rights on Delmarva. There will also be a special reading of “Queering Rehoboth Beach: Beyond the Boardwalk” by author James Sears. 

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Calendar

Calendar: May 31-June 6

LGBTQ events in the days to come

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Friday, May 31

Center Aging Friday Tea Time will be at 2 p.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of choice. For more information, email [email protected]

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Social in the City” at 7 p.m. at Courtyard at Dupont Circle. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Saturday, June 1

LGBTQ People of Color Support Group will be at 1 p.m. on Zoom. This peer support group is an outlet for LGBTQ People of Color to come together and talk about anything affecting them in a space that strives to be safe and judgment free. For more details, ​​visit thedccenter.org/poc or facebook.com/centerpoc.

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Month Brunch” at 11 a.m. at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Sunday, June 2

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Month Dinner” at 7 p.m. at Federico Ristorante Italiano. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

AfroCode DC will be at 4 p.m. at Decades DC. This event will be an experience of non-stop music, dancing, and good vibes and a crossover of genres and a fusion of cultures. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Monday, June 3

“7 Pillars of Self Care” will be at 6:30 p.m. on Zoom. This is a free mental health workshop by The LGBT+ Counseling Collaborative and The DC LGBTQ+ Community Center. Join therapists Roland Scheppske, LPC-R and Michele Johns, LICSW on a journey of self-discovery, balancing life, and increasing inner peace. For more details, visit the DC Center’s website

Center Aging: Monday Coffee & Conversation will be at 10 a.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice. For more details, email [email protected]

Tuesday, June 4

Universal Pride Meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Zoom. This group seeks to support, educate, empower, and create change for people with disabilities. For more details, email [email protected]

Pride on the Patio Events will host “LGBTQ Social Mixer” at 5:30 p.m. at Showroom. Dress is casual, fancy, or comfortable. Guests are encouraged to bring their most authentic self to chat, laugh, and get a little crazy. Admission is free and more details are on Eventbrite.

Wednesday, June 5

Job Club will be at 6 p.m. on Zoom. This is a weekly job support program to help job entrants and seekers, including the long-term unemployed, improve self-confidence, motivation, resilience and productivity for effective job searches and networking — allowing participants to move away from being merely “applicants” toward being “candidates.” For more information, email [email protected] or visit thedccenter.org/careers.

Center Aging: Women’s Social and Discussion Group will be at 6 p.m. on Zoom. This group is a place where older LGBTQ women can meet and socialize with one another. For more details, visit the DC Center’s website

Thursday, June 6

KINETIC Pride 2024 DC Weekend Pass Featuring Slayyyter will be at 10 p.m. at four D.C. venues. This will be a series of partner events that give back to our D.C. LGBTQ community. This year’s KINETIC: Under The Sea MAIN EVENT features a performance by Slayyyter at Echostage, stunning visuals, and top talent for a D.C. Pride you won’t soon forget. Tickets start at $149 and more details are available on Eventbrite

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