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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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Books

New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

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(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Movies

The ‘Spoiler’ is you’re going to cry

Love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly

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Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge star in ‘Spoiler Alert.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

It’s been a refreshing year for LGBTQ love stories on the screen. From “Fire Island” to “Bros,” from “Crush” to “Anything’s Possible,” we’ve seen narratives that offer up hopeful and positive alternatives to the gloomy outcomes presented by movies of the past. Instead of stories that reinforce the tired trope of doomed queer romance, we’re finally seeing ourselves get the same chance at a happily-ever-after ending as everybody else. 

It’s been a welcome change – but just when Hollywood finally seems to have finally figured out that all our relationships don’t have to end in tragedy, “Spoiler Alert” has come along to remind us that sometimes they still do.

Based on the best-selling memoir by Michael Ausiello (“Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies”) and directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by David Marshall Grant and gay blogger/author/pundit Dan Savage, it’s the true story of a couple (Ausiello and his eventual husband, photographer Kit Cowan) who find love and build a relationship over the course of more than a decade only to face the heartbreak of Kit’s diagnosis of – and his (SPOILER ALERT, hence the title) premature passing from – a rare form of terminal cancer. Though It’s not exactly a rom-com, it does try to keep things light-hearted, and it aims for the uplift despite its foregone tragic conclusion.

That’s a tough tightrope to walk. The book, penned by veteran television and entertainment journalist Ausiello, pulled it off successfully, becoming a bestseller – and not just among queer readers – with its warts-and-all celebration of what it truly means to commit to love. After all, we may adore our fairy tale fantasies, but we all know that even a couple’s best-case scenario is guaranteed a sad ending; Ausiello’s first-person written narrative managed to get the point across that it’s all worth it, anyway.

Sometimes, though, a literary device that works on the page doesn’t translate easily to the screen, and on film, Ausiello’s “we-already-know-the-outcome” approach faces a more resistant challenge.

In the first act of the film, which details the meeting and early romance of its two lead characters (Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge as Michael and Kit, respectively), our knowledge of the ending becomes an obstacle. This may be particularly true for more jaded viewers, who are apt to be keenly aware of the emotional payoffs being set up in advance. Heartwarming moments can easily come off as deliberate, even manufactured, and one might sense an obvious bid to force our identification with the characters in the movie’s deployment of all the standard “new gay relationship” tropes. In reading, it’s easy to personalize such universal moments through our own imaginations, which can fill in the spaces (and the faces) in a way that rings true for us. On film (this film, at least), such communally identifiable experiences run the risk of feeling manipulative: a little too perfect, a little too pat, a little too “meet-cute,“ and a little too… well, precious.

The dissonance between formulaic fantasy and genuine lived experience is sometimes made even more obtrusive by occasional flashbacks to Michael’s childhood, framed as excerpts from an imagined ‘90s sitcom, which distance us further from the story – a stylistic ploy that seems intended to keep the tone of the narrative as far from tragic as possible.

When it’s time to get real, however, Showalter’s film lands on more solid ground. Once the blissful “happy-ever-after” couple-hood of the two men is established, the movie takes us into deeper, more mature – and therefore, less predictable – territory. Things don’t end up being perfect in Michael and Kit’s ostensible lover’s paradise: jealousies, self-esteem issues, and the inevitable individual growth that sometimes drives wedges between us in our relationships take their toll. As any successful long-term couple – queer or otherwise – is bound to discover, relationships take a lot of work, and seeing the two protagonists confront that seldom-told part of the story goes a long way toward making their experience more relatable for those who are looking for more than mere aspirational fantasy.

So, too, does the acting from the two leads. Parsons, who struggles against the obvious artificiality of playing against being two-decades-too-old in the film’s earlier scenes, blossoms once the story moves ahead in time to deliver an emotionally brave and affectingly authentic portrait of a man overcoming the baggage of his awkward and socially isolated youth (there’s a Smurf addiction involved, need we say more?) and finding the resilience to weather a battle for his lover’s life. Aldridge, a Brit flawlessly playing American, is perhaps even better – not that it needs to be a competition – as Kit, whose easy-going self-esteem masks a world of unresolved insecurities and makes an almost-too-good-to-be-true character endearingly real; perhaps more importantly, the emotional journey he’s tasked with portraying requires an absolute dedication to unornamented truth, and he delivers it impeccably.

It helps that the two actors, who carry most of the movie’s running time, have a convincingly natural chemistry together that gradually persuades us to invest in these characters even if we had resisted becoming invested in them before. Bolstering the emotional solidity even further is the presence of seasoned pros Sally Field and Bill Irwin as Kit’s parents, who deepen this not-as-clueless-as-they-seem pair beyond the familiar stereotype they represent and raise them above the easy sentimentality they might otherwise have carried into the story’s already-poignant mix. 

These considerable advantages are enough to help us forgive the movie’s contrived expository beginnings, though its ongoing sitcom conceit for childhood flashbacks – as well as its occasional fourth-wall-breaking interruptions from Michael’s TV obsessed imagination – continue to feel a little gimmicky, especially after the plot has passed the point where such amusements are welcome or even necessary.

Still, the movie’s fortunate choice to play against its tearjerker underpinnings – such as when it undercuts a particularly histrionic scene of hospital drama by calling itself out on its own shameless nod (which any gay movie buff will surely already recognize) to an iconic moment from a cinema classic – keeps the tears which finally come from feeling as though they’ve been shamelessly manipulated out of us. It’s this quality that marks the best entries in the tearjerker genre; the thing that movies like “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolia” have in common (besides Shirley MacLaine) is their ability to lean fully into the artifice of their own weepy, sentimental style without sacrificing the sincerity of their emotional payoffs. Films like these don’t play their big moments for drama, or even for laughs, to keep us involved – they play those moments for truth. “Spoiler Alert” clearly aspires to the same standard.

It mostly succeeds, after an awkward start; though some viewers might find its quirkier narrative conceits to be an overcompensation for its weepy ending, its characters are real enough to get past all that and win us over. And though it’s hard to deny that it’s ultimately another tragic gay love story, it manages to remind us that love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly.

After all, just because a romance is doomed doesn’t mean it has to be a downer.

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Sports

Protester with Pride flag disrupts World Cup game

Protest took place during match between Portugal and Uruguay

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(Al Jazeera screenshot)

During a World Cup match between Portugal and Uruguay Monday, a lone protester ran across the field waving a Pride flag moments after the second half kickoff.

Video and still images show the man wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Superman symbol and the phrase “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Woman” on the back.

Screenshot of news coverage at the World Cup 2022 games from Al Jazeera

Qatari security personnel chased him down and then marched him off the playing field. Israeli Public Radio correspondent Amichai Stein tweeted video clips of the incident:

FIFA had no immediate comment on the incident, the Associated Press noted reporting that in the first week of the tournament in Qatar, seven European teams lost the battle to wear multi-colored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches. Fans also complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.

Qatar’s laws against homosexuality and treatment of LGBTQ people were flashpoints in the run-up to the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East. Qatar has said everyone was welcome, including LGBTQ fans, but that visitors should respect the nation’s culture.

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