What has been one of the most challenging things you have experienced, or are currently experiencing?

“All the challenges I experienced stem from being an ‘agender’-identified person—who is also a survivor of many, many types of trauma and abuse. So, the challenge is constantly navigating a system that doesn’t recognize my identity, or recognize who I am, and is constantly trying to turn me into something that I’m not; and then, when I try to get help on other things that are not related, like mental health issues, it’s still somehow that the agender thing is an issue, because people just don’t understand it. I can’t get help for things, because people can’t get past my identity in order to help, I guess, and the system is constantly working against me—just constantly realizing that over, and over, and over again.

“It’s the little things. Like, I went to pick up hormone prescriptions the other day, and they are like, ‘Hey, you need a prior authorization,’ and this was six o’clock at night on a Friday, and they didn’t tell me before the doctor’s office closed. So, I had no ability to get that prior authorization, and therefore didn’t have my hormones for another four days, because they basically decided I wasn’t worth their time. Basically, you call in the prescription. You see what the diagnosis is. So they knew why I was getting the hormones, and the normal procedure would be to call the person and let them know that the prior authorization was not there, and that they needed it, and they would have called prior to the doctor’s office closing, long before six o’clock—four-thirty or even before that. And so, it was just very clear to me that they didn’t take my diagnosis seriously enough, and they didn’t care enough to give me the ability to get all my ducks in a row in order to have the medication that I need.

“So, it was just another example of the system showing me that they don’t care about trans lives, and that they don’t care whether or not we have issues, or we experience problems, or bumps in the road, and they don’t make any effort to smooth out those bumps in the road.  I think that’s something that is just consistently a challenge for me—like constantly realizing that in ways that I never expected to be an issue, or be something that would happen to me.”

What are some of the everyday obstacles or struggles that you face in your gender?

“I think the thing that I face the most, and that I struggle with the most, is constantly knowing that no matter what I do or who I meet, I am always going to be mis-gendered—unless somehow magically the person already knows not to assume people’s gender. When I first meet someone—especially if they are a male-identified person—they’ll say, ‘Hey, what’s up, man?’ or, ‘How you doing, dude?’ or whatever, and like, ‘dude, man, bro’—those words are things that I am very uncomfortable with, because I don’t identify with those words, because I don’t identify with gender at all. And so, when someone says that to me, it’s like they’re assuming my gender, and deciding I’m something that I’m not, and I then have to decide whether or not I’m going to challenge that, or I’m just gonna accept that kind of dynamic there—and that’s usually based on, ‘Am I going to see this person again?’ If I’m not, then I’m not going to say anything, because that conversation’s just gonna last the couple minutes that it does, and then it’s over.

"Granted, it doesn’t hurt any less, doesn’t cause any less of an issue, or trigger my anxiety and my depression any less, or invalidate my identity any less, but still, I’m not going to put myself in a position to be attacked or violated, because of someone who I’m not even going to interact with ever again five minutes from now. Because more often than not, when I do confront someone with my gender identity and say, ‘Hey, that’s not who I am, I need you to refer to me with ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ pronouns, and not use gender language with me,’ I get a violent reaction. I get questions. I get, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’ or, ‘Your pronouns are grammatically incorrect, therefore, I won’t use them,’ and stuff like that. Or people will even say, ‘That’s grammatically incorrect, but I’ll do it just because I want to respect your identity,’ and it’s like, that’s not respecting my identity. You’re just—I don’t know what you’re doing, but that’s not respect—that’s completely just awful! So, I think that the everyday interactions with people are the hardest, because I know going into the world I won’t be acknowledged for who I am. And I also know that the state is not going to acknowledge who I am, at least for a very long time. And so, there’s a lot that goes into it.”

How does it feel to deal with that every day?

“It depends on the day—as I said—it always hurts—it’s always violent, because it’s erasive. It’s basically saying, ‘You don’t exist,’ or, ‘I don’t know that you exist, and I’ve never made an effort to find out if there’s more to life than this,’ and people don’t bother to acknowledge my existence. And so, I’m constantly fighting to not be invisible—which is interesting, because in the trans community, especially for binary-identified trans people, there’s this concept of passing—passing as one gender or the other. For a lot of people, the point of their transition is to pass as a man, or pass as a woman—as a cisgender man or a woman. And so basically, the goal is to be able to walk down the street and not have anyone ever recognize that they are trans, or know that they are trans—and that might be helpful for some people, but it’s actually very, very harmful to people like me, or for people who can’t pass, or won’t be able to pass ever in their lives.

“And so, it’s this weird dynamic where what is known about transness right now—what is being discussed about transness—passing is a huge integral part of it, and that’s one of the goals of being trans, or the process of being trans in the conversation—a huge part of the conversation—and yet I’m here saying, ‘I don’t want to pass. I don’t want you to perceive me as a man.’ And I don’t want—I’m constantly fighting to be seen and not be passing, and be under the radar. And so it’s very weird having everyone saying, ‘Oh, this is what this is.’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s not at all what this is.’

“In fact, I’m the opposite way, and that concept is actually harming my ability to be who I am. So it’s just a constant struggle to not be invisible. And I mean, obviously if anybody’s ever experienced being invisible, it’s not a fun thing. It’s not something that—it’s not—it just hurts. It causes all kinds of depression and anxiety for me—and I already have depression/anxiety issues in the first place. There will be days when I’ll go to work and have customers referring to me as ‘dude’ or ‘man’ or whatever, and I get out of work and I go home and I’m just—I can’t leave my bed. I have to stay in my bed, and just kinda try to get myself back together, in order to go back out in the world and try again. It’s like I have to reboot myself, because people have just completely pushed me into a corner, or a box that I don’t want to be in.”

How do you want to be seen?

“I just wanna be seen as a person. I don’t want people to see me and see a man or see a—uh—I don’t know—that’s how people usually perceive me—as a man—as cisgender man. Sometimes people perceive me as a gay man—which I am also not. But I—yeah—I just wanna be seen as a person. I just wanna be seen as Jason. It’s really that simple. And if people would give me the time of day—if people would take some time and have that conversation, and be open to it, instead of immediately shutting down, or telling me I’m not allowed to be that—then they might find that they could allow me to be who I am—or recognize me for who I am.”

You mentioned suffering from surviving abuse. Tell me about that.

“Well—first off—I love my mom—I love my mom beyond everything—she did raise me. She did so much for me. It’s really hard to speak on the abuse that I experienced from her, because it paints her as a terrible human being, but I don’t want her to be seen that way, because she is my mother. I was raised in a very, very abusive household. I was physically abused. I was emotionally abused. I was an introvert for a very long time.

“I am not an introvert. I am a people person. I love people. I love talking to people. I love getting to know people. But her—the way she and my step-father treated me turned me into someone who hid from the world and didn’t want anything to do with anyone, because I was terrified that someone else was going to treat me that way—and they did for a very long time. Even after I got out of the house—I still—because I had never experienced a healthy relationship—I had no ability to understand what a relationship was supposed to be. So every time I got into a relationship, it was abusive and I couldn’t get out of it. And so, I was abused as a child. I had to protect my sister from that abuse. I was not entirely successful, and that hurts every day. My sister is one of my absolute best friends. I tried everything to prevent that from happening to her, but it didn’t matter. She’s safe now, but it’s too late—she still has the mental health issues that stem from it, and she will still suffer from the same things that I have.

“Thankfully, my mom has started the divorce with my stepfather, who was abusive towards her. That was another thing I had to deal with. There were multiple times where I had to separate my mom and my dad, who were going at each other, because he just—he just would get angry and go in on her and I would have to—as I was a two-year-old child—I was either two, or in second grade—I can’t remember—I just remember the number two—I had to pull him of off of her and remove him from the house. I had to do that again in second grade. I’ve had to pull my mom off of my sister. I’ve had to get between fights between everyone in that house. I had always felt like I was the one that had to try and prevent it all from blowing up all the time. I had to play mediator, and I had to try to get people to calm down. When I left, I felt so much guilt for so long, because I was afraid my sister was still experiencing the abuse that I had experienced.

“The signs were there. I knew it was happening, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Finally, when I did do something about it, my parents cut me off, and they got angry. They basically said, ‘We’re not paying for anything anymore, and you have to figure out your own shit,’ so I did, but I’ve—up until this current relationship I’m in—I have always been in abusive relationships. I was in a relationship with someone who I never actually officially dated. She would basically, lift me up to cloud nine and keep there for a while, and suddenly rip that cloud from under me and let me fall, until I was about to hit the ground, then she would grab me, and pick up again. She would do this over, and over, and over—to the point where I could tell you the exact date—I could predict when it was going to happen.

“She had such control over me that I almost took my life twice because of her, and it’s terrifying to have someone have that much control over you. I told myself after that, that I would never let it happen again, but I got into another abusive relationship. It was all a result of—I didn’t have the ability to recognize red flags and know what was abusive, and what was not, and what the patterns were. And so again, I got into an abusive relationship, and this time it was even worse than I had experienced before. I genuinely thought she was going to be the one person that wasn’t treating me like this, and that she was going to save me from what I had been through.

“This was also around the time when I started to actually deal with my gender identity, and try to come out, and be who I was. She was trans-phobic and would tell me, ‘Oh no, you’re just a special kind of girl. You just identify more with this role or this gendered expectation,’ that ‘You’re still a girl and you’re just fine.’ While she thought that was a good, caring thing to do, it was really, really bad for my mental health, and who I was, because it was dismissive of all of my feelings. I didn’t know that wasn’t okay because again, at this point in time, I still didn’t recognize these things as abusive, or controlling, or a problem. So I kinda just went along with it, and she said a lot of things to me that were just very, very harmful to my identity. Like she would get—like if I would—I would bind—which is just chest compression, or pack—which is just putting like a sock down in the pants or whatever—you know. And so, if I would bind and not pack, or pack and not bind, she would be like, ‘Oh, that’s confusing.’ I feel like she didn’t understand, and it was like, ‘This is how I feel. This is just who I am. I can’t control this. This is just what it is.’ And so, she just was very controlling.

“She somehow managed to gain control of how I was perceiving my own identity, and how I was perceiving myself, and who I should be, and how I should act. That was the relationship that—for the first time in my life—I experienced sexual assault and sexual abuse. That was terrifying to realize, not because it happened, but it was a whole six months later before I knew that was what had occurred. I had to have multiple conversations with her about, ‘No means no. If I say no, I don’t owe you an explanation, and you just need to stop.’ There were many times where there was a no, and she didn’t stop, or she would guilt trip me into having sex with her. She would—there was a point where she was like, ‘If you don’t start,’ basically, ’If you don’t start,’—what’s the word I’m looking for?—‘If you don’t start fulfilling what I need sexually, then we’re gonna have to figure something else out’—basically threatening to leave me if I couldn’t live up to her expectations sexually.

“At that point, I was suffering from such severe dysphoria that there were days I was not leaving my bed, because I was so uncomfortable with my own body. There would be weeks where I would not be able to touch her, or be touched by her, because of that dysphoria. She couldn’t take that as a no. She refused to acknowledge that as a legitimate reason to say no. It wasn’t until six months later that I actually started to understand that was what was happening. And so, I went through a whole period of depression and just self-embarrassment, disgust, and pain, trying to cope with the fact that this happened to me.

“It was like I was coping with the fact that I let this happen again, but obviously this isn’t my fault. Abuse isn’t the fault of the person who’s being abused, but that’s how I felt. Because I had that conversation with myself so many times—that I would not let this happen again—and yet it was happening over, and over, and over again. Every time it was getting worse, and worse, and worse. So, finally I stopped trying to have relationships with people. All of my relationships before this one had been monogamous. I became terrified of monogamy. That’s really what started my journey into polyamory—my fear of being committed to one person, and trapped in that kind of a situation, because I didn’t want to let one person have that control. So what ended up happening is, I just started to explore the concept of polyamory and what it really meant. Polyamory has been a tool that has helped me overcome all of this, really. It put me in a position where I have to face my anxieties around my relationships and the things that I am afraid of when it comes to relationships. I have to face those things head on, but also, I’m lucky enough to be with someone who is also navigating polyamory, and how that works for her. And so, we are kinda going on this journey together, and figuring it out together.

“She started out as my roommate, and then became my best friend. So it’s like—it’s just we’re—I’m navigating this new form of relationship/relationships with my best friend, and with someone who I love and I care about, and who I know loves and cares about me. For the first time, I’m in a relationship where I know that she wants nothing but the best for me, and she wants me to be making my choices about what I want, and how I want to do things, and she is 100% about consent. It’s always, ‘Are you okay with this?’ I feel completely comfortable being able to say no to her, if I need to. That is extremely important, and not something I had ever experienced before—and in some capacity, neither has she. We are—I don’t know—it’s just a blessing in disguise I guess—or was a blessing in disguise—so I’m blessed enough to have the ability to navigate my first relationship that is healthy with someone who is just an incredible person, and an incredibly open, loving, caring, supportive person.”
What has helped you get through some of these challenges in your life—the abuse, the depression, the transition?

“I feel like the more that I’ve talked about it, and been open about it with people, the more that I’ve found people who understand—or at least have been through similar things. Then from there, I’ve formed bonds with people who have helped me cope with these things. Like when I was dealing with severe depression and anxiety issues—at that point it was mainly the depression—that was also the time period when I became very close to my big in my fraternity—she also suffers from mental health issues. And so, it was very, very comforting and helpful to have someone who understood and knew what was going on with me. Also I’m lucky enough to have a best friend who can somehow always calm me down from my anxiety attacks.

“We joke about there always being a once-a-week 7 am phone call—with me calling and being like, ‘I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack! Help me fix it!’ It’s not usually as often as once a week—unless it gets really bad—but she’s the first person I call if I need something. Again, I’m lucky enough to have those people in my life. I feel like it was a product of being open enough with people—which is not possible for everyone—but for me it was just easier to wear it on my sleeve, than to hide it and try to internalize it—which I was already internalizing most of it. But, I’ve always been the type of person to wear my feelings, and basically just wear my being on my sleeve, and be very upfront about who I am, and how I deal with things—and what I feel—and all that. For me, being open has really been the thing that has helped me the most with all of it.”

What are you learning from going through these experiences? What are some of the lessons or good things that have come out of all of this?

“What I’ve really learned from coming to terms with my anxiety and my depression is that everyone functions differently, and that my mental health is not something that needs to be fixed. I think that’s the most important thing that I’ve learned about my mental health: it’s not about fixing it, it’s about learning how to live with it, learning how to adjust how you do things, and the way you approach things to cope with the fact that you function differently in society. My anxiety is not something that needs to be fixed, it’s just that I need to adjust my way of life, and people around me need to adjust how they’re interacting with me, because I function differently than the other people. So it’s almost like it no longer becomes an illness, and it becomes a—I just function differently than you do, and I just have to approach things differently—and I think that’s really important.

“I wish that’s how we treated mental health—instead of treating it as something that needs to be fixed—a disease to be dealt with—because people with anxiety disorders—people with a lot of mental health things—it’s not about fixing it—it’s about learning how to adjust, and how to function the way that your body and your mind wants you and needs you to function. I frankly feel that I was like—yes—all of my anxiety and my depression stem from something, but I was given these reactions and this way of functioning for a reason. I was given this ability. My anxiety has put me in a position where I’m more of an observer. I observe things and learn things through observing and watching, and I feel like it puts me in a different position than a lot of other people. I see things a lot differently than a lot of other people, and I think that’s also a blessing in disguise. The discussion around mental health has to change. It needs to start being about the fact that we don’t need to fix these people. We just need to acknowledge that they function differently. We need to learn how to be open to changing what is accessible, and the ability for people to access things that they need in order to function the way that they have to, instead of trying to fix them in order to make then function a certain way.”

So it sounds like, maybe, creating a support system that allows them to—encourages them to be who they are—like we do with handicap people. We don’t try to change them. We make adaptations to entrances to buildings to accommodate them—so creating accommodations for people with other disabilities?

“That’s something that people actually talk about a lot—if we treated mental health the same way we treat physical health. Of course, there’s still a lot of stigmatization and discrimination around people with physical disabilities, but if we started treating mental health issues like we did physical disabilities, or physical health issues, it would be an entirely different conversation—and a lot of that is a cultural thing. Western culture really does treat mental health like this disease that needs to be cured. Whereas, there are a lot of other cultures that treat it as something to be embraced—a gift that you were given—and we just have to learn how to adjust and cope with it, in order to use that ability, in order to do what you were meant to do.”
That’s a beautiful way to put it. You know, I think it’s all in how we look at it. There are definitely advantages to even the most difficult experiences that we’ve had in our lives, and we benefit from them in some way. It allows us to see things in a different way. It sounds like going through your abuse and your transition, and feeling like you’re not a part of society—those experiences have empowered you in a lot of ways that you might not have been otherwise empowered had you not experienced them. What advice would you offer to someone else who can relate to any or all of your journey? What’s the message you’d want them to hear?

“I think that really, everything that I’ve learned, been through, or come down to, is that—the only person in this world that is allowed to label and define you is you—end of story—done—and don’t ever let anyone else tell you otherwise, because it is not up to anyone else to tell you how to live your life, or who to be, or what to be—what to like—what to anything—because it’s your life. It’s your life. It’s your body. It’s your being, and it is yours—not anyone else’s. Don’t ever let anyone take that from you.”

Do you have a favorite quote that you’d like to share—or a personal mantra or something?

“I have a lot of them, but I have to—I guess—I really like—I have to—hold on—let me—because—I mean one of my favorite quotes is, ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ And that’s a quote by Audrey Lorde, from her essay, ‘The Masters Tools.’ Really, what she talks about in that essay is normalization, and about how we need to embrace our differences. We need to acknowledge our differences. Our differences need to be what we use to empower ourselves—not normalization—because normalization is a master’s tool, and normalization is what people use to create categories, and to marginalize people, and use to create further oppression and violence against people. And so, it just kinda reconnects all of it—that normalization is never going to get us anywhere. Thinking that there is a norm, or trying to form a norm, or trying to say like—there’s this big conversation of, ‘trans is okay,’ and, ‘trans is a normal thing.’ It’s like, ‘No!’ We don’t want to normalize any of this, because the more we normalize people, or try to form a norm, the more we are going to run the risk of marginalizing people. It’s just a cycle that keeps going into itself—feeding into itself. And so, it’s just, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ If we truly want to empower ourselves, and destroy the system that is violating us, and killing us, and murdering us, then we need to embrace our differences, and not try to normalize anyone or anything.”

How has it felt to talk about these topics with me today?

“It’s good—like I haven’t talked about any of these things in a very long time. I used to talk about this. I did the speakers bureau for UCONN, so I used to go to classrooms and tell my story—my coming-out story—and that changed depending on where I was in my journey, and where I was in my transition. It was always really empowering, affirming, and validating to tell my story—normally, because I would get a decent reaction from people, and people would be moved by what I was saying. I think that talking about it in a setting that’s not institutionalized is better. It feels more genuine and more—this is about me, and about who I am, and about what the world needs to know about me—versus trying to humanize myself, or trying to humanize people like me—so I think that’s the difference and that’s good.”

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Jason's Interview - Hearts of Strangers
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Hamden,CT, USA