“We are all innately unique beings, and we do have to resist adhering to the expectations society sets. We must identify, within our own minds, that which is right for us. It is not an easy task constantly being torn between what is being thrust into our mind and what one’s spirit naturally knows.”
This quote reached my soul. It described the layered, complex experience I have had as a human, just trying to find his way in the world. A man born into a body that didn’t quite fit the script. One that forced him to design a life for himself or suffer through the one so many attempted to force upon him. My name is Ren Yve Joseph, and I am a queer black man of transgender experience. I have met many folks on this journey who influenced me; some for the better, others, not so much. We all come into this world being told what to call ourselves, what to wear, do and say. Some of us go along with it and live our lives by that standard, whatever it may be. But, for me, it was never that simple.
I was very fortunate growing up. Aside from dressing up to be a flower girl or to go to fancy events, I was never forced into the female box. I enjoyed feminine clothes quite a bit. I was obsessed with Justice and Hannah Montana. But I also loved hanging with the boys at school and playing video games. Gender wasn’t really something I thought about. I was just having fun being a kid.
As I approached middle school, I noticed ha I enjoyed doing “masculine” activities and hanging with the guys more every year. I just figured I was a tomboy and left it at that, until 7th grade. Middle school felt like a jungle, and that was only partly due to all the fights. It was mostly because I met people who were quite different from the ones I had met or the ones on TV. There were girls who acted like boys and dated other girls. I think one of them even wore a binder. I heard words like bi or pansexual that were alien to me. It was here that I would figure out I was attracted to girls. I even dated one in eighth grade, but that didn’t last long. On one of my final days there, one of the guys told me Alex (the girl with the binder) wanted to be a boy and asked me if I ever considered it. It was established that I was very masculine and always went toe to toe with the boys in PE. Not to mention I had an Adam’s apple. It remained a thought in my head as I approached high school.
In 9th grade, I went to lunch with this group of queer kids. One was a transman, one was a gay cis guy, and the other was non-binary. They talked about their identities in ways I’d never heard before. It pushed me to explore my own. A friend suggested trying out the name Ren, so I did. I would go around without a specific gender identity for a little while until dysphoria hit me like a tidal wave. I got depressed and frustrated. In an attempt to help me, my sibling introduced me to a transguy they knew. I will refer to him as Evan. Evan was a few years ahead of me and knew everything I was going through. It was nice to have someone I could ask questions and vent to. We’d eventually become good friends. He helped me hold myself together at a time when it felt like I was falling apart. He gave me hope. I am sad to say we are no longer friends due to a horrible mistake on my part, but I was young and didn’t understand how my words affected him. And Evan, if you ever read this, I want to thank you. The only thing worse than going through that pain would have been going through it alone.
I came out in 10th grade to some teachers and peers as a transguy. I had convinced my mom to cut my hair short and went into sophomore year. I also was wearing boys’ clothes at this point. Convinced is a strong word. After a few explosive, verbal fights, I tossed out all the clothes I owned to show her I was serious, which was how I got the new boys’ clothes, and I didn’t brush my hair for months which gave her no choice but to cut it off.
Disclaimer: That worked for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I finally built up the courage to come out to my band directors. This meant I could stop wearing the band dress, a major source of dysphoria. It was also when I got close to my jazz director, G. They were one of the few adults I felt I could trust. I trusted G more than my own mother when it came to the queer stuff. She would be my rock for the rest of high school and would instill in me a passion for music.
In 2017, I moved to St. Pete. I still went to Blake as I loved my teachers and friends too much to leave. I found out about this place called the Welcome Center that had a youth group for LGBT teens. I went there for their Thanksgiving and it was…okay. I didn’t really fit in with anyone and, after a few failed attempts at assimilation, I cut my losses and went for the door. Someone stopped me, saying he had to meet everyone who went to the Center. Little did I know this guy would end up being one of my best friends at the time and the one reason I kept going to the group week after week. If it wasn’t for him, I might have missed out on some amazing people and opportunities. Thanks mate!
I met so many awesome people through that group. There was the director at the time and the 2 people who would replace him later), all these wonderful facilitators, and of course, my peers there, who I fit in with better than I thought. I got to attend pride parades and rallies. I got to speak at a variety of events, advocating for my friends. I went to this great place called ANYTOWN, that showed me a whole new way to see the world. Man, I even got an award for doing all of that. It was an amazing year and a half. I’m so glad I have stayed in touch with this community to this day.
I went to UCF to study music. I didn’t know where I was going or how I was going to get there, but I wanted to play. My first semester, I pledged my fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha. It was a bit daunting as I wasn’t sure if they would let a transguy join them, but they welcomed me with open arms. My big brother did everything in his power to make me comfortable and to understand what I was going through. He’s one of my best friends and helped me grow as a brother and a man. I can say the same of my little brother, who taught me to slow down and take a breath every once in a while. It’s great to have a place where I feel normal when the rest of the world sees me as an outcast. I didn’t stop advocating either. I joined the Lavender Council and worked to make a welcoming environment for other queer students. I even got myself in the news. I was finally accomplishing my goal of being a visible role model for other black queer kids, the one I never had.
In the middle of it all, something terrible happened. I went to a church to visit. I was just exploring different faiths. But it was a trap, and I left completely emasculated. This tore apart my worldview and hardened my heart. I lost myself and only recently started finding me again. It may seem silly to be so heavily impacted by one night, but it was catastrophic to me.
This horrible night taught me a very important lesson and one I wish to share with you. Listen to yourself before anybody else. Influence can be wonderful, as it was for me during high school, but it can also take advantage of your weakness and turn you into something you’re not. Know who you are, know your purpose. Open your circle only to the ones who will help you stand tall. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Don’t let anyone take your spirit from you.
I stand much stronger today, I’m still fighting, learning, and growing. I am the product of my experiences and my influences, good and bad, as we all are. But I have chosen to only listen to the good and I hope you do too.