As a black man of the trans experience, the struggles I’ve faced do not define me, but my story is history for those currently in pain.
Before I began my medical transition, I was pretty much drawn to the epitome of the female form external to my own. Did this define me as a lesbian for society’s basic understanding of sexuality? Yes for them, no to me.
My gender identity only surfaced when I began to understand the concept of gender roles through culture, religion and social class. Living up to these expectations was always put on a pedestal for me because I believed that the only way for me to be fully accepted was to transition medically, and evolve into the man I always saw myself to be i.e. alpha male, dominant, provider, leader which later displayed itself as bitter, competitive, narcissistic, dogmatic, ignorant and homophobic. Funnily enough, I even recall wanting to become ‘a man of God’ as I idolised my pastor and his wife’s living dynamic. Everything I envisioned myself to be was based upon the ideology of the stereotype. Fast forward seven years and the veil was removed.
I quickly learned that I was hypnotised by toxic masculinity and searched for ways to unpack this notion of ‘what a man is supposed to be’. First, I had to understand how important it was for me to accept the gender I was assigned at birth to live a life fulfilled with purpose, before beginning my medical transition. Secondly, I began unpacking psychological traumas with counsellors who would help me find ways to eliminate this overpowering feeling of dysphoria. This was executed by learning to empower and appreciate the female form internally, as well as finding the balance between both the masculine and feminine energy that resided within me.
Steffan wears a shirt from Cos, priced £89
Thirdly, my journey to surgery land began. As soon as I reached a point of satisfaction in surgery land, I became complacent. I no longer wanted to be identified as a trans man, I just wanted to be acknowledged as Steffan the filmmaker. A tiny part of me just wanted to experience life without labels that set us apart and be perceived as a cis-het male. I wanted to rid myself entirely of the LGBTQ spectrum, because I still wasn’t ready to fully accept that this is the way it is always going to be. So I went into ‘stealth mode’ to avoid the judgement, the criticism, the constant questions, the embarrassment. It was my shield, my protection, my AK47. I was always loaded with ammunition ready to fire at anyone who misgendered me or refused to accept my decision to transition. I yearned for validation from other sources and it ate me alive, so being stealth was the only way I know I could live the life I always dreamed of free from personal attack.
It was only until a year ago, another veil was removed. I decided to put the ego in the backseat and take full ownership of the part of me that was neglected. This all started when I got invited to be a part of an LGBTQ podcast panel for Qmmunity hosted by Christania McPherson – co-founder of AZ Mag – and Alexis Caught. Sharing my story with an audience who was keen on learning more about how it feels to be trans liberated me from the shackles that had stalled me for so long. Here I found true freedom.
The idea of this feature was conceived after meeting with Lewis Corner from Gay Times who also shared the Qmmunity podcast panel with me. We both realised how important it would be to shed light on the ‘Black British transman’ experience as the only role models we had on our journeys through transitioning were Americans. I casted five guys who have had a huge impact on me, and our close knit community to feature in this photoshoot, as well take part in a conversation on the lived experience of black trans men in the UK.
Cairo Nevitt was the first transgender man in the UK to feature in a mainstream fitness magazine, while Xavier Alexander is the creator of UK’s first support group for Trans Men of Colour [TMOC]. Roshaante Anderson is a YouTube sensation and advocate who exercises controversial topics through bold and expressive visuals that have accumulated overnight success since launching in 2018. Nathaniel Marco Smith is another YouTube sensation for the next gen of trans youth and an inspiration to myself as someone who isn’t afraid to authentically be themselves. And finally, Cole J Daniel is a YouTuber, mentor and activist who appeared on Channel 4’s Trans Kids – It’s Time To Talk. In the famous words of Chronixx, we are legends, heroes that nobody celebrates, but if one person remembers our names, that means we’ve made a change.
Steffan: So first up I want to know how we all feel after today’s shoot?
Cairo: I just felt it was really empowering. I haven’t had top surgery yet, but I felt empowered with you all – like a brotherhood.
Cole: To be bouncing off each other as well, and having that brotherhood, that bond, and that thing that binds us all as people, it’s just been a great experience.
Roshaante: I’ve just been happy to be with my boys on set, and we’re here to make history, sort of. It’s been really good.
Nathaniel: For me, I’ve never met these guys before, so this is the first time we’ve hung out and it felt so natural.
Nathaniel wears a shirt from Katharine Hamnett, priced £255 and trousers from Cos, priced £69
Steffan: I think it was really inspiring for me to actually see you, Cairo, to bravely embrace you for who you are on set. I know for a fact, with me pre-op, I probably wouldn’t have found the courage to do so. But we have each other and we’ve all been on similar journeys, so it’s even more empowering to be courageous and express yourself unapologetically as who you are. So that really inspired me today.
Cairo: Yeah, I had met some of you before this, but I think being on set today and knowing that everyone has the same kind of understanding and compassion, that has given me the courage to be brave. When you’re made to feel like an outsider you feel more dysphoria because people look at you differently, but I could feel comfortable with you guys because I know you understand. Everyone’s different, but we all understand what it means to experience dysphoria and to embrace your true self.
Xavier: I felt pretty nervous going into the shoot, but when I remembered what we are doing and the reasons why we’re doing it, it was just a very powerful thing. We could potentially be role models to the future.
Steffan: What are the biggest struggles that you guys face as trans men here in the UK?
Roshaante: People not knowing that I am a black trans man. Like, walking around in everyday life, socialising, going out and partying, and people not knowing. It’s not evident.
Steffan: Would you prefer people to know about you being trans, or would prefer to remain stealth?
Roshaante: If I could have it my own way, I’m not going to lie, I would want people to know. Only because I don’t have the time and patience to keep on telling different people. And when you tell someone you’re trans it’s quite self-explanatory. If you don’t know, I’ll educate you. But it’s much better when people know. It saves you the hassle. You know who you are, there’s no conversation about it. Done.
Cole: I find as well, exactly like you were saying Roshaante, when people don’t know I find I get profiled and prejudiced and get people approaching you and looking at you differently in society in general. I’ve found that when women walk past me they hold their bag closer to them just because they now see me as a black cis man. You experience a whole different side of society compared to what you would as a black female.
Roshaante: I would prefer for people to give it to me raw. I want people to address me as how I am, and who I am. When you literally leave yourself vulnerable, so people know your entire life story and about you being a trans guy. It’s so much simpler than when you have to constantly repeat yourself to people. It also saves yourself the hassle of having to go back and forth with different people, and you can actually just live. This is what this life is about, it’s about having fun. It isn’t talking about being trans all the time. I’m a black trans man, I’m sexy, I’m successful, that’s all it is!
Roshaante wears a jacket from Feng Chen Wang, priced £1,599
Nathaniel: For me I think I’d say the biggest struggle is actually finding another black trans man. Before this group you’d only find them in the US. I saw Steffan and I saw Xavier, and I think I messaged you, and he popped off the group. But before that there was literally nothing. There was no way of connecting with all the trans black men in the UK. So that is a struggle. When you’re young and you don’t actually know what this is, like, ‘How do I transition?’ You only ever see white cases and you can’t actually relate. It’s like, ‘What will I look like?’
Xavier: Before I transitioned, the fear I had was becoming a statistic. Being profiled. Being jumped in the street for no other reason than just being a black man. And so all those types of feelings were going through my head. And then also just feeling alone. I didn’t know of any black trans men from the UK. A lot of people I knew were based in America, or overseas at least. That’s when I created the group, because if I was feeling like this then there’s going to be other guys who feel like this.
Cairo: I think visibility really makes a difference. It matters. I came out when I was 25, and it wasn’t until I was 24 that I even met another trans man. The biggest turning point for me was seeing someone who is mixed-race like myself, you can see yourself in somebody else. So I felt like I could have an idea of what I might look like if I start testosterone. As much as I can connect to different people and different stories, if it’s only coming from one side and there isn’t that representation, there’s a barrier and a disconnect. Everybody needs to be seen. Also in terms of just different skins types. Like, what will scars looks like on different skin shades? Just little things that make a difference.
Steffan: I feel like pre-testosterone I was a bit more bolder than I am now in being who I am because I’d made a decision to transition and not live my life by other people’s rules. So everything that I did, I did it with confidence and unapologetically. But the further I’ve got into my transition, the more I started to realise that I was living up to this cisgender, heterosexual normative. I basically let go of the LGBT community because I felt like there wasn’t much support in that community itself. As we all know, the T falls away from the LGB. I was like, ‘I feel like I don’t belong here, so I might as well just remove myself.’ So then I just joined the wider community – the heterosexual community – and I just wanted to be seen as cisgender now. I didn’t want to be labelled as ‘that black trans man’. I really just wanted to be Steffan. So that’s how I amplified myself through my confidence and through my career. But in doing that I realised that it became detrimental to my mental wellbeing because I was shutting out people who have gone through the same struggle as me. So for me to relate to someone, I had to actually go back into the LGBT community to seek that support and that network. The things that I go through my family understand, some of my straight friends would understand, but not to the extent that you guys understand. I had to question myself with, why did I want to live up to this cisgender heteronormative way of living? It was because of the social conditioning that we’ve been brought up with from age zero. So I had to strip all of that away to be able to find myself again. Now I’m removing the stigma of stealth to be able to step into my power as Steffan Zachiyah and be who I am in the next chapter of my journey. So it’s been a huge learning curve for me every step of the way. Do you guys ever struggle with being stealth in the workplace?
Nathaniel: In the workplace it’s a tricky one because I’ll tell HR as they need to know on that level, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily go and announce it. For me, even the term trans I only use it because that’s what people understand, but I don’t consider myself different from anyone else. I don’t see myself any different to a cis man. No-one can ever take that away from me, so in the workplace it’s tricky because you can get into these workplace topics where someone’s like, ‘Oh I don’t really agree with trans people’ or ‘Oh they’re teaching it in schools – they’re teaching children that it’s okay to be the way you are.’ So when you hear people say, ‘Oh I don’t agree with this – it’s disgusting they’re teaching kids that,’ you have to take a step back. You thought you knew these people but then you see their real views and it shocks you.
Cairo wears a shirt priced £200 and shorts priced £135, both from AMI by Alexandre Mattiussi
Xavier: It’s weird being stealth in the workplace because the amount of conversations you hear filled with negativity about trans people and LGBTQ people, then they talk to me fine because they view me as cisgender. If they only knew.
Cole: I’ve been stealth and out because doing what I do I’m in various places for short amounts of time. Although when you’re stealth in the workplace you’re a bit more accepted because you feel like people aren’t thinking this, wanting ask questions about that, or talking about you at the end of the day, but then like Nathaniel said, you see that ugly side of people and that side that, if you’re out in the workplace, they’d just cover up but they’ll still say it behind your back. So it’s kind of a difficult situation regardless of whether you’re stealth or out, I’ve found.
Roshaante: I feel that through this whole transition and experience, when certain people do know and certain people don’t know, it’s that that I don’t like. When those two worlds collide, it’s game over. But why is it game over? This is who I am. I’m not hiding it, but it’s not everyday conversation. So it’s like, do I have to break the news for you all to know that this is how I was born? Because I’m not trying to have awkward discussions. I’m not going to be some kind of debate on your lips – I’m just trying to a be a hard-working young male like everybody else.
Cairo: I’ve mostly always been out since my transition. Partly it’s because I didn’t socially pass as a man for a really long time. That’s just the way it is. But at the the same time, all the work I do, I do a lot of things where I’m out and proud and visible, because it can relate to people more. If people are being rude, not getting on board, or being discriminative, I can call it out quicker. So I have more power in that sense. A recent incident in a temp job, which is literally the only time I’ve not been out so I was technically stealth, somebody wanted me to be a model. So I gave them my Instagram, but then was like, ‘Oh shit, they don’t know I’m transgender.’ The next day, everyone was talking and, just in general, I don’t like people talking behind my back. If you’ve got something to say, just come say it to me. So then I had to go around and speak to everybody individually and find out who said what, and what’s going on. Obviously I dealt with it really fine and they weren’t saying horrible things, but it’s making them understand you can’t just out people. Or, if you want to go and say something, I don’t mind being asked questions, but deal with me in person. I deserve to be respected. It’s the gossip and the rumours and the staring that I don’t really like. That’s when there are problems.
Roshaante: What you said there is true. It’s like, you wouldn’t have looked at me any different if you hadn’t found out. You looked at me just a minute ago as this assertive, handsome guy, but now your whole mind has changed in a matter of seconds all because of a past that isn’t the present right now. I’ve done had my surgeries.
Steffan: You shouldn’t have to justify it.
Roshaante: But everything in this world is about justification. You justify everything in this world, whether you want to or not. Us as trans guys are continually having to justify ourselves – even to people who live within LGBT. Even the T – to other trans guys who might not be as far ahead as all of us on this. They might doubt us, say we’re acting too cis normative and cutting off the T part of ourselves because we’re not going around and constantly discussing it.
Steffan: I know quite a lot of trans guys struggle with dating. I wanted to touch upon this subject because I’ve personally never had a problem with dating as a trans man, but I wanted to know from you guys what is the barrier there? Would you openly disclose your transition history to someone that you were dating? Or would you wait to build trust?
Nathaniel: For me, I always keep it simple. I’m honest from the get-go. But if I don’t get a certain vibe from you then I know not to speak to you as we’re not going to be friends and that’s it. If there’s going to be no friendship, there’s going to be no dating. If I’m dating someone – say my girlfriend now – she knew already, but let’s go back to exes. When they didn’t know, I had that conversation after I’d built a friendship – we’ve not done anything and we haven’t been sexually active. From then on, if you don’t agree with me then that’s fine, we can go our ways. I feel like it is detrimental sometimes to just be honest. It’s hard and it’s not nice, because you put yourself in a position to be attacked. I haven’t been rejected, but I know people who have. If they don’t agree, it’s not your loss. They’re not the type of person you want to be with at the end of the day.
Cole wears a jumper priced £400 and trousers priced £610, both by Versace
Cole: On the other side there’s also when you tell someone and they become more interested. You become fetishized. You become something exotic in their eyes. So either way, whether you’re honest with them or not… if they have a normal reaction then that’s great. But as I said, there’s both sides to that. Personally for me, I like to get to know somebody first. A lot of people I’ve dated in the past I’ve known before anyway, so they knew regardless. But somebody I’ve met that didn’t know, and then I’ve come out to them, I’ve had one person who was like, ‘Nah, that’s just not for me.’ But we’re actually really good friends now so it worked out anyway. It’s not something easy to do. You are putting your heart on your sleeve. But quite a lot of women do find that attractive because it’s showing sensitivity and vulnerability, which is something a lot of cis men – not to generalise and stereotype – that is something women crave and cis men don’t always give.
Roshaante: I feel like in this generation you don’t get the chance to talk to someone to get to know them in a friendship type of way, because it just pants off, let’s go… Am I telling the truth or am I lying?
Steffan: Maybe in your world!
Roshaante: Okay… yeah, maybe!
Xavier: With transitioning, I thought I’d find dating extremely difficult. I thought I’d be single forever. I’m still single! But I’ve found that dating is not so difficult. It’s about finding the right time to tell someone. I give it about a month before I disclose it and half the time it’s fine. You build that relationship with them and they kind of get to know you for you, not for what you were born with, or whatever your past is. I’m just kind of generalising, but because we have an insight into womanhood basically, we can access that sensitivity but we’re still masculine. Obviously I’m not speaking for everyone, but with this insight women might connect with us better. I’ve not had any negative situations with dating – it’s been quite successful.
Roshaante: Do you guys believe that the transition that you go through puts so much weight on a relationship that the cracks of the other person doesn’t get noticed way deep into the relationship? Because our transition holds such an amount of everything. You spend about a year of the relationship talking and getting used to the fact that this is my transition, I’m going to have top surgery, I’m going to have bottom surgery, you’re going to love me! You’re going to look after me. You forget that the other person may have stuff they want to ask. It’s all about us. And you don’t ever get to the end until you complete your surgery.
Steffan: There’s a goal in mind. For me it was, ‘I need to get on testosterone.’ Then it was, ‘I need top surgery’. I got top surgery. ‘I need to get this now, now, now, now.’ From my perspective I was told I had to wait six months to be prescribed testosterone, but I couldn’t wait that long so I went private. I wanted it and I needed it at the time. There was this big craving. But then I had to really make sure that this is really what I want, and that I’m not going to regret it. So I feel like the wait that the NHS give you before you receive an appointment at your GIC (Gender Identity Clinic) is perfect. It’s not a physical change, it’s actually a mental change. When my mentality started changing whilst I was on testosterone, I was not expecting that shift. It was completely different – it flipped all the way round. Even within my attitude and how I’d react to certain conversations. My approach changed completely, and I was not expecting that. But I made sure I had accepted who I was before I started transitioning. So that alone takes a lot of constraint when you’re in a relationship, and that person has to be strong enough to go through that with you, because…
Roshaante: It will break them.
Steffan: Yeah, it will break them. At the same time, when you are transitioning, what I’ve realised is that everyone around you is also transitioning.
Roshaante: But we get so caught up though, don’t we?
Xavier wears a shirt priced £370 and trousers priced £485, both by Vivienne Westwood
Steffan: Our own egos, shall I say, forget that these people have to go through that change as well. We become so selfish. Once we strip away that ego we can begin to understand that we’re not the only people in this world with problems and issues and some sort of transition. Everybody transitions in their life, whether it’s medically, surgically, mentally, everyone transitions. Once you can understand that, you can accept who you were, and then embrace who you’re going to become. It’s about change.
Roshaante: All of us here are at different stages of our transitions, so we’re all trans men but at different points of our journey. Each of us, you can learn from and look at as a guide, which is what Cairo was saying earlier and I think is really important. We can see where our future can be within each other.
Cairo: I’ve been on hormones for two years, but I’ve been transitioning socially for three years. I had to wait about a year before I could start testosterone, but in the end I got fed up. My GP was not cooperating with me and I had to go private. I’ve always looked at testosterone as it’s not this magic pill, it’s not going to fix all your problems. I think some people bank on it fixing all your problems. I had to be really brutally honest with myself that some things I’m just insecure about – it isn’t a trans issue. That’s just me, I have my own insecurities. Obviously body dysphoria is connected to being trans. But the other things I’ve developed through having low self-esteem and a confidence knock through dysphoria, have expanded into other areas. Now I’m confident, but I went through a point when I wasn’t. I spent a lot of time working on myself before getting testosterone, and I think that’s why my journey over the past two years has been, not easy, but more smooth. I’ve been mindful.
Cole: I have found as well – especially as black men – we have so much more pressure to be masculine. To live up to this thing that is the black man. At the end of the day, regardless if you’re trans, we’re all different. We all have sensitivities and emotions. It’s something you very much have to keep in check to make sure you’re not blocking out that side.
Roshaante: Right, what would we all say to those kids growing up right now who are realising they are transgender?
Nathaniel: That it’s going to be okay. You’re not going to be alone. It’s scary with your family, but most times they may get angry, they may misgender you, it may feel uncomfortable, but they’re not going to abandon you. It’s a learning curve. It’s not easy. If my friend came to me today and said I’m going to change my name, I’m going to mess up. Even though I’m trans I’ll still mess up because if you’ve been calling someone the same name for 16/17 years, it’s not natural. So yeah, just accept yourself and just be honest. It will flow from there.
Cairo: I’d say that you’re not in competition with anyone else. The only person you are in competition with is that person you are looking at in the mirror. Trust your journey. Transitioning is an individual process. As much as it’s great to look to others for support who have done it, nobody can ultimately really tell you who to be.
Xavier: It’s definitely about communication, and keeping in mind that it’s also a transition for the people around you. I also want to touch upon the fact that it’s not going to be sunshine and rainbows, there’s going to be tough times. Just be patient and know your self-worth. Take that time to develop yourself. Even if you don’t start your transition medically, just grow into who you are and love yourself.
Cole: I’d say, if you are unhappy in yourself, be sure to find the root of that unhappiness before you assume you are transgender. It’s very very easy to think, ‘Ah yeah, I’ll take testosterone’ and sometimes that’s not the case. At the end of the day, plain and simple, speak your truth. That’s the best way to put it.
Roshaante: You don’t need to have a certain amount of surgery to be transgender. You don’t have to medically, physically and surgically transition to be trans. It means nothing. When you know you’re trans and you feel comfortable with that, just do what you need to do. Your voice is the most important.
Steffan: I just want to say that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to be unhappy. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel all these different types of emotions. Transitioning isn’t easy, but you paint the bigger picture step by step and before you know it you’re there. You go through these emotions, you ground yourself, and you find love in who you were, and who you are now.
Photography Hidhir Badaruddin
Words Steffan Zachiyah
Fashion Umar Sarwar
Producer Lewis Corner
Videographer Tommy Bruce
Hair Alex James using Fudge
Set Design Bubby Nurse
Fashion Assistant Peter Bevan
Photography Assistants Delali Ayivi & Esme Plumb