Jamaica Plain, MA
*Since this interview, Noah has begun transitioning and is using he/him pronouns.*
What are your pronouns?
Good question. I’ve recently started switching between “she” and “he.” I feel like people think I’m the perfect candidate for “they,” and I love singular “they,” but it doesn’t fit me. I’ve begun going by “he” lately. That feels right.
Where do you work?
I worked at the Harvard Shop part-time my first years of grad school, and now I'm playing bass for the Triana Wilson Duo. Hopefully I’ll be working as a college professor in the next 5 – 10 years of my life.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I’m into reading all the time for fun and for school, I like all things social justice, and I just learned how to make cookies. I’m trying to learn how to be a better cook, because I really suck at it, and I don’t want to suck at it anymore. It’s like all the “boy” stereotypes. “Can you cook?” No, I’m awful. All my exes cooked for me. My mom cooked for me. I’m trying to learn how to feed myself.
What do you do for fun?
I come out to this park [Jamaica Pond] a lot, to read and do schoolwork, but also just to sit and think. I just got a soccer ball, so I can finally start playing soccer again in Boston, just for fun, around parks. As I said, I play bass. I also feel like this is a hard question to answer, because when you’re in grad school it’s so hard to take time to have actual fun. But self-care is very important to me. I do "self-care Saturdays." I try to get a haircut, or just get out of the house and do something enjoyable if possible. I also do "therapy Thursday" where I make sure to engage in something that's good for my mental health, whether reading self-help stuff, or just watching Netflix for a while.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
That actually happened to me earlier today. A random person on the street asked me for a cigarette and said, “Hey girl.” I absolutely hate being called “girl” and “lady,” but when it’s just a stranger, someone I’m not going to interact with any more probably, I tend to let it go. In mixed company, I usually call it out. Among friends now, more and more I’m saying, “Hey, this bothers me. ‘Girl’ and ‘lady,’ not okay with me.” My trans friends get it for the most part, and trans men especially call me “he.” Genderqueer people, on instinct I think, call me “they.” And I am cool with those pronouns. Again it’s the “girl” and the “lady” that just bug me.
After I came out in Texas, I hung out with a lot of cisgender gay men. The heteronormativity there is so rampant, and they “Hey girl” each other all the time. Now I think more about that and think, Is that okay, though? If your fellow cis gay man isn’t a drag queen, is not gender nonconforming, is not genderqueer, to say “Hey girl” – what do you mean by that? It’s a colloquialism and I get that, but we need to think more about language in general, especially within the queer community. We call each other all kinds of things without thinking sometimes, because we’ve been socialized to do so by parents and family and society in general.
Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?
I haven’t officially changed my name; I actually have been thinking about that a lot in the last few months. My folks don’t know this yet, if they read this interview they’ll find out. I’m a Jr., Naomi Jr. My mom was sick when she was pregnant with me, and when I was born, she told my dad, “God forbid something happens to me, name her Naomi after me.” So he did. So I think if I did change my name, it might be cool to be named after my father, Ross, who, ironically enough, also changed his name. He was born Rosendo. When he became a United States Citizen, I was 16, and you can legally change your name when you become a citizen. I think the reason, though, being to help you assimilate if you want to. So he changed his name to Ross. And I joked with him, “My Mama Lupe would roll around in her grave if she knew you did that, because you were named after other sons she had that died as infants. That name was important.”
But I understood why he did that, because he said, “I’m tired of people mispronouncing my name.” I was like wow, okay. But if I did change my name to his, I’d want to be the name he was born as. Maybe, Rosendo Enrique Ezequiel Toledo. That’s after the three most important men in my life: my father, my grandfather, and my gay uncle. I understand when people constantly mispronounce your name, it’s more of a slap in the face than just either coming up with a nickname or legally changing it for that purpose. I can’t hate on it. Even though I’m not a fan, I understand why my dad did it.
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
I came out as genderqueer exactly 10 years ago, also in an interview like this in Houston, oddly enough. I’ve actually had children ask me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” and my answer is, “Yes.” Just to fuck with them a little bit and make them think about why that’s a valid answer to that question. Obviously “girl” doesn’t fit me, but “boi” does. In the past, when I've had friends ask, “Are you male?” I hesitated to answer that question. Gender is fluid. I’m genderqueer for sure, and “boi” is a term that I adopted a decade ago that still fits. Now in my gender journey, I'm finally coming into my transmasculine identity, and it feels good. The woman I'm dating calls me "the new hybrid" regarding my maleness.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Yeah. I dress in male clothing from head to toe except for the bra that I’m wearing right now. I actually struggled with whether or not I wanted to wear a bra today. I’m having such gender dysphoria lately about my breasts, and wearing a bra is something I hate doing, but I feel like I have to. And there are some shirts I wear where I’ll get a little chafed if I don’t. [laughs] So then it’s just a matter of comfort.
But I’m thinking about buying some more binders and wearing them on a more regular basis when I experience that dysphoria, because it sucks. It could literally ruin your day. [Update: I now wear binders daily.]
This happened recently on the MBTA, on the Orange line – almost ruined my day, but it didn’t – this kid looks me up and down, and I hear him mouth to his friend, “Something something transgender.” I look down at myself, and I’m wearing tennis shoes, some shorts, my legs aren’t shaved – I don’t shave my armpits or my legs anymore – but I was wearing a shirt that day that was tight, one of my last clean shirts, and happened to be wearing a bra that has padding just because it was clean as well. And I felt such anger at that moment that because of the type of shirt that I’m wearing, he immediately knew that I was born in a female body and made all these assumptions. I actually stood up before I got off the train, looked at him and said, “if you’re gonna be mean to people, maybe you shouldn’t be so loud about it.” I should’ve said something else, but that was all I could muster. In that moment I was just angry about it. I never experienced any kind of transphobia or homophobia on the train in the two years I’ve lived here until that moment, and it was a kid. And I thought, Let me say something, because kids are still teachable.
I’m from Texas; you can imagine I’ve experienced plenty of homophobia and transphobia down [there]. From just going to the movies and having a guy in the parking lot drive by and yell “dyke” out of the car, to which I yelled back, “You’re just pissed off I get more pussy than you!” Of course I was like 25, so that was my cocky reaction to just laugh it off and make that joke, but it hurts. It does. It sticks with you. That stays with you for life. You can’t really delete the scars, but you can go, Okay, that happened, I’m not going to let it impact my sense of self and my confidence in who I am and my self-esteem moving forward.
I’ve learned to be assertive and stand my ground. Especially in Boston, I think this city in general teaches you to be assertive, otherwise you really can’t make it. Not in Boston. It’s not gonna happen. [laughs] What’s funny is I feel like this city is a lot kinder in many ways than anywhere in the South, because it’s more progressive, but there’s still that racism, there’s still that homophobia and transphobia. People here I think are more covert about their -isms. You still have the what I call “diet racists” and the “in the closet Republicans.” They won’t tell you they’re voting Republican, but they’ll go to the polls and vote Republican. They exist. They’re here. But they’re more covert about their -isms, like I said.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
Part of me wants to say when I was 4, and I would watch soap operas with my mom and notice that I wasn’t doing what all the other girls were doing and looking at the boy and falling in love with that main character. Of course, this has more to do with my sexual orientation, which is separate, but I immediately had a huge crush on a Mexican actress named Lucero at the time. And that made me go, Is this normal? Is this okay? Then, in school, noticing all the other girls were wearing certain kinds of clothing and realizing, I don’t want to do that. And I would ask my mom, “Can you buy me jeans and T-shirts?” Realizing later on in life that I really wanted to be a little James Dean. But I really just wanted to wear blue jeans and a white T-shirt. That was my favorite outfit. And getting this kind of pushback from my mom at first about it, telling her this was what I liked and her going, Okay, whatever. I also preferred to hang with the boys at recess and always identified with them more.
It really progressed from there and never stopped. That was when my gender journey pressed Play, and everything happened kind of quickly after that. I absolutely hated wearing dresses, and I remember my aunt buying me an outfit with a tie when I was in 5th grade, and I felt so good. It's like she knew. She actually bought me a Donald Trump tie a few Christmases ago, before he ran for president and said all these racist things, which you have to admit is pretty damn funny and sad at the same time. I don't wear that one anymore.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
Absolutely. Growing up in a Mexican household in the South, my parents are almost the Hallmark card version of typical Latino parents. My dad goes off to work every day, my mom was a homemaker, so they are in that way a stereotype. But a good version of a stereotype, because they run their household very smoothly. I have a brother with special needs they take care of to this day. But realizing I wanted to be more like my dad, as far as the way that I looked, dressed, the way I carried myself – and not my mom. Of course my first ideas of what masculinity looked like were a Mexican man’s, for all the good and all the bad that comes with that. And I’ve to this day had to undo a lot of those ideas.
I’ll give you a great example. I was going through something recently. I told a friend that I really didn’t grieve something that I was going through, and the reason I didn’t was because my dad is the kind of guy that taught me that you cry for something for two minutes and then you move on with your life. That’s just what you do. That’s a very typical Latino male thing. Feel the emotion, fine, but don’t let it get outta hand, and move on. And that’s such a terrible way to teach our boys or anybody to deal with grief or emotion or heavy situations. So I’m to this day undoing some of those notions.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
I think the biggest one when you’re masculine of center, is that that automatically makes you some version of “butch.” I’m not butch. Stuff like that, all the assumptions that come with it. That being masculine must mean that you are very aggressive, that you’re this and that adjective, and you’re not necessarily that. Especially people that are feminine of center, they get it the most. I feel so horrible for our femmes especially, all the bullshit that they get. Whether it’s a cis woman or a feminine lipstick lesbian or genderqueer person designated male at birth who is feminine, or a trans person, they get all these stereotypes about what they’re supposed to be like. And to see them go, “Fuck you, I’m not going to be a doormat, I’m not going to do this and that,” and be aggressive – that’s hot. [laughs]
We have to constantly redefine for ourselves as a society too what masculinity and femininity really is. I feel like we’re making it up as we go. Because we’ve had to undo what society has taught us as far as definitions of those terms. And it’s completely wrong. When people in some cultures think of femininity, they automatically think of weakness. That’s a big problem. And we still do it even in America in 2016. We think of masculinity automatically meaning strength and virility and the hunter, the whatever, and it’s not that at all. We’ve made that shit up. Completely.
I’ve read about certain cultures where the women in the culture are actually the dominant sex, and make the men go gather and they’re the ones who hunt and do what’s typically masculine, and I think that’s fantastic. Why don’t we think more about things that way? Why do we assign certain shit to certain people? Yes, biologically, we have to look at the fact that people born XX versus XY do have some difference. But they’re physical differences. They’re not mental or psychological differences. Sure, some cis guy can maybe lift 30 pounds more than I can. Good for him. But does that make him a better person than me? Stronger as a human? Stronger spiritually? No, you just lifted a box for me. Thanks bro, I appreciate it. [laughs]
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?
I feel like the phrase that everybody uses is that sex is between your legs, and gender is between your ears. But I feel like that only skims the surface, because some people are born with both parts (shout out to my intersex peeps), and all of our parts look different, and all of us are born with a different brain. I believe gender is on a spectrum, and we are all born with an innate idea of whether we are a little more masculine or feminine, or part of both. But I think even cisgender people can agree that they have their moments where certain characteristics don’t necessarily fall within the definition of who society thinks they’re supposed to be. I really believe that for everybody, gender is on a spectrum, but for some of us, we’re pretty extremely one or the other, and it doesn’t necessarily fit with the sex we were assigned at birth. And who you're attracted has zero to do with your gender identity. Best way I can explain it.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
That’s an interesting question, being someone who has been in the public eye for a little while, having been a musician and having been in interviews just like this before. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I saw 10 years ago people become more interested in words like genderqueer, gender nonconforming; even in Texas. Which I thought was a fantastic thing; people were trying to open their minds. Things have already obviously progressed and gotten better, but we still haven’t moved as much as I think people think we have. Yeah, we have social media now and we talk about things more, but talking about things is one thing – actually passing laws and protecting people is another.
I’m excited that Massachusetts just passed the Trans Bill, that’s amazing; if anyone is reading this in Texas, take notes. This is what you should be doing, taking care of people and making sure that they’re safe and protected. I think that stuff like Hollywood – you still have the bro movies with rampant misogyny, you still have the majority of your box office hits being ones where the protagonist is male. Even the new Ghostbusters, the movie that came out this weekend, it’s an all-female cast, and people were up in arms about it. What’s your problem? This is an important thing to do for kids, to switch things up. My conclusion is that we still have a ways to go.
What improvements would you like to see happen in your communities, and in society at large?
I guess being a student at Harvard, I’ve seen a lot of awesome progressive groups at school pop up. We have something called Sex Week that the undergrads participate in. No, it’s not an orgy, it’s a sexual health and sexuality discussion week, which is great. So there’s little things like that that I see within the Ivies that are awesome, but the most rampant thing on all college campuses right now is the attempt to eliminate rape culture. That obviously affects women, but it also affects queer people. Period. You got your bros that still use not only racial epithets but homophobic terms, transphobic terms, and that shit makes people feel unsafe to come out. And if this shit is in the Ivies, of course it exists in every other school in the country. University, college, high school, down to elementary school. I think is the biggest thing I want to see done within education is LGBTQ history being taught within American history courses. I don’t want our history to be an elective anymore. I just really want to see teachers, too, step up and be able to be out, wherever they teach so that students can see themselves in the people teaching them, that they aren’t afraid to be themselves.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
I think that one of the most impactful things that happened to me was being molested by a family member when I was little, and then later when I came out, first as gay and then as genderqueer, of course the questions popping up from people saying, “Oh, well does that have anything to do with your identity?” And me having to convince them that it doesn’t. What are the stats now? 1 in 3 or 4 women – and we’re talking cisgender women – experience some form of sexual assault or violence or inappropriateness in their childhood or their lives. How many of them are straight? So the correlation isn’t sexual abuse makes you X, Y, Z. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse. It is a traumatic event that affects anybody, and that’s something that I’m still working through (thank God for therapy).
Also just like most queers, I suffer from anxiety and depression. And I think the reason so many of us do is simply because when you’re not accepted socially when you first come out, it’s a traumatic event. You develop a version of trauma; you can call it PTSD. I have what’s called CPTSD, when you experience multiple traumas in your life. That again doesn’t have to do with my gender or my orientation, that has to do with what society has yet to learn and how they are hurting people because of their ignorance and their fear.
Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
I think that one of the most difficult things I had to endure as a gender nonconforming person was to come out to my parents about it. I came out to them as gay when I was 19 – but then I had to come out again. [laughs] It’s like, I’ve already done this once, haven’t I? But honestly coming out in the public eye helped a lot. I remember my mom telling me that when the article about me in 2006 came out, it was an alternative press in Houston, and those newspapers were at every grocery store. She said she went to Kroger one day and noticed the cover article right in front of her, and a woman next to her picking up the paper and looking at it and kind of scoffing at it, kind of like, What’s this about? And my mother then picked up five of them, and said, “My kid is in the article,” and threw them in the basket and took off. I was like, Mom, that’s so badass. So, again, it was difficult to come out to them as gay, because I thought I was going to be rejected, but I wasn’t. It was difficult to come out as genderqueer, because again, I thought I was going to be rejected, but I wasn’t. It was wonderful. I’m very lucky. Especially being Latino, a lot of our families still don’t accept anything other than being a cis heteronormative human being. So it was difficult to come out because of my own fear, but I was very lucky with the result. I’ve got two super supportive parents. They’re incredible.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
My mom. Mom is my rock. Without getting teary-eyed talking about it – again, when I came out as gay, she was like, “I really already knew,” and I’m like, Well of course you did, you’re mom. When I came out as gender nonconforming, and I told her, “I am changing the underwear that I wear, mom, because this makes me comfortable,” and she thought that my new boxer briefs were so cute. She actually texted me the other day saying, “I bought you a pair of chones” which is slang for “underwear” in Spanish. And I was like, Okay, show me? [laughs] She texted me a picture of Star Wars boxer briefs that she bought at Target or somewhere, and I cracked up, and I remember thinking, Okay, 10 years ago was when she first washed a pair of my boxer briefs when I was home from college. 10 years later, she’s buying me underwear at the store. She sent them to me in care package now that I’m in grad school. Life has come full circle. It’s incredible. [laughs] And I know that even if I did transition, even if I took hormones, even if I had top surgery, none of that would change the fact that she supports me as a human being and loves me for who I am. As corny as that sounds, it’s true.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
It’s impacted almost every single relationship I’ve been in. My first long-term relationship, I was with someone for almost four years. I jokingly call her my ex-wife because we couldn’t get married in Texas at the time, but we would have gotten married.
But, after I came out as genderqueer – we’d already broken up and were friends – she said, “No, that’s not you, that’s not you,” and she insisted on telling me who I was. And I had to say, “No, this is who I am, it may not have come out while we were together, but this is who I am.” But even in the relationship, I noticed that when I would wear a tie, she would say, “No, that’s too man-ish. Not for me.” And what’s funny is after we broke up we kind of became the same person. She dates feminine women now. Go figure.
But yeah, I’ve been shamed for my gender identity by other exes. Even a recent partner, who is a wonderful human being who I would never talk shit about – I never felt fully able to be myself or use the term “transmasculine” for myself because she specifically said, “I am attracted to women. I only date women.” And I knew that if I pushed the conversation too much, she might no longer be attracted to me. So I was never fully myself in that relationship, out of fear of losing it. I don't advise that for anyone, and I don't do it again. It’s also impacted my sexual relationships and the way that those go behind closed doors. I realized recently that when I date, I have had an unfortunate habit of dating cis lesbian-identified women who may or may not always be okay with dating genderqueer or trans people. I feel like sometimes they make an exception for me, which, should I take it as a compliment? I don’t know. I realized I probably should be dating women who identify as bisexual or pansexual in order to find someone who truly understands my gender identity and doesn’t fear it, but wants to explore that.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
I have Mass Health, but I haven’t really used it much in Boston. So that’s a To-Be-Determined, I suppose. I had free therapy for a little while through a student who was finishing up a Master’s Degree, so I got Skype therapy sessions for 16 weeks for free, which was great. I found a fantastic therapist through that. But she just got married, she’s on vacation, so I’m trying to find someone else who is as cool as that therapist was. She was super open about her own sexuality. She was cool with talking about pretty much anything. Those are big shoes to fill. So I’m going to have to search around Boston for a while to find a therapist like that. As far as Fenway Health, I’ve been to some events and some fundraisers, I’ve heard great things about it, but I don't know from personal experience.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
I used to have horrendous self-esteem, and I still have occasional bouts of that. I think everybody does. But I’ve definitely become a lot more confident in who I am, and I’ve definitely become a lot more assertive. Again I think that’s a product of moving to Boston. I’m much more comfortable in my own skin.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think I would tell 14-year-old Naomi, You’re gonna be fine. Be yourself. The folks that aren’t down with you now don’t need to impact the rest of your life. Choose your friends wisely, and don’t try so hard to please everyone. Because you can’t.
What are your concerns for the future?
I think my concerns personally for the future are that I go through my gender journey in a healthy way and continue to combat the demons of anxiety and depression and not let that get in the way of my own evolution. And then socially – I’m part of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve become an activist again, going to rallies, going to meetings, and that’s probably my biggest concern honestly. Even though gender identity is a huge part of my life, being Latino, looking at race dynamics in the country, really frightens me. We’re coming up on an election that could turn out horribly, and what the fuck are we going to do then? God forbid we elect a xenophobic misogynist prick. That would cause us to need to band together even tighter than ever. And I’m just hoping that we as a community have the resilience to fight through that, because it’s not going to be easy.
What do you look forward to in the future?
I look forward to fulfilling my academic goals, personally. I look forward to finding that just-right partner and having a family. I look forward to that more than anything because I feel like no matter what I accomplish in life, if I'm not sharing it with other people, it’s not as fulfilling. I’m one of those people. Again growing up in the South around very heteronormative ideas, even though I’m much more progressive than I used to be as a kid, I still hold on to that idea of family and being a family guy.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
I think the most important frustration for me personally was taking 10 years before moving up here for grad school. A lot of that had to do with me trying to please other people. Work jobs, make money to take care of past partner and child, or take care of other things. Also fear about success, which a lot of us have, I think. So it took me 10 years to finally overcome that notion that I had to please everybody else. I finally said no, I want to go do this specific thing, and if I have to move across the country to do it, so be it. So that challenge in itself became what I think is my biggest success, which is overcoming that and being here now.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
Little phrase that I like is, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” I think in a culture that teaches us that we have to be in constant competition with each other in order to be successful, and “he who dies with the most toys wins” kind of thing – we lose track of our humanity, and I think that kindness is the most important personality characteristic a person can have. I look for it in partners, in lovers, and I look for it within myself. Whenever I’m feeling frustrated with other people, I have to stop and go, Okay, let me understand why that person is acting that way or feeling that way. I feel like that’s the most important thing we can do when we encounter interpersonal challenges, is try to understand why another person is acting out before we lash out or get aggressive about it. Let’s be compassionate first. That’s a big part of practicing kindness.
Are there any other questions you would have liked me to ask, or anything else you would like to talk about?
What I realized recently has been that other people try so hard to write our narratives for us. You see these lesbian movies – why is it that lesbians are always murderers or killers or whatever in these films? It’s so weird. When it comes to LGBTQ culture, Latino culture, whatever it is you identify as, other people will try to write your narratives, and we have to stop that. I love that you’re doing this, because this is allowing us a chance to tell people who we are. We need to write our own narratives. We need to keep doing that.