When T.J. Jourian first came to the U.S. from Cyprus in 1999, his name was Tamar, and the gender box on his passport said he was female. That classification had always felt arbitrary to him, but it wasn’t until he started college at Michigan State University that Jourian began exploring his gender identity in earnest. In the fall of his junior year, he came out to his friends and classmates as female-to-male transgender. Jourian’s exploration of his masculinity is one he ultimately hopes to mark by taking testosterone, bringing his current female form into harmony with his internal male identity. Though making this change is a deeply personal decision, Jourian, an activist at heart, believes it is important to raise awareness around gender identity issues. “The transgender community is not new, but in terms of visibility, there is still a lot of work to do,” he says.
So when emails about a new documentary about transgender students began circulating on queer and trans listservs, Jourian, now a graduate student at Michigan State, signed up.
The series artfully captures Jourian’s experience, from his struggles with his family to a meeting of the first U.S. transgender fraternity, Phi Tau Mu (that’s Greek for FTM), which he founded with his friends last year. Despite the newfound attention on his identity and activism, Jourian recoils at the idea of being a role model. “I didn’t want to be in anything where I was representing the whole community,” he says. “What I want to do is just give another example of a way to be.”
Mother Jones caught up with Jourian over summer break to talk more about what it’s like being a TV star, being an activist, and being a man.
Mother Jones: When did you begin exploring issues of gender?
T.J. Jourian: When I was a kid, especially at younger ages, three, four, five, I was pretty convinced that I was a boy and I went about my childhood acting like a boy. But then I was told that I wasn’t supposed to do that and that I was a girl. As a child, acting as a boy, it was cute, it was acceptable. But as I was growing up, it became a daily struggle for my family. “You can’t wear that, you can’t cut your hair that short,” my mother would say. “You need to act like this.” It was very hard for me. So after a while I just convinced myself that the rest of the world can’t be wrong and me be the only person that’s right.
MJ: When did you first begin to identify as transgender?
TJ: It wasn’t until the fall of 2001. At the time I identified as a lesbian and I went to a training to learn about what it meant to be a lesbian and be allied to the transgender community. I was listening to other peoples’ stories, especially about their childhood, it was like a light bulb went on, and I thought, “Wow, this so totally makes sense now.” I initially came out as gender queer because at first I was really questioning gender on a philosophical and activist basis. I don’t really believe that there are just two genders in this entire world, that there are these strict rules and regulations for each of them, and that they’re polar opposites.
MJ: When did your philosophical questioning transition onto a more emotional level?
TJ: With Jordan, my best friend, we were both going through this process at the same time. There was a lot of talking back and forth and asking questions. It wasn’t until the two of us were watching Boys Don’t Cry with a group of other people. Afterwards we were sitting there, consoling each other, and I turned around to Jordan and said, “I’m Brandon.” That was the first time that I acknowledged, loudly, who I felt I was. Since then, it’s been an ongoing process. It’s still a process. I think I was trying to invent words for myself at first, coming up with terms that I liked better to describe my gender, experimenting and figuring it out. I think that everybody should give themselves a chance to do that once in a while, really look at the words “girl,” “boy,” “man,” “woman,” and see what fits, what doesn’t fit, and ask, “What does it mean to me?”
MJ: Have you thought about taking your transition to the physical level by taking testosterone?
TJ: I can’t take T right now, but I wish I could. Once I graduate and get my master’s degree, I have to return to Cyprus for two years as a part of visa regulations. During my time in Cyprus I’m expected to be a woman, preferably a straight woman, so to start T would jeopardize that process. But I’m very much looking forward to when I can start taking it. I’m looking forward to all the physical changes; to not having to draw facial hair on and just growing it naturally; to having a voice that doesn’t pass as female all the time. That’s my primary giveaway.
MJ: Have you had experiences where you’ve passed completely as male?
TJ: Oh, definitely. Especially here, if I know that I’m passing visually, I’ll lower my voice when I’m talking to people I haven’t met yet. Even people who have known me find it difficult to remember that I used to be female identified and I have a female body. To them, I’m just this guy.
There was this one particular time when me, Jordan, and another friend of ours went to a toy store, looking for a hacky sack. The folks working at the store definitely perceived us as male. We couldn’t find one anywhere and the difference in the way that we were treated was just remarkable. They jumped to serve us. It was just this silly little toy, it cost maybe a dollar or two, but they were rummaging through the entire store trying to find one, asking several people to look for it, at one point they even called up the manager. It was just amazing, leaving that place and saying, “Wow, did you all just realize we experienced our first male privilege?” It was thrilling on the one hand because we passed. But on the other it was this kind of dirty feeling, like they just gave us something we didn’t earn.
MJ: How has race played into your experience of gender?
TJ: It’s been very similar. Because I pass as white on a regular basis, folks don’t look at me and necessarily see a person of color, so in some ways, it parallels my experience as trans. Whenever someone pegs me as this white American, I walk by, nothing is said to me, no dirty looks are made. But if there is a hint of an accent or I mention that I’m not from this country or somebody identifies the fact that I do look Middle Eastern, then the interaction changes a little bit.
I have a fly-on-the-wall perspective, because I get to blend in with the majority group and hear what they feel and say about a group that is not part of the majority. Then I can be among folks in the minority and have conversations about what it’s like in majority circles. I feel like an identity translator.
MJ: Tell me a little bit about the trans fraternity that you started.
TJ: It’s called Phi Tau Mu, which are the letters for FTM in Greek. We started it in the fall of 2004. It’s a sort of support group and it’s not an official fraternity at all. You hear the term “brotherhood” a lot in Greek organizations and we wanted to take that back. There’s definitely none of the hazing stuff, and there’s no screening process of who can join. We just make it known that it’s an FTM organization and we define FTM very, very loosely as folks that were born women or don’t identify 100 percent as women. We don’t have strict rules or positions of authority within the organization. No one is a leader; we’re all there for each other. Our function is very much about getting each other feeling better about ourselves. We don’t counsel each other, but it just really helps to talk to another person who gets it. We’ve already talked about trying to find ways to make Phi Tau Mu a more national organization with different chapters at different campuses.
MJ: I’m interested in some of the ways that you use gender terms, for example, “male bonding.” There’s a scene from the TV series where you and a group of friends are lying together on a bed, with your arms around each other. You referred to this as an example of male bonding, which struck me, because it certainly didn’t resemble traditional male bonding rituals.
TJ: I think that’s one of the beauties of the FTM community. We can take these words that we hear on an everyday basis and reinvent them. I can decide I don’t like the traditional way that males bond. I don’t like this grunting, this punching each other on the arm thing. I want to be able to hug my brother and feel good about it and feel masculine about it. Masculinity is not about being this perceptive caveman. To me, masculinity is very personal, very fluid. It’s not a matter of “this is how men act,” and “this is how men feel,” but I, as a masculine person, I as a male person, feel this way. Society can’t decide what those words mean anymore. Individuals need to forge new language.
MJ: Do you believe that transgender issues are feminist issues?
TJ: Definitely. I think the rights of women and the rights of trans people overlap each other quite a bit. In a very basic sense, for both groups, the source of oppression is male power. And also I think both women and trans people are about changing the rules, changing the roles of gender, and changing what we accept as normal. In that sense, I think we share a lot of common ground.
MJ: There is also a lot of tension between feminist and transgender groups. Many women’s groups are interested in preserving women’s spaces and women’s solidarity and it is not clear where trans people fit in.
TJ: I think the tension arises from the fact that we see power as a limited resource. So when one group is fighting for it and all of a sudden another group emerges that is also fighting for that power, we see them as enemies and we start fighting each other for that same power. There needs to be dialogue between women’s groups and trans groups. Where can we find this common ground? Where are some places we can make some concessions? What are some places that need to be held sacred?
MJ: As you look ahead to the next ten years of your life, do you anticipate living your life as a man or as an FTM transgender person?
TJ: I will always definitely be an FTM trans person, no matter how far into my transition I’ll be. The trans identity part is very important to me because it reminds folks of where I’ve come from and my roots are very important to me. I want to acknowledge the fact that being raised and socialized in this world as a female has made a considerable impact on me as a person.
MJ: Do you think that as you take on more leadership roles in your career that you’ll serve as a role model to other trans youth?
TJ: I don’t like using terms like “role model” for myself. I’ve heard other folks use it, but what I want to do is just give another example of a way to be. And hope that some folks will decide that “That works for me, too.“ Or other folks will challenge me, we will challenge each other how to interact and how to grow.