Ryan Sallans’s Transforming Manhood is a reflection on experiences of transitioning and its impacts later in life. Themes of mental health, coping with trauma, family relationships, love, and loss are woven together in this powerful narrative. Sallans explores the changing political climate surrounding trans identities, intersections of privilege and visibility, and navigating a new, often emotionally-charged online world.
As a younger transgender person, I found that reading Transforming Manhood gave me new insight into the experiences of people who transitioned at an earlier time, when there was less information or recognition of trans identities. At the same time, the book echoed many of the experiences I’ve had around struggling to integrate the very different ways transgender people are perceived and treated at different points during our lives.
Sallans discusses how the way he is perceived by others has changed. After many years of transitioning, he writes, “My experiences of being called a ‘dyke’ and then a ‘fag’ by strangers on the street, or being denied a job or access to health care because I am transgender, are hidden underneath what people choose to see.” While no longer being perceived as someone with a visible minority status, Sallans says, “Transitioning to male has not taken away these memories and interactions, but by looking at me now, people may more likely believe I am the perpetrator, not the perpetrated.”
Sallans’s experience felt very similar to my own, and the “mind-fuck” of going from being perceived as a gender non-conforming person, to being perceived as a cisgender man, and therefore someone who is assumed to be a perpetrator of violence.
FORGE often reminds survivors and communities about some of the common myths around violence and victimization that many trans survivors grapple with. One assumption is that men are always the perpetrators and women are always the victims of sexual violence. This myth erases the experiences of male survivors (cisgender or trans), survivors with female perpetrators, as well as the wide range of trans survivors who may not see themselves as falling into a binary experience of gender.
Like Sallans, when I reached the point in transition that people often assumed I was a cisgender man, I began to sense the difference in how people responded to my presence. In trans spaces, this often came with a sense of “does this person belong here?”
Sallans reflects on how messages about taking up space often come up for him:
“Feeling like we have nothing to offer to help create change, we then respond with the all-too-familiar words: ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘So sorry.’ ‘Am I in your way?’ ‘Am I taking up too much space?’… What I then internalize is then in order to raise up others, I must erase my own existence. It can feel really defeating at times, especially when you’ve worked hard to create a home in your body, but the outside world still insists that your home is not the right address.”
While navigating these challenging dynamics, Sallans also talks about the importance of community. He discusses how “Transgender identities can link you like family, even if you barely know one another.” While there may be divides within the transgender community, Sallans reflects on how affirming it can be to be surrounded by other trans people, and how this can free us from expectations about how people should look or act based on gendered stereotypes.
Writing about a friendship Sallans had with another trans man who also enjoyed outdoor activities like he does. He says, “I had found a friend who defined and encompassed life as a man the same way I did.”
Sallans describes his enjoyment of outdoor activities as a significant part of his identity, and one that was disrupted by mental health challenges and the demands of transitioning. He writes: “The further my physical body was integrated into civilization, the more I lost the ability to find solace in the wilderness.” At some points in his life, being in the wilderness was an escape from ruminating on gender or appearance. But as time went on, “I was too busy focusing on my newfound transgender identity and on the bodily changes that I underwent week after week.”
This highlights that while transitioning can bring us closer to feeling comfortable in our bodies and identities, it can also be so all-consuming that other activities and relationships that nurtured us fall to the wayside.
Reconnecting with his “adventurous spirit,” Sallans says, “felt like a rebirth of parts of me I had lost, parts that move beyond gender.”
Just as reconnecting with fulfilling activities may take a lifetime, Sallans also discusses how healing from trauma and mental illness doesn’t have an end date. He shares about his past experiences with an eating disorder, and how this still comes up at different points in his life.
He talks about how environmental triggers from being at his parents’ home brought up feelings that he felt about his eating disorder: “When I sat down [at the kitchen table], memories rushed into my mind about how stressful it was in the past when we were scooted around that brown tabletop.” Later, he acknowledges that even after years in recovery, “I was feeling a new wave coming if I didn’t start to do something about it.”.
Sallans shares a vulnerable moment when he reaches out for help with a new therapist. Though he describes feeling “speechless, scared, confused, disappointed, and disenabled,” this moment was an important one for figuring out how he could move forward. He writes, “I knew I needed to deal with the complexities and influences of the online and external world’s perception of me as a man.”
I was particularly struck by this moment, because it wove together several of the themes that Sallans discusses in his book. Coping with mental health challenges, and the ability to reach out for help, were shaped by his experiences of how he is perceived as a man.
This is likely an experience that many trans survivors can relate to. Past traumatic experiences and trans identity are often connected in ways that aren’t apparent on the surface, but come to light with patience and guidance. It was powerful for me to read a narrative that seemed to “connect the dots,” bringing fragmented pieces of identity together as a whole.
This also reflects challenges that many trans survivors have around seeking support and care after sexual violence. Because of dominating cultural ideas about who can be a survivor of sexual violence, it may be difficult for folks who aren’t perceived as women, or femme-presenting, to feel confident they will be taken seriously. Additionally, many services for survivors are only oriented toward women, with this reflected everywhere, from the language on their websites to the services and support groups offered in survivor spaces.
Transforming Manhood follows several meaningful experiences during Sallans’s life, including meeting his wife, speaking at trans advocacy events, the death of loved ones, and reconnecting with family and home. We often hear stories about coming out and starting to transition. I appreciated reading about how trans identity continues to impact a person throughout their life, and how Sallans, who cares deeply about bridging the gap in understanding trans identities, approaches the challenges that come with being a transgender public figure.
Sallans discusses the shifting political climate toward transgender people. His book was written in 2019, and since then, issues of anti-transgender legislation, legal restrictions to bodily autonomy, and violence toward trans community members have only heightened. At this point in time, it feels all the more important to hear the wisdom Sallans has gained from his work:
“Change happens when we are able to find a way to slowly lower our guarded walls. This requires maturity, patience, compassion, and the willingness to be uncomfortable with one another.”
Sallans’s work has created countless conversations and opened up opportunities for people to change their minds. At the same time, Sallans recognizes the emotional toll it takes to make himself vulnerable and open himself up to conversations with people who have grown up in environments that teach fear of “otherness.” While we can strive for having these kinds of difficult conversations, it’s also important to prioritize caring for our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, as a community, during a time of increased hostility and fear.