James Newton, 29, of Norcross, Ga., a suburban community near Atlanta, got a rude awakening into what it sometimes means to be a black man in America.
Moments after officially getting his name changed from his female birth name at the county courthouse, he noticed a woman looking back at him in the parking lot. With every step he took toward his car, recalls Newton, the woman sped up, all the while frantically twisting her head in his direction. It took a moment for it to register, but he soon realized that she had incorrectly assumed that he was following her to her car. The incident, he says, in many ways marred an important milestone in his transgender transition into life as a male. He insists, however, that he now embraces the experience as another important lesson learned. It’s a sobering reminder of the double discrimination that many transgender people of color often face in society, contends Newton.
Recently, he talked to JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas about his transgender journey.
JJIE: So you were born a female but transitioned into life as a male in 2008. What’s been the biggest surprise?
NEWTON: It’s interesting because to some degree there’s male privilege, but the other side of that is being a black man and often being perceived as a threat by others. It wasn’t something that I had experienced when living as a black woman or even a black lesbian woman. I’m 5 “9 and pretty muscular and I have a shaved head and I am heavily tattooed. So I don’t know, maybe I just look threatening in general. Now I get people grabbing their purses and choosing to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator with me. To be quite honest, it was kind of difficult to deal with at first. It’s just a reminder of how much more work needs to be done in society in regards to acceptance.
JJIE: Any other challenges you feel that you now face living as an African-American man?
NEWTON: Yes. There are certain things I simply cannot do when I get pulled over by a cop without being perceived as threatening. I have to be pretty observant and aware of my surroundings. It’s just different. I don’t remember being perceived as a threat when I was living as a woman. I don’t remember getting followed around in stores. I have two little brothers and that makes me wonder about the stuff they will have to deal with as they get older. Knowing some of the challenges they, too, will face in society makes me sad. It makes me want to protect them from it.
JJIE: Describe your transgender journey.
NEWTON: I lived as a female until I was about 25. I even lived as a lesbian for many years and realized that it just wasn’t fitting. So I decided to explore what it really meant to be transgender. You never really get to see the regular side of being transgender; only the Jerry Springer version. In 2008, I started with the hormone therapy. Over the course of seven months my voice got deeper. I was still living as a woman at work so it was funny because as my voice got lower and lower people would ask, ‘do you have a cold?’ Eventually I was able to transition fully into being a male at work. I was surprised that I was able to do it. I work in the criminal justice system and in the court system so it was a gamble, but it worked out in the end.
JJIE: How has your family reacted to the change?
NEWTON: In terms of my family I got a lot of, ‘why don’t you just be a girl? Why don’t you just be a lesbian? It’s so much harder to live the way you’re living.’ My dad has been slow to accept it. My mom has been more supportive of why I needed to do this. My dad is really old school so it’s understandable I guess.
JJIE: What do you want people to know about you and other transgender people?
NEWTON: Trans people want to be like everybody else. I just want happiness and to find someone to settle down with; not that Jerry Springer life that they show on TV. I’m just this little nerdy guy. Transgender people are like everyone else. We just want to live our lives and just be happy.