Tiq Milan and Kim Katrin Milan brought warmth and light to the TEDWomen stage in 2016, sharing their vision of queer love and possibility. As a Black trans activist, writer and media maker, Tiq Milan expands the cultural imaginary on what it is to live beyond the margins. It’s an interesting time to be Tiq; he’s working on a book, just completed a video project with GLAAD and Netflix — and recently became a first-time parent too. He made time to talk with us last month about his work as a trans advocate, what it means to redefine masculinity and how he lives as a model of possibility for LGBTQ+ youth.
This interview has been edited and condensed. (Learn more about TEDWomen 2018, coming up this fall.)
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey and your work? Who is Tiq Milan and how have you gotten here?
I started off working in hip hop journalism, but I was becoming increasingly masculine in my appearance and I was trying to figure out if I was trans or not. In that environment, being a masculine woman at the time was really hard. People weren’t necessarily hostile. People were awkward — and it was just humiliating. People would misgender me, then look at me weird. I decided to switch it up and work in LGBT nonprofit and work with youth, which I had done before. I figured that if I was able to work in communities that would give me the space to transition in a way that felt really comfortable, I could be a role model and model of possibility for people around me. I was able to find the space where I could use media as a space for advocacy.
I started my transition about 12 years ago, in 2007. Transitioning was an evolution; there wasn’t a point in my life where I was like, “I’m trans and I have to do this.” It really was something that evolved over time. My book, Man of My Design, is about the evolution — it’s not so much about the legal and physical transition but rather about my journey throughout the spectrum of gender, from being a tomboy to a feminine teenager to a butch lesbian to a man. Being me has definitely been a process, and I’m still in that process to becoming my best self.
I am intrigued by that title. I think it’s a really interesting concept, especially in a world where — to some people — gender is immovable, inherent and unchanging. What does designing your own masculinity mean to you?
We’re changing the idea that gender is innate and immovable, and understanding it as self-determined. As transgender people, we’re showing other people in the world — particularly cisgendered people — that we’re all having gendered experiences. But we’re also securing the space to be who we are in our genders, whether you’re trans or cis. As a person who was not born into manhood, I’ve had to curate my masculinity from a blank slate. I had to look at different examples and tropes of masculine and decide what I wanted to engage in and what I didn’t. I had to think about how I could find a home in masculinity and not engage in what is so toxic about it. I had to intentionally not revel in the idea that being a man means being the one in control, being the one who has all the strength or power. It’s easy to fall in that place, particularly as a transman who is always assumed to be cisgender. I don’t deal with a lot of trans antagonism because people perceive me as a cisgender person, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to take up space in the perceived privileges that come with that.
“What does it look like to be a man tethered to my spirit, not so much to what I can control?”
This is about what I call organic masculinity. Manhood — particularly cisgendered heterosexual masculinity — defines itself by what it can control, and when it loses that control, when the entitlement is taken away, men lose their fucking mind. They get violent, they get awful. What happens when I take away that entitlement, take away that control and just start to create the man that I want to be? I am masculine and I have masculine traits, but I’m also compassionate. I believe as a man I can have a range of emotions — it doesn’t have to stop at lust and anger. There’s an idea that men can’t have fear, that men can’t be complicated. I want to turn that on its head.
What drives you to do the work that you do, toward “living visibly and living out loud”?
I’m visible so other people don’t have to be. Somebody has to be visible. Someone has to be a model of possibility for younger people, and for older people who aren’t out or are still dealing with their gender. Someone has to do it, so why not me? Particularly as a Black man, it’s important to push up against these ideas that being queer and being trans is something that is white. Making sure that people see that this is an intersectional human experience. Here I am, in the flesh, being Black, being queer, being a man; I am all of those things.
I’m starting to become obsessed with this idea of becoming my best self. I listen to Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday podcast. She’s on that guru shit. I’m trying to figure out what the formula is for this life. I was born a girl and I’m going to die a man. I saw the exact person I wanted to be in my mind and I manifested that in this world. If I can do that, I can do anything.
“What does it look like to be the architect of your own destiny? I want to use the trans experience of self-determination as a blueprint.”
I’m inspired by our journey as trans people, by us taking the reins and saying, “This is the person I want to be, and this is who I’m going to be.” I’m really interested in what that next step looks like spiritually. I want to raise my consciousness. My purpose is my wildest dreams, so what does it look like to live in that purpose? To live and breathe on another frequency is to stay in a place of gratitude, even when it’s hard, even when things aren’t going the way they should be. If I stay in a place of gratitude, then I stay understanding that what I want in this life is unequivocally possible. I think it’s about trying to let go of ego. What does it look like to be selfless? What does it mean to understand that we’re all in this together? Particularly now, with the rampant, vile racism that’s happening in the world I have to keep myself grounded in the fact that we’re all in this together. I try to operate with the understanding that the things that I say and do in this world have a ripple effect. You never know who you’re going to affect. That’s what I mean by raising my consciousness; I want to have a spiritual base, and understand myself as part of a community rather than as an individual.
As you navigate this world existing at multiple intersections of identity and marginalization, what are your core values? As you and Kim said in your talk, you exist at these intersections but you don’t live marginalized lives.
My most core value is to stay true and speak with integrity. I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. Because I hold those values, rarely do I say things that I can’t take back. I’m really conscious about thinking before I speak. What we speak is what we put out into the world, it’s what we create. What we write is what creates truth and what creates this world. I take that very seriously.
In your TED Talk, you mention having to hold up a mirror to yourself and interrogate masculinity, and that it was a process of learning and unlearning. What does that process of reflection look like to you? What does it look like to build your masculinity in a way that doesn’t subscribe to misogyny and toxic patriarchal ideals?
In my process of becoming a man, I had to understand that I swallowed a lot about the superiority of men and the inferiority of femininity. I had to do a lot of unlearning and check myself on a lot of things. What’s been helping has been being surrounded by so many amazing women in my life who would also check me too, and say, “You think you’re so smart and sophisticated, but you’re a sexist and I’m gonna show you all the ways you’re sexist.” It took a lot of hard conversations with really brilliant people to work through these things. I’m not perfect; I feel like I’m always working towards letting go of hardcore, engrained shit about gender.
This goes back to what it means to be a man who is compassionate. I have a heart. I empathize with people. I try to understand the space I take up as a man, and try to be really deliberate about creating space for other people. For instance, when I’m on panels or moderate panels with people of different genders, I make a point to make sure that the feminine people and women on the panels speak the most. I try not to take up space where there are women and feminine people who could speak to something in a better way than I can. I try to be conscious of those things.
Research has shown that people who are conditioned to be men have been taught to emotionally repress, and that has devastating consequences, both to those men and to everyone else in the world who faces the backlash from that repression. How do we encourage boys and men to be vulnerable and emotionally communicative? How do we help men heal?
We need to teach little boys to be vulnerable, that nothing is taken away from them if they cry, nothing is taken from them if they’re scared or if they’re in pain. Nothing is taken from them if they’re in love. We have to start early. Growing up, I was a little girl. I’m not the trans person who knew I was trans when I was six. Not growing up in that man culture has had a huge influence on the man I am today. It has allowed me to be better. I don’t feel vulnerable around my own fear or falling in love. If I’m scared, I’ll tell you, I’m petrified. If I need help, I ask for it.
There are so many things that can fuck manhood up. You wear the color pink, you’re not man enough. You show some fear, you’re not man enough. If you actually love a person and show how much you love them, it’s not manly.
“Refusing emotions takes away from the complexity and wholeness of a human being.”
We can change the culture and start saying, “Being compassionate, empathic, emotionally complicated and available is a part of being a masculine person because it’s a part of being a human being,” instead of limiting masculinity to being one kind of person. That’s why there are so many men who are so oppressed, violent and awful. There are just so many cisgendered men who are just awful to everyone. How can you be happy with your humanity if everything tells you that if you don’t act in a very specific way you’ll be stripped of your masculinity, which is something that men hold dear?
There are lot of men who deny there’s a problem, who don’t care, or who just don’t realize. These men are still a part of a misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic social fabric — how do we reach them?
I think it takes a lot of hard conversations. The thing is — people need to be willing to change. We can’t force people. I can meet people where they’re at.
“I can educate people who are ready to change, who say, ‘I’m ready to be uncomfortable, and I’m ready to have my truths complicated so I can grow.’”
If they’re not saying that, there’s no conversation to be had. There’s just so many people out there who don’t care and who don’t want to care, because once they know there’s a problem, there’s an obligation to do something about it, and they don’t want that responsibility. We say ignorance is bliss — it’s easier to pretend that nothing’s going on. You can’t tell me that it’s natural for men to be so violent towards each other, and towards women and children in their homes. I don’t think that’s natural; I think that it’s conditioned. I think a lot of men are coming to place where they’re ready to change, and they’re becoming more disinvested in toxic masculinity. Look at Terry Crews — he’s one of the only men to come out and talk about sexual assault; yet women have been talking about sexual assault for centuries. It’s good to see a man finally say, “This has happened to me too, and I’m understanding this toxic culture that creates these systems.” We need men to understand that toxic masculinity exists in our culture, that we benefit from it, and that we created it so we have to change it.
How are you navigating fatherhood, and what does queering family mean for you?
I’m just trying to do my best. [laughs] I’m trying to make sure my kid doesn’t fall off the bed, doesn’t choke on anything, doesn’t poison herself. A lot of fatherhood is just making sure your kid is fine. My wife is such a good partner, and we’re both parenting full-time. Your whole life changes when you become a parent. My daughter is the light of my life. My kid has a cisgendered queer mom and a transgendered dad. We want her to grow up in a world where gender isn’t a binary system, gender is a spectrum of possibilities. She’s going to know that as a truth in her life; she’s going to know that gender looks so many different ways, and that her gender can look however she chooses as she gets older. Her journey in gender is not a process of coming out, it just is. We also want her to know that families can look a whole bunch of ways. We’re being really intentional about meeting other queer parents, other queer parents of color, other gay parents, so that she has a really open idea around family and around love.
“Queerness is freedom to create family and love how we want. She’s going to be raised with queerness as a culture. I think queerness is the future.”
Find out more about TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, coming up this fall in Palm Springs, California.