Gay and Transgender in a Hip-Hop World: Toni Newman and Terrance Dean
Transgender author Toni Newman, whose recent memoir I Rise: The Transformation of Toni Newman was a multiple nominee for the Lambda Literary Award and is being turned into a film, talks to gay author Terrance Dean, whose memoir Hiding in Hip Hop shook up the entertainment world. Dean has five books to his credit — including Straight From Your Gay Best Friend, Visible Lives, and Reclaim Your Power — and his latest, Mogul, is a fictional tale of a man in the hip-hop world struggling with his sexuality.
Toni Newman: Tell me a little about your new novel, Mogul.
Terrance Dean: It's a story of an entertainment mogul who goes through some difficulties and challenges struggling with his sexual identity, but then he does the unthinkable during the book, he makes this huge announcement that shocks the entertainment world.
Newman: This isn't your first book.
Dean: No. Prior to that I wrote a book called Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood, which is actually my memoir. You know, it's about me working in the entertainment industry and some of the relationships I have had and some of the people's friendships I have had; entering relationships with people, some are famous, some are not so famous, in the entertainment industry. But let's just talk about my journey and my struggle as a black gay man in the entertainment industry and trying to conceal and keep my identity hidden. I have written five books, but Mogul is my latest release and I am very excited about it. I really wanted to tell the story of a man — you know our stories of who we are as LGBT members who contribute to the entertainment industry, and sometimes our stories are very either hidden or they are not told. So I thought writing Mogul will help to share, write, and tell their story.
Newman: And you are the founder and creator of Men's Empowerment Inc., which is based in New York. Tell me about that.
Dean: Men's Empowerment is a nonprofit organization that I've created because I really wanted the men of color who work in the same industry to come together. It's a network to share resources and to help each other, regardless of their sexual identity, age, just to help encourage them and empower one another and to provide resources for each other within the entertainment industry. Because I found myself working in the same industry that there were not so many of us in decision-making positions. So I felt that we encourage and provide resources and help one another. We can definitely change the landscape of the entertainment industry.
Newman: How can they get more information about your group? On your website?
Dean: Yes, exactly. Go to my website, and all information is there, email, how to get in touch with me and reach out to me. I make sure to respond to everyone. Now tell me about yourself.
Newman: OK, I am the transgender author who wrote a memoir called I Rise: The Transformation of Toni Newman. I wrote a memoir as an African-American transgender woman, starting with my days in North Carolina from a middle class two-parent home all the way up to college, working as a professional, working as a fitness model, and then becoming transgender, losing it all, and really finding out what it means to transform from male to female.
Dean: What inspired you?
Newman: I wrote the memoir because I had not seen anything like it … during my 25 years as a transgender person, I have never seen an African-American memoir which talks about how they felt, what your thoughts are, why you did it, what were you feeling? What was the response by your family, coworkers, and friends? How you will be received? What the people say when you first step out as a transgender woman and all of those things that go with that. There was a book written in 1986 by African-American transgender author … but it was a small publication and I have never read it or seen anything since in the last almost 30 years. So I wanted to write a book to let other minorities, Asians, blacks, Latinos, know that these feelings that you have, they are normal. You are not odd, you are not peculiar, you are OK. And help guide young black kids through those things that [they] are feeling as a young black child.
Newman: There were some gossip parts in my book and there are a couple of pages where I mentioned people that I met while I was at my lowest [point] as a street prostitute. But the book, in whole, talks about the whole journey, 230 pages of me transforming, how I started the transformation in my heart, in my mind, in my body, in my soul all the way up to today. So that's what my book is about and you can find it on, my website. I welcome everybody and so far I have got about 400 transgender readers who've contacted me with questions about housing, jobs, hormones, transforming, and basic survival. I try to put them in touch with therapists, doctors, people who can help them in their area — if you have questions about what you are feeling, hormones, surgeries, all kind of things that come up when you are in that transformation stage, I am here to help. I welcome all, but I am really catering to the minority transgender blacks, Latinos, Asians, which is a very small community. There is not much visibility out there [for us]. I welcome all. I am not here to tell you what you should be but I am open to the pre-operative and the post-operative transgenders, no matter where you are in your stage, to contact me so that we can have a conversation and we can talk about the situation.
Dean: So how does it feel, being a voice for economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised African-American transgender [people] and being a voice for people very few people know anything about? Do you think they should call you a role model?
Newman: Well, for me, I am just trying to give one voice just my voice to a community that I have hardly seen any voices literally in terms of books and writing books to express their thoughts. I mean, the LGBT community has had some wonderful books, yours included, but you don't really see that much coming from minority transgender [people] in the forms of writing down their thoughts in form of books, their goals, what they went through, why did you do this to yourself? And that's the biggest question I get from most people who email me from some of the stuff that I have done from the magazines. Why did you go from a happy working gay professional with a very good job, working out with a good body and being in fitness magazines, to changing your whole body and doing this to yourself? People think I just woke up one day and [transitioned], but it wasn't something I did overnight. I felt it since age 6 that I was different bird, so to speak, and out of the norm. It just took me 25 years to get enough courage to do what I knew had to be done. So I'm just trying to be one voice; I'm not trying to be any type of role model, be any type of spokesperson. I want to make that clear to everybody.
I'm just trying to give a voice as one black transgender woman from a happy two-parent home. I have a degree from Wake Forest University. I'm a law school student, first-year. My life before I started transforming was very good. and I wasn't abused as a child and I didn't come from an unhappy home. I wasn't sexually abused either. None of that applies to my story. My story was a pretty happy home, two parents, God-fearing, good student, went to college on scholarship, and began cross-dressing at night. So I was two people back than, a professional male by day, a cross-dresser by night, and I did that for 10 years, until I got enough nerve to say, "Hey, this is me. I'm not going to hide anymore. I'm not going to be ashamed of who I am." So I did it, and that journey took 15 years to get here. Now I am healthy, happy, and in a good place where I can go back and finish law school and tell people what it feels like to be an African-American transgender woman in America. I mean, it's hard, it's difficult, but it's not impossible. You can be successful at it if you educate your mind as well and do the things for your body, which we all do, but I think the key is the education of the mind, because knowledge is power. I want to ask you one question, Terrance, is your book, Mogul, based on any type of real-life character, or is this all fiction?
Dean: I hear that question a lot. The book is fiction, but it is based on actual people in the entertainment hip-hop industry that I have worked with, but it is also a combination of several characters of several people experiencing some other personal experiences I've had in the entertainment industry. It is definitely a work of fiction, but it is definitely embellished based on some of the stories … I really just want to keep our story out there of who we are in an LGBT community especially African-Americans contributing to one of the greatest phenomena, which is hip-hop.
Newman: So what do you expect people to actually take from your book? What would make you the happiest as a take away?
Dean: Once they read the book Mogul I hope they take one thing away from it: It's empowerment. It's about being inspired to be your true authentic self, you alive in your voice and not being afraid to be who you are. And that's what's the story is about; it's about love, it's about overcoming obstacles and being authentic. If people read the book, they feel a sense of great compassion towards the main character with Big A.T., with the bigger producer who is struggling with his sexual identity and his desire. So once it comes out — because there are so many forces around him that are preventing him from being his true authentic self — so that would just prove [the adage], "Never give up, never stop being who you are authentically to yourself."
Newman: I'd like to say this is where you and I unite because I'm trying to do the same thing with my book, I Rise, to let people know that you normally don't see us African-American transgender folks at your banks, your Starbucks, in your university, at your school — it's a very small community — but I'm trying to give people a more visible character of an African-American transgender woman. So, yes, that you can be tolerable, have tolerance, have someone understand you. We need love too. So the thing that you're preaching with your book, what readers take away, I'm hoping everyone would do the same thing with my book. Come away with a better understanding of why someone would go from male to female, female to male, and to become more tolerant and to understand. I think God loves us all. I think we are all God's creatures and you don't deny yourself. So that's the same thing that you're preaching about acceptance and love.
Dean: I always appreciate that there will be opportunity for so many people to read our books and find out who we are and that we actually have a voice in the community as in the African-American community. There is only that story of who we are and our dynamics and what makes us who we are, and I think more stories will continue to be told. I'm very fortunate, I'm very grateful for the readers, the fans and people who were very excited to read our story, and just look forward to knowing that we have that power to tell those stories, and I hope that they can continue to support us, continue to read the African-American story, and that they allow us to give our story and share the stories. But this is amazing and I love this.
Terrance Dean's first book, Hiding in Hip Hop, is seventh on Flaier's list of Top 25 Gay Books and was an Essence best seller. Dean is a speaker, educator, author, and hip-hop head who has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 15 years with heavy hitters such as Spike Lee, Rob Reiner, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and Anjelica Houston. He has worked with television and film production companies such as BET, Savoy Television, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Sony Pictures. Most recently, Dean worked with MTV Networks for more than six years helping to produce live award shows and events including MTV Video Music Awards, Movie Awards, Hip Hop Honors, Rock Honors, Sports and Music Festival, and Choose or Lose. Dean is also the founder and creator of Men’s Empowerment Inc. and cocreator of the Gathering of Men with Adeyemi Bandele. Dean can be found online at MrTerranceDean.com.
Toni Newman's memoir I Rise is at 24 on Flaier's list of Top 25 Transgender Biographies. Newman is a writer, author, and law school student. Part of I Rise is being turned into a film, Erotic Professionals, directed by Keith Holland and produced by Jay Gira, Alton Demore, and Shahid Manning. The film makes I Rise the first memoir written in America and turned into a screenplay by a transgender African-American. .