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Buck Angel on Why We Need a Dialogue That Includes Listening

The entertainer turned activist is determined to stay positive despite sometimes feeling frustrated by the state of conversation on trans issues.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

January 23 2014 6:00 AM ET

After Buck Angel launched a website late last year that billed itself as a way for trans people to raise money needed for expensive gender-confirmation surgeries, the venture quickly became a source of heated discussion among trans people online. Then the site closed down, leaving behind a terse message in all caps: "REMEMBER THAT PAYING IT FORWARD IS PART OF A STRONG COMMUNITY. SPREADING HATE AND LIES ONLY FURTHERS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TRANS COMMUNITY. BYE AND GOOD LUCK." The founders, Angel and Jody Rose, who are both transgender men, argue that Transgasm was misunderstood by its critics. The Advocate spoke with Angel extensively about the site's story and why it's no more, including Angel's criticism of our coverage in December of the site's shuttering. An edited transcript of that lengthy conversation follows.

The Advocate: Thank you for speaking with us; you were less than thrilled with an article we published, and we wanted to offer an opportunity to respond. Do you feel there were mischaracterizations?
Buck Angel: Yeah … I really wanted to do this project, to start really helping other people in the trans community, just because I’ve been really lucky with some of the things that have happened to me. And I’ve been blessed — it’s been pretty easy, in a sense, for me to get my surgery and everything. And many years ago, I said something pretty inappropriate about surgery funding. And this person quoted that from 2007, which I thought was kind of bizarre to quote me from 2007 when, you know, it’s like, 2014, basically. 

And I have apologized for that many times over, and I have said I did say something that was completely inappropriate for me to say. That said, everybody has said probably something they wish they didn’t say in their lifetime — especially somebody of the public figure I am. And that’s how, I think, I’ve become a better educator, is the fact that I have made mistakes, and I have said things, and I didn’t understand the politics of community back then. It just was not something I was involved in or understood. 

And so that said, she did quote me on something that will again raise questions about me as an educator and as somebody who wants to help the community, because the community is … in a sense boxed-in, in a lot of the ways that they think. … They’re very much about language and those things. So it automatically put a negative spin on what my project was about.

And then, quoting some other people about my project being a "pyramid scheme" — which is the reason I stopped doing the project immediately — was because all of a sudden there was this huge backlash from the community, [claiming] that I’m taking advantage of the community, I’m pissing people off, and [the project] just started. Like, I just put it out, it wasn’t even a week old, and it was a phenomenal amount of negativity that these specific people started about me. 

[The website] was about teaching people to do what I did, which was to be financially independent, and fund my own self. And it gives you a sense of pride when you do these things. 

I know a lot of people aren’t able to fund their own surgeries, and that’s why they have to do a lot of fundraisers, and in a sense, I think it feels like begging for a lot of these guys, and it’s not comfortable; that’s not a comfortable feeling. A comfortable feeling is to come at something, make something, make some money, move on, and then build a community for that, and we’re gonna fund other surgeries. It was so much more involved, if people would have just listened to what we were saying.

My friend Jody Rose and I were doing this project. And the project did come from the fact that I thought it was time to start working and giving back to the community with surgeries, and teaching people to start being financially independent, and how did I do it? 

I am financially independent, because I taught myself how to be these things and I wanted to share that so much with so many people. Because a lot of trans men — I can’t speak for trans women — aren’t getting jobs, aren’t able to go off to the workplace. When the Internet is a huge place where, if you know how to make money, you can. You know what I’m saying? 

So all of my knowledge and everything I’ve learned over the last 10 years was something I wanted to give back. … In one week, it became such a negative: I’m a bad person, I’m ripping off the community, I’m doing a pyramid scheme. And it was shocking to me, and it really hurt my feelings. Nobody was listening. ...

I deal with this stuff all the time. And I know that it’s not about me. If you look deeper into the whole thing, right, it’s not about me. ...

What is this really about? Because I’m far from the only person in our community who gets bashed. You know that as well. So let’s say, Dan Savage gets bashed all the time. So for whatever reason, people don’t like one word that he used, and so he’s bashed forever from now on. It’s kind of weird — you can’t apologize. If you apologize, that seems to get skipped over. It doesn’t matter that he apologized. It matters that he said that, and that’s the only thing that ever matters. Which I find really kind of insulting and sad. 

I’ve grown totally as a person and as an educator. I’ve grown tremendously. And I know when I’ve done something bad, and I will always say "that was something bad." But I guess that’s sort of where I’m at at this point. I’ve let it go — there’s nothing I can do about it. Once that fire starts, you can’t fuel a fire. If you get involved in it, you’re fueling it, and it’ll die out eventually. But right now, the most important thing is that it brought up dialogue, which is totally awesome.

The dialogue is the important part. That said, we definitely wanted to reach out and give you an opportunity to be really clear and to refute some of these statements on-record. You said the 2007 comments were inappropriate. Now, what is your perspective on trans folks of any identity crowd-sourcing their surgeries that are not covered by insurance?
It’s necessary! Completely, 110 percent necessary. How else are you going to get your surgery? The United States doesn’t fund surgery. It’s ridiculous. … I donate DVDs all the time to people's crowdsource funding. … Posters, T-shirts — all the time I donate, because I believe in it. And you know, come on, 2007 and 2014? … I was thinking it even a year after I said that, I was like, Why did I say that? That’s just ridiculous that I said that. It was my own weird [focus on], I funded my own surgery kind of thing. I didn’t get myself out of my own ego. … I’ve grown so much as a person. I don’t even think that way anymore. Who is that? Who said that? Is that me? How embarrassing.

So that was not me. That’s another person. But that’s why I wanted to start this project! Because I do know so many guys who don’t want to [crowd-source surgery]. Because it’s humiliating! And especially when you’re not getting the funding. When you’re out there pushing, pushing, pushing, and five people donate a dollar to your surgery fund? It’s depressing. It’s horrible. … I know my surgery changed my life. Without my surgery, I’m not even sure if I would be alive today. So I get it, of course I get it. So yes, the 2007 statement was ridiculous. It was horrible, I feel stupid about it, and that’s why I try to make up for it by doing the things that I do now, and by starting this process. To empower someone to create their own project, to make their own money, it’s powerful at so many levels. 

I was confused, though, about the actual product that the campaign was selling or encouraging contributors to make.
Basically, it can be any kind of product. It can be an ebook, it can be a video about how to eat particularly right . … It can be anything that you want — it’s about getting you to understand your own creativity. It’s not for everybody — it’s for people who have the desire to become their own and create their own.

I created my own product out of nothing. So it’s like a way [for me to say], "OK, let me show you how I started to create video clips." So what is a passion of yours that you feel like people want to hear you talk about or see? Maybe you want to become a public speaker. Maybe you feel like you can go to a university and speak, [then we say] "OK, this is how you can start making a product of your own that you can say, 'this is what I’m going to speak about at a university,' and start marketing that there." 

We were also going to try to get more into the adult arena, if some people wanted to start making adult-style clips, because obviously that’s my expertise. And there’s money in that, and there’s people that want to do it, but they don’t know how to do it. And I’m like, "OK, I can teach you how to do that." 

I’m not saying it’s a specific product. It’s not. It’s all kinds of products, and [asking] what do you think you could sell? And I wasn’t making any money off it. Fifty percent goes right back to you, 25 percent goes straight into a surgery fund. I believe in giving back, so it’s sort of like giving back into a surgery fund. We pick seven guys a year. Hopefully the fund will be big enough to give these seven guys surgeries for the year. And then 25 percent will go back into the maintenance of the website, as you know, it's not an inexpensive thing to do.

You were talking about helping people tap into their creativity to create a product. Would that include, in your mind, a one-on-one consultation with them where you’d kind of discuss and get to know them?
No, we would do webinars. So you’d sign up for the webinar, and then like [participate in] a webinar where Jody and I would talk. Jody’s a professor and author and so he’s written a lot of books and he'd share his expertise on that, so we sort of talk about both kind of things. And you’d sit in on our webinar, and we’d talk about … let’s just say for example, "This is how I started making videos: I got a camera, I got in a certain situation, and then I learned how to do iMovie." And not everybody can afford those kinds of things at first, but there’s still a way to do it without having to put a lot of money in it. [It's about] getting people to understand they have these opportunities to do this. I think that in itself empowers people [who] feel like they’re never going to have an opportunity to make money. I think just giving you a sense of empowerment is huge. ... I’m not saying everyone’s going to get the opportunity. It’s sort of like inspirational thinking to these guys. Like, "don’t be bummed out, you guys. There’s gonna be an opportunity for you somewhere, but this is what I did, maybe you can do something like this." 

I get letters every day from these guys, crying that they don’t have money for their surgeries. I mean, for me, it’s depressing. It’s depressing because I have to be there, in a sense, for these guys. Because they see me; I am successful, but I’m successful because, not to toot my horn, because I really did do these things, and obviously I had my own opportunities. So the opportunities are there. 

And as you envisioned it, would Transgasm’s clientele and those who were on the surgery list primarily be trans men? Would that be an exclusive thing?
No. No, no.

It would be open to trans folks of any identity?
It wasn’t even about trans. That’s what started it, because two trans men did it. And so it said it was for F-to-M and M-to-F and anyone in between. And it clearly stated that. But the trans women got really upset at me because I had no representation of a trans woman. And I said, "Well, actually, it’s one week old. And we’re already looking."

It got hard. … It was a nonprofit. We were even already applying for nonprofit status. And so we were going to get a board, and we were going to have trans women on the board, and we were doing the whole thing. It’s a long process. My mistake was to put it out there before I had all my ducks in order. But I was so excited about it, right? Ohhh, mistake! Whoops. 

That said, yeah, we’re open to everybody, it wasn’t specifically about [transitioning]. That’s just the way we marketed it, because that’s what I know. That’s who I am, and that’s what I know. I don’t really know the in-between. But of course, even hetero people [were welcome]. Male cisgender guys, cisgender girls — it doesn’t matter to me. Whoever wants to be part of it. Because 25 percent of your money is going to go back into our surgery fund. So the more people, the better. The more money we make, the more surgeries we fund.

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