In 2014, trans activist Andy Marra wrote a piece for HuffPost about looking for love in all the wrong faces, and finding many cis men too “fearful of anyone questioning their masculinity… [or] doubting their sexual orientation” to publicly date transgender women.
“We live in a world where trans women — especially Black and brown trans women — are considered unworthy of dignity, respect, and love,” Marra tells The Advocate now. “We also live in a reality where toxic masculinity remains deeply embedded and even celebrated in our culture. It’s an insidious blend that contributes to the silencing and shaming of cis men attracted to or in relationships with trans women. For a cis man to be open about their relationship with a trans woman leaves them vulnerable to other cis men questioning their sexual orientation and their masculinity. That combination turns into a ticking time bomb, and often leads to violence committed against us. We need cis men to redefine masculinity that doesn’t endanger the lives of trans women.”
Marra, who recently became the executive director of Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TransgenderLegal.org), spent the last 15 years advocating for trans and queer rights. She handled media strategies and public relations at GLAAD and GLSEN; and served on numerous boards, including at HRC, National Center for Transgender Equality, Freedom for All Americans (focused on LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections), and Just Detention International (working to end sexual violence in prisons). Recently, she helped the Arcus Foundation launch its Global Trans Initiative, a multimillion dollar effort to support trans communities worldwide.
Honored by the Obama administration and the city of New York, Marra has also received awards from numerous organizations, yet boyfriends continued to treat her like a “dirty little secret.”
But Marra’s HuffPost piece five years ago wasn’t her waving a white flag. Instead it was a proclamation of good fortune. She’d found true love in Drew Shives, whom she met online.
The two first bonded over both being Korean adoptees. Shives explains, “Countless times, we have been able to support each other on issues related to race, identity, and our understanding of family that wouldn’t have been possible without that shared experience.”
Marra was also impressed by the fact that Shives wasn’t put off by her trans identity. He says, “I don’t believe [that] how I express my masculinity should be based upon transphobia or misogyny.”
“What I find to be powerful is that both of us do not fit a certain kind of mold,” Marra says. “We present as a straight couple but identify as being in a queer relationship. Because of our intersecting identities, we can deliberately name who we are, what we believe, and how we go about our lives. That’s transformational.”
Marra brings that transformational spirit to TLDEF, an organization she’s “excited and humbled” to be helming. Under her direction, TLDEF is launching a “strategic planning process that will give our work the kind of focus needed for us to safeguard and advance protections for trans and nonbinary people. I’ve had so many conversations with... community members who remain frightened by the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to deny us access to basic rights like safety and economic opportunity. But TLDEF and our partners — including the Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Transgender Equality — have no intent of backing down. There’s an outstanding need for us to advance justice for trans and nonbinary people through law and policy. But we absolutely need to continue pairing this advocacy with changing hearts and minds.”
“It’s a tremendous responsibility to lead the organization into its next chapter,” Marra adds, noting that she’s “deeply grateful” to have the support of the staff, board, community members — and Shives, the man Marra says is helping her become “a better version of who I am.”
That’s a position Marra admits she’s privileged to be in considering the way trans discrimination even interferes in whether we are considered viable romantic partners.
“Far too many of us have been denied a job or experienced homelessness at some point in our lives,” she explains. “We have been unable to access services that keep us healthy. This disparity and unchecked bias prevent trans people from ever realizing their full potential.”
Of course, that’s not a recipe for developing loving and lasting relationships. But it does create an environment in which visibility is even more crucial — where couples like Marra and Shives assure other trans people they too are loveable, and deserve a healthy, committed relationship. One that never has to hide in the shadows.