Tiq Milan defines activism as a broad term, looking into the different ways in which we can approach it. When describing activism from his perspective, he says, “I don’t think it has to be a formal kind of engagement where you’re involved with an organization. I think being an activist could be very personal, could be how you live your life.” For that reason, Tiq’s centers his work on love and acceptance “[working] from a place of asking questions to complicate [his] own truth.”
We had the privilege of sitting down with Tiq Milan to discuss his take on activism as an African-American trans man. Mr. Milan, Senior Media Strategist and National Spokesperson for GLAAD, embraces his perspective and sheds light on various struggles that face the LGBTQIA+ community. He is consistently raising awareness and educating on intersectional leadership, transgender rights and racial justice using journalism and advocacy.
To Tiq, being an activist can be as simple as having difficult conversations with people in your life, which should remind us all that each individual has the power to build a space of inclusion around themselves. He also emphasizes the importance of empathy, especially in a social and political climate that threatens the livelihood and freedom of many. In explaining his extensive understating of activism, Tiq says, “We have to take into account the ableism of people. Folks can be really critical of people and in online advocacy, via Twitter, there are people trying to invalidate that, like you need to get out there with a picket sign. But what if you can’t? In this state of the world, people are hurt, people are depressed, people have anxiety, and it’s a hard world to live in.”
However, Tiq continues to shed light on the power of conversation, opening up about his family, and how his transition broke down their understanding of gender. Recalling moments from his transition in 2007, he says, “I witnessed how my mother’s love and acceptance of me really changed her perspective on gender. It complicated her own thinking around femininity, womanhood, and her own self.” He says, “I don’t think my family even remembers the girl that I was.” Tiq’s story proves that a single person can reshape the ideas of those around him, highlighting the importance of small-scale activism and its domino-effect in creating webs of understanding.
Speaking about the importance of difficult conversations, Tiq reminds us to focus our narrative around positive experiences and, “to be our authentic self as a way of being a model of possibility for others and their families.” He says, “I think it’s important that we have these conversations, but we try to create the trans & LGBT experience as if we’re all stuck in this place of trauma and isolation as if none of our families loved us, and that’s not true. I think it’s important for me to be an example of a black trans person who comes from a middle-class black family, in the rust belt of New York, who absolutely adore me. It’s important for us to understand that the LGBT experience, the trans experience, the experience of being black and trans and just the intersectionality of that is a monolithic world. We’re not all unloved. We are not all ostracized…I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for so many people to just love their sibling, their child, or their own person.”
So, instead of focusing on the hardships of his own transitions, Tiq strives to be a model of positivity for other people existing in the world and being happy and prosperous in order to remind those whose families have turned their backs on them that they are worthy of their lives and of love and acceptance. “Everyday I get emails from young trans folks, specifically transmen, who tell me that seeing me, watching my story, my life through my social media, gives them hope. Them being able to see me as a husband, as a father lets them know that one day they can have that too.”
Everyday I get emails from young trans folks, specifically transmen, who tell me that seeing me, watching my story, my life through my social media, gives them hope.
Further into the interview, Tiq addresses the intersectionality of race and being transgender saying, “we have to understand the systems in this country have never been built for black people to succeed, ever ever ever and then you throw on top of that being trans, that is a double whammy. Statistically, if you’re transgender you are 4x more likely to live in poverty, but if you’re black and trans, you’re 8x more likely to be living under the poverty line, like making 15K a year, which I can’t even fathom.”
Not only that, but the trans community in itself is a segregated one, allowing for race to be a divisor in what should be a “common fight.” “How could we be under this umbrella and fighting for our rights as human beings, and being divided? It’s heartbreaking and frustrating to see and I know so many black trans folks who have not felt at home in the queer community. And then, you know, not at home in the black community.”
These separating lines and defining boxes within the queer community lead to a deeper feeling of exclusion within its members. Of this dissociation brewing at the points of intersectionality, Tiq tells us, “You just want a group of people to call home and sometimes you just don’t get it. Even thinking about gay men, people who are more feminine, more gender nonconforming, who are getting pushed out of the gay community because it’s so masculine centered, which is just so misogynistic, so sexist, and seeing that flourish in the gay community is like, psssttt, what are y’all doing?”
However, Tiq remains true to his positive core, speaking to us about his belief in the possibility of uniting diverse audiences and in people’s willingness to change. “Change happens when you push back your point of comfortability. That’s true in life, you know… If you wanna be a better person, you have to try to complicate your idea behind the human experience. We have to push past really limited ideas of who you think people should be and how they should be. People have to have that willingness and curiosity. That’s the thing that unites us but I’m not in the business of trying to force people to be around people they don’t want to be around. They have to be willing.”
In order to find that willingness in people, Tiq uses both his social media platforms and his time to engage with the communities close to him and show his ideas of inclusion and positivity in those around him. “Sometimes it’s about showing up and leveraging your privilege to help other people. Even though I’m black and I’m trans, I still have privileges in this world as a man and I have to understand how to leverage those to honor the struggles of people, particularly of women. So that’s how I try to use social media to leverage my privilege as a visible person who’s twitter verified and has twenty thousand followers, knowing that I have a platform people are going to listen to. I don’t take that lightly.”
Sometimes it’s about showing up and leveraging your privilege to help other people. Even though I’m black and I’m trans, I still have privileges in this world as a man and I have to understand how to leverage those to honor the struggles of people, particularly of women.
Apart from social media Tiq talks about his involvement with the now-closed, Bronx Community Pride Center and the Hectrick-Martin Institute. “Harvey Milk is the only LGBT high school in the entire country and Hectrick-Martin is also a drop-in after-school center for LGBT kids and homeless kids. I worked there and did a lot of youth work, and my youth work was probably my most inspiring work. Really I think my most influential work, just watching all these young people and what they’re going through. I’ve learned so much from them about resilience. They still have a reason to twirl and smile, when the world has beaten them up. It was just amazing to see.”
Tiq also speaks to us about his work with his wife, “we decided to come together to be able to produce media and do consulting work that’s going to allow people to create maps and blueprints to a better and more inclusive future.” While talking to us about his own media production, Tiq touches upon the importance of representation and how it shaped his own journey to transition. “It wasn’t until I saw a transman did I know that I could be one, that I had a future. I knew that I wasn’t the only one going through this, so its important for us to tell our stories in order to be inspiring to other people and we have a right to tell our story. We need to be represented. Our stories are complicated and inspiring and sometimes they’re fun and its expanding our imagination.”
When speaking about the significance of representation Tiq also conveys the importance of respecting other people’s stories. “Sometimes it’s telling a trans person’s story without necessarily focusing on their gender. Ya know like I’m a trans guy but I’m not just trans. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a little brother. We are so much more complicated than [just being identified as trans]. We are so much more than our gender and our sexuality. We are more than how our gender is performed. We are more than the people we sleep with. We really are.”
While trans men and women continue to share their stories, the representation of trans lives remains marginalized. “We don’t see a lot of transmen [in the media]. News and media are centered around the male gays and so we think about the male gays in a heterosexual context; they want to see femininity. They center femininity and women in a way they don’t with masculinity. I also think the existence of transmen kind of disrupts the idea of what masculinity looks like in the cis-gender and heteronormative sense. We are a disruption, not an addition. I think that’s good.”
“I probably go to about 20 schools a year doing talks on redefining masculinity; like what it looks like to be masculine. I call it organic masculinity. My wife and I also do talks together on what it looks like for us to center love in our advocacy and have an intersexual approach to human rights advocacy. I also do talks with big corporations. I talk to them about why it’s important for them to take diversity and inclusion seriously and what it looks like to create these environments. I also advise on how they engage their audience: whether that be the customer base, the media, how they reach their audience and how and what they produce.
Tiq closes the interview by highlighting once more the idea of speaking up and listening to each other. Through his life, and all of his achievements, Tiq remains loyal to his belief that storytelling as a means of exposure cannot only change people’s minds but people’s hearts.