Mark Travis Rivera, 23, Hawthorne, New Jersey
I identify as a person who’s gender-non-conforming. That means that while I identify as a man and biologically was assigned “male,” I do not express my gender in a way that is considered typical; sometimes I wear high heels, sometimes I wear dresses, and sometimes I wear skirts. But, sometimes I just wear sneakers and jeans. My gender performance is all about my mood.
I was born premature. My mom had me at five-and-a-half months, so I weighed one pound, and because of it, I developed cerebral palsy and other conditions. I used to walk like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump — my feet were inverted. I had to go to physical therapy and wear orthopedic shoes. I had to have surgery on my legs. But, now, I’m strutting the hallways and the streets in heels. I mean, who goes from orthopedic shoes to freaking pumps?
Around eighth grade, I realized I felt different from other boys. I went to a performance high school, and it was there that I realized I was gay. On Valentine’s Day of 2009, I wore my first pair of women’s jeans — and I never went back. I just kept wearing skinny jeans in different colors: orange, blue, red. It was obnoxious. By the time I went to college, I was super-gay and super out-there. My gender expression was a little more effeminate, but it wasn’t as defined as it is now.
The summer of 2013, I got a dance opportunity in the Bay Area. I went out there and met all these different people of different gender expressions, and I said to myself, Why can’t I be this way? Why can’t I be free to be myself? I watched a documentary about Audre Lorde, and she said, “Raising my son, I decided that I wanted him to define his own manhood for himself.” I realized I could do that for myself, too. It was with that understanding and freedom that I’ve shaped what it means for me to be a man.
Obviously, I’ve faced some resistance. I’m Latino, and there’s a lot of machismo ideology in that culture: “This is what a man is; this is how a man is supposed to be.” I was supposed to be hyper-masculine, the head of the household — to have a wife and kids, and take care of them. But, I never felt comfortable with that type of masculinity. I’ve always felt very endangered by that, whereas I’m comfortable with my femininity.
I have to be careful, though. I grew up in the inner city, and I’ve dealt with street harassment. I’ve been followed. I’ve been spat at. I've been threatened. It’s pure luck that I’ve never had to endure physical violence. Once, I was at the Chicken Spot in the town where I grew up, which is notorious for crime and violence. A man had just been killed there with a machete, so when I was there and a guy spat on me, I couldn’t say anything. I just froze. A few minutes later, I got my stuff and left.
The one person who I’m constantly trying to educate is my mother. She really struggles with my gender expression. It was one thing when I came out as gay, and she felt like the dream she had for my life changed. But, when I started changing my gender, she was like, “Okay, I get the whole gay thing, but I don’t understand why you look better in my clothes than I do... I’m having a hard time processing this.” I was just like, “Mom, I’m still your son, but I express my gender in a very specific way.”
My father left before I was even born. He was not the kind of man whom I could respect or admire. He was abusive, and the definition of a deadbeat dad. What I learned from my father’s behavior was this: That is not the kind of man I want to be. Even before I realized that I was gay, I didn’t want to treat women the way I saw my father treat them. In a way, me being femme is a blessing, because I know I’m not going to conform to my father’s macho, “I’m the man; I’m going to control your body, and I’m going to control you” message.
Dating is difficult for me because a lot of other gay men tend to fear femme gay men. Either that, or they fetishize me. In general, dating for trans and gender non-conforming people is different; it’s a very individual experience. I never thought I could date a trans man. I didn’t think that was possible for me. But, I fell in love with the guy, and it happened. It’s interesting being a femme gay man and loving another man who doesn’t have a penis, and learning what that means. Even I had to realize again that gender is still fluid; it’s how someone feels and how they present that.
I’ve had straight men approach me, thinking I’m a cis woman, and I say, “I’m sorry; I’m a man.” I’m very upfront with them. Some of them are really shocked, and some of them are like, “I don’t care. I’m still attracted to you.” This has made me realize that sexuality and attraction are really very fluid — they're not as rigid as people make it seem. We understand our sexuality as being like that. Why can’t our gender be just as fluid?