1

He used to sneak to the back of the library to learn about who he was — now this trans advocate has his own book

Man in vest stands between two shelves of books, looking at camera

There aren’t many trans elders my age in Virginia, let alone in Charlottesville. As 62-year-old Black trans man, my path narrows — and it can sometimes be a lonely one.

When the pandemic hit, the trans community, like many others, searched for how to stay connected. Many of us were no strangers to meeting online. We have used apps to meet the loves of our lives. Now, we were also using online platforms to connect on a Friday night — 20 Black trans men from all over the country on Facebook video just shooting the shit.

Age didn’t matter. Being a trans man of color was what mattered. Any given Friday, there would be 20-years-olds schooling us who are in our 60s. Then it would be time for the elders to drop some knowledge of life to the youngsters. The Uncs were walking the Nephews on the life of being an old trans guy.

The younger trans crowd is proud of who they are; they express themselves through their existence as trans-loving-men, trans-loving-trans and trans-loving-women. Their pronouns are he/them/they. They rock beards with fingernail polish.

I am excited to be a part of their world. They are living their authentic selves, letting the world know they belong.  As they claim their space, though, they still want to connect with their elders. They want to learn how I have walked this path, too.

When I was 18, I was afraid to speak up because I was a lesbian. Living in Charlottesville was tough; living in Charlottesville while Black was even more challenging. The hub of life for Black people in Charlottesville is the church. I grew up in a rural area called North Garden and the church was where everything happened: food, fellowship, summer vacation, Bible school. I didn’t have a clue about being gay, let alone trans. But I knew I was a little boy, and I knew I would get in trouble for saying so.

The only thing I knew about gay life in Charlottesville was from the books I would sneak off and read at the Gordon Avenue Library. When I was around 10 years old, I climbed those brick steps into a world of adventure. I looked for books about gay people — I didn’t know about trans people then — and I would go all the way to back where the health books were. I snaked my way through and chose books off the shelf, carrying them around the library. Sometimes I was so depressed, I looked for books about suicide. My heart would pound and I had sweaty hands just knowing I could slip away into all those words and find out about subjects that were taboo in my community. Even as I got older, it felt as if I was doing something wrong.

I didn’t know the word trans until I was an adult in my 50s, in a relationship with my last partner who went to a progressive church in Virginia Beach. I was struggling with being a lesbian. There, I saw, for the first time, a trans person. I couldn’t take my eyes off this guy.

I started to study trans men like they were a science project. I was confused because I was attracted to, and still am attracted to feminine women. So why was I watching these trans men with such curiosity? It was because that trans man in church was exactly who I am. And that showed me more than any book.

More from First Person C’ville

Now I know, I wasn’t a lesbian. I was a man trapped in a body that didn’t match who I am. But how does one leave a body? It took several more years to accept, learn and understand I am a trans man. 

When I began to transition, things changed. Charley began to find his voice. I became more comfortable in my skin. I became an advocate for my people. I introduced Charlottesville and my friends and family to what a Black trans man looks like. But we have a long way to go.

We still struggle with health care, and there are places in the African American community that don’t want someone like me in their circle.

I love my Charlottesville community, and this community overall has been good to me. Sometimes though, I need to be with people like me. People who look like me, people who speak my language. Sometimes it’s just comfortable to be with the Black LGBTQ community because, for so long, I didn’t have this. I often travel to Richmond to be with trans people of color.

As a butch woman, I had a difficult time in Charlottesville finding a decent job. I struggled a lot financially. Today, as a man, I have a great job, and I am respected at my place of employment. Sometimes I have to wonder, did I suffer because of what I was putting out to the universe? As I gained confidence as a Black man, I also gained respect for who I am. I am finding my strength, finding my voice.

As I write this, we have a governor who believes that trans children in school should not have the right to live as their authentic selves in the environment where they spend most of their lives. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policies for schools would require teachers to tell parents about students’ gender identities, among other rollbacks of transgender rights. For many young trans people, though, school might be the only place where they can freely be themselves.

With these kinds of policies, those children could be back in the stacks of the library, in a scary place like I was. The proposal could be put in place by the end of November.

Our state leaders are making a decision that could cost a child their mental and physical safety. Not every home is accepting of their child being trans. Trans children sometimes experience  abuse, physical and mental, at home. The mental toll for anyone whose family or community does not accept them is costly, even more so for a child. As a trans child, one should freely play a sport that matches their preferred gender. In school, any child, including a trans child, should feel safe.

Even beyond politics and policies, we all need to be more understanding and accepting of the diversity of the trans community.

In those Friday nights on Facebook, I too learned that being trans does not mean I know everything about my community. I learned how hard it is for trans people, especially trans women who are transitioning, to get a job. I learned about sex trafficking in the trans world. In other online groups’ Zooms and Facebook chats, I  learned what it means to be non-binary, not masculine or feminine and comfortable just living who they are each day.

Our state leaders are making a decision that could cost a child their mental and physical safety.

—Charley Burton on policies about trans students in Virginia

I am continuing to tell my story, too, this time in my own book that I hope trans children will find. At 61, I went back to school. I attend Morehouse College where I am meeting Black men who are showing me how to be a Black man in a world where Black men are feared. I walk with pride. I hold my head up high and know that I have the resilient spirit that a lot of trans people have. I love the body I am in, and I share that love with others.

I didn’t transition as a child. I wish I could have, and would have been able to eliminate a lot of pain in my life. But I am grateful that I lived it and I am alive to help others. By speaking out, I am simply paying it forward. Not speaking out, especially now, could put people’s lives in danger.

And it’s very important for others to speak out as well. One way trans people, especially trans people of color, can help is to take the 2022 U.S. Trans Survey, which is like a Census for trans people. Getting data about homelessness, discrimination and the lives of trans people, is important so we know exactly what we are going through.

Unless we have a place to tell our stories, no one is going to hear.