Meet a 'Self-Made Man'
Tony Ferraiolo, subject of the award-winning documentary film A Self-Made Man, will screen the movie and give a talk at his alma mater, North Branford High School (NBHS), on Friday, Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. to benefit NBHS Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
Today, Tony's a certified life coach and leads New Haven-based youth groups he's founded including Translation, a support group for transgender teenagers, and Create Yourself, an art group for transgender and gender non-conforming children younger than 12. He also assisted in forming TransPACT, a support group for parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children.
The successful man with a positive outlook on life is a far cry from the child and teen Tony once was, struggling with gender identity while growing up in North Branford. Tony graduated from NBHS in 1981. He was invited to talk at NBHS by GSA four years ago and has been returning annually to give talks and fundraise for the group.
On Dec. 5, Tony invites community members from North Branford and beyond to come and support NBHS GSA, see the film, and help continue GSA's efforts to educate others.
"Anybody who wants to know and learn more about the transgender community should come. We're hoping to fill this auditorium and give (NBHS GSA) enough money to go up to UConn in Storrs to go to the True Colors conference. They need to have funds to help educate everyone on the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community and the need to respect everyone," says Tony.
Tony will also be running training workshops with NBHS staff in January.
"North Branford High School is very open to learning. I've done training with the staff before," says Tony. "Some schools just will not comply [with the]anti-discrimination bill. In 2011 Connecticut added transgender identity and expression to it. Under that bill, students are protected. Every single child deserves a safe education. If you're not acknowledging a 'trans' student, that's damaging."
When Tony was a student, there was no such protection, or even language, for what he was experiencing.
"I was born what was presumed sexual female," says Tony, who speaks frankly. "Growing up in the '80s there wasn't language around about being transgender-there was barely language about being gay, lesbian, or transsexual."
In A Self-Made Man, Tony describes knowing, from as young as the age of four, "I was a boy." Sadly, throughout all of his years growing up here, he had no outlet to express the gender with which he identified.
"In middle school I was bullied so bad, to the point where I became a bully," says Tony. "In high school, I was doing drugs, cutting myself; self-harming...I had suicidal thoughts constantly. I was acting out, and nobody knew why. How would they? I didn't. I barely made it through high school; I actually was in an alternative program...My whole focus at that point was, 'How do I live to the next day?' It was not about math or English."
Tony took hourly wage jobs after high school and even became homeless for a while.
"Things were pretty choppy for me," says Tony, now a New Haven resident. "Everybody's telling me I'm a girl, and I'm attracted to women, so I thought, 'I must be a lesbian.' So I reached out to the lesbian community, and it saved my life. But the only thing was, I didn't ever feel like a woman. I was a man and I wasn't comfortable in my body."
Then, in 2005, "I realized I was trans by a video somebody brought to my house," says Tony.
But the realization didn't bring relief.
"I thought, who was going to love me; could I could keep my job...I went down to Branford Point to kill myself. I was sitting by a picnic bench by the flagpole when something inside of me said, 'Stop. Create yourself. Create the person you want to be, because you can be anything.'"
That's exactly what Tony did: from deciding to be someone who would always "love and respect other people" to outwardly designing the "artsy, tattooed, cool kind of guy," he is. In 2006, Tony started working with New Haven-based Our True Colors (www.ourtruecolors.org) as a mentor and found his personal experience could help others.
"I remember mentoring one young trans boy-he was 15 and really angry," says Tony. "I acknowledged who he was and told him he was cool. I told him things that needed to be said to me, but nobody was there for me. That's when he shifted. I gave him hope for the future, and when you give hope for a better life, they don't want to kill themselves."
In 2008, Tony founded his group for transgender teens, starting with two kids. Today, the group currently has close to 200 kids involved.
"They come from all over New England," says Tony, adding the parent and grandparent group was an offshoot and currently has about 250 members.
Tony also works with very young kids and he says he is grateful to every family member who cares enough to bring his or her young child to the group, including kids from "all over the state" as young as five through eight. As shown in A Self-Made Man, Tony helps guide them through defining themselves.
"They're most vulnerable when they say, 'No, mommy, I'm not a boy. No, mommy, I'm not a girl,' and they hear, 'Yes, you are'- that's when the shame begins," says Tony. "This is a place where you can create yourself. Come in, wear wigs, dresses, glitter, whatever you want. It's like, create; don't cut."
Working with his clients, Tony says, "I'm going to shift that you were born in your body, and if we need to change that body we're going to shift that. Not everyone needs surgery or hormones for a healthy transition, but there are those of us for who it's medically necessary. To be in my body right now, I'm really cool with that. I want to share that with them-I was you, I was angry, I was cutting myself."
Tony has become known for his work and has been speaking at venues, including annually at NBHS GSA, to help spread the message that "you can have the power to be who you want to be," he says, adding, "The need for Gay Straight Alliance is so important in high school and, I believe, middle school. If they had a GSA when I was growing up, my life would have been much easier."
When Tony speaks at NBHS on Dec. 5, he hopes to have an audience pack the auditorium to help support NBHS GSA. He notes the film and follow-up talk sold out at Long Wharf "days in advance" and draw big crowds at universities.
"My sweet spot is when I'm on stage," he says. "I've traveled around the state; we were at Yale [last week] and we were at Central Connecticut [State University] and UConn, showing the film and doing questions and answers, which I love to do."
The film A Self-Made Man by Lori Petcher premiered on
June 20, 2013 at the Provincetown International Film Festival and has since screened at festivals in New York; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Paris, France, among many others. It won "Best LGBT Documentary" a few months ago at a film festival in Queens, New York.
"I agreed to be in this documentary to educate people. The film is about my life as a transgender man and the work I do with transgender youth and their families in New Haven. It has been seen all over the world since its world premiere," says Tony.
"I knew if I said, 'Yes' to this film, I would give 150 percent," he adds. "There's footage of me in there before I transitioned; some from my ex-girlfriend filming me before I get chest surgery. I look at it now and I was trying to be funny, but I know the pain I was in that day.
"The old pictures of me; I don't regret who I was; that's how I let go of my anger. I was sexually abused, bullied; my school life was horrible. Everything that happened to me, the person I am today, is because of the girl I used to be. She was the one who was brave enough and strong enough to put up with bullying and abuse, and say, 'No' to suicide and she allowed me to be Tony. So I honor her."
For more information on Tony Ferraiolo's work and to view a trailer of A Self-Made Man, visit www.tonyferraiolo.com. The public is invited to attend the Friday, Dec. 5 event at North Branford High School, 7:30 p.m.; event proceeds benefit NBHS GSA. For more information contact Nicole Lacroix, Health Teacher and Gay-Straight Alliance advisor for North Branford High School, at 203-484-1465.