Sitting Down with Tranpa: an Interview with Buck Angel
Buck Angel is a transsexual educator, activist and actor who has been producing porn featuring trans men and trans male sex education films since 2002. He is a prominent figure in the trans community and I’ve looked up to him for a long time as I’ve sorted through my own thoughts and feelings about medically transitioning. We talked over the phone this week after I slid into his Instagram DMs. Our conversation touched on intergenerational dynamics in the trans community, the language we use to describe ourselves, the meaning of “manhood,” and more.
BA: So you know I did come to Yale like a billion years ago to speak at Sex Week.
Oh my God, that university freaked out on me. It was unbelievable. I mean not the students… they made a [College] Tea for me, and it was completely sold out, but I had such pushback from alumni.
KK: What did they say to you?
BA: I had death threats. Total death threats that if I [showed] up to campus, they [would] hang me from the tree and light me on fire.
KK: Holy fuck, that is so upsetting.
BA: Holy fuck! I was like “WHAT?!” I go, “This is Yale?! What??” […] They were literally coming after me. They weren’t playing. It was not a joke. They were really coming after me. Remember this was around 2006….We didn’t have a large trans community like we have today or [a] genderqueer [community] or any of what we have, none of it. So I was the man with the pussy, right? … I was like this crazy monster to them. [laughs]
KK: So, my first question is: what does manhood mean to you?
BA: What does manhood mean? I get these questions a lot from the cisgender world, because they can’t understand how a woman can become a man. I think being a man or having manhood is a very personal thing, and for me it meant becoming myself. It means to me being seen as a man and feeling masculine. […] It’s being presented to the world as male. It’s being talked to as male. And really on some level, a responsibility to show the world that masculinity does not have to have toxicity to it.
KK: I was curious what answer you’d give to that because I’m pre-HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy], and that’s something that people ask me a lot and I’ve never been able to give a straight answer in any way.
BA: Of course not, you won’t, because it’s the same thing that people say to me, “So, how do you think you can be a man when you have a vagina?” What a really dumb question…You could apply that question to a man who had cancer in his testicles. Or you could apply that to someone who was born without a penis, but identifies as male [and is] intersex. What we have focused on with masculinity is genitals and appearance. I’m totally guilty of that. Your generation is not so necessarily focused on appearance of masculinity as much as the older [community], or somebody like myself who really just had a sex change. And that’s really how I feel: I had a sex change. I’m not necessarily just a trans person. I’m a man. I was a woman who became a man.
KK: How do you perceive the sort of fluidity in the younger community?
BA: I think it’s important, I think it’s awesome. I think it’s going to help so many people, but I’m also going to tell you that it has divided our community on an unhealthy level. We took the word transgender, which used to just mean one basic thing, and we turned it into an umbrella term. When you take a term that is so specific and hide all of these identities under it, everyone who is gender non-conforming all the way over to FtM [people who medically transition from female to male], and then tell them all to call themselves trans, people are going to start arguing over who is trans and who isn’t.
KK: Yes, 100%.
BA: I have to tell you that I’m disliked and liked in this community. […] I do consider myself transexual and not transgender. As you know, that’s considered a derogatory term, which is very insulting to me on many levels. I don’t relate to all of the identities under the umbrella. I am none of those. I had a sex change. I really wanted to become a man and so I did that through hormones and surgery and I live my life as male.
That’s why we need to determine, I think, more specific identities and not just one word that encompasses everything.
KK: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
BA: The kids need direction. […] When we don’t talk about those things and when we eliminate the word transexual, you are actually eliminating your history. That’s not okay.
KK: How do you see yourself in the role of a “tranpa” to younger trans people?
BA: I love that you know I’m a tranpa! Oh god, I live for it. And I’ll tell you that I didn’t live for it before. In fact, I pushed against the younger community for a while because I didn’t like their disrespect towards me; their disrespect towards the word transsexual, the identity of sex change [and] all the language that I grew up with, which means a lot to me and the older generation. But then I sat myself down, had a talk to myself, and said, “Nope.” It’s the way of the world and it always has been. Things grow. You have to grow with them.
So that’s how I became tranpa. I opened my heart, my knowledge, my concern, and my care for them. I understand that there are things I know that they don’t know and might want to hear. And when I started to share, they just came. […] It was like, “We want to know! We want this information!” And I’m honored. I’m blessed. I really feel like they’re my kids on some level.
KK: Switching gears a little bit. Can you tell me about your identity as “the man with a pussy,” especially in the context of your career in porn?
BA: Right. So now I’m no longer the man with the pussy. Now I’m tranpa. [laughs] Tranpa with a pussy. [laughs] There’s just something not okay about that. [laughs] You know, I started my porn work literally 19 years ago. I mean, God, I feel so old. But when I started, I called myself “the man with the pussy,” because nobody did it. There were “chicks with dicks,” and you must understand that language was never meant to be derogatory. It’s always been marketing; it was meant to be search engine traffic. Today we don’t say that, but 20 years ago women called themselves “chicks with dicks.” So I just played off of that because no trans male porn existed. I reversed it and I became “the man with the pussy.”
I never went into porn as activist. I always went into it [thinking], “I’m going to make a million dollars, and I’m going to create something that doesn’t exist.” But within two years of pushback, mostly from the transgender community and the porn industry, people started to notice me outside of porn and say, “Wow, I think you have a voice for something that is bigger than pornography.”
I’ll always feel very attached to my porn. I still am in the porn world. and I believe in it a lot. I wouldn’t be here without it. I always thought I’d just be a pornographer, and then my porn really catapulted me into the world as an activist when I realized my body and my vagina is my activism. I got people thinking about what makes you a [man], before anybody was talking [about that].
People would come at me like, “You don’t have a penis, you’re not a man.” And I’m like, “Really, seriously?” That’s how you can always get cisgender men. Go at their penis, because they live for their penises. And I would always say this: “Well, hey, my friend, what if you lost your penis?” Immediately they would stop in their tracks, think about it and come back to me with a different answer. It was amazing. It was like magic.
All you have to do with a cisgender man is somehow get them to think about their penis and everything else kind of goes out the window, because that’s really the focus of most cisgender men and their manhood. It really revolves around their penis.
KK: Wow, that is super interesting.
BA: It is, I learned a lot from that. I learned how not to be a man.
KK: Exactly, by watching how cis men are.
BA: Yeah, thank god I’m not that [laughs]
KK: What does feel affirming of your manhood?
BA: Okay so, physical attributes. Like growing facial hair and getting muscles. Those things really were and are today a big part of my masculinity. And as you know, there’s a lot of pushback in our community about this now. About passing, about passing privilege. I’ve been called toxic because of the way I look. They don’t really understand that my appearance may look a certain way, but I am not toxic.
That said, I think the thing that affirms my masculinity most definitely is my appearance, [but] also, my attitude: that I can walk the world as a man with a vagina very confidently, [and] I can be naked in front of the whole world. My vagina on some level does make me feel masculine. It in no way makes me feel feminine, and I really can’t grasp enough words to describe to you why that is, other than the years of me living so openly with my vagina, and being really forthcoming and adamant about it. [It is] maleness to me. It finally just makes me feel male on so many levels.
KK: Yeah and I really get how it can be way more of a feeling than something that you can really vocalize.
BA: Totally, and I think that is what people need to understand. Also, in our community, we need to start respecting everyone’s choice of masculinity: non-masculinity, feminine male, butch male, whatever it is you want to be. I think we have these ideas that there is one way to be. There is never, ever one way to be, with anything.
KK: So much of the best cis allyship for me has been from people who are just so trusting that the way I feel is the way I feel and that it is valid.
BA: Yes, and you want to know why that is? Because they are confident and comfortable in their own self. I am not anti-cisgender at all. Most of my lovers are cisgender. A lot of my friends are cisgender. All the business I do is with cisgender people. I would not be as successful in my business if it wasn’t for cisgender people.
We have this idea in our community that cisgender people are our enemy. No, they’re not! Cisgender people are our surgeons. Cisgender people are our hormone doctors. Cisgender people are our therapists. Cisgender people are our teachers. And we really need to understand that for us to be respected and thought of as [equal to] the rest of the world, we have to integrate ourselves into the world. We have to stop separating ourselves. That goes with masculinity too. There are different types of masculinity, and we have to appreciate all of them, whatever they mean.
KK: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to put out into the world?
BA: So let’s just say cisgender men are reading this right now. What I’d say to a cis man is this: Masculinity doesn’t necessarily mean you have to walk around with a chip on your shoulder, or worry that people are not going to think you’re man enough, whatever man enough means. Masculinity and manhood is all about you, and presenting to the world how you feel, not how other people want you to feel. People always ask me this one question: “When are you going to get the bottom surgery?” Can’t people see how comfortable I am? The fact is that people ask this question for themselves. If I got a penis, it would be for them not for me, because the rest of the world still has this idea that without a penis, you’re not a man. hey need to stop focusing on genitals, because the genitals are only a tiny little bit of who you are as a man. I think if we really start to re-educate men that their genitals are not what reflect masculinity, we’ll have a different type of man out there. But men are going to have a hard time hearing this, you know? And especially from a man with a pussy. [laughs]
Secretly, they all want a vagina. You know it. I think that’s about it.