Let’s not pretend that Ryan Cassata is anything short of a remarkable human being. Very few of us had the wherewithal to ask our parents for guitar lessons at age six. Much less turn those lessons into a burgeoning musical career that lands a person on stage at Warped Tour before their 21st birthday. For Cassata, that's just life. Yet, being a professional musician stands in the shadow of years of activism work. All of which started when Cassata was still asking his parents for rides to his speaking engagements.
At 12 years old Cassata began playing live sets around his home on Long Island, NY. Around the same time, he came out as bisexual and began to dress in a more androgynous way. His coming out drew some negative reactions from his peers. “I started getting bullied pretty severely in school. And I got very depressed,” says Cassata. It was here where his personal life began to merge inextricably with his activism. “I got sent to the LGBT Center… and thank god,” he says with genuine earnestness. “Instead of just pouting around, I joined the Safe Schools Team and they helped educate me about LGBT history and taught me how to educate other people.”
For a kid who publicly came out as bi at 12, it is perhaps not surprising that the start to Cassata’s speaking career would be similarly conspicuous. At 13 Cassata was asked to give a keynote speech at an event hosted by The Center. “That’s when I really started my career in the media,” says Cassata. GO Magazine, The Tyra Banks Show, and Larry King Live Show all came calling and Cassata was launched into public activism. He says, “it’s all because I got bullied, that’s what pushed me into activism. I was either going to die in my hometown from being bullied, or I was going to try and change people’s heart and minds.”
Growing Up and Being Seen
By the time of his high school graduation, Cassata had already begun booking his own musical tours around Long Island, playing in the largest clubs on offer. He was also awarded the first ever Harvey Milk Memorial Award for his activism work. For a kid in his position you might expect the next move to be diving head first into the music scene, or else leaving his hometown for college in a larger, more LGBTQ-friendly, city. While both college and a career as a professional musician would eventually come his way, Cassata decided to take a year off between high school and college and spend that time speaking and educating schools about LGBTQ issues. Cassata says “I knew I was going to leave to San Francisco where it’s more open. But I wanted to leave the tri-state area better than how it was.” Growing up a bullied trans kid on Long Island Cassata was lacking in role models to look up to, so he decided to become one. “I wished that there was someone that I could have seen who was trans and a little older than me. So I could see that everything is going to be okay one day. I’m glad I get to be that person for so many young people.”
However, living your life as an out trans person can feel like an overarching label that gets applied to all aspects of your life, something that Cassata has found limiting. As he says “I don’t mind being called a trans musician, because I am trans and I am a musician. But I want people to know that just because I’m a trans musician doesn’t mean you have to be trans to listen to my music.” He goes on to elaborate, “my goal is to be mainstream, so that it opens people’s minds up. I want to appeal to as many people as I can, so that people can become educated and aware of the trans community.”
Out trans celebrities like Cassata, Janet Mock, and Asia Kate Dillon are breaking into the mainstream and educating Americans about trans issues and celebrating trans people more broadly. Trans Day of Visibility on March 31 joins the likes of Black History Month, Pride, and Women’s History Month as a means for celebrating marginalized communities. However, Cassata says he doesn’t feel tokenized or pandered to by Trans Day of Visibility. He says “for me, trans day of visibility is something I’ve only heard about in the last few years, and I think that means something is working. And I think it’s super important, it’s important for us to be visible because that’s what educates people.”
Being visible isn’t something Cassata is giving lip service to either. Cassata was photographed by the TomboyX team wearing the new Trans Pride collection underwear, as the face of the campaign; top surgery scars, tattoos, and everything. In regards to the Trans Pride collection he says, “I think anyone can wear them, it’s not just trans people that should wear the trans pride underwear. Everyone should wear them to show love to their trans siblings.” He likens this to organizing a National Coming Out Day when he was in high school. And how working with allies to spread the message of LGBT acceptance is crucial. “My goal was to get people from the football team to wear the rainbow ribbon. You know the people who really appear straight. Because when they say ‘we support this too,’ and they’re not even gay or trans, then it makes more people support it and know that it is okay to support it. And it shows love.”
Looking for a Better Ally
Outside of wearing a rainbow ribbon, or a pair of Trans Pride undies as an act of allyship and solidarity, Cassata says there is a simple act that trans allies can take to support the trans community. He says, “I think something so simple that everyone could be doing is asking people what their pronouns are. When someone asks me about my pronouns I know that they know about this stuff, they’re trans friendly, they’re trying not to misgender me.”
Being a good ally is as much about what you do ask, as what you don’t. Cassata confides that one of the questions he’s tired of hearing is when he is going to start taking testosterone (T). “I’m tired of being asked when or if I’m going on T. There’s this expectation for trans people that you have to medically transition to be trans, and that’s not true. At all.” He goes on to further elaborate that “a lot of trans people don’t want to take hormones, or can’t afford to take hormones.” He also cautions against the gatekeeping mentality that places medial transition at the core of what it means to be trans. Cassata says “I’d rather people ask me about the activism work I’ve done within the trans community, instead of just my medical transition.”
Because there are more options for transition beyond medical interventions. For Cassata, the TomboyX packer underwear “is super comfortable, and for me it’s very affirming to wear a packer. I enjoy how it feels to be in those underwear because it eases the gender dysphoria.” The fact that the packer underwear read as normal, TomboyX underwear is a key feature in Cassatas eyes. “That way people aren’t outed if they don’t want to be.” Though when asked his favorite feature he says “the buttons are my favorite because I’ve never seen that on packing underwear before and I think it makes it look more realistic.” Going on to elaborate about the importance of undergarments developed specifically for the needs of trans people Cassata says “when you wear a binder, when you wear a packer, it affirms you gender, it makes you feel like who you are.”
And for both Cassata and the team at TomboyX, helping people be who they are is what it’s all about. Be it underwear, coming out, or pronouns, it’s all about being yourself.
As Cassata says, “I think you have to be comfortable enough with yourself to be out. But once you get to that place where you feel at least a little safe and comfortable, just come out. Because it really just frees you so much. It sucks to be in the closet. To me, being out, that makes me more free. Being able to be who you are is freedom, or as close to freedom as we can get.”