by Brian Goins / photo by H.N. James
When Shaun Arroyo thinks about his favorite Pride celebrations, two come to mind: His first, which he celebrated in New York City; and in 2015 in Nashville, when the Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land.
“I went to New York City Pride at 15 years old,” Arroyo said. “It was incredible. I met people who were at Stonewall. I learned a lot.”
Up until 2015, his NYC Pride experiences were his favorite. But now, June 2015’s Nashville Pride ranks higher. “Marriage equality … I never thought I’d see that,” he said. “To see that, I was in my glory.”
Arroyo, who is Puerto Rican and originally from New York, moved around a lot for his job until he finally settled in the Nashville area in the 1990s. His sister moved to Tennessee first, and he soon followed.
It was a bit of a culture shock at first. The accent was the first hurdle, but soon there was a larger hurdle to navigate: His transition.
“I have a very specific moment, that I decided to physically transition,” he said. Socially, he had lived a masculine lifestyle for his entire adult life. But when his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, he knew he could no longer deny the physical transition.
“When she had to have a mastectomy, I saw how difficult it was for her,” he said. “She didn’t want to do it. It meant so much to her as a woman, as a part of her identity.”
For Arroyo, that physical part of him was the worst part of not being physically male.
“I said, right then and there, that I have to physically transition,” he said.
Most of his close friends already knew and were supportive. His family was supportive, too, but it took some time. He had to work through some issues with his mother, who lives in Florida, and his sister.
“I said, ‘Mom, I’m going to transition,’ and she said, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’”
He showed her a couple of examples from the internet and they talked some more.
“She knew I had many trans friends,” he said, and she was worried about him being influenced by others in his decisions. That, of course, was a non-issue and Arroyo assured his mother of that.
After her visit, she went home and — although they usually had regular phone calls — he didn’t hear anything from her for a while.
“She didn’t answer my calls for a couple of weeks and I began to get very worried,” he said. Then, she finally answered his call.
From there, they had a frank discussion, and they found common ground.
“She struggles a little bit with the pronouns, but not with the name,” he said. The rest of his family was very accepting, but his sister had a little more to work through.
“Through therapy, she was able to realize that she was making it about her, and not about me or my transition.”
Outside his family, however, Arroyo experienced some resistance and a lack of acceptance at first.
“I lost two jobs, a full-time job and a part-time job,” he said. “That was really tough.”
The part-time job was in a “little meat-and-three café,” that was privately owned.
“They just stopped giving me hours. They just stopped,” he said.
They wouldn’t let him use the bathroom, and they refused to let him use his name. “As a privately owned business, (they) could get away with that.”
His full-time job was with a subcontractor.
“They were very difficult. I went to HR and discussed the issue.” He said they reassured him and referred to policies that were in place, but in the end there was no follow through.
He said Nashville, however, has come a long way in recent years.
“You see a lot more tolerance,” he said, but made a clarification. “There’s a lot more tolerance for the LGBT+ community, but less tolerance for the Latino community. As a Latino queer, I’m having to navigate both of those communities.”
Currently, he works at night for Vanderbilt, which he describes as “a very open place.” During the day, he attends Tennessee State University, where he’s earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources.
Coming out as transgender in Nashville was made easier with the support from The Tennessee Vals, a Middle Tennessee Transgender Support Group.
“The therapist I was going to recommended me to this support group,” he said. “I had never met another trans person that was physically transitioning.”
Now, Arroyo is current chair of the organization.
“It really helped me transition because it allowed me a sounding board to go and talk through some of these things with other people who had faced the same issues,” he said. “I was able to meet other trans men, and I was able to meet others who were transitioning or had transitioned in the past or who were considering transitioning.”
Next, Arroyo hopes to complete his bachelor’s degree and attain a job that consults with companies using his expertise with the transgender, LGBT+ and Latino communities.
“I’d like to see a lot more understanding for the trans community,” he said. “We’re not trying to do something to you. We’re making ourselves better for you. Allowing people to transition, gives them a better version of themselves for everybody else’s benefit. Not just our own.”
One of his sayings when people talk about diversity and inclusion is this:
“Diversity is inviting everybody to the party. Inclusion is inviting everybody to dance,” he said. “So, ask everybody to dance.”
And, he has some advice to anyone who is coming out or sorting through the first steps of transition.
“Know that there’s someone out there who will help you through it,” he said. “We are a community. Know that there’s a community out here, for everybody.”
ABOUT THE TENNESSEE VALS
The Tennessee Vals is a non-political, educational, social and support organization founded and designed to educate and support persons regarding transgender issues, without prejudice, regarding sexual orientation, sexual identity, or gender identity.
The Tennessee Vals helps educate and support those dealing with personal issues and concerns related to sexual identity and/or gender identity, both by those defined as transgender and those in relationships with transgender persons.
The Tennessee Vals also serves the interests of the transgender community in the Nashville area in educating the public and promoting a positive public image about transgender persons.