"From a really young age, I identified with masculinity and resented being feminized, but I didn’t have any context for other options. As a child, tomboy was the choice that I had and could embrace. I saw myself as a girl, but tomboy was my identity. Girl was not my identity."
Paper Buck, 31, is an artist and educator. He is trans, male, and polysexual. He's a former vegan and vegetarian, and currently eat a mostly plant-based diet. He lives in Pennsylvania with his partner. Photos courtesy of Paper.
At what age were you aware of your sexuality and gender identity?
At 15, I was in boarding school and I was a tomboy. My roommate in boarding school started secretly dating the girl across the hall, and the three of us were very good friends. They came out to me, and they were like, "Here’s the thing: you’re gay too." And I was like, What? No. Definitely not. But yeah, that was it. It was fairly easy during the initial stage, having the support. There was the social intrusion that would come later, but the initial embrace was socially rooted in my close friendships.
From a really young age, I identified with masculinity and resented being feminized, but I didn’t have any context for other options. As a child, tomboy was the choice that I had and could embrace. I saw myself as a girl, but tomboy was my identity. Girl was not my identity. Sexuality wasn’t something that I was aware of when I was really young.
Sexuality felt very ambiguous and confusing. I didn’t have a sense of easily resonating with the heteronormative narrative of life, but I also didn’t have the understanding that I was queer. When I became exposed to queer culture and being queer was an option, it was very scary to me. It didn’t happen quickly. It took probably a decade from the beginning of my process to when I had top surgery. I first started using gender neutral pronouns at 21, and at almost 31 is when I got top surgery.
It felt like a sort of slow aligning of my internal and external identities, or my internal identities with the social world, and it is by no means a process that has ended. Some people can experience a seamless medical or social transition, but for some bodies, that is just not the reality that worked out for me. It’s not a seamless thing.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM LGBTQ?
At this point, I identify as transgender and had a somewhat interrupted transition. I would say my family has been supportive but always a step behind me, like, not really enthusiastic but ultimately supportive. My process has moved a little faster than they were willing to embrace, but they’ve always caught up.
can you explain what being polysexual means for you?
Yeah, I don’t have any strong group identity at all. If I found a better term that I identified more with, then I would take it. It’s not an active identity category for me, but essentially what I mean is that my sexual attractions are very broad, they aren’t excluded to a certain gender or race. I am attracted to gender, but not a specific gender.
How is that different from being queer?
I guess in a way, queer is a word I definitely use often to explain myself, but I view queer as a broader cultural identification as opposed to a more specific identification of sexuality. I think it can be used to apply to sexuality, but it has a direct relationship to gender, sexuality, and culture. So, if someone asks me what is my sexuality then I wouldn’t use it because it has a bigger meaning.
For me, there was a long time that genderqueer was a better way to explain myself, but it never felt quite right to me. The world wasn’t seeing me as either one gender or the other, and so genderqueer was my language tool to explain that. However, I always had a very firm male identity. I’m certainly invested in the project of people not being labelled if they don’t want to be, but I’m not invested in the project of removing all labels and genders. I do really believe there is a value for people having a gender identity.
Did you find representation for your identity?
Yes, I think my friends were really the biggest thing. There was some familial support, but it wasn’t really enough. I chose to go to college in Minneapolis and there was a very visible queer community. I didn’t go to the east coast because of the homophobia that I experienced there, so I associated [homophobia] with where I came from.
Once I got to college, I was a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies student, and they had really awesome and radical trans identities and anti-racist tactics. I think that American Studies and Gender/Sexuality studies were really helpful for me, and then there was just a broader queer community. There was a growing group of gay and dyke and queer people in my life.
Do you feel your sexuality is essential to your identity?
Yeah, conversations around gender, gender transformation, sexual desire, and queer culture all became deep cultural identifications for me. Also anti-racist politics and the anarchist community—all of these things were kind of converging in my life and interlocking. I think that queerness has functioned to socially organize my life in a lot of ways. A lot of the decisions that I have made have occurred participating within the queer community, which became for me a real intersection point of all of those identities that I mentioned.
"For me, there was a lot of shame. Even my parents, people who love me and want to support me, expressed a sense of shame or wished it would be different and felt a little embarrassed owning that their child is trans."
Does your sexuality and gender identity shape your daily life?
There’s so much to say about that. At the moment, I’m working through some health issues that are very related to being trans, and I have experienced a lot of anxiety as a result. The last two years, the conversation has changed and there’s a lot more acceptance—it’s still young and naive, and it might be tokenized acceptance—but there is a broader, more general awareness of accepting trans people that even a few years ago wasn’t there.
For me, there was a lot of shame. Even my parents, people who love me and want to support me, expressed a sense of shame or wished it would be different and felt a little embarrassed owning that their child is trans. I did a lot of shadowboxing, working around other people’s emotions, and in that sense it shaped my everyday life. I came to identify with marginalized groups very strongly, and so a lot of my life in my 20s was not with dominant cultures. In a lot of my day to day life, I had to perform within the straight world and the dominant culture, but returned to a place that felt very culturally distinct.
HAVE YOU BEEN OPEN ABOUT YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY AT HOME, SCHOOL, AND IN THE WORKPLACE?
Not at first, but eventually. I often lived in queer collective housing, and that felt great to accepted and seen. In my work life, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started really getting on my boss, like, You gotta correct your pronouns. A few years ago I started to actually demand that the world change, in the way people were thinking about me. In my earlier 20s, before I was willing to do that, I felt like I had this huge piece of me that was invisible to the world, like I had this hidden identity. I think that long-term sense of hiding and being unseen was more psychologically stressful than I had realized.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED HOMOPHOBIA, HARASSMENT, MISTREATMENT, OR DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
Sports were a big thing for me. A lot of my experiences with discrimination go back to being 16 when I was a skateboarder. I was hazed at school by these boys for being a poser, because skateboarding was only something you could do if you were a boy. I ended up going to school and telling everyone that I had fallen and hit my head and that my parents took away my skateboard, which was not true. I just wanted to stop being called a poser for doing something girls weren’t supposed to do. When I was younger, I would play football and would get into physical confrontations with other boys when they would tell me that I couldn’t play because I was a girl. So, definitely a lot of that.
Then when I was older it was a lot of more subtle things, but I think I more often than not I have experienced an overt privileging based on being queer because the world is trying to catch up. For example, I’m at Carnegie Mellon on a fellowship, and if I weren’t trans, I don’t know if I would have gotten it. Clearly, it wasn’t the only factor. Discrimination doesn’t feel like a status conflict with me, but as a social impulse to support trans identities.
I identify with whiteness and masculinity, but I don’t feel the seamlessness. My white maleness requires a second look. It feels like cis male privilege but I’m constantly aware of my education background and my class background which have really set me up where I’m able to accept this fellowship, and I feel that world is incredibly structured around these power dynamics.
Maybe I’m more articulate about how my experience relates to broader forms of discrimination. One thing I’ve been thinking about is what discrimination is and isn’t, and it’s usually thought of as an individual experience. I injured myself by binding for a period of time—for about a decade I was binding, and I was doing a lot of physical labor at the time. My skeletal and muscular frame got rebuilt in the shape of the binder, and now I’m having a lot of trouble with my arms and my shoulders. If I had gotten surgery, if it had been an option at an earlier time, if it been covered by insurance—which happened in the Bay area where I moved from—I may have avoided injury.
Trans people and queer people are not included within broader conceptions of wellness, and to be fair, the healthcare system is really not about healing in general. It’s not really structured to heal anyone, let alone queer people. I think there is a lot of heteronormativity that pervades structures of wellness that further harms and entrenches the challenges that queer and trans people have in accessing help for their needs. I’ve generally been more privileged of the queer and trans people involved in the communities I’ve been in, and I’ve certainly witnessed that a huge amount of queer and trans people deal with issues of ability and disability, sometimes at a really young age.
"Trans people and queer people are not included within broader conceptions of wellness, and to be fair, the healthcare system is really not about healing in general. It’s not really structured to heal anyone, let alone queer people."
At what age did you stop eating animal products And why?
When I was 21. I was curious and experimental, generally, and then I started dating someone who was an intense vegan. One of the big motivators was that I was in a queer relationship with a vegan and it was important to her that I was vegan, so I was totally interested to explore that. I was in a feminist-anarchist-queer kind of community where veganism and vegetarianism were really accessible, and there was this cultural practice surrounding it, so it was easy to eat that diet within that community. That was definitely an influence, and then there was the politics—some friends of mine were invested in animal rights politics, which I integrated mostly out of interest in supporting and understanding that cultural practice of veganism and vegetarianism.
To be totally honest, I haven’t had a lifelong intuitive problem with eating animals, but I have always been interested in health and well being, so it stuck for a couple of years. I experimented with being vegetarian for longer, and I retained a lot of that even after I was no longer vegetarian. Even now, I eat a lot of vegetables, I just also eat meat. I needed to move to a high-protein diet as I was transitioning because I developed blood sugar issues, and so that was when I let go of the predominance of vegan and vegetarian food. They became incompatible lifestyles: I felt that I had to eat meat in order to get my blood sugar levels up, and I was medically advised that I needed really concentrated protein.
When I became less aligned with veganism it still had to do with queer identity. I became really invested in indigenous resistance politics when I was in Minnesota doing a lot of work to organize non-natives in support of indigenous projects. In working with indigenous Dakota communities, to not eat meat became more of an issue in terms of being welcomed and participating in indigenous-led spaces. I was exposed to a very different perspective and relationship with eating animals, and I think that shifted me away from veganism.
I was a vegetarian interested in ecological and environmental crisis as well as personal well being, mental health, and I think that like queer communities taught me to prioritize those things. I approve of a lot of different strategies on how to do that, like being vegetarian, which influenced my diet. I don’t feel like I found a final truth on many things, and sometimes I have moments where I feel like going back to a strategic vegan and vegetarian diet, but I don’t think at this point I could imagine myself fully adopting that.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM VEGETARIAN?
Some people in my life kind of like shamed me for it. I think for the most part there was respect for other people’s diets from the vegans and vegetarians in my life, but sometimes there was some snarkiness for not being vegetarian. Rarely is there any true spiteful feelings about it. I’ve experienced a mix of responses from people in my life which I think that has a lot to do with the age that I was when I was experimenting with those things.
WHAT EFFECTS DO YOUR FOOD CHOICES HAVE ON YOUR DAILY LIFE?
Not too long after I went on testosterone I became prediabetic, which is a risk for people on testosterone, so I had to make a lot of adjustments to my diet for that (I went out of prediabetes range when I went off testosterone).
Largely, I started cutting out sugar and carbohydrates. I had to eat low sugar, low carb, and high protein. I also developed a lot of food sensitivities and digestive stuff, so then I had to cut out a bunch of other things like eggs, fruit, and grains altogether. It was a bit of a slew of cutting things out. I basically transitioned all of my starches to sweet potatoes, zucchini, rutabaga, beets, carrots, and a lot of greens. I think when I was eating vegetarian, I picked up an appreciation for vegetables, and around that time, I got into herbal medicine, so there was also a witchy influence in my life.
Being on such a restricted diet, I started to have a really negative relationship with food. I lost my appetite, and wasn’t excited by anything I had to eat, so it was quite an arc. At this point, I try to have as much of my diet be vegetables as possible and as little processed food as I can. I’m on a very intensive herb regimen, but also meat is a big part of my diet because of the protein I need. I eat more soy products and I eat a lot of tempeh. I find that I really want tempeh more than a couple meals a week, so I don’t know—I could talk about what I eat for a long time. (laughter)
DO YOU USE FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
Socially, I think that food sharing is one of the deepest human social practices. So very often, food or liquid consumption of some sort is the organizing principle of my life. Like, Let’s meet up, let’s get tea or a meal. We all rely on food as a social entry point.
My partner is Filipino and she gets really excited when she has all of the ingredients to be able to cook me a Filipino meal, which is a special night for us. Both of her parents have passed away, and she learned how to cook from her mother who taught her the spiritual and emotional elements of food, so when she cooks that food, it reminds her of her mother and her family.
My creative work, political work, and interest in justice projects are related to colonialism and diaspora, and I believe that food is one of the best tactics that we have of being able to preserve our cultural identities. When you’re talking about white people who identify as American and who have been in the U.S. for a couple generations, that can be less intuitive, but when we’re talking about opportunities to celebrate distinct cultural identities, food can be one of the most important ways to do that.
DO YOU AVOID FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
Yeah, totally. It’s a super depressing experience, and right now it’s come up for me more around being a first year in a graduate program, being on the older side of the group, and just being different. Everyone is drinking, partying, and staying out late which sort of makes me feel—I don’t really feel socially disincluded, but I also feel bad for not participating in that because people might think that I’m anti-social, but it’s just that I can’t consume the same things. Whether it’s things like food or alcohol, it really comes down to lifestyle to some extent, and if you don’t have the same lifestyle as the people around you it gets harder to feel connected.
In general, I do a lot of cooking. I’m not doing a lot of inviting people over and cooking for them right now, but in the recent past when I was living in the Bay area, a lot of my socializing with my closest friends would be over meals. One of my closest friends has a partner who is—or was—vegan, has a kid, and became vegetarian, so we respected a mix of diets: vegan, vegetarian, and my food sensitivities. We would have a lot of considerations but really enjoy being able to share a meal together.