The ArtsCenter in Carrboro will hold a celebration of breasts this weekend so that Sam Peterson can lose his.
Peterson, who describes himself as a transguy, realized years ago that his gender identity didn't match his body. What's unusual about his realization, though, is how open—public, even—Peterson has been about his gender transition. Peterson keeps a blog and makes videos detailing and documenting the process. He feels compelled to "meet people where they're at," he says, to educate them. Luckily, he knows that belly laughs make for the fastest converts.
"Lest we forget," he writes on his blog, Tha Man Sam, "the transgendered are the militarized dolphins, who, having acquired human technologies, can now swim off to do other forms of mischief."
Peterson's insurance doesn't cover chest reconstruction surgery, an important step in his transition from a female to a male identity. So, with a pun in mind, he organized Chestfest. Ticket sales go directly toward Peterson's $6,000 surgery, with The ArtsCenter's employees volunteering their time to support the concert. Any money raised beyond the cost of the procedure will be used to help other transgendered people.
"Sometimes biology fucks up," explains Molly McGinn, leader of Greensboro group Amelia's Mechanics. McGinn, a close friend of Peterson's, said she didn't blink when he asked her jangly Americana trio to play Chestfest.
She even produced two videos for Peterson—44 Questions: You Might be Trans if ... and Little Trannytown, the latter of which will be shown at Chestfest. Both films work to demystify the demographic with humor. In the videos, Peterson's just as likely to say something somewhat surreal—"Oh, look, there's a monkey pushing a wheelbarrow with a pig in it! Oh. No, it's a bush with a trash can"'—as he is to discuss his day-to-day life as a trans man in Carrboro.
Similarly, Peterson's working to make sure Chestfest will be fun for the same reason the late Kurt Vonnegut turned his bleakest days to sidesplitting comedy. He doesn't deny the tragic reality that the world can be a dangerous place for transgendered people: According to suicide.org and tglynnsplace.com, the suicide rate among trans people is 31 percent, compared to a national average of 11 percent. Close to 50 percent of trans people attempt suicide before the age of 20.
"It's not only about aligning my exterior with my interior. It's also about physical safety," he explains. "It's really difficult for people who were born in a gender that matches their identity to imagine what it might be like to not be able to take that for granted."
As Peterson puts it, everything is built on a bedrock of sympathy for all parties involved—everyone from the people in transition to the people who feel threatened or confused by transpeople. The Triangle has been good to Peterson. He says he has been very lucky and that his friends' support is "amazing." But he also speaks of hate crimes committed against his community, of violence and animosity from people who don't understand, all because a person's gender identity and hardware don't match. To his relief, there's less of this in the Triangle than some places.
If Chestfest is a success, he plans to expand it to help other transgendered people. His message to them is simple: You are not alone.
"I wasn't someone who hated their body or hated being a woman, that I knew," he says. "I was 40-something-years-old and had come to some peace. So it was unsettling to go, 'No, wait a minute, you actually might be a dude,' whatever that means."
McGinn recalls a beach trip with Peterson. "Sam said, 'I just want to be the Zen guru of trannies.' First of all, I'd never met someone who was transsexual, and I'd never met someone who talked about [it]. Something in my brain just clicked."
It's not that Peterson doesn't see himself as weird. It's that he doesn't see himself as being weirder than the next guy.
Or, as he says in 44 Questions: "In a world where NPR insists that Sarah Palin has a following, we're not all that outré."