self made manHis advocacy is all for the kids.

When I first met Tony Ferraiolo back in 2003, he was a lesbian. At least that’s how it appeared at the time. We were at a lesbian pot-luck in New Haven, Ct, and Tony hadn’t yet transitioned. He told me about his years as a lesbian party promoter, and his involvement in the LGBT scene in Ct, which included playing in a lesbian band.

But although presenting as suave, upbeat, and outgoing, Tony harboured a history of shame, depression, and self-harm about whom he understood himself to be. He had recognized for some time that although he liked dating women, he had never felt like one himself.

Still living in a female body at that point, yet identifying as male, Tony was in a state of disconnection which many trans people experience before they move towards self-realization. A year or two after we met, Tony began to understand that change was possible for himself. And then, as happens for many trans people, things began to move at lightning speed. Now, it seems clear that although he was living as a lesbian, he never really was one.

Flash forward ten years, and Tony has clearly become the person he was always meant to be.

A nationally sought after public speaker and community activist. A certified life coach, working with trans kids and their families. The co-founder (with Dru Levassuer) of the non-profit Jim Collins Foundation, which provides grants to low-income trans people for gender-confirming surgeries. And befittingly, he’s also now a film star, as the subject of A Self-Made Man, an award-winning documentary by Lori Petchers.

It was when Tony began working with trans youth in 2008, however, that he really began to find his calling. At this time, there were no support groups specifically for trans teens in New Haven. Understanding the risks of isolation and the importance of community validation to young people, Tony decided to start one. As word spread around the state about the openly trans facilitator in New Haven, the group started filling up.

After the teen group was established, Tony says he began to notice, “that the parents who drove their teens here were just sitting in their cars outside the building. So one day I went out there, and suggested they all begin to meet inside while their teens met in another room.” This evolved into TransPACT, a support group for parents, grandparents, and other caregivers of transgender and gender non-conforming youth.

Not surprisingly, parents of younger trans kids began to query them. As in most communities, these kids are extremely underserved. So Tony’s own love for art (his paintings have been exhibited in several galleries) gave creation to Create Yourself, an art group for transgender and gender non-conforming youth under 12. Although not specifically a “support group,” this regular gathering is often the first time trans-children-some as young as four or five-can wear their affirmed clothing, and use as much glitter as they like, without fear of judgment or scorn. Over the last five years, these three groups have served over 125 youth and over 130 parents or grandparents.

For his advocacy, Tony has received numerous awards. These include being honoured by his local community for a Dorothy Award by the New Haven Community Center in 2011, numerous accolades for his humorous, insightful inspirational speaking, a Lambda legal 2012 Connecticut Cares Award, and a nomination as a White House Champion of Change. At the present time, the documentary about Tony, which focuses on both his transition and his work with trans kids, has played at many film festivals including San Francisco’s Frameline fest and Paris’s Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival. Just last month, it won the best LGBT feature documentary at the Queens World Film Festival.

Yet, to Tony, it all comes back to the kids. Despite his rising star, (and still maintaining a full-time job as a manufacturing manager) he remains dedicated to the work of fostering self-love and acceptance for the new generation of trans kids. He says, “Of everything I have done, I am most proud of the work I am doing with trans youth and their families. It’s amazing how my own journey, and the dark times in my past, allow me to empower these families to move forward together with love and compassion. Although we all have struggled along the way, I truly believe that everyone can live the life they always imagined. I know I am.” (