“What Makes Us Clique” Veterans Day Special
Written and photographed by Andy Armano | www.AndyArmano.com
This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strengths.
In honor of Veterans Day, OutClique is highlighting James Tyrcha, a US veteran and a gay transmale. He left the military as a highly decorated soldier and a squad leader. Subsequently, his leadership earned him the title of Mr. Leather 64Ten 2016. He is now a well-known and respected part of the Wilton Manors community. We touched on courage, service, and finding your true self.
Andy Armano: Since this is November, we are celebrating veterans. Let’s start with my asking you about your military service.
James Tyrcha: I served from ’99 to ’06. I was in the United States Army Reserve, as part of the military police. I was in for six years. I got out as a specialist, E-4, and I chose to not re-enlist due to my personal circumstances.
AA: Would you say your experience in the military was positive?
JT: I loved it. I miss it. Being in the military, there’s a camaraderie, a brotherhood. There’s structure. It is all embedded in you for the rest of your life. There are times I wish that I was able to stay until my full retirement. If the laws were different and if I had had the same choice as all my military buddies, I would have made a career out of it. But, I didn’t because I am a transgender man. The military will always be a part of who I am and shaped me as the man I am today.
AA: Tell me a little about your transition. What’s your journey been like?
JT: I knew when I was three that I was male. I had every male characteristic of a boy my whole life. Then puberty happened, which was very difficult because prior to that, I was taking my skateboard and going to the Marine Corps recruiting station to hang out with them all day doing push ups and stuff. I couldn’t wait to be in the military as a child.
AA: That’s a powerful memory.
JT: I was obsessed with all things military: the position of authority, structure, uniformity. I think that was part of the beginning journey into the leather world as well because it’s very similar. I remember back in third grade, looking at a police officer, and looking at his uniform and his stature of this 6’3″, big, hot guy. He had the badge and all his leather was shining, and I was like, “I want to be a cop.” I didn’t understand sexuality versus gender. In high school I said, “Well, you’re supposed to like girls,” and I started dating a girl in high school who was very masculine. The handful of women I dated throughout my life before transition all looked like men.
One day I Googled “FTM transition.” I started watching the YouTube videos of other people’s journeys and stories. I was like, “Jesus, this is in line with everything that’s inside of my mind and my body.” I kept reading and reading and reading, and I realized, “Okay, I need to do something about this.” I learned the steps I needed to take and I did it right after I got out of the military. I moved into the city, into the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and I began exploring my sexuality. I was going to the bathhouses, doing all that stuff, and discovering myself. There is a difference between gender and sexuality, and I could not sexually be with a man as a female body. It’s different. It’s a whole different energy and lifestyle.
AA: So, you didn’t have the freedom to begin exploring relations with men until you began transitioning?
JT: Yes. I was always in the gay lifestyle and I always had a desire, but it wasn’t until I was finally comfortable in my body that I could explore my sexuality with men.
AA: What was your experience with the gay community after you transitioned?
JT: It was positive. As I transitioned, I was pretty private about it. I wanted people to see me for the man that I was. A lot of people got to know me and then it started coming out and we started talking. The first time I was at Jackhammer and one of my friends came up to me, he goes, “I have to ask you something.” He was quiet about it. “Are you trans?” I said, “Yeah.” He responded, “Oh, okay. All right. Let’s have a shot. It’s no big deal.” Then I had other friends that were like, “Wow. Why didn’t you tell us sooner, and we’d love you no matter what. We don’t see you any different now.” People just got to know me as a person and that’s what created a lot of acceptance. That’s what changes people’s ideas on trans. You go out into public and you see a trans person, that is non-passable, and some people say, “Oh, that’s a tranny.” Okay. Well, I say go say hi to her.
AA: Is this when you began your involvement with the leather community?
JT: Yes. Going back to my younger years, I always had an infatuation with uniforms and authoritative looks. I was going to the bars underage in the ’90s and I saw these guys that were into their leather. I started just watching these guys, how they interacted socially, and that was very sexy and that it was a very welcoming community. These guys will talk with you. These guys will welcome you. They’ll make you feel like you’re a part of a family. Everybody in the leather community tends to be very different from the average, circuit, nightclub gay guy. It’s just a different lifestyle completely and I felt welcomed with open arms.
As I mentioned, I gradually opened up as a transman. Once I did, I was a go-to person. I brought Buck Angel to Chicago and then brought Paulo Batista to Chicago. We had a night called Trans Male Indulgence that I started at Jackhammer. It was a transgender man night, along with those who admire them and allies. It was also a space for people to get to know transmen and to maybe ask questions. People naturally have questions and it was a safe space for conversations. I became Mr. Leather64TEN. I competed in International Mr. Leather (IML) as an openly gay trans man and I got heavily involved. My platform is to create acceptance through visibility and it was an amazing journey and it still follows me to this day.
The difficult aspect for transman is that awkward conversation. For a trans man that is transitioned to sit at a bar and be cruised and talk to other guys that are into you, that’s a great thing. Then you have to have that awkward conversation of, “Well, by the way, before you kiss me, I don’t want any surprises.” Men like to grab each other and then you could potentially be in a dangerous situation because some people could react. Has a dangerous situation happened for me? Knock on wood, no, but it can happen. It does happen. We’ve had how many trans people murdered this year alone, just because of who they are.
AA: Is it difficult for people to understand the difference between gender and sexuality?
JT: Again, gender and sexuality are two different things. Understanding that, and this is, out of all the questions people ask, they frequently ask “Well, if you’re gay or if you’re a man and you have that genitalia, well, why didn’t you just stay with men,” because they don’t understand it. My gender has zero to do with my sexuality and my attraction. I can’t control who I’m attracted to no matter what. It’s just what I desire and then my gender comes with it. Otherwise, you can’t have gay or straight. That’s the only way to describe it. I had to really find who I was.
AA: As a cysgendered person, what do I need to know about respecting transgendered people?
JT: If you are going to be opening a dialogue, know it is based on the trans person you’re meeting. Where I see a lot of the very touchy conversations is with somebody that’s transitioning because they are literally in the middle of puberty. It takes a couple years to go through that. There’s a difference between transitioning and transitioned. I’m transitioned. People who are transitioning are essentially going through puberty. They’re still having the changes. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s literally going through puberty, which takes years. It could take anywhere from two to five years for a person to transition to where they’re now fully presentable, passable, or however you want to deem that term.
AA: How would you summarize where you are in life right now?
JT: There’s no way to explain what I’ve been through, but I am happy. Two men together is so different from a man and a woman or a woman and woman together. The sex, the desire, the way you’re touched, the body sense, everything is different. When I was fully doing male with a male, everything just was perfect and I was happy.
AA: You’re such a courageous man and truly inspiring to me that you’ve found wholeness and that happiness touches me deeply. Thank you for talking with us and sharing your story with OutClique.