Jason Robert Ballard, a trans man who created The Self Made Men.
by Megan Smith
(EXPANDED VERSION FOR THE WEB)
When Jason Robert Ballard smiles, his body exudes a level of confidence that makes you realize just how successful he’s going to be in life. With a chin lined with bristly light-brown stubble and bright blue eyes gleaming with big goals for the future, this twenty-six-year-old entrepreneur and Nazareth College advertising major bears a striking resemblance to Justin Timberlake straight out of The Social Network. But instead of creating a network to illegally share music files, Ballard, an open transman, has created, owns, and operates his own online company that serves as a one-stop, all-inclusive resource to drastically improve the visibility and awareness of the transgender male community—appropriately named The Self Made Men.
Just Your Average Mighty Morphin Power Ranger
With a stepfather who works for Wal-Mart, Ballard moved around New York state for most of his childhood—a slightly different experience than the glamorous New York City life portrayed by Sex and the City. “A lot of people think when you say [you’re from] New York, it’s New York City,” he says. “It’s not. At one point, I lived two doors down from a llama farm, and the town only had one stoplight.”
Although he was both an athletic soccer player and creative oil painter throughout middle and high school, his biggest thrill wasn’t making the winning goal or finishing his latest artistic masterpiece. Rather, it was when he entered an online chat room and, with the rush of the possibility of getting caught, presented as a guy named Jason for the very first time at age thirteen. “Every time someone treated a girl badly, I’d be like, ‘I could be a better boy than that,’ or asking, ‘Why did you get to be a boy when you’re so bad at it?’ So, when I went in [to the chat room],” Ballard says, “I really [developed Jason] into this alter ego of the perfect male that tried to be super charming and funny, and I really became my idea of who I wanted to be.”
When asked why he chose the name Jason and eventually made it his legal name, Ballard laughs. “I never really had any gender constrictions [as a child], so I had a lot of Power Rangers stuff because that was the big thing when I was growing up,” he says. “I always identified with that badass leader role that Jason, the red Power Ranger, had. Whenever I played Power Rangers, I would always be him. He was the leader, so why would you ever want to be any of the other guys?”
Over the next four years, the chat room became a vital part of Ballard’s life, consuming the majority of his time. He even describes how, at a certain point, he’d stay up into the wee hours of the night, sometimes only getting three hours of sleep before school, just to stay in the chat room a little longer. However, the more time he spent online, the more his life outside of the virtual world depressed him. Being Jason was “far from the awkward little girl in middle school” that was his reality.
Eventually his chat room lies became overwhelming, especially as he began to develop romantic feelings for a specific girl he’d been regularly communicating with online—a relationship that he thought could have been featured on MTV’s Catfish. “It was horrible that I had to keep lying [to her] and that I couldn’t experience the things I wanted to as Jason, but it was also very exciting, because I got to be someone else and live as the opposite gender in a safe space.”
Things Will Look Male in the Morning
Soon after, Ballard’s mother finally found out how he’d been presenting online. Since neither she nor Ballard knew exactly what to make of the situation, she conducted a Google search on “my daughter wants to be my son” and found some materials from PFLAG that described what he was feeling. This was the first time either of them learned what it meant to be transgender. But most of all, his mother assured him that this was normal and that he was okay.
However, Ballard didn’t warm up to the idea of being transgender right away. Thanks to the skewed misrepresentations of trans people on shows like Jerry Springer or Maury, he associated a trans identity solely with these negative images. To make things worse, initial resources made transitioning seem next to impossible—each one describing different necessary steps, including moving to a different country to have the procedure, spending thousands of dollars, and the need to prepare for rejection by friends and family once the transition was complete. So instead, Ballard spent the next year simply hoping to wake up one morning in a biologically male body. “I didn’t want to transition, I just wanted to wake up and be male,” he says.
On his eighteenth birthday, although he had not taken any steps to physically transition, his very supportive family gave him the gift of male pronouns. “I got birthday cards addressed to Jason, and son, and grandson, and brother,” Ballard says. “I [also] changed my name legally and, by some stroke of luck, when they mailed me my new ID, it had an ‘M’ on it, instead of an ‘F.’”
Ballard describes how things then temporarily derailed. After entering a relationship with a girl who first identified as bisexual, but then later came out as a lesbian, things became quite complicated and forced him to rethink his gender expression. As many young lovers do, Ballard clung to the relationship and the girl’s acceptance of him, even though he was still unsatisfied with presenting as just an androgynous female. “I do a lot of stupid things for girls,” he says with a laugh.
Putting the T in Reality
It wasn’t until he was twenty-one and living in Rochester that transitioning became a reality. The city’s large, welcoming LGBT community helped Ballard get connected to the Mazzoni Center, a healthcare provider in Philadelphia that specifically targets the health needs and services of the LGBT community. After telling his story to Melanie Santiago, a specialist at the center, Ballard describes how she told him, “Your story is boring. You’ve been a man this entire time. Let’s start you on hormones.”
Ballard has now been on testosterone therapy for almost four years. In 2010, he underwent chest reconstruction surgery performed by Dr. Kevin Maguire of Cooperstown, New York. “At the time, I didn’t really know anyone who was trans, so I didn’t know what it was going to do,” he says. “But I knew that [hormone therapy] was the next step and would essentially start male puberty, and that’s what I wanted. Also, top surgery was definitely what I wanted because when I looked into the future, I saw myself growing into an older man, not an older woman. In fact, growing into an older woman scared the crap out of me.”
Now, when younger kids questioning their gender identity come to him about the possibility of being trans, Ballard asks them about their own vision for the future and which gender they see for their aging selves. If their vision is different than their current reality, he tells them that the time for change is now. However, Ballard emphasizes that every trans individual has different goals and may or may not choose to undergo surgery or hormone replacement therapy—and that’s okay.
Ballard kept this notion in mind when he was assigned a project to design a logo and brand identity for a clothing company as part of his graphic design class at Monroe County Community College, where he attended prior to Nazareth. Coming out to his teacher and fellow students, Ballard presented his idea for a clothing company targeted to the male transgender community called The Self Made Men. His professor and peers were very intrigued and receptive to the idea, as they had never thought twice about his masculine name or presentation. “I still kind of use that shock value to get people on our side,” Ballard says. “I’m like, Look—I’m normal and you should support my rights because I’m just your average dude.”
While developing his class project, Ballard, along with his friend Noah, started to volunteer as part of the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley speaker’s bureau. During this time, the two got to talking about the idea of The Self Made Men and had what Ballard describes as a “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if this was real” moment. From there, the pair became co-founders of the project. However, after two years of little progress, Ballard took the project into his own hands and became CEO of the company—paying out-of-pocket for The Self Made Men website and one hundred copies of the project’s annual calendar, which is available for purchase online and features thirteen different transguys. “I really wanted a resource where trans people could just come and be like ‘What do I need to do this?’ and they could easily get that information,” he says. “And, at the same time, get a sense of pride and trans culture. They could look up how to shave, or anything like that, as well as find events in their area. [I just wanted to create] one place that did all of that.”
From there, Ballard blasted the Facebook and Tumblr communities about his progress in creating an all-inclusive resource for transmen, and slowly started getting responses. “It’s really the fact that we’ve been going for two years and continuously doing this that we have any kind of popularity at all,” he says. “Because, there are a lot of trans resources that promise to be the best trans resource ever, and then they’re gone in six months because people don’t put the time into it.”
Initiating some of The Self Made Men’s first programs, Ballard opened registration on the site for participants to receive “Tversary” cards—postcards sent to transguys every year on the date they started testosterone therapy.
The site also offers community building for transmen through technology that wasn’t even imagined a decade ago. Ballard, along with current Self Made Men staff members Rowan Collins and Alexa Courtney, actively posts Q&A-style videos to the company’s YouTube channel, discussing questions about trans issues posed by viewers. These videos are a great way to reach people who may not know anyone else who is trans, but can relate to the stories and know they’re not alone, Ballard says.
The most interactive option on the site, Ballard emphasizes, is The Self Made Men chat room, held at tinychat.com/theselfmademen each Tuesday through Friday. The live chat allows people who have possibly never interacted with another trans person to escape the straight cisgender culture that surrounds them and talk freely about things that pertain only to transmen, like hormones, surgeries, or prosthetics. “It’s very ironic that I run a chat room now,” laughs Ballard. “I really wish I had a chat room back then that I could have gone into, been Jason, and it would have been fine and normal.”
For those who don’t have the time to go into the chat room, or prefer a more traditional means of communication, The Self Made Men also offers a pen-pal system. Coordinated by Ballard’s younger sister, participants submit their name, e-mail, and bio to the program and are then matched up with another transguy based on similar interests. Currently, the program has over 5,500 active members. “She’s been getting all these e-mails saying, ‘Great job matching me with my pen pal,’ and ‘We live two states away and they’re coming over to visit and it’s really great because I’ve never met another trans person before,’” Ballard says. “It’s just a great community builder.”
The site is also constantly updated with articles written by Ballard and other freelance writers on topics ranging from finding the right packer size to transman fashion to having sex with your biological anatomy. As part of The Self Made Men’s Big Brother program, the authors take on a mentor role, recognizing the value of their experiences and seeking to share them with younger trans people.
Aiming to be very sex-positive, The Self Made Men also recently opened a new 18+ section, called Trans & Sexual. This element of the site, described by Ballard as a Cosmo for transmen, includes sex tips for transgender males and their partners, embracing and legitimizing trans people’s natural human sexual urges. “We want to still be able to use our bodies to feel those things, even though we don’t have the things that we want to have,” Ballard says. “So, it can be a really big feeling of dysphoria and depression on people’s anatomy and sexual life. I think being more sex-positive can actually help, because if you’re so focused on not having a penis, then you’re going to be depressed. But, if you focus on what you can do, rename your anatomy for yourself, or anything like that, it can really bring you to a better place in that aspect of your life.”
What’s the T?
The Self Made Men isn’t just confined to a website—Ballard has taken the project on the road, hosting educational panels at colleges all around the Rochester area, including to the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester, and the College at Brockport. The panels educate both straight and gay audiences on trans issues. “A lot of spaces that [claim to be] LGBT end up just being LGB,” Ballard explains. “There’s a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. [Being L, G, or B] doesn’t automatically make you an ally to the trans community. You actually have to try to be a trans ally and try to understand, because there’s a lot of transphobia in the LGB community. So really, it’s just the difference between [speaking to] a transgender audience and a cisgender audience, because [both] straight and LGB cisgender people need trans education.”
Ballard says that audiences tend to be split pretty much down the middle in their perceptions of trans people. While some “just get it,” others come with images of Jerry Springer’s “freak show” dancing in their heads. Seeing transmen like Rollins and Ballard, who, as Ballard describes, “completely pass,” makes most skeptical audience members rethink the misrepresentations of trans people they’ve seen in the past, all while putting a positive face on the trans community as a whole.
But the educating doesn’t stop when the panels are over—at least for Ballard. From day-to-day campus life to his three-nights-a-week job at an LGBT nightclub in Rochester, he sees every experience as an opportunity to bring visibility to the trans cause. Constantly coming out as trans can open up a whole can of misconceptions, but for Ballard, the most common one isn’t what you might think. “After I started passing and I would tell people that I was trans, they thought I was going to transition into being a woman,” he says with a laugh. “So, I started having to tell people not that I was trans, but that I was born female.”
The activism, at times, can become irritating, especially when people ask below-the-belt questions immediately after meeting him—a problem that Ballard mostly brushes off with humor. But when he’s told what a big impact he’s making, or asked how to be a better ally to the trans community, he is reminded that it’s all worth it. “It’s [not only] knowing that I make a difference,” he says, “but actually having people tell me that I make a difference [that lifts me up the most].”
You are cordially invited . . .
Ballard isn’t quitting any time soon, either. The next step, he says, is starting The Self Made Men gender-affirming prosthetics and toys parties, as well as working toward expanding the company’s online store to its first physical location. Although these definitely won’t be your mother’s Tupperware parties, they would be held in a similar fashion. Transguys, or anyone who wants to present as masculine, would be able to host and attend a party so they could physically touch the prosthetics, binders, and toys before ordering them from a catalog. The proceeds would initially go toward funding a smart car wrapped with The Self Made Men logo, to help bring the company’s panels and other events to different states. However, Ballard hopes other transmen choose to host these parties as well, with the money raised benefitting their transition. “I don’t want to just be a brand that does things for themselves,” he says. “We’re [primarily] all about helping out the community.”
For more information on The Self Made Men, visit theselfmademen.com.