by John Wright
After enduring years of bullying before attempting suicide at 19, Michael Hughes moved from East Texas to Houston and came out as a lesbian.
But something still wasn’t quite right.
A decade later, Hughes was in a Montrose bookstore when he stumbled upon a copy of Body Alchemy by Loren Cameron, about the author’s transition from female to male. “I just picked it up by chance and started flipping through it, and literally just stood there in the bookstore with tears rolling down my cheeks. That was the first time that I felt there was someone just like me, and there was this path I could take to make my body match the way I had always seen myself on the inside,” Hughes says.
Hughes came out as a trans man and moved to Boston in search of a fresh start. He would eventually settle in Rochester, Minnesota, his wife’s hometown, and become an activist.
Earlier this year, after a bill was introduced in Minnesota to bar transgender students from using school restrooms according to how they identify, Hughes launched the #WeJustNeedToPee campaign.
The campaign—featuring selfies of the 6-foot-tall, bearded, tattooed Hughes in women’s restrooms—quickly went viral and landed him on national TV. Now, with similar bills pending in the Texas Legislature and Houston’s equal-rights ordinance under continued threat by opponents, the fifth-generation Texan is preparing to move back home in August. “I want to come down there and jump into that with both feet,” Hughes says. “I’ve done a lot here, and I feel like that kind of energy is needed in Texas as well. There’s a huge community of trans people in Texas, and they’re going to need support.”
Hughes, now 45, was a four-year-old growing up in Houston when he first told his mother he felt like a boy. She responded by saying he was just a tomboy, so he didn’t bring it up again. By age 10, though, Hughes was presenting as a boy in a neighborhood across town, where his playmates didn’t know his birth gender.
Then, prior to seventh grade, Hughes’ family moved to tiny Timpson, Texas—a one-stoplight town where the kids in school all knew each other and his graduating class had just 31 students. “That was the beginning of the dark years,” he says. “I experienced a tremendous amount of bullying based on my looks and my presentation, and that lasted from seventh grade until about 11th grade. From that point on, for years, it was a daily thing. I had kids walking up behind me [saying] ‘lesbian, dyke, freak’—you name it.”
Despite the bullying, Hughes did well enough in school to earn a full scholarship to Panola College in Carthage, Texas. But he continued to struggle with his gender identity and felt ostracized living in a women’s dorm. As a freshman, he attempted to take his own life. “I tried to overdose. Had my roommate not come home, I probably would have been successful,” he says. “I’d taken a pretty good-sized amount of painkillers that I’d gotten for a knee injury. I basically just ate the whole bottle.”
After a meeting involving his parents and the school president, Hughes was told he couldn’t live in the dorms anymore. He decided to flee the school altogether and return to Montrose, where he became a regular at the legendary Ranch nightclub and got involved with organizations like the Empire of the Royal Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Single Star. “Nothing felt quite right, but coming out as a lesbian was as close as I could get,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can do this. I don’t feel like a woman, but I can date women and that’s okay.’ After I announced my transition, quite a few friends in Houston said, ‘That makes sense. You never quite seemed sure of yourself or comfortable in your own skin.’”
When Hughes came out as a trans man, his siblings in Texas told him they’d always think of him as their little sister, and even some friends said they’d have a hard time accepting his male identity. So he made the difficult decision to leave his native state. “In hindsight, I don’t think it was the right decision, maybe, because it did hurt some people who did care about me,” he says. “But I just felt it would be an easier transition and a smoother road if I went somewhere where no one knew me at all, and I could just walk into a new community as the person I wanted to be, and not have all that baggage.”
Despite the move, the early years of Hughes’ transition would be tumultuous, taking him through numerous failed relationships in multiple states. He was in Kansas when he met his wife, who has four children from a previous marriage, and they returned to her native Minnesota. They recently celebrated their 12th anniversary. “I give her a lot of credit for helping me center myself and be proud of who I am,” Hughes says. “When we met, I didn’t want anyone to know I was transgender. But she kind of encouraged me to try to do more to help out and just be proud of where I’ve been and the journey I’ve taken.”
In recent years, Hughes has spoken on trans issues at Minnesota high schools and colleges whenever he’s gotten the chance. But when the bathroom bill was introduced, he took his activism to another level. “That’s really tragic for me, because trans youth are the most vulnerable,” he says. “The suicide rate is off the charts. It takes me right back to that time and place when I tried to commit suicide, not understanding, ‘Why do I feel this way? Who am I? What am I?’ So it’s really scary for me.”
Despite the success of the #WeJustNeedToPee campaign, Hughes says he’s taken heat from other trans activists who say he’s exploiting his “passing privilege.” He says that was never the goal of the campaign, and the criticism has stung because he’s sacrificed his safety by becoming so visible. “I could have gone on the rest of my life using the men’s room and not given it a second thought,” he says. “I put myself in a position where I could be [recognized] and potentially be in danger if some redneck in the bathroom doesn’t appreciate my presence in there.
“It’s caused my wife to be nervous,” he adds. “She makes sure the doors are locked at night. It brings up all that fear about trans people getting assaulted and killed in this society. That’s stuff we’ve never had to face before.”
But it’s been worth it, Hughes says, if the #WeJustNeedToPee campaign gets the attention of conservative lawmakers who hadn’t considered the consequences of their legislation. “I think they’re operating on the assumption that you can tell if someone was born biologically male and they’re now presenting as female, and vice versa,” he says. “I just can’t see any way they’re going to be able to enforce the law. It’s not just going to affect trans people. There are plenty of women who were born female and are perfectly happy to be female, but they look very masculine. I’ve seen biological females who aren’t trans [men, but who] look very male.”
While the Minnesota legislation appears to be dead, Texas has “doubled down,” Hughes says, with lawmakers introducing bills that would not only bar trans people from using public restrooms, but also offer “bounties” to those who report them. “I don’t think most of these lawmakers have even considered trans men who are big, have a full beard, tattoos,” he says. “Do they really want me in a women’s restroom? I can’t imagine even walking into a Galleria women’s restroom. What’s going to happen when I do that? Before I can even prove that according to Texas law I’m supposed to be in there, I’m probably going to get hit, assaulted, dragged out by security, and arrested. I don’t know that they’ve even thought about that.”
By the time Hughes arrives in August, the Texas legislative session will be over. But Hughes said even if the bills pass—including one that would make him a criminal for using the men’s room—he’s headed back to Texas. “There’s no stopping me,” he says. “I think that’s a byproduct of having been bullied and gotten to a place where I’m so comfortable with who I am. I don’t scare easily anymore.”
John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter @lsqnews.