|Courtesy of The Golden Gate Xpress (S)|
He was awarded the Harvey Milk Memorial Award last year, just after he graduated high school, putting him amongst the youngest recipients to have received it, and up there with the big names of LGBT activism.
He has played hundreds of concerts including the world's biggest gay music festival, Pridefest Milwaukee, alongside Chris Crocker and LeAnne Rimes to name but two. But music isn't the only thing he travels the States for. Ryan also visits high schools, colleges, and events to spread his message of peace and acceptance.
On YouTube, he has attracted over 750,000 viewers with his inspirational music and vlogs. The music video for his song "Hands of Hate", which spreads a message of love, has been viewed over 25,000 times in 6 months.
After discovering Ryan a couple of months ago, I wanted to share his work with the readers of Freedom Requires Wings and hopefully introduce some of you to who I view as possibly the most inspirational teenager I have ever come across.
What’s your background, and where did you grow up?
I grew up on Long Island with my two brothers, Vincent (older) and Frank (younger). I began playing guitar when I was six or seven years old. I was immediately attracted to it and my parents were able to get me lessons.
What was it like growing up? What were your acceptance process and coming out experiences like?
I didn’t struggle much in my very early childhood. My parents were open to letting my brothers and me play with whatever games we wanted. My brothers and I spent much of our youth playing wiffle ball, watching baseball, and playing with legos and matchbox cars. I dressed extremely masculine from an early age--frequently sporting a backwards baseball cap. I didn’t begin struggling with my gender until I was in middle school and puberty hit. When puberty hit I began to grow breasts and I eventually got my period at 12. I hated both of these things while the other girls in my class were excited. I wasn’t excited at all. I began to feel like an outsider in middle school. I already discovered my attraction to girls and I was still dressing very masculine. I was harassed in middle school on a daily basis for my style of clothing and because I was identifying as a “lesbian.” In seventh grade I started to experience “gender dysphoria” and at this point I couldn’t understand why I hated my body so much. On the days I felt dysphoric, I comforted myself by wearing gym shorts and a baggy sweatshirt. Eventually I was fortunate enough to meet a transgender man. When I met him the puzzle pieces connected. I started to learn things about gender that I never knew were possible. I realized that I was transgender in the beginning of 8th grade. I started to come out in ninth grade. My coming out experience was intense as I came out by going on the Larry King Live show. It was easy to come out to everyone at once that way. Maybe it wasn’t the best way to come out, but for me, it made it simpler. It was an easy explanation to everyone I knew at once. I struggled more with peoples reactions than I did with actually coming out.
Did you have any role models, trans- or cis-gender, when you were younger? Who inspired you?
I was obsessed with classic rock by the time I was 12 years old and I looked up to my musical heroes. The person I looked up to the most was my guitar teacher, Lou. He was an extremely talented and quirky man. I found my passion in music through him. He taught me how to get lost in the music, something that I needed to do much at that age as I was getting tortured in middle school. Unfortunately, Lou died when I was 13 years old. I struggled a lot with his death but even to this day I still thank him and look up to him. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am if he didn’t come into my life.
When did you decide to be a singer-songwriter, and when did activism come into the mix? Has it always been a passion of yours?
When I was 13/14 I was in a band called The Fenetiks. It was a two piece band. I was singer and keyboard player. J. was the guitarist and also a singer. We got into a fight over a girl and it ultimately destroyed the band. The band broke up around December of 2008. The problem was that we still had all of these gigs booked. Fortunately for me, my uncle bought me an acoustic guitar. I decided to play all of the shows solo. They all went really well and I booked more. That’s basically how my acoustic singer-songwriter career began. I started writing songs when I was 11/12 years old. It’s something that came natural to me. It wasn’t something I had to learn and it’s not something I decided to be. Songs spew out of me as if someone else were writing them inside of me.
I started my activism work before I started my solo career. I was very involved at the Long Island Gay Center (LIGALY) and I was selected to be the keynote speaker for “On The Bay.” This was before I even transitioned. I was also involved with LIGALY in speaking at High Schools around Long Island. By 14/15, I started to get calls to speak places about being transgender. This was after I was seen on Larry King and Tyra Banks.
What message do you try to convey through your music, and is it aimed at anyone in particular?
In my lyrics I tell stories of my life in hopes they will inspire. I also talk a lot about politics things like equality in the LGBT community, suicides, bullying, freedom, etc. I have a very diverse audience. I’m happy that the messages in my music can apply to so many different types of people.
Do you do any activism outside of your music / YouTube channel? What has the highlight of your activism career been so far?
I am also a transgender motivational speaker. I have been speaking at schools and conferences around the country. I’ve done several week-long east coast tours. I’ve just started to branch out to California and am already doing many speaking engagements here. I have had many highlights, I’ve had many great moments. One of my favorites was getting to perform and share my story to transgender children at a conference in California two summers ago. After I performed I got to meet with all of the children who were excited to collect autographs and shake my hand. A lot of the papers told me that I gave their children and them hope for a brighter future. I was glad I got to appear at the event. Last June, I got the opportunity to speak and perform on the main stage at San Francisco Pride Festival. I got to speak right in front of city hall. This excited me because I felt close to my hero, Harvey Milk. My biggest moment thus far was being elected the keynote speaker for the biggest transgender conference in the world, The Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I was the youngest keynote speaker that the conference had ever elected. I wrote a speech for the conference that I put a lot of time and thought into and got a standing ovation after it’s delivery. Randy Wicker (the first openly gay man on Television & civil rights activist) sat in the front row along with my parents and friends. It was a spectacular moment for me.
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) is next week (20th November). Are you planning on doing anything special for it through music or otherwise? Do you think it’s important to celebrate it?
I did the keynote speech for Transgender Day of Remembrance at San Francisco State University (October 29th). I’m excited to be speaking out. I will also be performing and speaking at places all throughout November. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is definitely an important day because it helps spread awareness and visibility will amount to equality.
If you could say one thing to a young genderqueer teen who’s going through a lot of emotional stress or rejection by their family right now, what would it be?
I would tell them to keep their head up and give themselves and their families time. It’s hard for everyone to adjust to knew things whether they were obvious or not. Never lose hope.
In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle genderqueer people face in today’s society, and how do you think it could start to be resolved?
The greatest struggle that genderqueer people face in today’s society is that they are often left out. They are left out of the trans* community as a whole. Many members of society do not take gender queer people seriously and it’s a problem. It’s important to keep educating everyone about genderqueer people and gender variant people. It’s important to know that the gender binary shouldn’t exist. There are more than two gender identities.
Do you get the impression the ‘T’ in LGBT is forgotten about too easily, even by the other letters of the LGBT community?
I would definitely agree with that. Even members of the LGBT community need education.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a trans* ally?
If you want to become a trans* ally it’s important to respect transgender people. Know what questions are intrusive and invasive. Ask what pronouns they’d like to be called. Be conscience of things that can make trans* people uncomfortable and offer to help.
Which one of your songs means the most to you and why?
"Love 'Round The World" means the most to me because it is my favorite song to play. I wrote it when I was 15 years old and it’s been my anthem ever since.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years time?
In ten years from now I hope that I am still doing the same thing I am doing now - speaking and performing - but on a much larger scale.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
On December 13th, I will release an acoustic EP called "Oh, Alexis." It’s the first of 3-4 in the series to come out. They are live in-studio recorded tracks.
Ryan Cassata will be speaking tomorrow (November 15th) at the Dominican University of California from 7:15 - 8:30 pm. For directions, click here.