Trans activist uses life story and music to educate public

During an open mic night performance, singer-songwriter Ryan Otto Cassata exuded a confident demeanor that he said has been the key to his national recognition as a civil rights activist in the transgender community.

Cassata, a former SF State Student, said he came to the realization that he wanted to live his life as a female-to-male transgender person at 13 years old when he heard a transgender man speak at the LGBT Community Center in Long Island. Cassata has been educating the public through his music and activism ever since.

“Living life as a girl would have been the easiest thing to do for everyone around me,” Cassata said. “It was never a decision. It’s something I needed to do to be happy.”

Cassata’s childhood best friend, Rebecca Prichard, recalls the first time Cassata told her he felt he was living inside the wrong body.

“I just told him, ‘Ryan, if you decided you wanted to be a tuna sandwich, I would still love you,” Prichard said.

The activist has always been vocal about his transitioning journey on YouTube and started to do the same in school. He led the Gay Straight Alliance at Bay Shore High School in New York with his friend Matthew Klapak and started a YouTube channel, Facebook page and a paper petition to have “Ryan,” his legally changed name, appear in the yearbook. Cassata’s efforts resulted in him being a recipient of the first Harvey Milk Memorial Award presented at his high school.

Ryan Cassata performs two songs at the Sacred Grounds Cafe open mic on Thursday April 9. (Melissa Minton / Xpress)

Ryan Cassata performs two songs at the Sacred Grounds Cafe open mic on Thursday April 9. (Melissa Minton / Xpress)

It was in 2012 that Cassata moved to San Francisco to attend SF State. Upon his arrival he said found it difficult to find a trans community.

Despite some backlash from others throughout his life, including resistance to his decision to not take hormones, Cassata continues his journey as a trans activist to serve as a reminder to others that they are not alone, he said.

“There’s this constant competition in the trans community of ‘who’s trans enough,'” Klapak said. “Ryan’s choice to pursue his dream (as a singer) and be who he is wasn’t good enough for other people.”

Cassata said he understands coming out is a different experience for everyone and feels many individuals never come out or transition because they are afraid of what people will think.

Eric Alan Weidner, teaching associate for SF State’s communication studies department and peer counselor at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Help Center in downtown San Francisco, agrees with Cassata’s sentiment about why individuals fear coming out.

“You don’t just say it one time in your life and then you’re done,” Weidner said. “I wish it was just a singular event. It would make (coming out) much easier.”

Cassata said his confidence to speak out comes from his friends, his family and his music.

By the age of 21, Cassata became the youngest keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference and appeared on Larry King Live and The Tyra Banks Show to discuss his journey as a transgender man. Cassata has produced nine records and is embarking on his new album tour across the country April 17.

“As my friend, I would describe Ryan as unique but as an individual, seeing all things he’s doing now, I would say he is inspiring,” Prichard said. “He’s so concerned about others and knowing that he’s been bullied he doesn’t want anyone else to experience that.”

Cassata said his main focus in everything he does, whether it be his activism or music, was to give people hope.

“Every single experience I’ve (endured), no matter how negative, has helped me help someone else,” Cassata said.

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