Black History Month is often focused on prolific members of the Black community throughout history who contributed to the world in the name of betterment, and while they are incredibly important to our community, we often overlook those who are still alive and continuing to make a difference. We know that much of the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation has largely been led by Black members of the community who often don’t get enough credit for their contributions. This year, the Autostraddle team decided to focus our Black History Month coverage on the Black elders who are still here and still doing the work.
We connected with Black elders through a partnership with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBTQ+ older people and their caregivers. Autostraddle was honored to talk with five Black LGBTQ+ elders, and we’ll be publishing these interviews throughout the month of February. We welcome our readers to celebrate these members of the Black LGBTQ+ community with us, while they’re still here to be celebrated.
Our first interview subject is Ray Gibson, a Black trans man who is an Air Force veteran, a longtime LGBTQ+ activist and an all around good time. This interview was edited for clarity.
Sa’iyda: Thank you so much for doing this. I’m so excited to have a chat just about you and your life and things you’ve experienced. So I guess, tell me about your early life. Let’s start at the beginning.
Ray: Well, I’m a son of the baseball legend Bob Gibson. And that in and of itself set me on a course that is very unique in this country because I’m Black. And being a celebrity trust me, it was wild. It was very wild, very jet set. But that was my normal, so I didn’t know I was that different until I got older.
But when I got older, I definitely knew where my drive came from, where my winning attitude came from, where all of that came from, was my childhood. And I got to travel a lot; I’ve lived all over this country. I’ve traveled abroad by myself. So I had a lot of culture, a lot of strength from the 1960s. And basically I was just really fearless because my dad was the same way and I watched him like a hawk. And so everything about that life ended up a part of me.
Then I joined the service. My cousin told me just a year ago that I told her and another cousin of mine that I was going into the service for them to make me a better man. Now, I don’t remember saying that, but I have no doubt it came out of my mouth. Things like that came out of my mouth from time to time, and when I was aware of it coming out of my mouth, I was horrified because I didn’t understand where it came from. I’m like, “Where in the hell did that come from?” I told my mom when I was 13 that I wanted a sex change. And I’d never heard of such a thing. I didn’t know of anything like that at 13 years old in 1970.
I didn’t know anything about that world, but it came out of my mouth. But as soon as it came out of my mouth I was like, “Oh, shit. What did I just say?” It was the day my menstrual cycle started and I was beside myself because that was the final straw to the illusion that I had that I thought I was a boy.
Sa’iyda: Did you feel that you were a boy from a young age?
Ray: From six. I made up all these weird things. Like, okay, well, I was six. And then when I was eight, I was playing hide and go seek with these boys, and they exposed their penises to me in the bushes. And I thought, “Oh, what funny looking little worms.” But the first thing I thought was, “Where’s mine?”
And so from that age until about the sixth grade, I just blanked out. I didn’t know what to think, I was very confused. I thought I was a boy. I thought I was a girl. I didn’t know what was going on. And then we had sex education, and I made up that I was just latent and my penis would grow in puberty. It was just in my head. I mean, I just thought that’s what was going to happen. So when the opposite things happened, it freaked me out.
Sa’iyda: Right. You have your menstrual cycle, you begin to—
Ray: And the boobs.
Sa’iyda: Right, I was going to say that you begin to develop breasts.
Ray: The boobs started showing and all this stuff was like, “Oh my God, my dog gone body done defied me.” And I didn’t have nobody to talk to. I mean, these were just all things I was thinking, and I didn’t know how to talk about them. I didn’t know how to articulate nothing. I barely spoke as a child. And I was an athlete as well.
Sai: So that definitely had some sort of effect on your body as well.
Ray: The fact that I didn’t grow anymore is what had an effect on me. And them boys kept getting bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier, and I had to stop playing with them because they were starting to hurt me. But I played just about every sport, and I was on the track team. I was just a great athlete. I took after my dad. That stuff was in my blood, and I was just very serious about it. So I’d say what my background gave me was just this insane amount of ambition. I mean, I wasn’t going to be stopped by nothing. Even if I had to cheat, lie, steal, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to be stopped. I was going to win at all costs.
Sa’iyda: Let’s talk about what it was like growing up Black, even though you were the child of a celebrity, in the 60s and 70s.
Ray: It was a trip. I mean, there were things that we had to do. My mother used to like to take us to where my dad was training in the winter in Florida. We had to pee on the side of the road going cross country, because there was still white only bathrooms. And the gas stations wouldn’t let us use the bathroom at the gas station so we had to pee on the side of the car.
Now, as a child, I thought that was a little adventurous, and I asked my mother why. And of course, we were too young for her to really explain it to us, but it was annoying. I mean, who the hell wants to piss on the side of a car? The 60s was very tumultuous. And as a child observing that, I observed more of my mother’s reaction to what was going on than anything.
Sa’iyda: Were you and your mother close?
Ray: Well, yeah, because she raised us. My dad was gone nine to 10 months out of the year, every year for my entire childhood and my teenage years. He retired when I was 16 or 15, something like that.
But yeah, my mother’s reaction, and she got put in jail for sit-ins and stuff like that, which my father was like, “You can’t do that. You’re Bob Gibson’s wife. You can’t be getting arrested.” And she just looked at him like, “Mm-hmm whatever, Bob.” My mom was a fireball. And so when people or leaders were getting assassinated and stuff like that, she would just bawl her head off. Hell, she bawled her head off for Kennedy and just the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King.
And she didn’t much care for Malcolm X, and I never asked her why. But I am more like Malcolm X than I am them other guys. So because of them and what my father was, my father had his way of dealing with it too in professional baseball. He got the entire league to integrate. Him, Bill White, and Curt Flood got together and got the entire Major League Baseball to integrate, and stopped putting the Black players over here and the white players over there. So that was his effort of the 1960s.
At the time, it was very important because the way they made the Black players live, it was disgusting. I mean, they put them in boarding homes and stuff. Or sent them over to some Black woman’s house who took care of them and had extra rooms in the house. And just the way they had to live versus these highfalutin hotels and stuff that the white players got to be in. And it wasn’t as effective. The teams weren’t as effective when the Black players had to deal with all that extra stress. So growing up in that, again, when you’re in that, it looks normal.
Because everybody was going through it. And I kept wishing I was older, and I could go to the places my mom was going because I wanted to complain about it too. I wanted to be a part of it too.
That was one of the most remarkable times in the history of this country. But at the time, it sucked. And they put us in a white neighborhood, all white neighborhood when my dad started making money. And he moved us out of the hood and that’s when all of the interesting shit began.
Sa’iyda: Oh, I’m sure.
Ray: All the racism. But again, when my dad was gone, my mom was kicking butt at home. I remember getting called a jigaboo or something by this little boy that was chasing me down a hill. And I turned around and busted his tooth out of his mouth. So I got sent to the principal’s office, and my mom got called. And she came to the school and she asked me first what happened, and I told her. And then she sat there and listened to the principal, and then she said, “You know what? Huh, I give my child full permission to kick anybody’s butt who calls them out by name.” All they could say was okay, because my mom was a fireball. She wasn’t playing when it came to her kids.
And I was only four foot nothing until I got to high school, but they were afraid of me because of the TV. The way the media portrayed Black people is scary and mean. So they automatically assumed that’s what I was. And after busting that kid’s tooth out, nobody ever called me that name or any names again.
So yeah, I went through the 60s and the 70s, and then I left home, things were a lot different by then, though.
Sa’iyda: Right. So let’s move to that. You went into the military?
Ray: After falling flat on my face trying to live. I got kicked out of the house because my dad did not like the idea that I was into women. And so I fell flat on my face. And after scrunching around, ended up with the wrong crowd, getting involved in drugs and alcohol, all that whole scene. I had a brief one-night stand with a celebrity, but we ended up friends. I was just a kid. In fact, she had no business messing around with me with her over that. She was in her 30s and I was 17. But she talked me into joining the service. She said, “You are too smart. You have an excellent mind. You’re just throwing it away in these streets, and these people will kill you out here. Stop messing around with these people in the streets. You have no business. Join the service.” And I said, “yeah, okay.” And a year later I did.
Sa’iyda: So you were 18, 19? And if I’m clocking this right, we’re now in the late 70s, early 80s. And what form of the military did you join?
Ray: The Air Force.
Sa’iyda: And what was that like?
Ray: Oh, God. Well, you know what, it gave me the training of my lifetime. I had an awesome career with it, but at the time, I couldn’t stand it because I was the wrong gender. And somehow in my head, I knew that. I knew it. I used to sit there and watch the guys.
And then I was the only Black person, the only Black person that showed up on my unit for about the first six months to a year. And the guys used to try to hit on me. So there was a lot of sexual harassment going on. And then there was racism too.
And I didn’t dare come out about being a lesbian. That’s what I thought I was. That’s the only thing I could relate to was my body, not my mentality. So that’s what I thought I was. And back then you could not, there was no, don’t ask, don’t tell, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You got kicked out of the service if they found out. So I was in the closet.
Sa’iyda: So you were in the closet, you’re dealing with sexual harassment, you’re dealing with racism. And at the same time, you’re dealing with the understanding that the body that you are in is not quite right.
Ray: Not quite. Something was wrong. Something was off. And I kept thinking, why aren’t I being… Even in bootcamp, it was like, why aren’t I being trained with the men? I just had no… But see, again, I didn’t have nobody to tell this stuff too. So it was just tormenting me in my head. And then I would have to just keep it moving because there was nothing I thought I could do about it.
Sa’iyda: Right. And at the time, had you ever seen a trans person?
Sa’iyda: Did you know anything about trans people?
Ray: Nope. I knew about transvestites, drag queens, and another word. But I bumped into one in a club one time, and I still didn’t know that was a transgender woman.
Sa’iyda: But you had never seen trans men?
Ray: No, I didn’t even know trans men existed until I saw Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars. There was this long stretch in between when I fought in the military and finding out about Chaz Bono that I just tried to bury that stuff because it was just annoying. Because there was nothing I thought I could do about it. I didn’t know what, I had no verbiage. I had no English for what was really going on with me. And when I saw Chaz Bono, I about pissed my pants. I really was like, “What the what?”
Sa’iyda: Right. Because growing up, you had known Chaz as Chastity.
Ray: That’s exactly what I said when I saw him on the TV was, “Wait a minute, wasn’t that Chasity? And what they doing with all that fucking hair on his face? And what’s the what?” I was all confusing the pronouns. At first. And then I had to hear every single time that if they interviewed that guy, I had to hear what they said. Because all of a sudden, everything that I ever thought about myself came rushing back to me. But I still fought it. I was scared. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what it would mean for my life. I had no idea how Chaz got to be Chaz. I was looking around seeing how transgender people were being treated, and I didn’t want to go through that bullshit all over again that I went through when people thought I was a lesbian. I got beat up. I got called names. I got all sorts of stuff happening, and I didn’t want to go through that. I thought, “Come out again as an elder, the middle aged?” I said, “No, I don’t want nothing to do with this.” So I tried to leave it alone, but it didn’t leave me alone.
Sa’iyda: So you tried to outrun it.
Ray: I could not outrun it. I could not. Because despite what I tried to do, I went home. I was in a deep depression at the time that had nothing to do with that, had to do with my life, losing track of my career, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
And so all I did was research. I moved to Atlanta. I was in Texas at the time, and I moved to Georgia and got a therapist. And told the therapist that I think that I’m like Chaz Bono. And she said, “Yippee.” She was excited.
She said, “Oh, I’ve got transgender clients.” And I looked at her like, “Lady, I just gave myself a death sentence, and you’re happy about it.” So she would try to get me to talk about it, and I refused to talk. I didn’t even know what my concern was. I just know I was mad that she wanted me to talk about it because I didn’t want to talk about it.
So I ran from it for four years. I ran, tried to run. And then when I’d leave her office, I’d go home and research transgender and what that was. Every day. Every day I was researching it.
I got a hold of this huge research guide so I could read all sorts of stuff in it. I can’t remember its name anymore. But I kept researching it. So despite my best effort to bury it, and, “Oh no, I’ll be a lesbian.” I told my therapist, “I’ll be a lesbian the rest of my life. I don’t care. I don’t want to be trans. I don’t want to have to come out to my family all over again. I don’t want any of that.” Because the first time was bad enough. Can you imagine what they’ll do about me saying, “I’m a man.” Oh, come on now. But it wouldn’t leave me alone.
I didn’t know people saw it. People saw it, I was the last one to know.
My relatives have told me they saw it when I was really young. I was really different. So I told the woman I was dating at the time. And then sometime between me telling her and the end of that year, I finally embraced it. Actually, I made an appointment. I told my PCP at the VA that I thought I was a man. I might be a man.
And she said, “Okay.” She set an appointment. She didn’t even ask me no questions. She saw it too. And she set me up an appointment with an endocrinology doctor. And I chickened out of the appointment. That was in 2014. And I got scared. I got scared of the side effects of testosterone on an elder. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And then the surgeries appalled me. I was like, “Oh, no. Surgery at my age? Oh, man.” So I was 58 years old.
Sa’iyda: But you weren’t that old.
Ray: Well, I was older than everybody else that was in that world. Although I wasn’t really connected to that world, I didn’t know anything about it until I started to transition. And then I dove head first. I don’t do anything half ass. I don’t do anything halfway. I dove right in. I mean, I’m living my best life because I finally found the missing link to me. I’ve always been an overachiever.
Sa’iyda: What was that like? When you finally stopped running.
Ray: It was euphoria. It was pure bliss for about a year. I was so happy. I was so beside myself, relieved. It’s like 1000 pounds lifted off of my shoulders. I felt like, wow, this was it. I said, “I’m amazed I did so well considering I have that fighting against me.” But I managed to keep putting it out of my consciousness every time some thought would come up about it. I would just, oh, keep it moving. Just don’t even. Yeah, okay. I heard that, but let’s go this way.
I didn’t have any choice because I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know what had happened to me at birth. I didn’t know any of that. I just knew I just had to grin and bear it, because I didn’t know I could do anything about it. But once I found out that I could, wow. Now everything happened in stages, of course. I first started on HRT. Then came binders, packers. Oh my God. The first time I bought a packer. Oh my God. It was my missing penis that was supposed to grow.
I was so happy that I got kicked off of Facebook for posting myself in my briefs and my packer with my packer on. I didn’t have it exposed. I was taking pictures, snap, snap, snap. I couldn’t stop looking down. I was like, “Oh, oh, oh, oh. This was it. This was it.” Then I got a binder and I thought, “Okay, this is it. This was the way my chest was supposed to look like when I was 12.” But the first thing I knew I had to do, because I didn’t have civilian insurance, was to get top surgery. And it took me four or five years because I was on a fixed income, and the veterans don’t give us surgeries. They cover the HRT, but not gender confirmation surgery. So I finally did some things and ended up having some money to get my top surgery. And oh, wow.
I’ve got three birthdays a year. I’ve got my natal birthday, I got my manniversary, and my sobriety date. I’ll be 40 in May. 40 years clean and sober.
I’m writing a book about my life. It got real difficult when my dad passed away.
Sa’iyda: So how did your relationship change? I know he had kicked you out because you said you were lesbian.
Ray: He kind of freaked. Well, I was so much older. I was 58 when I told him. And he just was like, “Okay.” I suppose he talked to my brother and his new wife, his second wife. He must have talked to them about it, but he wouldn’t talk to me about it. So I knew something was up. And I kept telling my brother, “Something’s up with Dad.” “Oh, he’s happy that you’re happy.” And I said, “That doesn’t mean he’s happy.” That’s code for, “I don’t want to talk about my feelings about this.”
My sister passed away and I had to go home. But I had to go home with hair on my face. And I present as male 24/7. There’s no distinction anymore. And [my dad] kept staring at me. I was like, “Is he staring at me because he’s curious? Is he staring at me because he’s mad? Or is he staring at me because he’s glad?”
I kept ignoring him because I have a habit of exciting the entire fricking room when I’m in a room. So everybody was talking to me at the same time, but he was just staring. And finally he said, “Ray.” I said, “What?” He said, “Do you ever shut up?” I said, “Yeah, when I go to sleep.” Everybody started laughing, started talking again.
He was mad that I changed my name. I legally changed everything. I changed my birth certificate too. And he was upset about that. I practically had to force him to at least say it so that we could begin to grapple with it. And on his deathbed, he called me a man. It was bittersweet — that’s what I’d been wanting my whole life from him, but it was too late to build any kind of relationship off of that.
He never knew what to do. He didn’t know what to do with me as a lesbian. He sure enough didn’t know what to do with me as a man. He was like, “How?” I just wanted him to say it, say something so we can talk about it. Say, “How now can you see yourself as a man? What’s up with that?” But funny thing about straight folk, well cis gender folks, even if they’re lesbian, even if they’re part of the LGB, is they don’t ask questions.
I told everybody in my family, “Look, you don’t have to accept what I am. But it sure would help if you understood a little bit about it, because y’all are coming from a funny place that I can see. And not knowing anything, even though you love me, is still awkward.”
Sa’iyda: Right, right. So how did you get involved with SAGE?
Ray: Long time ago, in the beginning of my transition, I was interviewed by one of the guys on the board. We talked to each other a couple of times a year. And he got involved in SAGE, and then he turned me onto them. I’m looking at them like I look at the whole rest of [the LGBTQ community]. Wondering, okay, when is my personality going to come out and they’re going to get turned off? So I’m just observing, and because I’m a veteran, it kind of takes me out of the whole healthcare side of it. So SAGE isn’t going to be able to touch that, and I can’t touch the civilian side.
I do this interview thing at least three times a year. And I also help the diversity training at the VA for incoming interns. I get to talk to them about being a Black trans man. And my doctors tell me that I turn their training into an experience and they never forget me.
Sa’iyda: I am sure you do because this has been a real experience.
Ray: Has it been fun?
Sa’iyda: It has, it has.
Ray: Well it’s been great. Thank you. Thank you for your time.
Sa’iyda: Oh, anytime truly.
Click here to read the full piece. This story was originally published in Autostraddle on February 1, 2023.