I grew up with an image of myself that felt elusive. Seeking out my image — as to say one that I had in my head — was something that became, for self-preservation, gradually secretive. Even without the words to articulate what I was and what I was experiencing as a transgender man, I could sense that I was different and that my coveted images and aspirations greatly diverted from the norms.
Even as a child, a “tomboy,” a word that approximates something girlish in blue rather than pink, didn’t cut it. I dog-eared many J.C. Penney’s catalogues, tagging the of boys’ plaid shirts, sweaters, and sweater vests, some of which I did manage to get my parents to buy for me. Then there was borrowing my older Eagle Scout cousin’s copies of Boys’ Life Magazine, a monthly publication stuffed with images of the outdoors, volunteering, and a lot of flannel that promoted the Boy Scouts of America to its target audience of teenage boys. I wanted to wrestle and play baseball, marveling at the physiques of those athletes and wanting that for myself. I had played softball and done Taekwondo, but still I felt unfulfilled.
There were girls at my school who did high school wrestling or who were even able to make the baseball team. They were always presented as an exceptional female making it in a man’s world. That was not me and no amount of encouragement from others made me buy into myself under those terms, so I never pushed myself further in that direction. Feeling like I had no reference point as I came to terms with my gender identity, I feared that my distilled essence was always going to be a smudged question mark. I knew I was different but I had no tools, no images, and no words.
That changed once I was at Union College in Schenectady, New York. I began to have more autonomy. After a few years of wearing more feminine fashion, I had started to return to exclusively buy men’s clothes. That became an expensive trial, but worth it. While my college was never a lefty, activist campus, I got more familiarized with terms and language: gender identity, transgender, and gender dysphoria. Those terms applied to me, and indicated that there were others like me — but where were they other trans men?
When trying to track trans images in media that were widely available in the late aughts into the early part of this decade, options were limited to the film Boys Don’t Cry (traumatizing), the documentary Southern Comfort (depressing), a trans man appearing as a guest on Jerry Springer or Maury (salacious and frustrating), or something more respectful like a National Geographic story and accompanying photos (exoticizing). I am not afraid to say that the first positive trans male images I found and then actively sought out were in FTM-related online pornography. Porn comparatively felt like a positive step up from other forms of trans male visibility, mainly because the appeal felt less in the gaze of the cis dominant culture. The porn I watched featuring trans guys felt much more tailored to people like me. True, it was a pretty niche genre and usually required deep dives in Tumblr (back when the site still allowed porn). These online pursuits soon settled their focus exclusively on the porn performers. I started with Buck Angel, a trans porn pioneer who had just entered his fifties at the time and mainly did gay porn), but I soon became more inclined to follow people closer to my age, primarily James Darling and Billy Castro (now known as Tuck Mayo). Both were attractive, but Mayo, whose porn featured him with femme partners, was more of my type. Mayo was my aspiration: a fit, masculine jock who could work a baseball cap. I looked up every photo I could of him and then stumbled upon something that felt equal parts cool, funny, hot, and subversive: an image of Mayo posed in his bedroom in front of a blown up poster of Madonna, a still from her infamous Sex book, the diva fully nude and hitchhiking in traffic. Mayo was recreating that poster; he was also naked, standing with the same crossed legs that made the crotch area all the more eye-catching, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and clutching a jock strap rather than a purse. It was an intimate photo, something I had never seen before, or at least had never seen done before by a professional photographer on a trans male subject. The photographer was Amos Mac, co-founder of Original Plumbing, a magazine I’d never even heard of before. I opened up a new tab set on my MacBook once clicking the tag “Original Plumbing” and then began to explore more. I had hit gold.
Original Plumbing was the brainchild of photographers and artists Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos (stage name Katastrophe), who served as co-founders and editors-in-chief during the magazine’s decade-long run. They met when Mac wanted to photograph trans men in the San Francisco Mission District and Kayiatos was one of his early subjects. They immediately clicked with their mutual understanding and trust of each other’s body and artistic ideas. They saw one another, we might say, but they also shared what they were not seeing: images and stories of trans men. No matter how well-intentioned, photographs of trans men by cis people feel exoticizing, fascinated with nudity and locked in the gaze of an outsider. As such, they overly determined their subjects as consistently contemplative, often defaulting to full of shots of trans subjects looking pensively in the mirror as if to see their “true self.” These were narrative clichés, not real trans lives.
Articles on trans men were often not much better. As two artists who were involved in photography, music, and journalism, Kayiatos and Mac both experienced invasive questions regarding their transition stories. As they were seeing a small but growing trans masc community start to pop up in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, they wanted to develop an outlet for trans self-representation that fed their creativity as artists while doing the urgent political work of making the invisible visible and on its own terms. Mac had envisioned a trans guy version of the indie gay quarterly Butt Magazine. What they created was Original Plumbing.
OP began cheekily. The title reappropriated slang that described trans men who did not get bottom surgery (referred to in clinical terms as a phalloplasty). OP was a type of zine that, in its infancy, served as the teen magazine its creators and readership never had, with special issues on the body, hair, and grooming, with the experience of trans men going on hormones or just passing. The magazine was less of a tutorial on male transness than it was a spotlight on individual expressions of trans masculinity, often rendered through very personal histories. Even if you did not relate entirely to one such story, you might still connect to some part of it, finding the subject’s experience different and valuable. What is great about that issue of OP is the lack of a discernible editorial hardline that opened up space for a rich, complex, eclectic mix of opinions. Mac and Kayiatos displayed time after time, especially in their Editors’ Letters, that OP wasn’t a platform just for their own experiences, but rather for a much larger community. That was a mission on which OP delivered.
My relationship to Original Plumbing happened in a moment where I needed to see the world I felt pulled to in realizing my identity and, finally, in my transition. It was less about #transitiongoals and more about knowing that there were other people out there with their own stories, finding and believing that it was possible. To put it succinctly, OP was life-saving. What is quite notable in re-reading the early issues in Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture is that the collection feels less ensconced in nostalgia than I even expected. OP still has value to those who feel they are not seeing or reading themselves in media. It is a shame that the publication ceased this year, but Original Plumbing remains a present-tense text so as long as trans masculinity is around and for that it should be celebrated.