By: Suzanne Stuller, Contributing Writer and Kerry Ingram, Associate Arts & Life Editor
Photo by David Kirchner; photo illustration by Victoria Nicholson/ The Towerlight.
Growing up in Aurora, Nebraska, Ryan Sallans had been born into what he deemed a “relatively normal” family. He enjoyed the outdoors and participated in sports, but one of his favorite things to do as a child was play dress-up. Superman was his favorite persona to dress up as.
Superman was Sallans’ idol, and they had a lot in common. Both held optimism and strength in their characters, but the biggest similarity between the two didn’t lie in their certainties. Both Superman and Sallans had split identities that they were trying to wrap their heads around. One of them had to face the world as a “Clark Kent” while hiding their strongest self from those around them. The other had to face the world as someone who was assigned female at birth, despite knowing his true identity.
Sallans, a transgender activist and author, knew he was a boy since he was two years old. However, it wasn’t until he conquered anorexia and felt confident in his sexuality that he transitioned from female to male at age 25.
On Feb. 28, roughly 100 Towson students gathered in the Potomac Lounge of the University Union to listen to Sallans speak about his life story as a transgender man and survivor of anorexia.
Sallans, who felt uncomfortable in his body from a young age, struggled with the eating disorder as a teenager, and found that therapy and art were his outlets to changing his life. After attempting suicide twice, he began to search for more meaning to his life.
Sallans continued his schooling, and served as a peer educator for an eating disorder awareness and prevention group during his time at college.
“I loved doing education,” Sallans said. “I had anorexia, so I wanted to help educate others about the topic. But I never shared my story, especially with my eating disorder.”
Sallans initially came out as a lesbian. But at age 25, after coming across a photography book titled “Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits” by Loren Cameron which documented the process of transitioning and how trans men live their lives, he was inspired to make a change.
“Seeing everybody’s pictures of who was born female and transitioned to male made me realize it was possible for me to do too,” Sallans said.
He came out again, although this time as a transgender man. From that point on, Sallans went through the process of transitioning. He began his physical transitional journey with having chest surgery, before taking testosterone and eventually undergoing gender confirmation surgery.
When Sallans graduated from graduate school, he was hired as a health educator with Planned Parenthood, with a focus on doing LGBTQ+ work and speaking on body image and eating disorders.
“I was fortunate in this time to be part of a documentary called ‘Gender Rebel’ on the Logo TV network,” Sallans said. “That documentary aired and I had a student reach out from Ohio and say, ‘Hey, will you come to our campus and speak?’ And so I said yes, and each year it slowly evolved to the point where I started doing it, where it was now my job.”
Ashley Ayoub, a Towson alum, expressed how beneficial it is for survivors of eating disorders like Sallans to share their stories and support students who are going through similar situations.
“I’m a family therapist,” Ayoub said. “I work for Sheppard Pratt and it’s National Eating Disorder Week (Feb. 26 through March 4). I’m here to support people who have experienced struggle with anorexia or eating disorders like Ryan.”
Sallans now speaks on various college campuses, talking about his difficulties with anorexia and living life as a transgender man. He encouraged Towson students to be more vulnerable and honest with who they truly are.
“It can be so scary when we start to learn more and more about ourselves,” Sallans said. “It may be different than what other people assumed about us, or what our family excepted from us, since we have different views from them, but it’s so important to just be who we are and work through the tensions we have in our relationships. If we’re not our authentic selves, we can’t push ourselves or other people as well.”
Sallans also emphasized that those who are critical often are the ones with the problem. He said his father was unsupportive of his transition but finally accepted him over time. To Sallans, his dad’s evolution in viewpoint showed that it was possible for people to change, but that they must be educated in order for such a change to occur.
Although Sallans continues to receive negative comments on Twitter and YouTube, he stays positive by connecting with those who support him.
“When people are saying things about you, it’s not you, it’s them,” Sallans said. “We must detach from negative energy.”
Elizabeth McLaren, a junior at Towson, shared how she was glad Sallans came to speak, especially since she expressed that the transgender community is growing, but its exposure is limited.
“I wanted to come to this event to see a transgender individual actually talk about their struggles … because the community itself is really underrepresented,” McLaren said. “This could really open up people’s understanding of individuals like Ryan.”
According to a study conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, the number of transgender people receiving gender confirmation surgeries increased nearly four-fold between 2000 and 2014.
Sallans encourages those who want to transition to honor their truths, encouraging many individuals to take charge of their life.
Chris Cobb, a Towson junior, had a better sense of clarity on the LGBTQ+ community after hearing Sallans speak.
“I really enjoyed this event,” Cobb said. “It gave me a better sense of what transgender [individuals] actually go through.”
Sallans’ book, “Second Son: Transitioning Toward my Destiny, Love, and Life” is a biography about his eating disorder and transgender life that was released in 2012. Copies were sold after the event Wednesday night and can be found on his website.