UPDATE: Catching Up with Trans Fraternity Brother Donnie Collins
By Benjamin Lindsay
It’s been three days since Out first broke the story of Donnie Collins and his Phi Alpha Tau brothers. It can now be seen everywhere from The Huffington Post to CNN. Again, I am a brother of Phi Alpha Tau’s Alpha Chapter, and for an effort that started with the hope of raising $2,000 in support of a brother, public response has been completely unexpected and so inspiringly supportive. To-date, the brotherhood’s indiegogo campaign has raised over $19,000. Approximately $8,100 of money raised will cover Donnie’s surgery in full, and any excess funds will be donated to The Jim Collins Foundation to help others like Donnie get the life-changing surgery they need.
Now after the whirlwind of media and his time in the national spotlight, Donnie is ready to move past the campaign. He speaks exclusively with OUT to reflect on the past week and to share his gratitude, his mission, and his reasons for needing to move beyond being the trans brother of that Boston fraternity.
OUT: So the last few days have obviously been pretty crazy. How are you doing?
Donnie Collins: Thank you for asking! Um, I’m doing okay. Definitely, I’ve experienced more highs in literally a 24-hour period than I’ve ever experienced in my life—so many dreams of mine have come true, from just me getting the money I need for my surgery to me raising awareness for a community that literally never has any awareness raised about it, to raising tons of money in excess of my surgery for a foundation that really needs it. It’s been incredible, and I definitely feel like this is the proudest moment of my entire transition. Not only am I accomplishing what I wanted to, but I can actually give back to a community that has given me a lot of support.
But I’m also, I guess, personally overwhelmed, because it has gone from being me and individuals within my community sharing my story with people who are at my college, people I live with, people I’m in a fraternity with, to having people I’ve never met in my life sending me Facebook messages saying nice things or saying mean things, and it’s definitely torn my privacy to shreds for two days.
Now, obviously you weren’t expecting any of that by first speaking with me for Out. What were you expecting?
No I was not expecting any of this. Basically, I was expecting a much more contained form of support. I know that right when the article went out, we were all very excited because we thought it would definitely come to attention. I honestly thought in my dreams that it would reach $4,000. I never thought in my life that we would actually raise the full amount for my surgery and then literally double it, if not more than double that. Watching that happen with the ‘refresh’ game that everyone’s been playing all week has been unreal.
And how are you going to go about thanking everyone who donated?
Well I know that we are going to be doing thank you notes because that was something that the brothers who set up the indiegogo thought would show exactly how grateful we are for all the help. I feel like the most important thing I can do is just respond to people who are sending me positive energy because that’s so great to receive, and I want them to know that I appreciate it and I’m hearing it and I’m sharing it with the people who are in this with me. So I’m just trying to be involved as actively as I can.
In the original thank you video you made for your YouTube channel, you offered to be there for advice or support for anyone who wants to contact you. Has anyone reached out to you for stuff like that, or has it mostly been showing you support?
It was really cool to get more involved on YouTube with this because YouTube was the way that I started my transition. That’s the way I learned what I needed to learn to actually reach out to people who were trans in my community. I would watch people’s videos—certain accounts in particular, I would watch them for months and months and I was with these people during their transition and I saw it was possible and I saw how much they improved. And I thought it was so cool to be able to come full circle within the past two years and post a video where I’m suddenly in control of my transition and things are going well, and I have the opportunity to help people.
I’ve actually gotten a lot of messages: everything from people who have trans friends and they want to know how to deal with it, to people who are trans and… several people contacted me and said, like, ‘You’ve given me the courage to come out because I know that no matter what happens with my family that the support that I feel from my friends and my community is gonna support me through whatever hardships I have.’ And that has been so overwhelmingly emotional because I was sending those messages a year ago, and to receive them now is just beautiful.
You had mentioned that you’re giving back with all these excess funds that are coming in. What is The Jim Collins Foundation?
Yeah—no relation to me, we just share a last name. Basically, The Jim Collins Foundation is an organization run by two incredible guys, Tony Ferraiolo and Dru Levasseur. They started it to collect donations and distribute funds for surgeries for transgender people who can’t afford them and need medical help. Basically, the more donations they get, the more donations they’re able to give out. It’s a lot like a scholarship, but instead of education funds, it’s medical and surgery funds. They accept applications (and their application period is coming up). Last year, they gave out two grants to a trans man and a trans woman for absolutely life-changing surgeries. So it’s basically what everyone’s been doing for me, but on a much more national level.
I know that we had talked about what to do with the extra money, and we don’t want to just, like, pick an individual. How would we go about doing that? The great thing about this foundation is that not only is it in the same line of what everyone donated for and what we’re doing, but they have experience with choosing who to give money to and who’s most in need. The trans community is very at-risk. They are incredibly at risk for suicide, unemployment, very high poverty rates, very high rates of sexual assault and abuse, and the people who get money from The Jim Collins Foundation are the people who really need it.
Not to mention the fact that Tony Ferraiolo ran the trans youth support group that I attended for a half year in New Haven, Connecticut where I met a lot of my best friends and I basically realized that there’s a community for me aside from the one of allies and other LGBT-identified people. [Tony] was one of the first adult trans men that I met, and listening to his story and having him in my life changed my life. So to be able to send him a message saying, ‘You might get $10,000 from me and the brothers of Phi Alpha Tau,’ and have him be like, ‘I can’t believe that I’m so proud—you’re representing the community,’ and he said I remind him of him when he was my age… it’s just really been a full-circle experience of going from someone who was terrified and didn’t know anything and needed support and had nothing, to someone who’s now in the position to give support and educate and thank all of the people who have helped him along the way. It’s probably the most fulfilling part for me out of all of this. It’s really freakin’ cool.
Ferraiolo said that you’re ‘representing the trans community.’ What has the response been like from that community?
That was definitely one of the coolest things for me about this experience: to be able to stand up and represent the trans community. Obviously, I can never do that to everyone’s satisfaction. There are always going to be people within the community that don’t like my message, that don’t like how I’ve gone about my transition, that will judge me for asking for help, or will judge people for offering to help me with a surgery that they consider is something that I should take care of myself because that’s what they’ve had to do. Overall, for me, it’s been completely positive. It is difficult sometimes because the trans community has such little resources that there is a lot of in-fighting and a lot of judgment.
The word ‘transgender’ means something different to everyone, and everyone who is transgender defines their transition and their identity in a different way. So it’s very difficult to ‘represent’ a community that is very complex and very intricate. That’s one of the things that makes it a difficult community to educate about, but it also makes it really worthwhile. So I’ve just been trying to say to whoever I talk to that my transition is one of a multitude of ways to be a transgender person and there’s no ‘right’ way. And with that message, I think I’ve gotten a lot of support from the social networks I’ve been on, but I’ve definitely gotten a bit of hate from trans people who are like, ‘You’re so lucky to have these connections, why don’t you help other trans people fund their surgeries?’ Basically accusing me of just taking advantage of help to get excess money for myself, which isn’t true, so that’s a big part of why I decided to donate to the Jim Collins Foundation, to give back to the community and not just take.
I know these past couple days have been rough on you—you said that in the very beginning. We’ve spoken about it as a fraternity, and you kind of want to wrap up this whole process—this whole media frenzy. What are your plans for the future, and what are you taking away from all this?
Yeah, um, I guess my reason for wrapping up is, having spoken to the brotherhood and having talked to people over the past few days who are both contacting me because of this and who are helping and who are interested in interviewing us excessively, I feel like we are at risk of overexposing ourselves. I know that the brothers who started this have accomplished what they wanted, which was to help a member of their community. Once I joined their effort, I’ve gotten so much out of this, not just for me but for my community. You know, my college is being lauded as awesome, Phi Alpha Tau is getting a lot of amazing press, the trans community is getting more awareness in the last week than I’ve seen in awhile, so it’s been so positive.
But I do feel like we’ve done what we set out to do, and there’s no reason to continue unless we have a coherent message beyond that. And while I’ve tried to use this visibility to the best of my ability to educate and spread awareness, I’m not really in a place in my life where I can dedicate my life to doing that. I love the fact that I can be a role model or I can be someone to contact about trans issues, but I’m also a lot more than a trans person, and that’s the risk that you run with being visible. For the first time today I had a reporter ask me what I’m at college for and what my interests are, and it was a little frustrating that I’ve just been ‘a trans man’ to almost anyone who’s done my story, and that can be really frustrating because a huge message to propagate from the trans community is that trans people are people—they are men and they are women and they are trans-identified. So it’s really frustrating to just be given a label even if it does help visibility for my community. And I know that it’s been something that I’ve been conflicted with for awhile—whether or not I wanna be out all the time or whether I wanna be stealth and not have to face this every day. But it’s just a conflict that I’m going to have to continue to think about, and hopefully I can continue to do stuff like this. But I do kind of need time for me away from everything.
Are there any closing words that you’d like to share with Phi Alpha Tau and with everyone who’s helped you out in this process?
I joined this fraternity because I went to the meet-and-greet and I basically had never been in a room with so many people I thought were awesome and admired and respected, and I joined because I wanted to better myself and I wanted to sort of have something in the community that wasn’t obsessed over me transitioning. And it just so happened to become this marriage of two things where not only did I get this amazing new community with people that I adore and want to work with professionally and just have interpersonal relationships with, but I also met a community of people who wanted to share my story and care about me and help me in a really difficult part of my life.
So there’s really nothing that I can say besides ‘thank you,’ which really just doesn’t cut it. All I can do is be the best active brother that I can be for the rest of my time here at Emerson. Just seeing what they’ve done with my story just makes me so confident of what this fraternity is capable of and what the people that I can now call my brothers are capable of. So… awesome!