Trans-positive: Tristan Byrnes, a compassionate voice for the transgender community

By : Krista DiTucci
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Amidst the transgender community’s tragedies and struggles in 2015, local hero Tristan Byrnes has been fighting to raise awareness and celebrate the community’s victories.

Byrnes, licensed mental health counselor, provides assistance in gender issues through his private practice, New Transition Therapy. But he feels his advocacy for the transgender community should extend beyond one-on-one work in order to make a real difference.

“I do great work helping one-on-one, but I see the systematic issues going on as well,” Byrnes says. “To help the individual, I have to bring awareness or else I’m only doing half my job. We have to fix the rest of it to make everything else okay.”

Byrnes says he feels strongly about trans issues because he is transgender himself. He completed his transition ten years ago under Dr. Kathleen Farrell’s wing.

“She (Dr. Farrell) is my mentor and pseudo mom,” Byrnes says. “We had the conversation of ‘Are you doing what you want to do or not?’ and, if not, let’s face that and see how you can better your life. I told her I wanted to be a counselor and she gently pushed me to go back to school after my transition.”

Byrnes went on to receive his master’s degree in mental health from USF-Tampa, through which his roots in activism were planted. Byrnes often brought up transgender issues in the classroom, and several of his peers said they would not have known about transgender issues if it wasn’t for him. Byrnes returns to USF at least once a semester to lead guest lectures on transgender issues.

“I ended up becoming an activist unbeknownst to me, but that’s okay (laughing),” Byrnes says.

Byrnes is renowned in Tampa Bay for his expertise in transgender medical issues. In 2015, he organized the second annual Metro Wellness Tampa Bay Trans Pride, as well as several Metro Wellness transgender panels. Byrnes originally launched the panels as a result of the “bathroom bill.”

“Everyone was super scared about it, so I thought, ‘Let’s come together and face it and see how we will handle it.’” Byrnes says.

Additionally, Byrnes serves on the board of Trans Action Florida, allowing him to receive insider political information which he is able to share with the community. Byrnes says being on the board has given him a “little arsenal” of forces through which members can support each other and tap into each other’s resources. He often joins forces with fellow Trans Action board member Nathan Brenner and says they are a powerful duo because Brenner’s strength is education and Byrnes’s is medical.

Additionally, because of his occupation, Byrnes knows who to ask for help and what information is needed to rally people for a cause. Through Byrnes’s help, many transgender individuals showed up in Tallahassee last spring for Lobby Days.

“We needed a lot of trans men to go to Lobby Days to lobby against the bathroom bill,” Byrnes says. “We wanted to prove that if you pass this bill, you’re saying people like me have to go into the women’s room which defeats the purpose.”

After launching the transgender panels, Metro Wellness employees decided to hold quarterly Transgender Town Hall meetings to keep people abreast of what was happening in the trans community. From there, Byrnes started leading diversity panels.

“I heard there was somewhat of a disconnect between the ‘LGB’ and ‘T’ communities,” Byrnes says. “I was trying to open up awareness, and it was very well received which made me happy.”

Byrnes says he thinks conditions are improving for the trans community considering the number of community members and allies who have shown up for the diversity panels. To thank allies for their support, Byrnes honors at least one ally each year at Trans Pride.

“A lot of the issues that come up involve a lack of knowledge from people, and that’s why the diversity panels come up,” Byrnes says. “If I can get others to hear stories and get some knowledge, we at least get some allies. We aren’t a big enough community to do it on our own.”

Additionally, Byrnes says the 2015 Trans Pride celebration attracted a larger crowd than last year. He witnessed two powerful stories from teenagers at the celebration: one asked intelligent questions to help him figure out his own place in the community, and the other shared his experience in turning a bully around by simply being himself and reminding him that he’s a normal guy.

“Scott (Turner Schofield) said, ‘I think I’m feeling a feeling I’ve never felt before – hope.’” Byrnes says. “Those connections matter more than how many people are there.”

Byrnes says he is hoping to hold more panels next year and continue Tampa Bay Trans Pride annually. He says he would like to address employment issues since findings in his recent transgender needs survey revealed that employment and underpayment were the largest needs. Byrnes says more than half of participants reported making less than $30,000 annually. He would like to figure out how the community can bridge the gap and whether employment issues are transgender-specific.

When Byrnes isn’t counseling patients or raising his voice in the community, he is counseling full-time through the Employee Assistance Program, leading support groups and community education, and spending time with his family. Byrnes has a 19-year-old daughter who he adopted when she was 16 years old. He also has a partner, a dog, and maintains a close relationship with his mother.

Byrnes says he feels one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is watching clients finally feeling comfortable in their own skin and seeing their families becoming supportive.

“It’s cool because I can watch at a distance and I don’t have a direct influence on that,” Byrnes says. “It’s just really that the client is stepping into themselves, and other people are seeing that, and knowing that through my direct contact with them, I’m kind of making that happen. That’s how change happens.”

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