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Meet Dorothy Awards honoree Tony Ferraiolo!

Published Jan 28, 2011

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Tony Ferraiolo

As part of our series of articles on the Dorothy Awards, we are reviving our interviews with our honorees so you can get to know them a bit better.  Co-President Thomas Donato spoke recently with honoree Tony Ferraiolo about his work and what's to come in 2011.

Tell us the story behind the Jim Collins Foundation.

In 2004, I came to terms with being transgender. As most people know, transitioning is not a one-size- fits-all.  Not all transgender people need gender-confirming surgery as part of their transition, but for me, it was necessary. For years, I struggled with the feeling of being trapped in a body that did not match my gender.

In March of 2005, I had chest reconstructive surgery. I was fortunate enough to have the funds to pay for it. I remember when the surgeon took my bandages off and said, “Well Tony, aren’t you going to look in the mirror?” I was scared, not knowing what I would see; I stood in front of the mirror and for the first time in 41 years, my mind and my body matched and my life changed instantly. A few days later, I started thinking about the men and women in my community who never would feel that sense of wholeness, simply because they did not have the money to pay for their surgeries. I thought about starting a foundation to fund surgeries, but the thought of doing it alone was too overwhelming.

In February of 2007, I met Dru Levasseur and I knew I found my Co-Founder. The foundation started taking shape and we are now a 501(c)3 organization.

The foundation is named after Jim Collins who was my therapist when I started my transition. He was the first person to tell me that I wasn’t broken. Jim was an avid supporter and ally to the transgender community, advocating for the right of all people to live their lives with honesty and passion. On December 16, 2006, Jim Collins passed away unexpectedly at his home in West Haven, CT. The intent of this foundation is to honor his legacy.

Where does your passion for transgender youth activism comes from?

My passion for the youth of my community comes from my own struggles as a youth. When I was growing up there wasn’t a word for who I was. I felt alone and scared most of the time. I was bullied and called a freak most of my childhood, with no one to turn to. After I transitioned my life changed, and I wanted to give back to my community. When I became a True Colors mentor, I was amazed at how much a transgender youth's outlook on life can change from hopelessness to hopefulness, just by being affirmed in their gender. I realized there was a need for a transgender-specific support group in Connecticut, so with the support of many, I started two transgender youth groups --- Translation and Create Yourself Art Group.

In your eyes, what is the most important transgender issue facing our local community today, and what can we all do to address that issue?

The most important issue facing CT right now is that we do not have a state non-discrimination law that includes gender identity and gender expression. This means that while state statute protects people from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and credit based on their membership in a protected class, gender identity and gender expression are not included in those protected classes. In 2011, a bill called An Act Concerning Discrimination will be raised in the CT General Assembly. This bill will add gender identity and gender expression to CT non-discrimination law, making it illegal to discriminate against someone because their gender identity or expression is perceived to not match their assigned sex at birth. This will go a long way in protecting transgender people from discrimination.

I am an active leader in ctEQUALITY, the coalition of organizations from all over the state leading the effort to pass this bill and we always need more people to join us and talk to their legislators, write a letter to their editor, and make themselves available for events that will help us pass this legislation. People can find out more about ctEQUALITY and get involved by visiting ctEQUALITY.com

What are some of your favorite things to do in New Haven?

New Haven is such a great city! Some of my favorite things to do are going to Yale Art Museum and attending concerts on the green. Some of my favorite hang outs are 168 York Street Cafe, Kudeta Restaurant, and Firehouse 12.

What can we look forward to from the Jim Collins Foundation in 2011?

The Jim Collins Foundation is happy to announce that we will be giving our first grant for gender-confirming surgeries in 2011.  We plan to expand our fundraising this year and will be reaching out to all communities to support our efforts to raise awareness about the critical need for transition-related health care. To learn more about how to support the Jim Collins Foundation, please go to www.jimcollinsfoundation.org.

I know that you are an artist, too; why is art so important to you?

Art has played a very important role in my healing because it allowed me to take the emotions I had bottled up inside and instead of inflicting this pain on myself, I was able to release it on canvas.  The art I have created over the years tells the story of my life, through my gender transition and through my journey to heal old wounds. 

Who is your personal icon?

Jamison Green is my personal icon.  He is one of the most passionate leaders in our community and has paved the path for us by unselfishly dedicating his life to help people who often have no voice themselves. His book, “Becoming A Visible Man” helped me realize that we are more than our gender, and that being transgender can be a gift. When I met him in person, I was amazed about how open and kind he was.  He took the time to talk to me, coach me, and help me believe in myself.  Everything he has told me has made me a better a person.  His encouragement along the way has made me a stronger activist and I am honored to know him.

Who or what inspires you?

My community inspires me, for their courage to live the lives they live. Even knowing that you could lose friends, family, and your job, and face extreme discrimination, my community still has the courage to come out and be their authentic selves.  I am also inspired by the transgender people who have come before me and who have paved the path for me to exist today. 

Tell us something about you that would surprise us?

I am afraid of spiders …no matter what size.  : )

Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

This is a really hard question for me to answer because I try to live in the moment, but I hope in five years to be continuing my passion for trans activism through the Jim Collins Foundation and my work with trans youth and families.  I also hope to have a successful Life Coaching practice where I can reach a larger audience to help people live the lives they've always imagined.

Comments

5 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

melissa spear
Jan 29, 2011 5:48pm [ 1 ]

Tony, you rock! Thanks for all that you do.

Tara Franco
Feb 13, 2011 9:27pm [ 2 ]

I want to personally thank Tony for all the work, time and effort he gives the kids in group. These kids are in a much better place because of you Tony.

George Haskoor
Feb 14, 2011 11:48pm [ 3 ]

I have had the pleasure and privelage to meet Tony Ferraiolo on a number of occasions. This man is a pillar of strength and fortitude and his life and activism should be honored to the highest accolades! I am very grateful to call him my friend!

Rosemary Booth
Feb 15, 2011 1:22pm [ 4 ]

Thank goodness you're alive and well, and working with our kids. We need you so much. Stay well, and be happy. Love, Rosemary

Dawn Hebert
Mar 8, 2012 6:22pm [ 5 ]

Congratulations Tony! Keep up the good work! You are truly an inspiration to not only those that you advocate for, but to anyone who has had the privilege of knowing you!

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