Ryan Cassata has made a career out of being true to himself. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter has been in the business for over a decade, starting a YouTube channel at age 13 and uploading songs and vlogs detailing his life as a transgender man.
Cassata’s latest song “Daughter” may be one of his most personal yet — the lyrics read as a letter to the singer’s father, describing that even though he now identifies as male, he knows he will always be his dad’s daughter. The video for the song, premiering below, is similarly moving, featuring a transgender teenager who first clashes with, then finds acceptance from their father.
The song was born out of Cassata’s own experience coming out as trans to his dad. He tells Billboard that the experience was hard and painful at first, but ultimately led to better understanding on both sides: “My parents treat me with love and respect and support me in everything I do, so to me, being their daughter and their son is not bad.”
Cassata talked to Billboard about his coming out to his father, the prevalence of toxic masculinity and his new music video for “Daughter.”
You’ve said that this song was inspired by your experience coming out to your dad. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like and how it inspired the song?
I was already out to my mom and my older brother and some of my friends before I came out to my dad. The day that I came out to my dad, he had come back from a trip, and he gave me this necklace that was really girly. He was really excited to give it to me, and I just acted like I was excited, too. It hurt me so much to receive that necklace, because I wasn’t being true to my dad about who I was. So that’s when I was like, “Oh my god, I have to come out to him, or it’s gonna hurt worse in the long run if I don’t.”
So we went to this little diner, and I came out to him, and I explained what being trans means and everything. I was like 14 years old, and it seemed like he understood, and for about two weeks he seemed cool with it. But then he totally was against it. So there was a long period in my life where I barely spoke to my dad, and he barely spoke to me. He wouldn’t call me “Ryan,” he wouldn’t call me by “he/him/his” pronouns. When my brothers would say “he/him/his” in front of him, he would tell them to say “she.” It was just a very painful time, and I felt really invisible.
How did that change over time, do you think?
Well, he did take me, when I was younger, to a therapist that tried to turn me back into a girl, and I don’t know if he knew that he was doing that or not. That was really scary for me, I was a young young teenager. I thought, “Ok, I want to take my dad to my gender therapist so that he can understand what I’m going through better.” He cancelled the appointment, and I was with my mom in the grocery store, and I started crying. My mom said, “Alright, that’s enough of this.” We left the grocery store and she drove me to my dad’s house, and I showed up on my dad’s doorstep hysterically crying. At first we were super angry, because a lot of tension had built it up over the years. And then I talked to him, and I explained what being trans was to me. I think the biggest thing that really affected him was when I told him that I showered with my eyes closed because I didn’t want to see my chest. I think that’s what hit him. He didn’t realize that it was so painful for me to not have my surgery.
Something I love about the song is how hopeful it is. Was that important for you to convey to your young fans?
I think that part of transitioning is realizing that the people around you are also transitioning with you. I must have been 17 at the time, and me and my dad were at a party, and at the time, I wasn’t really talking to him, it was a rough time in my transition before top surgery. We’re at this party, and the song “Butterfly Kisses” [by Bob Carlisle] came on. That was me and my dad’s song growing up, and I used to listen to that all of the time. That song came on, and me and my dad made eye contact with each other, and we started crying. That was the first time that I realized, “Whoa, my dad is sad because he thinks he’s losing his daughter.” That was when it hit me, and I was like, I realized, there will always be part of me that is my dad’s daughter.
Daughter doesn’t mean female, or girl, or anything like that. Like, daughter is just who I am, and I’m totally fine with being my parents’ daughter and their son, and I totally know and accept that my relationship with my parents is different than my cis brothers. It’s totally different, and I’m fine with that. My parents treat me with love and respect and support me in everything I do, so to me, being their daughter and their son is not bad, like it’s actually great. I sent him a demo right after I wrote it, and he cried. You know, he’s just so grateful for it, and he saw the video and thinks it’s great.
You made a recent YouTube video talking about embracing the masculine and feminine sides of yourself. How do you think toxic masculinity affects the way people transition today?
When I first came out and started living as Ryan, I was thinking about everything I did. Like, I was thinking, “Am I walking masculine enough?” Like, stupid stuff. And that ends up affecting how you treat people. I wasn’t able to go on hormones right away — my parents wanted me to wait until I was 18. At that age, I wanted to go on hormones, but when I turned 18, I had already been out for four years and I was like, “Actually, I don’t really need to go on hormones.” And I realized like, “Oh, I could be feminine, I could be masculine, I’ll just be whatever. I’m just Ryan, when it comes down to it.” I’ve really come to terms with it. And that took a really long time. There were parts of my life where I was suicidal, there were parts of my life where I was abusing drugs and self-harming and stuff. Now, I don’t feel any of that anymore. Now, I’m just able to live and let live, too. Let other people be themselves, too.
The community gets tied up in who’s on T, and why aren’t they on T — testosterone — and like, they get so tied up in being so masculine. And yeah, some people are super masculine and that’s super cool, but if you’re not that masculine, you don’t have to pretend to be. Like, you just need to be yourself, that’s all you need to be.
You’ve got a very diverse team of people of color and LGBTQ individuals on this video. Why was it important for you to have that kind of representation in this video?
Yeah, the only people that were not openly LGBT were the person who filmed, Maxine, and she’s a Chinese and Filipino woman of color. And then the two parents came, and I thought that was cool because they came to support their kid who’s trans. I wanted to have everyone in the background be part of the community. I wanted to have people in the video that would benefit from the song, you know? I wanted to show them the song and be like, “Hey, this is my story, what’s your story?”
Before we shot the video, I played them the song, and said, “If anyone’s not cool with what I’m saying in this song, you can leave and I will rip up your contract. I won’t say anything.” And nobody left. These kids were crying, and people were coming up to me and saying, “I can’t wait to show this to my parents, I can’t wait to show this to my dad. I wish I had this when I came out,” so it was really moving for me. By the end, we were all crying, because we were so excited about this new thing.
I was looking through your Twitter, and I came across a thread where you were quoting some older songs that challenged the gender binary. Looking back on those songs, how do you feel about where we are today in talking openly about gender issues through art?
I think we have come a long way, but there were people that were doing this long before my generation was doing it. Now it’s way more accepted to be trans. I always tell people this: when I first came out as trans, when I met people, they would be like, “Oh, what’s your gender?” And I’d say, “I’m a transgender guy,” and they would say “What is that?” Like, they had no idea what transgender was, they had never heard it before. And now, when I meet people and tell them that I’m trans, they just know what it is. You know, so we have come such a long way.
I think that “Androgynous” was a song that I really related to. I heard it when I was really young, I heard the Joan Jett version, which I couldn’t find on Spotify. But I had it on CD when I was younger. So that song, I was like “Oh, whoa, this is cool! I’m androgynous!”
Obviously there is much more to be done; trans people are still the victims of serious violence. From your view, what do we need to change in our culture in order to see these kinds of horrific acts stop?
I think a lot of the problem is toxic masculinity. I think we have to continue to challenge the binary, and I also think that if no one is hurting each other, then we need to accept people. I know a lot of people in the FtM (female to male) community who have a problem with non-binary trans people, or even people like me that are not on testosterone. It’s like, it literally doesn’t affect you. Like, just let them be free. It’s so cool that people know who they are, so just live and let live. We need to accept each other before we can expect society to accept us. Because when they see us fighting with each other, that does not help them to accept us. We need to be one with each other before we can be one with the rest of the world, and that goes for the whole LGBT community.