Malcolm Ribot on his transgender journey
By: Graysen M. Ocasio/TRT Publisher—
The man behind the wheel. The humble smile and coyness that charms. His life path, dreams and hopes drove him—literally and symbolically—to be known in the cyber world as the FTM Traveler. Malcolm Ribot and Grayson—his best friend and canine companion—have traveled to all of the continental states in the nation with one goal in mind: to help connect transgender men with one another.
This objective, born out of a sense of isolation and desire to seek out other trans men to talk to, became this young man’s passion. His love and dedication to improve other trans men’s lives is contagious, admirable, and, most importantly, palpable to those who know him and the thousands who follow him online. The quest also took him to places like Standing Rock, where he donated time and goods to the Sioux tribe and supporters.
Malcolm, before becoming known as the famed FTM Traveler, was an Internet celebrity who meticulously tracked his transition via his YouTube Channel “gorillashrimp,” in front of thousands of fervent followers and subscribers’ eyes. Closely following his journey, onlookers were taken down a path of intense physical and emotional transformation on his quest to become the man he already knew himself to be. Part of Malcolm’s magnetic personality is derived from his openness and willingness to share his experiences with others; a trait which allows him to live life openly and authentically.
In this candid, one-on-one interview with The Rainbow Times, Malcolm discusses all of this, where and how his name came to be, and where he sees himself in the near future. Not surprisingly, his answers to our questions are as candid as the man who has given so much of himself to others.
Q: Now 28, Malcolm has been “out” for 3-and-a-half years. Who did you come out to first?
A: I came out when I was 24 to some of my friends first. Eventually I came out to my dad, since I didn’t grow up with him. I came out to my mom. She ended up crying when I came out to her. She seemed okay about it because she could see this was something that was right for me. It’s who I am. They’ve been incredibly supportive, they both call me their son, and they use he/him pronouns, even though they mess up every once in awhile. I feel very grateful for their support. And, my mom and I picked the name that I go by today, Malcolm. That is how special our relationship is. I am a momma’s boy.
Q: From the time you came out to taking testosterone, how long did it take?
A: Six months. When I first started transitioning I lived in a suburb of Chicago.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of coming out? What was the most rewarding?
The most challenging part for me was the fear and anxiety that came with the unknown—“What will they think of me? Will I lose friends or family?” and then accepting that if I did, they weren’t meant to stay; “Will they think ill [or] less of me?” Will I be rejected? Will I be supported and loved? Will I disappoint my mom?” … Making her proud had always been my biggest motivation.
The most rewarding [aspect] has been receiving love, acceptance, and support to a degree that I didn’t expect. Though not everyone has been accepting or supportive (and some left), others’ love, acceptance, and support far outweighed those that decided not to remain present in my journey going forward. The fact that I was so confident and comfortable with my identity combined with that love, acceptance, and support from many, gave me a wealth of joy and strength. I’ve since had the incredible opportunity to explore, embrace, and learn to love myself as I am. And now, I get to be openly me.
Q: Your quest to unite or connect transgender men includes those who are pre-T (pre-testosterone), no plans to start testosterone at all, or are already on testosterone. What’s the most positive aspect of it?
A: When someone tells me they’ve never met anyone else [female-to-male] and when their face lights up, when they are like, “there’s a whole lot of us in the area.” I want them to see they’re not alone. There are other people around you that you can relate with and then just seeing them open their eyes in surprise—It’s really nice to be in the presence of like-minded individuals and who’re going through similar experiences.
Q: When did you start this project?
A: I originally started traveling June 11, 2015.
Q: Approximately, how many trans men have you met through your travels?
A: I’ve met at least 1,000 trans men at this point. I have met with various families, partners, parents, etc. as well, as the opportunity arises. Seeing and meeting supportive loved ones, has been beautiful, and it’s been especially wonderful when younger individuals are brought by their supportive parents.
Q: Why and how did you come up with this idea?
A: It actually happened pretty organically after my plans to move to Hawaii fell through. I had originally planned a short road trip that was meant to last only a couple of months until I would ship my pup, all my things, and myself over to the island.
With the [online] following that I had in the beginning, I had contacted a number of brothers along the way that I planned to meet and hang out with—just for fun at first. When plans to move to Hawaii fell through, I decided to travel anyway since my lease had already ended, I had quit my job, and had sold most of what I owned that didn’t fit into my car.
I started out going east, and by the time I made it to Massachusetts, I figured out why the universe had lead me down this path. The first fellow trans man I met there hadn’t met any other trans men before meeting me, and I was surprised and taken aback by this.
My reality was that I knew of several others that I spent time with often—especially after feeling isolated during the week in the suburbs at my work and near my apartment, where I didn’t know of others closer than Chicago at the time (I lived and worked about 45 minutes away). I would travel to the city on the weekends and bond and feel accepted, loved, and safe to be myself there with my fellow brothers—especially before I came out at work. I began my social and medical transition with their support, had the ability to speak with them [about] trans-related issues, shared celebrations and milestones with them, and grew in brotherhood.
When I met the brother in Massachusetts I mentioned, my heart hurt for him, knowing that he didn’t share the same reality. The next day, I met someone only 30 minutes away from him, and they didn’t know of each other. As I met several others in Boston and spent a week and a half there, I was seeing similarities, and eventually it clicked that I could help these individuals connect with one another and help them feel less alone.
I was also posting pictures with them, which seemed to help spread visibility in and out of our community. I would receive messages from fellow trans men that said, “With each new post you make, I’m realizing how much less alone I am.” So, I kept going, and it grew. It got to the point where I had so many individuals on my list, and a deadline to get to a certain point when I would be able to see my mom for dinner one evening (who also travels), but I didn’t want to have to skip meeting with people I had on my list, so I took the suggestion a couple other brothers made along the way and started bringing together groups. Then I saw them connect with one another right in front of my eyes. That was amazing. (Smiles)
So … it’s been evolving organically as I believe it has meant to since the beginning, and I have since been to and met and connected fellow trans men in 48 of the 50 states so far.
Q: Do you think it’s helping other trans men?
A: Yes! I’ve actually heard from several others since I began that it has helped them already. Hearing these affirmations has been the greatest motivation to keep going. I’ve received messages that my efforts have helped them feel less alone and have provided inspiration and hope to them. It’s been especially heartwarming to hear them say so in person. Many individuals had never met other trans men before or didn’t realize or know there were others nearby. Seeing their faces when they look around the room/table and meet others of similar experiences for the first time, I could see the light in their eyes; their bright smiles spread across their faces, and my heart filled [with joy].
Q: What do you like the least about what you’re doing?
A: It can be kind of lonely sometimes, which is ironic. It’s difficult meeting a lot of new people. I’ve discovered I miss the familiar, going long periods of time without friends who are familiar or family. It’s difficult meeting brand new people all of the time. I’d crave that familiarity every once in awhile. My mom travels, so when she was near, I’d try to travel to areas close to where she was to see her and have that familiar hug, that familiar conversation. So, I find that it can get pretty lonely traveling with just my pup, Grayson, and I. The bitter sweetness about that is that now I know all of these new people and I wish I could pull the friends I have made into one place.
Q: You are all over the place, traveling, does it get hard sitting in a car driving to distant locations to meet other FTM trans men that you’ve never met?
A: It does get difficult at times. There are and have been ups and downs, but the ups have outweighed any obstacles I’ve encountered. Loneliness has been the biggest struggle thus far, which is part of the reason I decided to set up my home base in Spokane, WA for about five months ago. However, I’ve made several wonderful friends along the way, and seemingly at just the right times, that I’ve since become very close with. This has helped to curb the loneliness, and any opportunity I’ve had to see familiar faces, (i.e. my mom, pre-existing friends, and new friends a second/third time along the way), have helped to ease that feeling as well.
Q: How can you afford all of the traveling? The dining? The expenses?
A: I originally saved enough to cover my bills and traveling for a few months before moving to Hawaii to be with my former love interest and best friend (one in the same at the time). There was going to be a waiting period between my lease ending and being able to move there because of my dog and Hawaii being rabies free. When plans to do so fell through, I decided to travel anyway since I had already quit my job, let my lease end (while I was visiting her in Hawaii for a week and a half before I would begin a short road trip), and had already contacted some fellow FTM individuals to meet up with along the way.
I was able to travel for about six months straight, with what I had originally saved and the help of others for places to stay, meals, etc. Later, I needed to stop for a few months to earn enough at least to pay my bills for a period of months to continue. I stopped for four months through winter and returned to the Chicago area (where I had lived for about 8 years before all of this began), where I was able to return to work at my previous job as a Packaging and Graphic Designer at a company that manufactures and sells travel accessories and bags, as well as drive for Uber and Lyft.
I’ve since set up my current home base in Spokane, worked to earn money again for a few months, and have traveled from here to the remaining states of the mainland. I’m back again tending to my financial situation and recovery from my recent hysto, and plan to travel to Hawaii and Alaska as the “final” two states as funds allow. I say, “final” [in quotes], because I’m not exactly sure yet what will come after, as I’ve been allowing and embracing the guidance of the Universe throughout. (Smiles)
Along with the money I initially saved, and that I earned when stopping a couple of times to do so, I’ve also had a great deal of help from other trans men, their partners, families, other members of our community, and allies. They’ve provided me with places to stay, home cooked meals, meals out at meet ups, various supplies, etc. Some nights I would sleep in my car in Wal-Mart parking lots and on pull-offs in the mountains, or camp, but the majority of the nights this past year and a half have been spent comfortably in the homes of many amazingly kind, welcoming, and hospitable members of our community. I couldn’t be more grateful. Their help has gotten me further than I ever could have imagined.
Q: Are there trans men who won’t get in front of the camera to avoid repercussions in the remote places they live?
A: There are some who would prefer to remain stealth/out of any photographs, which is a respected decision of course, though this hasn’t happened often. I never want to out anyone who doesn’t want to be, isn’t comfortable, or doesn’t feel safe being out. I always ask each individual if they are comfortable being in a photograph, and if they are openly out and okay with their image (and often tags as well) being posted on all of my social media platforms with “Trans” related hashtags.
Q: How did you feel in your recent trip to Fargo when you encountered the #BlackLivesMatter billboard?
A: I was pleasantly surprised to see the billboard! This was the first time I had seen a display of support of this caliber, and it happened to be in a state that one might not typically expect to see this type or level of support in. As of now, the only other places I’ve seen publicly displayed support for this movement have been in the form of signage in stores, cafes, and restaurant windows in Portland, OR and Olympia, WA. Each time I’ve seen these displays of support, I feel hopeful for the future.
Q: What is the symbolism and message behind the nail polish? Why 4 fingers one color, one a different one?
A: It’s a little complicated how I got to the point of being able to embrace my desire to express myself in this way. Before I realized my transgender identity, painting my nails made me uncomfortable, as it is often seen in society as a form of expression only permitted for women and girls. When I painted my nails in the past, I recall feeling like a man wearing nail polish, and not a woman, and didn’t understand how that was possible. I didn’t understand how in my mind I kept thinking: “I feel like a man,” until I learned the new language to describe my feelings. When I later found that being transgender was a reality that I and quite a few other individuals live in, my thoughts in that moment finally made sense.
I was raised with a relatively binary way of thinking, but have since been able to work to unlearn, redefine, and accept and embrace both the masculine and feminine qualities in myself, and differentiate gender expression from our sexualities. I enjoy painting my nails, and I now feel more comfortable doing so as my external presentation matches how I feel inside. It’s another form of freedom, and a symbol to myself of how much more comfortable I’ve grown in my skin.
I don’t paint them in different colors for a specific reason, personally. I’ve just liked to mix it up and be able to be playful with the colors. I was informed at one time that doing so can be seen as a form of “flagging” that lets others know of your queer identity. So, if that’s the case, then that works for me as well.
I hope that as others see my nails painted, they feel a sense of relief if they have felt they’ve wanted to express themselves outside of the binary standards in terms of their gender expression. We can all wear nail polish if we’d like, and we are no less of men than before we paint it on. I like to wear eye make up from time to time as well. I want others to know that any ways in which they want to express their gender is valid, beautiful and okay. (Smiles)
Q: Life changes. With that said, how do see your plans change when you meet your better half?
A: (Sighs) That depends on what their path is too. The ideal situation would be to find someone who is interested in traveling, who has a job that is remote or mobile as well, so they can come with me. That’s definitely something that’s been missing in my travels as well. If I could change one thing, it would be that loneliness. If I had ‘my person’ along with me during all of this, that would be, like, incredible (smiles). I feel that loneliness wouldn’t have been as difficult because I’d have that constant familiarity in my life. I’d love to find somebody who has the ability and flexibility to do so, to come along with me. That’d be so amazing!
Q: Do you feel that your level of notoriety places you at a higher risk for hatred and transphobia?
A: I’ve definitely gotten negative comments here and there on social media. It’s been kind of difficult to figure out how to handle, I guess. If I weren’t openly out on the Internet I wouldn’t have gotten those comments. I feel like the help that I am giving to others outweighs that for me. I’ve been able to handle those comments when they come in. I’ve been trying to do a lot of self-work, meditation, and affirmation that help me combat those things internally when they do come up. But, in terms of outside of the Internet, I have the ability to “blend.” Passing is such a social construct, that I become a bit invisible because the outside world, I can only assume, sees me as a cisgender male at this point. So, I’m fortunate to have that, but because of it I feel that I receive less of what you’ve mentioned, like hate or transphobia.
Q: Do you see a difference in the privilege you have now or the way that society treats you as a whole?
A: I notice that cis men are more apt to be buddy-buddy in the way they speak to me now. They call me bud, or dude or man, those types of buddy-buddy terms. Other than that, I’m not sure I’ve noticed much has been different for me personally.
Q: When you walk down an alley, do you feel fear or are you just confident when you do that?
A: It’s interesting that you mentioned about walking down a dark alley. I have noticed that even though I am small in stature [5’1”] I do feel safer now than when I was viewed as small in stature as a female. I feel that combined with the increase in confidence that I have, maybe that’s part of it, and maybe I am seeing as a male that it’s safer at night.
Q: Testosterone is a powerful hormone. Are there any other changes that you care to share with our readers?
A: Before I didn’t feel it [anger] so much physically, it was just a mental emotion, whereas now, since I started T [testosterone] I feel it much more physically. I feel the anger walling up in my chest as like a heat and a pressure that feels like it needs to push itself out. Before, I could let it up longer because I didn’t feel it so physically. Now I feel I need to get it out in some kind of way, like exercise, or going in my car and letting it out physically, but letting out that pressure, like a scream. It feels like a physical pressure, like a teapot, it boils and it needs to release that air in the form of a whistle, like that.
I guess in a way, I’ve had to rework how to handle my anger. I’ve had to learn how to feel comfortable in expressing and dealing with that physical build up. … I don’t personally like to express my anger and frustration. I struggle with that. It is re-learning how to handle that anger. I don’t want to explode or have outbursts on people. It doesn’t feel like myself when I feel that bubbling. That is one thing I’ve struggled with that the testosterone has brought on.
Q: There are cis men out there who say that trans men will never be “real men.” What do you say to those young trans youth or kids about that?
A: That kind of stuff is heartbreaking to me too. To use the word “real man” is something that has really gotten to me; it really affected me. One of the things that has hurt me the most is that because it is like a fear of mine. It’s that reality that some people don’t see us as real men or women or even when individuals are bi-gender or genderqueer, having others essentially try to take that identity away from us. It’s painful.
I have to focus on what I am doing for myself. I’m living my truth and I know that I am a man and they can’t take that away from me. I focus on that. These people don’t know me personally. Even if they did know me personally, I know who I am at the end of the day. I know there are thousands, thousands of other people who have a similar experience. Just because they don’t understand that experience, doesn’t mean they can’t take that away from us, they can’t take our reality away from us.
Q: Describe yourself in 3 words.
A: Driven, compassionate, and hopeful.
Q: We notice that you took firewood to the Camp of Sacred Stones (Standing Rock). Why was this important for you to do? Have you involved yourself in other humanitarian work in the past?
A: Supporting our brothers, sisters, and kin at Standing Rock in this way was the least I could do. I was so happy to be able to do so as I was making my way through North Dakota while many are still there and in survival mode through the winter. I also had the opportunity to sit down with the leader and other members of Two Spirit Nation while I was there, and was provided with a wealth of information on their needs, ways others could provide support, and other goings on in the camps—all of which I was then able to share with those who follow my pages on social media.
I’ve also gone to protests, candle light vigils, and marches in support of #BlackLivesMatter Transgender Day of Remembrance, and the Women’s March, among others. I strongly believe in spreading love and kindness whenever possible, and that giving doesn’t always have to be monetary. It can also come in the form of a smile or look or show of acceptance, and standing with others in support and solidarity.
Q: You’re now recovering from your hysto surgery. Share your thoughts with us about the surgery and recovery?
A: I’m currently 2 weeks post op from my hysterectomy (as of Jan. 26, 2017). It’s flown by so fast already! This surgery for me has been somewhat of a sigh of relief in a couple of ways. First, I will no longer have as much estrogen in my body, helping to conquer the irrational fear I’ve had of “going backwards” in my medical transition, and reverting back to a time before certain instances of dysphoria had been defeated. Secondly, it’s also a step closer to being able to have the bottom/lower surgery I personally need. It’s important for others to understand too that not all trans individuals needs or want bottom/lower surgery. But for me it is essential, and has been my greatest struggle from before I even knew the language to realize and understand my trans identity. To me, my hysterectomy is one step closer to feeling free and at peace.
Q: What does your online screen name mean (gorillashrimp)?
A: I was made to create a personal logo in college (I went to school for graphic design), but wasn’t sure what direction to go in. I used to draw hybrid animals—one of which had the body of a shrimp and head of a gorilla. One of my professors walked by my sketchbook, and said, “Oh, Gorillashrimp!” I loved that and came up with its meaning—“Small and Mighty.” I’m a relatively short individual (standing tall at 5’1”) and have been known to be relatively strong, so the name just stuck.
Q: To all women or men out there wondering if you’re single, are you?
A: I am, and I actually identify as queer. (Smiles) To me, this has become my way of having a label without having a label.
I found that throughout my life, I’ve taken on various labels for my sexuality—none of which seemed to fit. I found that they were often limiting to the point where I would shame myself or not ‘allow’ myself to feel anything outside of each label I held at any given time. For example: when I identified as a “straight man,” anytime I would feel attraction or chemistry with anyone other than women, I would internally tell myself “No,” and feel anxious about my feelings—as if they were wrong because of the label I had accepted as my own at the time.
Gradually, as I have become more comfortable with myself in a multitude of ways, I have since chosen not to identify with any specific label of sexuality. Doing so has allowed me to feel my sexuality and romantic feelings more fluidly and without shame, internal tension, or discomfort. It’s been very freeing. But yes, I am currently single and hoping for my long-term partner to come along sometime relatively soon. (Smiles)
Q: Did you support the Women’s March?
A: I went to the Women’s March in Spokane. I think it was great. It was all love, messages of love for women’s rights, human rights, black lives matter, immigration, refugees, disabilities, LGBTQ, and so many more. It was so positive and people stood together. To see that all over the world—that sense of overall equality, it was just amazing.
Q: What do you say to others who know they are trans, but have fears about coming out?
A: Coming out can be scary, but in my and many others’ experiences, people often tend to surprise you. I’ve been met with more love, support, and acceptance than I ever could have imagined. They can also surprise you on the other end of the spectrum. Some of those I assumed would be supportive ended up otherwise. However, I found that since I had others who did end up accepting me for me, and I had found a level of acceptance and love for myself by the time I was coming out, it didn’t bother me as much as I might have thought when I found those who were a surprise in that sense. I decided to let them go, and accept that if they were meant to stay in my life, they would accept me in time. Some of them did come around, while others did not. The important thing to remember is that we have to be and love ourselves at the end of the day. There will always be someone out there that will love and support you, whether they are current family and friends, or new friends that become “framily.” Those are the ones that are meant to stay.
Q: What’s ahead for Malcolm Ribot, the kind-hearted FTM Traveler?
A: I have two more states left. I’ve been to 48 states so far, all of the states in the mainland. Next, I have Hawaii and Alaska to go to. But right now I’ll be focusing more on my financial situation and I should be hearing about my bottom surgery schedule within the next week. After taking care of these two priorities, then eventually I’m going to Hawaii and Alaska. After that, there could be some international travel too.
[This story was the cover of The Rainbow Times’ Feb. 2, 2017 – 10th Year Anniversary]