Ryan Cassata doesn’t wait around for anything.
The precocious 20-year-old singer/songwriter, activist, motivational speaker and YouTube sensation begged his parents for guitar lessons at just 6, and by his freshman year at Bay Shore High School, went against the advice of its Gay/Straight Alliance and came out as transgender.
Coming out early was never a question, Cassata tells the Press, yet his becoming the first openly transgender person in school demanded that administrators make significant changes they were reluctant to make. Even now, as an outspoken advocate for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) rights who’s working to educate the public about transgender issues, he still faces backlash within that very community—accused of not being quite “trans enough,” despite having gone through chest modification surgery. His response to critics as well as his post-op recovery is well documented on YouTube.
Cassata, born a female, never set out to be a renegade; he just wanted to be himself. As a freshman taking 12th grade English, his teacher, Mrs. Nell Kalter, encouraged him to come out in class to test the waters. Though the majority of students accepted his revelation as “no big deal,” Cassata says he ran into some opposition that made him afraid for his safety.
“It was scary,” he explains, “and a lot of time, people didn’t agree with what I was doing, especially teachers. And I was just coming out, so I wasn’t that confident.”
Since New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act against bullying and discrimination didn’t go into effect until 2012, Cassata began circulating petitions of his own for certain rights, such as a bathroom where he felt safe. When the yearbook committee refused to allow his legally changed name to accompany his picture, Cassata took his petition outside the student body into the community—and online—generating nearly 1,000 signatures and unwittingly giving a voice to kids who’d been going through similar circumstances.
“The teachers…didn’t really know how to handle transgender students,” he laments. “Basically, they were really just ignorant. And I had to make a lot of changes within my high school…so that I could survive it.”
Music gave Cassata an outlet to express himself during his most trying times.
“Any time I was going through something that was difficult, I was able to write a song to express myself in that way,” says Cassata. “It made everything in my life easier.”
He penned his first song “Wonderful, Beautiful” at age 12 and hasn’t looked back; his maturation is cataloged across six iTunes albums with lyrics covering the breadth of his experiences. Cassata’s been featured on Larry King Live and The Tyra Banks Show, among others, and his diverse audience includes transgender youth who are looking, Ryan says, “for hope.” With a folksy Bob Dylan-esque twang showcasing his self-confidence while paying homage to his vulnerability, Cassata has grown from gigging at open-mic nights across Long Island to playing legendary venues across the country and even landing a date on the Van’s Warped Tour.
Other musical accomplishments include composing the soundtrack to Loop Planes—an award-winning independent film that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival—to playing festivals, delivering a keynote address to the largest transgender conference in the world, and cultivating a YouTube following of more than 1 million views. His most popular song to date, the anti-bullying/LGBT suicide awareness video “Hands of Hate,” exemplifies his message of love, peace and acceptance.
In the end, Cassata not only survived, but thrived. Kalter presented him with the school’s first-ever Harvey Milk Memorial Award—named for the slain gay rights activist, San Francisco politician and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who also graduated from Bay Shore—for making positive changes to his school. These changes inspired two seniors to also come out as transgender.
Cassata’s current home of San Francisco has proved to be “a lot more open-minded than Long Island,” he says, adding that LI still has a ways to go. And it’s not in his nature to wait.
Ryan Cassata will be performing at Even Flow Bar and Grill in Bay Shore on February 15. For more information on this gig, Cassata’s activism and future lectures, check out ryancassata.com.