It took decades years of substance abuse, depression and confusion for Charley Burton to find himself, and now he’s trying to make sure others don’t have to run that same gantlet.
Burton is active in several local and national organizations ranging from alcohol and drug recovery to gay rights to helping transgender people find their identities. He’s also national program director of Texas-based and nationwide Black Transmen Incorporated, the first national organization of African American transmen that focuses on acknowledgment, equality, social advocacy and the resources to aid in a healthy transition.
At the state level, Burton was appointed to the 21-member Virginia LGBTQ Advisory Board and is a board member of Equity Virginia.
Locally, he serves as president of the PFLAG of the Blue Ridge, serves on the University of Virginia Trans Advisory Board, the Cville Pride board and is the founder of Diversity In Recovery.
“Charley is a passionate advocate for the many causes in which he is involved. He brings tireless hard work, creativity, and a welcome sense of humor to all his endeavors,” said Amy-Sarah Marshall, who founded Cville Pride and served on the board with Burton.
“As a fellow Cville Pride board member, I find his work ethic, compassion, sense of justice, and ready wit to be invaluable and integral to the work we do, particularly in bridging the gap between the [persons of color] and the LGBTQ communities,” she said.
Burton’s experience has not been easy. Born female, he never fit the part. Even as an adult living life as a lesbian, he felt out of place. It wasn’t until the bottom began to fall out that he realized what had been in front of him all of the time.
“I started transitioning 11 years ago,” he recalled. “I was in a long term relationships and I was five years sober and I was about as suicidal as suicidal can be and I couldn’t understand why. It didn’t make any sense.”
His depression drove his partner away.
“My ex finally said ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m so afraid I’m going to come home and find you dead in this house. You are so angry, you’re so depressed.’ I couldn’t shake depression,” Burton recalled.
About to lose his house and with nothing in front of him that he could from depression’s dark hole, Burton said he made plans to end his life. And then the mailman knocked on the door with a package from his former partner.
It was information about Black Transmen Inc.
When Burton discovered his male identity, it came with stereotypes from his own mind.
“Growing up, all I knew were the men who would dress up. They would get off the bus or get out of work and, once it got dark, some of them came out and they didn’t look like men anymore. They were all dolled up the best they could and hit the street,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be like that. I thought, ‘I can’t tell the secret that I’m hiding.’ And then the whole Chaz Bono thing came out.”
Bono, the son of Sonny and Cher Bono, was assigned female at birth and also lived life as a lesbian before transitioning to life as a man in 2009.
His therapist hooked him up with a group at UVa for transpeople who connected him with a transman named Ted in Richmond.
“I drove down and met the guy, but here’s Ted, a white guy who’s 20 years younger than me. I sort of relate to him, but at the same time I don’t. We live very different lives,” he recalled. “I eventually connected with some black transmen across the United States but I was still so alone here in Charlottesville.”
The North Garden native finally came out to his family who accepted him and spent five years transitioning behind the scenes. That changed when he manned a booth in the Cville Pride Festival downtown and talked to a Daily Progress reporter about his life.
It cost him his job.
“I go into work and go into the breakroom to get a cup of coffee and there’s the paper sitting on a table,” Burton recalled. “I noticed nobody was coming around my cubicle. I never thought about it, but at 4:30 that afternoon they pulled me into the office and said ‘we’re going a different direction so, we’re sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.’”
That started a series of what Burton described as bad jobs.
“When I fully transitioned, I got that look from people of ‘is that a male or a female?’ We go through that, both transmen and transwomen. It’s a response that means the estrogen or testosterone is work, but is it, really?” he said. “So I’m in that question mark period and I’m getting horrible jobs. Then, when the testosterone started working, I started getting good jobs.”
Burton has seen everything from support to suspicion to confusion regarding his identity, at least from others. It’s those experiences that led him to get active in the community to make the path easier for someone else.
He works with UVa and UVa Medical Center to educate and explain the feelings and issues transgender people have when going to school or the emergency room, after having unsettling experiences himself.
“I’m not a guy who likes the limelight, but if I’m in it, I’ll use my limelight to teach others,” he said.
But Burton’s baby is a support group called Diversity and Recovery that helps members with support for issues ranging from race, orientation, prejudice to addiction. The organization started during the pandemic when most Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organizations moved their meetings online.
As protests over social justice and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota increased, many brought their feelings to the traditional recovery organizations, which met with pushback.
“We figured if it was important enough to talk about, it was important enough to bring into a meeting and so we started Diversity and Recovery,” Burton said. “We didn’t realize it was going to take off the way it did. We had a couple of zoom meetings and from there, organizations like Region 10 wanted presentations to let them know what we’re doing and our focus. When things got a little safer and we could pull the masks off a little bit, we pulled the plug on Diversity In Recovery.”
One day he woke up and realized the group should be resurrected.
“I thought to myself, ‘this plug can’t be pulled.’ There was a need for it. So we started it up again,” he said.
Burton’s life is busy but he wouldn’t change it.
“At the end of the day, sometimes, I look back and I think ‘how the hell did you get all of this done?’ Most of the time I don’t know,” Burton laughed. “I know there are others out there who are going through what I went through or who are going to go through it and I want them to know it can be done. I want to help make it easier. If I did it, so can they.”