From the Archives

‘Original Plumbing’ Gave Us 10 Years of Trans-Masculine Art and Journalism

· Updated on April 16, 2021

In 2009, Rocco Kayiatos (then rapping under the moniker Katastrophe) and photographer Amos Mac first conceived of a zine for and about trans men. For 10 years and 20 issues, Original Plumbing (or OP) provided a platform that centered transmasculine individuals, putting them on the covers with themes like “Jock,” “Family,” “Read,” and “Fashion.” Alongside the co-creators, trans writers, including notable journalists and authors such as T. Cooper, Thomas Page McBee, and Diana Tourjee, contributed Q&As, essays, and other written works. This was the sort of work that had, up until then, been rarely published elsewhere, from points of view that were largely ignored.

But from the beginning, OP was bigger than a magazine. Kayiatos and Mac threw regular parties, fundraisers, and events celebrating trans men and allies, providing a much-needed space for community. OP spawned trans-affirming merchandise, including T-shirts that said “Nobody knows I’m transsexual,” pin-up centerfold posters, snapbacks, and calendars. Fans flocked to OP as a consistently affirming, exalting, diverse portrait of trans men’s lives and experiences.

A handful of years before Time magazine declared that America had reached the Trans Tipping Point, OP helped to change the narratives about trans men. Ten years after OP launched, though, trans men and transmasculine people are still largely invisible, even within LGBTQ media. There are still only a handful of trans male characters seen on screen, none of them series regulars or starring in their own films, and the only trans man who comes close to being a household name remains Chaz Bono. Boys Don’t Cry remains the only trans-male focused feature film that has ever garnered mainstream attention. 

Which is why OP followers will be sad to hear that Kayiatos and Mac are announcing their 20th issue — the forthcoming “Issues” Issue — will be its last. Kayiatos is now the Head of Video at INTO and Mac works in television, where they continue their work to create trans visibility. They have also announced that a collection of editorial and photos from OP will be available in book form from Feminist Press this spring. Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture includes an introduction from trans activist Tiq Milan as well as curated content from issues past, including interviews with Janet Mock, Silas Howard, Margaret Cho, and Ian Harvie, as well as creative writing, fiction, and visual art. 

INTO sat down with Kayiatos and Mac to talk about the history of the magazine, cultivating a space for their community, and why they’ve decided to end OP after a decade.

On the inception of OP

Amos Mac: I loved Butt magazine, you know? I thought it was really beautiful photographs and interesting interviews and things like that, and I wanted to create a zine out of photographs of trans men and have interviews with them to give trans people more of a well-rounded representation of themselves while allowing them the space to talk for themselves alongside photographs because I’ve seen a lot of photos of people, of trans people in galleries and things like that that were taken by cis artists and it was like different body scars, you know what I mean? They’re body portraits but without any context and we all knew that they were trans portraits but like…they had a name, but what is their actual story? They had inspired me to kind of create a photo series about trans guys. And that’s like my part of it, you know? That was like a big part of where it started I think for me.

Rocco Kayiatos: You had just moved back to San Francisco, right?

AM: Yeah, I’d been there for like not very long. I moved there in 2008.

RK: And you’d just done that photo series around Rhi’s book coming up, the Creamsicle photo series.

AM: Yeah, The Creamsicle, which is based on her book and documenting those queers.

RK: And then you photographed me for that and then chatted and we became friends. That’s 2000. And then he was going to do a series, like a little zine called Boys in Their Bedrooms. Is that what you were going to call it?

AM: I don’t know if it had a name even.

RK: You were talking about doing a photo series of like trans guys in their bedrooms.

AM: Yeah, with interviews.

RK: Yeah, with interviews and all that. And then we sat down — I remember this well — at Morning Due Café, which was the café that was under my house, and we started talking about it … so from this conception of our friendship and cooperation, we were like hot air balloons. We started talking together and I was like “I have a Rolodex of guys — I’ve been traveling across the country and I know trans guys in every city. What if we like do this thing?” And it kept ballooning and ballooning and becoming a bigger thing.

And similar to what Amos was saying, for me, having been a trans performer for so long, and having my transness be the central point of interest from any media outlet, I felt like what an incredible thing it would be if we created a magazine, featuring trans people that was not about their transness; that hadn’t existed before and to be able to create something like that would be revolutionary because it would shift the narrative away from talking about trans people only as either medicalized, in academia, or politicized bodies and it would just be about the human experience instead of the footnote being that you have like, people would be like “Oh, so you’re on board, great. Let’s talk about what surgery you’ve had.” … Whereas instead for us, the footnote was that they’re trans, so it felt like this nice shift and we committed to doing it for a year, because both of us were busy with our own side projects, like a million different things each, and committed to do it for a year. We also did like a vision board of what could this be? And then we launched a Facebook page first.

AM: Tuck made a little mock — I did a little promo zine of like I think Tuck with a sword, naked in his bedroom, but like the logo on there. I think the logo was in like Courier font [laughs] and just sitting across it, like really crude and yeah, it went crazy. People were really into it.

RK: Then we did presales — we created a Paypal account and then we did presales and it sold out.

AM: And they shut us down, Paypal shut us down.

RK: Thought that we were fraudulent because we were doing the sales so we could afford to print the magazine. It was that and then there was this guy who was a singer at the time, I think he still sings, Joshua Klipp who’s a trans guy in The Bay who did a fundraiser for us one year about the project. So fundraiser and the presales allowed us to pay for the first issue. 

AM: I think it was just like a time of who was around and I was just trying to shoot guys in San Francisco because that was who was accessible to me at the time. I feel like we didn’t like plan it out so intensely; it felt very organic in terms of who was coming around, who was passing through San Francisco, where we were going to be traveling, who I could shoot in different places at the time and it just really, for the first year or so, we were just able to really organize the current issue and like the coming issues I think very organically. Do you agree?

RK: Yeah I do. The only thing I would add to that is that the most intentional part of the entire process of putting each thing together and holistically the entire project is that we wanted to make sure that each issue as a genuine thing was a diverse representation of identities, so age, race…

AM: Sexualities.

RK: Sexualities, self-identities, stages of transition. Like, it was never just a white, normative, buff, trans guy. They could be a part of it, but a small part of it.

AM: One example, there’s no one way to be a trans person. We were trying to really embody that, that there’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way, there’s no one way to be trans and here is a beautiful zine that proves that.

RK: Anyone can pick up a copy and feel like they could see themselves reflected in the pages. And the first issue of OP came out in September 2009.

AM: Yeah, first it was like 500 [copies] and then  — or was it first 1,000 and then we did 1,000 more?

RK: I think so. We found a local feminist printing press that was run by two punks–

AM: 1984. 1984 Printing. They’re amazing.

On the most fulfilling aspect of creating OP

RK: For me? It was creating a physical space that was a component of the magazine. The magazine felt like an entry point to creating actual real-life community and this was before like YouTube was a big thing, before Instagram existed, so this was where trans men saw their lives reflected at all, so then we started throwing parties not long after that. The whole thing was born out of a party, right? And then we started doing fundraiser parties that were like — we did the trans dating game for a little while, where we did like the partition thing and someone was like, there was a trans guy who was trying to, people were trying to win a date with.

AM: It was really funny. I still have the old flyers for that.

RK: The flyers are hilarious. It’s like me dressed as ’70s…

AM: You’re photoshopped on like the head of a ’70s game show host. Your head is photoshopped, yes.

RK: We moved it around. Once we became successful, we had parties everywhere, like I had been, I mean, obviously in New York, we had a couple of parties here. Where else did we have parties? Montreal.

AM: Yeah and then did we do like Seattle? Something? I don’t remember.

RK: So major cities and then I was invited to be the grand marshal of the pride parade at Pocatello, Idaho. Do you remember that party?

AM: Yeah. Oh my god, I do.

AM: I think the benefits of the magazine and the events and things like that — the events were great to connect with other people and to see that it had such a far reach outside of like the bedroom where we were making these magazines, you know? It felt very insular some of the time until we left town and realized that people needed this project. They needed the magazine, they need the space and it was — it just felt very good to have to have created it.

RK:  I think the benefit of creating media where there is no other media is that you afforded the ability to change lives and also save lives. I know that sounds grandiose, but it’s really true that if you don’t see yourself, if you can’t imagine your future and someone helps by creating something that allows you to, it’s like a lighthouse and it shines a path for you to feel like you can make it and there’s something larger. And I think it’s something that something OP did or does even now, we did so in a way that felt elevated and cool and sexy and relevant and not this kind of derivative, tragic… OP was an art book first and a trans platform second, and it shows when you look at a copy of the magazine and see the layout and the photographs and how visually compelling it is.

And in some ways, it’s why we were able to do things like table at the New York and LA Art Book Fair and have interest from people who aren’t in the community. And it even serves as an entry point for gay men to understand the trans men. And then we’re also afforded the ability to enter into the larger cultural zeitgeist of awareness around trans men’s existence because the magazine was sexy and cute and fun and felt alive instead of this traditional narrative being told by other people around trans identities, which is what existed before around the tragic challenge of “What a brave thing you’re doing!” We don’t have that so it was just fun and sexy and relevant for young people and then gay men became interested and then the New York Times wrote about us. We were on the cover of some kind of lifestyle magazine?

AM: I don’t know, like some nightlife thing. Where we’re hugging. There was a moment where it was as if the gay male cultural community at large slash media, the gay male media acted like they had just founded trans men.

RK: And then they invited us to the Out 100 that year. We were constantly being interviewed.

AM: It was years of constantly being interviewed and it was also like, there was a lot of underlying things I felt — it’s great to feel noticed and to feel seen by other non-trans media but there was that feeling of like discovery of like check out this hot new thing I found which was interesting.

RK: In some ways, OP created this space for trans men to use Grindr. I do think OP had a hand in commodifying trans men as a  sexy, viable option for gay cis men.

AM: Yeah, I think so. Well, via visibility, yes. It was such a visible project and we were very visible because of the project and interviews and places that were getting a lot of attention in different outlets because of the project so even if people didn’t see OP, they saw the people who made OP and they heard people talking about it a lot and it was like this cultural moment that definitely opened up the conversation and educated people.

AM: [Queer women] became huge fans, right? I felt like it was nothing but positivity from females. Like early on, don’t you remember like some of the earliest supporters like sending pictures of themselves holding the magazine like doing little photo shoots with the magazine. It was really sweet.

On creating a platform for trans people in the media before the Trans Tipping Point

RK: I think that it’s important to include a person of that experience from the inception to the actualization of something, so I don’t feel like I’m the right person to create a platform for trans women. That’s arrogant and misguided in my opinion. It’s the same when cis photographers are like “I’d love to photograph your trans body.” No thank you — I don’t want you to. It’s the same — like a trans woman should make a trans woman’s magazine. But we do feature trans women, most notably when we did the heroes issue of OP, we featured Kate Bornstein and Janet Mock before her book came out.

AM: Her first book.

RK: Hari Nef.

AM: So Hari Nef, yeah, Diana Tourjee, who’s now like a big editor at Broadly.  I always knew  Diana was a talented writer — I found her on Tumblr. You know, we met at like an event and I loved her writing and I thought that she could speak so well to what we were trying to accomplish for the website and have a trans female perspective. And yeah, it does legitimize it. I don’t really, I never really thought about it that way before. I just always thought that I had talented friends. [laughs] Honestly, that’s what it felt like to me is like of course she’s going to go on and be successful. There’s other people, too. Thomas McBee was already a published author before he was blogging for us. And who else?

RK: T. Cooper.

AM: T. Cooper was already out there. I’m just trying to think of people who were like, like Chris Mosier — I always felt like they were already famous.

RK: We did [an Indiegogo] to create a bigger website and the intention of the website was to expand to a larger community so when Diana came on, we saw her as the female counterpart to kind of cultivate that part of the site. The site is defunct, in part because it’s just like we’re seeing this through to the end and we both have other careers now. But I can’t think of anyone else whose career launched as a result of–

AM: Tuck had a huge popularity because of the photos I think and the magazine thing — that spawned a career for him of sorts.

RK: Arisce as well. She said like if it weren’t for OP, she wouldn’t have gotten other opportunities and been enabled to expand her career outside of modeling, to be able to write and post things. Obviously they benefited from having the magazine culturally, but I can’t think of anyone who it helped launch their career.

On early success and struggles

RK: There was a moment because it was so fast to pick up, from the moment we launched it, we could tell that there was just some kind of like magic, even if was just like a rocket for a second. So those first two years were very magical, but everything was easy, there was no struggle, people were so excited. There was just a really magical kind of energy around the entire project and then subsequently around our relationship as creators I think, too. I don’t want to speak for you but it felt like that for me. We have been gifted with each other to be able to gift the world with this larger thing and it felt like we spent all of our time together. We lived together, we had a small office together, before we had the office, when we were still living in San Francisco, our office was my front room in the house that I lived in on 17th and Church. And everyone wanted to volunteer to be a part of it because it felt so important and magical. “This is it, we’re going to break the mainstream media for them to care about trans people!”

And maybe this is grandiose but I see it in a way that OP was always an altruistic like less ego-driven project for me as an artist and it always felt like OP, because of the timing, because of everything aligning, sort of ushered in this new way of media consciousness and focus on trans people that then filled in the place that we’re at now.

So it was like we happened to gather all of these people and all of these things aligned in this way that media didn’t stop being interested in trans people after their interest for OP waned, it just shifted. And then Janet Mock came out with a book so then it was that leg of it, and then Laverne Cox became established — it felt like it was the beginning of the downhill roll of the snowball and then all of that gathered to that tipping point on time.

AM: Yeah. It was just like the natural progression of the way that culture works, right? There’s like something that’s very popular and meaningful for a moment and then things evolve and there’s another viewpoint, you know, that comes to the forefront. It felt like natural to me. It felt normal but like definitely I remember a shift.

It felt like we were too accessible, actually. I felt like we were too accessible as human beings for a lot of the way that some people reacted toward the magazine. People would get personal because maybe we lived in the same city or they had an issue with there being a magazine about trans men. It was never really critiques about the magazine as much as it was about Rocco and I, right?

RK: Yeah. They also would critique the magazine without ever having one in their hands.

AM: Oh yeah. There was a lot of that, definitely.

RK: And who were pre-T, there’s not enough men who have not had surgery, there’s not enough men of color when at that point it was like we had only featured two white men on the cover ever, and we really had a keen eye on making sure that diversity was the first way that we would cast each issue. So none of the critiques about the project felt true and they felt rooted in a larger kind of community experience of cannibalism that in my opinion is rooted in unresolved trauma and scarcity issues.

The only people who wanted to advertise on an ongoing basis were sex toys.

AM: Yeah, it was like we actually couldn’t get it in enough spaces, because we were doing it all independently and it was quite the task, you know? I mean now we have like a very small distributor that will deal with the distribution to kind of West Coast stuff so we’re not really in stores anymore but like for the first many years, it was very much a self-distributed thing at stores across the world really.

RK: And also by self-distributed we mean like literally hand stuffing each envelope.

On ending OP

AM: We always promised, we worked together on how many issues we were going to create and I think we decided that 20 would be a nice number, you know? Like the number for a box set. It’s a good number in general and it just took so long to create these last few issues because we both have careers and things like that that takes a lot of our time. For a long time, we were freelancing and we had a lot more free time to commit to this project and to make this project our career in terms of you know, finding a way to be able to pay our rent with things creating around the project. Not necessarily the magazine but with events and things like that.

So now I think it was just in the pipeline for a while and it seemed like a good way to honor the project, to actually to have a book come out at the very end. That was kind of the intention from the very beginning.

RK: That was something we wrote down in that first year of like the visions that we wanted.

AM: Yeah, I thought like a great idea to have a book come out, like a coffee table book I think was the language. But of course before we even had like an issue out, that was something that we wanted.

RK: Oh, remember we did calendars?

AM: We did calendars one year for Christmas. I mean, you think of the little things like creating this merch, like each piece of merch was this whole other job, like creating the calendar. I didn’t realize how large they were going to be and the shipping was always like way off and I would end up like never breaking even. But it was always fun to do.

RK: Then we started making clothing and it did well for us as well.

RK: Pinups, like Teen Beat. It was like butts withTeen Beat on it.

AM: There was one of like James Darling, a poster of James Darling, posters of like Chris Mosier and like the guys, Kye Allum from the jock issue.

On the book

RK: We culled through and pulled out the best stuff. It’s a big book, though. 20 issues is a shit load. Each issue was at least 54 pages. The Hero issue — how many pages was the Hero issue?

AM: The Hero issue? I don’t know, like 100 pages. Right? 90? I don’t know, but it was like bursting at the seams. Literally the “Heroes” issue was like busting and then you were like, remember when you yelled at the printmaker because they stapled it? Like they’re fucked up. It wasn’t 1984 — it was someplace in Queens.

RK: And I was happy to be a pit bull so there were these moments in our collaborative relationship where Amos would get “Can you do this, can you talk?” And I’d be like, “What the fuck is this!?”

AM: But Rocco’s just better at communicating when it comes to like getting a discount or like a, getting a deal when something would go wrong. Like standing up for the project in a way where I would be like it’s “Okay, that’s fine. I’ll pay you more.”

RK: [People think] that we were sitting on a fucking golden toilet. I think people thought that we were rich.

AM: Yeah.

RK:  I mean to the point where we’d be like “Oh, we’re collecting all our tuppence to be able to. I got a wooden nickel!”

AM: Oh my God, I think we literally looked at a copy of Butt magazine and saw how much they charged. There was not even — like I feel like the whole math of the business end of this project was the last thing on my mind because I just couldn’t comprehend financial business things. 

RK: Yeah, I feel like I understood business things slightly more than you because I had been in business for myself for so long. When me and Amos started this project, once it launched and was successful, I insisted that he quit his job. No, no, no, you had gotten laid off.

AM: I got laid off the day that Michael Jackson died. I was working at like a media company that made videos. I was working at the front desk and they were doing tons of layoffs and I was the lucky one, and then you said that you lit a candle so that I would never have to work again at a normal job and then I like went with it like “Okay.”

RK: I firmly believed that like jobs aren’t necessary if you’re working on your artistic career. They’re a means to an end.

AM:  It was hard for me to realize I had to go get another — like actually get another job after that because I was really instilled and really inspired to not have to do anything that I didn’t want to do ever again. You said that. You were like “You will never have to work again.”

RK: And now here we both are, working in corporate America in digital media. [laughs] But I do believe that this is a good pit stop for you to figure out like how to grow more skills to do what you want to do.

AM: I mean it is, yeah, and it’s not a bad thing. I’m enjoying everything. I enjoy my job and I enjoy everything. It just makes sense that I think then I was being idealistic and strange about working for a while.

RK: It’s almost a decade of not having to work is cool.

AM: I was not but I mean I kind of, I would have benefitted from working, from having some sort of financial help. Because I was working, you know what I mean? But I was not like getting a lot of money.

On fans being sad about the end of OP

AM: I feel like I’ve already been getting emails asking if we still publish and saying they’ve heard we’re coming to a close and is it true and how they’re really sad about it but I feel like the book will allow it to move on, you know? People can have the book and revisit that as much as they’d like and I’m sure something else will come along. Maybe something that is even more groundbreaking. Something in the next chapter of trans culture.

RK: My hopes for this project closing is that the book does really well because not only will that allow OP to live on in the entirely of this one volume, but it’s also like a time capsule, so it stands for a decade of male gay culture in a way that nothing else does and I think for queer people and queer history, it doesn’t really get preserved often and so much has been created over the last decade around trans media and around acceptability or visibility, but it’s my hope that the generation that didn’t have OP is able to look at that book and see how OP informed their lives even if they hadn’t seen it.

AM: Yeah, I mean it would be great for people to find it on the bookshelves and say “Oh my god — something like this existed for 10 years and I was not aware” or “I was too young,” you know what I mean? Or “I wasn’t trans yet.” Or even for non-trans people to see this stack of cultural moments in paper form. I think that the book will be — it’s like the perfect ending for me because I’ve always had this connection to print and that one of the first questions that people always ask in the very beginning is “Why didn’t you just make a website or a blog or a web magazine?” and I was like “Because I don’t want to.” And it was like when print was dying when we first started, or like quote unquote print was dying and that was like the hot topic of the moment, so I just — I don’t know what it is about print. There’s something about print that feels better to me.

RK: Even when you say it lasts longer, it actually does last longer because that’s something that you can hold in your hands whereas a website is not — you don’t have the same intimate connection. You won’t feel invested in reading it cover to cover because it’s never-ending, it’s ongoing, it’s every day, it’s constantly being updated whereas this thing is literally just a time capsule. It’s of a specific era and that’s it and it’s frozen like that forever and that’s so beautiful and incredible to be able to actually physically hold this in your hands. I would have never been interested in making a website.

AM: We ended up doing it but it was like a complement to the magazine. It had to come in print because that is, from my experience, print was something that like drew me to the culture that introduced me to new things, you know? With some like Sassy magazine to Butt magazine to even like Highlights for Children when I was a kid, you know, reading about new things and getting something in the mail that was just for me was like integral part of how I formed my relationship to the arts and culture and who I was as a young person. So that’s why I’m so rooted to the magazine and the book.

And the book came around because of Michelle Tea. I was having a conversation with her, telling her “We want a book, we want a book,” and then she was like oh my god, well I’m making an imprint for Feminist Press. Do you remember when I told you that? I think I was like having coffee with Michelle and was saying how we had been pitching the book and it wasn’t going anywhere and she had just started this imprint with Feminist Press and that it would be a perfect match, right?

RK: Before that though, when we were still looking at New York, Michelle was really generous and gave me a bunch of contacts for agents to pitch that book and nobody could imagine it. That was like pre-trans tipping point, too, that we were shopping with agents and no one was interested. They were like “We don’t really understand what the market would be for it.”

AM: We weren’t big enough for them financially, I think, was the deal. Not big enough names at the time.

RK: Yup.

AM: It’s been so fun, though. It’s been fun. I’m so proud of this project, though.  I feel like my mother’s the one that always reminds me what it big deal it is that we started this project and how proud we should be of it and it’s like, sometimes it just takes a mom to remind you. But you know what I mean, when you’re like on to the next project or on to the next full-time job or things like that, it’s hard to put things in perspective and see what exactly you created and when you actually take time to look at it, it actually is major. It’s a huge project that we created for a very long time and we’re very proud of. It wouldn’t have been the same, you know what I mean, if it was anybody else doing it. I think it never would have been what it is. It was like the perfect storm.

RK: We had a really nice counterbalance of people and how we approached the project and how we approached the larger world and it would have been great if we had a finance person to help us a little bit.

AM: He would have been a bummer. We would have fired him. You know it.

RK: What are we going to do next? Oh, create a TV show. It’s like Lisa Ling but it’s us.

AM: That would be great. Put that in there. See who’s interested.

Photos via Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos. Black and white shots by Alex Schmider 

Don't forget to share:

Read More in Culture
The Latest on INTO