Friday, 25 January 2013

Interview with Aleshia Brevard: Part 1

Monika: Hello Aleshia! I am very happy that you accepted this interview to be included in my series of “Interviews with Transgender Icons”.
Aleshia: Thank you for asking that I participate, Monika. I blush a bit at being labeled an “Icon”, but hopefully by my age one has learned to embrace any and all positive comments that come along – while summarily dismissing the negative.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Alexia: I recently turned seventy-five, hooray-hooray, so thankfully as a rather long-in-tooth retiree my time is pretty much my own. Gone are those bothersome pressures of younger years. Much of my time is now spent writing, having just finished a first novel. It comes on the tail of my two published memoirs and several produced plays. Most importantly, however, I’ve found a contentment which I never even dream might be possible when I began my transsexual odyssey in the late 1950’s.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Aleshia: I was born in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, in the southern United States. Most of my adolescence, however, was spent on the family farm in rural Middle Tennessee. It offered the solitude I needed to come to terms with myself.
Finocchio's 1961, prior to SRS.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Aleshia: Seems I was always aware that there was a painful difference. I was unlike anyone I knew; therefore I assumed there must be something terribly wrong with the person I was. Part of my nightly childhood prayer was for God to allow me to wake up the girl I knew myself to be. Never happened.
Each morning I awoke to discover that no miraculous changes had occurred while I slept. The body in which I found myself trapped remained a constant embarrassment. The only solution was to closely guard my painful secret, living out my true identity safely inside my head. It did not make for a happy childhood.
Monika: For most of transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Aleshia: Fortunately I grew up in a very rural farming community. I lived my ‘secret life’ alone. Inside my head danced a gracefully, self-assured girl. On the outside, of course, I remained the awkward, introverted adolescent. Oh, sure, in the earlier school grades I was the proverbially ‘bullied’ child, beaten up on a daily basis, but by high school most of those aggressions toward me had dissipated.
I had merely grown into the fairly accepted odd duck. Life was tolerable, made more so because of the boy with whom I went ‘steady’ during those still formative years of high school. He dumped me and got married, so almost before the ink had dried on my high school diploma, I was heading West, toward California and a new life.
I found employment at Finocchio’s, America’s leading nightclub for female impersonation. The problem with Finocchio’s was that to me it did not feel like ‘impersonation'. At long last I was presenting myself as the woman who had secretly lived sequestered away for far too many years. My comfort level was yet to be attained.
During SRS recovery in Tennessee, 1962.
 Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Aleshia: I began my transition at the end of the 1950’s, a grateful patient of gender guru, Dr. Harry Benjamin. I was twenty-one. Reassignment surgery was in Los Angeles, early in 1962. I felt as though I had been reborn.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Aleshia: Although I had expected to bolt out of the surgical arena, all problems left behind, it was not to be quite that easy. Physically “passing” was not the issue. I had, after all, been earning my living by traipsing around Finocchio’s stage as blond drag ingénue, Lee Shaw.
The problem that presented itself was the unexpected realization that real life is not lived on stage. Who knew? A more in-depth transition would come with learning the true measure of a woman is not found through powder or paint. After a difficult year of recuperation following reassignment surgery, I ventured forth to become a successful university co-ed, then while still in school a married woman.
My greatest lessons, however, were to be in finding my footing as an average student and housewife going about her daily life. To address the cosmetic surgery portion of your question, in the mid-70’s I did have breast enhancement. The surgery was a graduation gift from a girlfriend and her husband. I had, after all, just received my Master’s Degree in Theatre. What actress, my friends figured, could possibly succeed in the entertainment industry without an enhanced bosom!
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow transgender women to transition even at late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Aleshia: My advice for women of any age is to first embrace the fact that females come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. Granted, the effects of testosterone can be, uh… bothersome. Facial feminization is available, certainly, and seems only logical if it can allow someone to align their physical being with their internal self. I reiterate, however, that a convincing presentation is more than skin deep. Self-acceptance accomplishes far more than bra-size or an upturned nose.
Tennessee, 1962.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Aleshia: When I transitioned the term “transgender” had yet to be invented. At that time, in fact, “transsexuality” was generally thought of as a ‘condition’, an awkward period through which one must pass, like some bothersome adolescence. 
Our goal was to move forward, as seamlessly as possible, easing into mainstream society to live as our authentic selves. We wished to live among, work alongside, and compete on an equal footing with other women, including those who had been born female.
Through Dr. Benjamin I met and became friends with Charlotte MacLeod, who had followed Christine Jorgensen’s transforming surgery in Denmark. Charlotte and another close friend from Finocchio’s, Kathy, whose surgery followed mine by a year and who was another patient of Dr. Benjamin, offered friendship and support. We shared our dreams and to them I owe a great deal. At that time I was also aware of Bambi, in France. Bambi’s beauty and accomplishments offered me hope for the future. At that time, of course, transsexuals were few and far between. I’m fond of saying that few houses had yet to be built in the gender community.
Monika: Was it harder to be a transgender lady in the 60s and 70s compared to what transgender women can do these days?
Aleshia: That, Monika, is a very difficult question for me to effectively address. Professionally, both as a film/stage actress and, later, as a university professor of theatre, my life was lived outside the gender community. Only after publishing two memoirs, when in my 60’s and 70’s, did I first hear the term “transgender” and become aware of the community’s stated agenda. I have made an effort to remain available to the younger generation of those in transition, trying to honestly answer any inquiries they may have. 
Even with this, however, I never fail to stress that my own is the only life to which I can speak to with any authority. For me, as well as for my early sisters, the goal was never to live with a “T” before our names. Our objective was to blend so thoroughly that the things mixed could not be recognized. It was a choice, made not because we felt any shame about our transsexual history, but because our goal had always been to live fully as the women we’d been born to be.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Picture with husband, circa 1972.
Aleshia: ALL of it! Ah, but it’s quite possible that the greatest joy comes from knowing I am now complete, no longer the fragmented individual from childhood. I’m free to be myself. Oh, sure, I loved every moment I was fortunate enough to experience on film.
My earliest dream had been that I would somehow grow up to be an actress. Didn’t quite know how that was to be accomplished. Even as a kid on the farm I was aware that not every woman with dreams of stardom is lucky enough to have the dream come true. I was fortunate.
I am extremely proud that any successes I had in film, television or on the road in theatrical tours came about from competing with other professional actresses. In short, to paraphrase a lyric from “Flower Drum Song”, I’ve definitely enjoyed being a girl.
Monika: Are you a feminist?
Aleshia: Hhmmm? I’ve never actively thought of myself as a “feminist”, and yet I remain a firm believer in equality for women. Perhaps my stumbling block is with what the term “feminist” has come to represent. I miss the old days of having men rush to open my door (which I knew I could open myself), lend a helping hand (even though I might not need it), and (hopefully) seeing in me a feminine example to prove men and women are very different creatures.
Monika: As a woman you were married many times. Did you like being a wife? Why did your relationships break?
Aleshia: I’m not sure I was ever a very good wife, sad to admit. Might well be that I romanticized the true meaning of marriage. I like to think I was a better mother to my stepsons, however, teaching them that women are not intended as doormats. Companionship still holds appeal – but perhaps I am romanticizing that also. Bottom line: I’m happier and more content alone than I ever thought would be possible. Perhaps it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Monika: Were your husbands aware of your transgender past?
Costume shot for the Love God.
Aleshia: One husband of the four, the first husband whom I married twice, became aware of my history before we were remarried. After that fiasco I had sense enough to keep my mouth shut – at the time that seemed the better way to go. I’m no longer so sure. Sometimes it seems at best a 50/50 type toss-up.
The ideal, of course, would be to be loved and accepted for the person you truly are. Life is not always the ideal, is it? Still, were I to march down another aisle, I like to think I’d be doing so with a clean slate and a song in my heart.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Aleshia: There will be a short answer to this, being that I’ve already underscored that I am not expert on today’s situation. In the broadest sense, however, I tend to believe that society tends to see and accept those who present themselves positively. Angry demands can be off-putting. And, yes, I’ve seen more than one situation in which negative attitudes were changed by putting forward one’s best foot, living life as the best woman one can be.
From my perspective, that offers one’s best chance for acceptance. I’m fully aware there are those who will find my life view Pollyanna, perhaps even offensive, but as I keep repeating, I speak only for myself.
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you think we will have more and more such women?
Aleshia: Successful role models can only be positive influences on those who come after. In time, one would hope, the gender in which one began life will no longer be a deciding factor for future success. 
Aleshia in her 40s.
Monika: At the same time sometimes we get horrible new about transgender women being killed or beaten just as in the infamous case of Chrissy Polis that was beaten by two teenagers in Macdonald’s because she used ladies’ toilet. How can we prevent it?
Aleshia: Would that I had the definitive answer on how to best prevent abuse. Obviously, as any parent would warn their children, dangerous situations do need be avoided. That, of course, is a simplistic response. The victim can never be blamed, as was the sad truth of the Polis case.
Yet transition is undeniably a dangerous time, one during which needless risks are all too often taken. Understandable. During that awkward time we try our fledgling wings. I too took needless risks during transition, sometimes due to the frustration of a life I found imprisoning.
Sad to admit that no cautious words of quasi-wisdom could ever have kept me from venturing forth onto dangerous streets. As long as hatred and misunderstanding exists, so will the abuse.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to the day when a transgender lady could become the President of USA?
Aleshia: Frankly, my dear, I can’t quite picture the woman who’d want that role!
Monika: You acted in 8 movies: “The Love God” (1969), “Big Foot” (1970) “Hitched” (1971), “The Female Bunch” (1971), “Smokey and the Judge” (1980), “The Man With Bogart’s Face” (1980), “Hard Country” (1981) and “American Pop” (1981). Which roles did you like most?
Aleshia: Each of those films had its own rewards. “The Female Bunch”, for example, allowed a friendship to develop with our star that has lasted for over thirty years. With “Smokey and the Judge” I though for sure I was having a career breakthrough. Wasn’t the case. “The Love God” was my first film and certainly my most glamorous role, plus Universal Studios sent me on a publicity tour with Don Knotts – that was hard to beat!
Aleshia in 2009.
Monika: Apart from the movies, you acted in many theatre plays and television shows. Which were the ones you were mostly satisfied with as an actress? 
Aleshia: My theatre tours by far offered my favorite and most rewarding roles. Hard to pick a winner. On seven different outings I played the Monroe film role of ‘the girl upstairs’ in “Seven Year Itch”. That was great, great fun. I also played Joanna Markham seven times in “Move Over, Mrs. Markham”, a British bedroom farce. Can't very well ignore those roles that put bread on my table. “I did, however, absolutely adore my time as Neil Simon’s alcoholic lead character in “The Gingerbread Lady”.
Monika: For many years you were a successful model. Did you like the job? Was it difficult for a transgender lady to be accepted by the modelling community?
Aleshia: Ha! It might well have been 'difficult' -- had the modeling community known my history. I loved my time in modeling, but that was decidedly a time for being seen and not heard.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors or trends?
Aleshia: These days I give away far more clothes than I buy. Currently I’m very fond of royal blue – but that, I’m sure, is a passing fancy. Can’t say I have been into ‘trends’ since the days when Mod was all the vogue.  
Aleshia in 2010.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Aleshia: I live in a very liberal community and continue to lecture in gender studies at our local university, as well as a few schools around California. Beyond that, and the interviews I am sometimes called on to give by authors of books on gender, I’m removed from the workaday world of the LGBT community.
Monika: You wrote your memoirs sequel: “Woman I Was Not Born To Be: A Transsexual Journey” (2001) and “The Woman I Was Born to Be” (2010)? Could you say a few words about them?
Aleshia: Thanks for asking, Monika. The books, as well as the similarly themed plays, are my babies, the story of my life that will hopefully live after me. Both books, bye the bye, are offered on, or through the publishers, Temple University Press and Blue Feather Books, Ltd. The initial memoir, “Was NOT Born To Be”, covers the early years and ends with the death of my mother in 1982. It was my mother’s death, and the absence of her ongoing support, that forced me to find my own footing in life. The sequel, “WAS Born To Be” is my favorite book, in that it chronicles a much happier and fulfilling aspect of my life.
Monika: Currently you are working on a novel titled “Southern Exposure” to be released this year. What will the novel be about?
Aleshia in 2012.
Aleshia: The title has (again) been changed. I’m in final edits for “Bilbo’s Bend”, which will soon be released on’s Kindle. This is my first (completed) novel and is a coming of age story for protagonist, Trey Bilbo. After the success of the first memoir I began wondering what my life might have been, had gender reassignment not been available to me. Trey Bilbo presented the character through which I explored that theme, looking for answers.
Monika: Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Aleshia: Not only do I agree – I loudly applaud the sentiment. Dreams certainly do not end on an operating table, that surgical transition merely opens a door for the completed individual we may hopefully learn to become. It’s never an easy journey, but each plateau along the upward path offers its own rewards. I would never presume to tell others how to best live their lives; I can only hope that those so inclined will find their dreams fulfilled.
Monika: Aleshia, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!

All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
Done on 3 January 2013

© 2013 - Monika 

Ms Aleshia Brevard has passed to the other side. May she find the happiness and love she gave to others. Thank you for all you have done ...
1 July 2017

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