Monday, 11 February 2013

Interview with Gina Grahame

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Gina Grahame, an American businesswoman and writer. Hello Gina!
Gina: Hello Monika! 
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Gina: I’m a Global Sales Manager for a worldwide media company, specializing in the videogame industry.
Monika: You are involved in one project titled The Association of Transgender Professionals. How is it progressing?
Gina: It’s progressing well though my involvement is actually quite minimal. The group was in need of a corporate identity so I established an online contest whereby interested persons could enter their logo designs and association members would choose a winner. To stay true to the association’s core principal of financial equality, I initiated a cash prize for the winner. The charting of the groups course is in the very capable hands of others.
Monika: Have you ever experienced any act of discrimination at work due to your transgender status?
Gina: I don’t know a transsexual who hasn’t! I would say I’ve experienced more than some and less than others. Discrimination is a fact of life and can take many forms including age, sex, gender, ethnicity, weight, sexual preference, as well as transsexual and transgender. I’ve experienced it in three of those categories: as a woman, in relation to age, and as a transsexual.
Sure, I’ve been lost job opportunities and potential business because of my gender history, but that’s no reason to stop pushing forward. Life wasn’t a bed of roses prior to transition so there’s no reason to believe it would be now. I’ve come too far and been through too much to quit now, regardless of the opposition.
From my experience I’ve learned that while companies and government can mandate equality, they cannot enforce acceptance or respect. That must be earned by the individual. Everyone gets knocked down at times, the key to winning the admiration and respect of others is how you get back up and how you treat others.
With a morning smile.
Monika: Could you tell me why there is much hatred toward transgender women? I have a feeling that this hatred is stronger towards transgender women then transgender men. Any reason why?
Gina: Only my personal theories and feelings on the matter. I believe the vitriol disseminates from a very small percentage of people actually. And like most instances of hate, is based in the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar.
From women, I suspect it’s a fear of male privilege in being asserted into their lives in an unwarranted and inappropriate way, such as the exposing of one’s male genitalia in a women’s locker room, sauna or dressing room. It’s also attending women-centric events with the intent of making a political statement rather than because one wants to be actually take part in it. It’s my personal feeling that transwomen wishing to be accepted as a woman by other women should ‘honor the rules of the sorority they are pledging’ so to speak. Respect is a two-way street after all.
From men, I feel the hostility stems from a much deeper level. Let’s put aside the fact that transwomen have always been female at their core for the moment. Becoming a woman is seen to many men as a step down on the social ladder. Women still make 30% less than men on average for doing the same work and are routinely passed over promotion in favor of their male counterparts (discrimination rears its head!), and so many wonder why any man would ‘choose’ to give up so much. The converse is why some people have an easier time accepting transmen than transwomen.
On a sexual level, I believe the indignation stems from the longstanding perception that transsexuality is somehow synonymous with homosexuality, which still makes many men uneasy. They understand the concept of transsexuality on the intellectual level, but when it gets down to their personal sexual attraction, that’s another matter entirely. And then there’s the plethora of bottom-feeding talk shows where guys are publicly ambushed on ‘my boyfriend doesn’t know I’m really a guy’ type episodes. These may get ratings, but they do a disservice to us all.
Most of the men in my life haven’t had an issue with my transsexuality; they’ve had issue with their friends and family knowing I’m transsexual. While I may not fully agree with this, I understand it and have never held it against them. Besides, I’ve always viewed my gender history as just that –mine.
Being transsexual is at the core of much of my life experience and is the root of the most challenging and difficult times I've experienced. It’s not ‘coffee talk’ to be casually bantered about with voyeurs or the fairest of friends. The details of my history are something I chose to share only with those closest to me and would expect my partner to feel the same.
At Aleshia Brevard's house.
Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in USA. 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?
Gina: I think it’s inevitably so. Everyone should be able to live true to themselves and live as they see fit, whether that’s being completely open about their history to everyone or not. The personal choices of each should be respected.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Gina: In the suburbs that border the north side of Detroit. It used to be known as ‘home of the World Headquarters of General Motors’, now most people know it now as the area where Eminem is from. 
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Gina: My childhood was actually quite idyllic. I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood with wonderful parents who’ve been happily married for 60 years now. The neighborhood had lots of kids just like me: Southern parents, with a Dad that worked for, or in support of, Chrysler, Ford or General Motors. Together we rode bikes, played basketball, baseball, football, and hung out in each other’s yard’s without fear of being abducted or shot. Bicycles gave way to motorized ‘mini-bikes’, and they in turn gave way to hot rods and drive-ins. One could say I was ‘quite the tomboy’ back then.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment where I would have said to myself ‘you’re really a girl’. In my case it was really a rolling, gradual realization that began around age six. One incident would build upon another. Some were as small as wondering why I couldn’t wear things like my older sister, others were more blatant such as playing with makeup when no one was around or the way I carried my books in elementary school.
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?
Gina: No, not at all. Granted, I endured my share of being teased as a child for a number of reasons – tall for my age, skinny, glasses, braces, and of course, the way I carried my books.
But the taunting stopped at the gymnasium door. Being athletic, being better at something than most of the other guys, gave me a strong sense of self-confidence and by the end of 7th grade the taunting had stopped completely. Of course I had also changed how I carried my books and had adapted an outward style more in line with the other guys.
During those years, I completely repressed my feminine feelings. I think I was even the only football player who did not come to school dressed as a female cheerleader for the annual ‘Powder Puff’ game and Sadie Hawkins dance in high school! I couldn’t risk being seen as being ‘too comfortable’ in the role.
Still, my sense of being female would surface in unexpected ways. Funny story, long after transition a friend from high school reached out to me and said “ well this explains why you always seemed to take the girls side when we’d complain about our girlfriends – and why you referred to your car as a guy when we all referred to ours as a girl”. I certainly never gave it any thought at the time and found his comment to be over-analyzing and hysterical.
Retro-inspired bell bottom pants.
All through school I told myself this was just a phase; that I’d meet the right girl one day and the intuition of being female would go away. It was the perfect plan except for one thing, the feelings didn’t go away, they intensified.
By my mid-twenties I could no longer run from it and that led to depression, a suicide attempt, then to a therapist, and finally to self-acceptance.
The hardest time for me was the first few years of transition. I was a special event bartender at an upscale hotel, usually working in the company of 200-400 guests. 
Any sense of decorum people had at the start of an evening would be lost during the course of a seven hour open bar. The comments made at my expense and to my face were very hurtful, and repeated night after night with each new attending group. Michigan, the state I lived in, had ‘at will’ laws in place which meant I could be fired at any time for most any reason.
If I were to have complained to management about the verbal abuse I was receiving by customers, it wouldn’t have taken them long to conclude that as an employee I was more trouble than I was worth. I also understood ‘corporate’ was watching my transition as a bit of test case and that future Trans employees would initially be judged by my actions and performance. And because no one likes to be a whiner, I knew complaining to co-workers was not going to win me any points. So I kept it all to myself, day in and day out, for the four remaining years I worked there.
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?
Gina: I began transition at 29, and yes, it was incredibly difficult. Transition was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done and much more difficult (and costly) than I ever imagined. Electrolysis being the absolute worst part. I began transition in the pre-Internet days when one had to really work to find solid information. I scoured libraries all over the Detroit area in search of anything on the topic.
I watched every bad Geraldo and Jerry Springer talk show looking for any common thread with their guests, bought any book that appeared to offer advice. I drove hundreds of miles to attend conferences just on the hope of meeting someone else ‘like me’ as there were none in my area that I knew of.
Knowledge was gained first hand; it was hard fought for and highly valued. The sharing of it was held as a duty and an honor. I feel a lot of that has been lost in a world filled with thousands of blogs dedicated to before/after pictures and the feelings about one’s personal transition, with so little actually devoted to how one transitions – the medical, physical, emotional, societal, and psychological rode and potholes one must navigate.
I didn’t have any notable support outside of my therapist, though I did have the trust of two friends, one male and one female that I’d known for many years. Each knew my need of transition had to be genuine as to willingly give up all I had going for me at that time was otherwise unfathomable. But they were busy with their own lives and weren’t around much.
On a daily basis I relied on myself, my therapist, the belief that life would be better once I reached ‘the other side’, and the seemingly insignificant random acts of kindness of strangers.
Channeling her inner Ingrid Bergman.
Like so many of us, my announcement of upcoming transition came as a shock to those around me, and none took it harder than my parents and siblings. I believed the only chance for their acceptance was for them to actually watch me go through it all. There were a lot of tears and angry outbursts to be sure, and things were strained for about seven years. But we made it through, together.
I can honestly say we are once again a family that truly welcomes and loves each other. I’m eternally grateful to my therapist for teaching me about the ‘stages of grief’ in preparation for it all. Without that knowledge I’d have walked away from anyone at the first sign of their hatefulness – much to the long term regret of all involved.
As to the impact on my job, it was felt. I had been working there for two years prior to transition. The most obvious impact was being requested off of functions by regular clients. To my boss' credit, she always had my back and after the first year began telling clients I was her best bartender and while they could request a particular bartender, they could not refuse a particular person for legal reasons. It was a bit of stretch, but it did scare enough people away from making it an issue with my GM.
The second impact was more personal. Many times guys approached me wanting to have sex, and because I was transsexual they believed that meant I would automatically say yes and would be open to every kinky fantasy they had. We weren’t on a date when these conversations happened, they would ask me this in the middle of a ballroom when no one else was within earshot and while their girlfriends or wives were waiting back at their table.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a beautiful woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass?
Gina: Thank you for the compliment, that’s very kind. I’m of the belief that if one expects to be viewed and treated as a woman, then passing is incredibly important. But passing is not synonymous with beauty; In fact, the two aren’t even related. There are many beautiful crossdressers and drag performers who would never be thought of as female. 
And more to the point, the world is full of women of every size, shape, and level of beauty that go about their day with complete confidence the world sees them for the women they are. They know it in their soul and that truth radiates outward for the all to see. For transwomen, the first step to achieving this is the stripping away of the mannerisms, attitudes and responses learned during a man-forming puberty spent around males. The lack of doing this is where the stereotype of ‘a man in a dress’ comes from.
This may sound incredibly simplistic, but ‘un-learning’ all you know is the hardest part of transition. Surgeries are easy, they just take money. Undergoing a second adolescence, a female adolescence, is pretty much the same process as it is for any other girl. Picture a girl of 12, and then see that same girl at age 22. Think of the changes she’s undergone in that decade – learning a sense of personal style through trial and error, dating mistakes, adjusting to new hormones, fighting internal inadequacies that she isn't 'good enough' or 'pretty enough', and developing a dream for themselves as the woman she aspires to be… sound familiar? We are no different.
Lady in blue with a hat.
Monika: On the other hand, there are some really deplorable situations like the one which happened in the UK some time ago when Suzanne Moore, a British controversial newspaper columnist, wrote in an article that biological women are angry with themselves for “not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” How would you respond to this?
Gina: I haven’t read the article so I’m not able to comment specifically. I will say the author sounds to be echoing the sentiments many women, including myself, have toward the promotion of unrealistic images in fashion magazines. Unfortunately, too many young women view these images as the physical ideal and something attainable when in reality they are not.
They are Photoshop enhanced idealizations from the mind of an art director or editor. Even the models themselves don’t look like this in real life. Rather than attack the author for the transsexual reference, I'd suggest opening a dialogue on the fashion industry's fixation on the very skinny. Even I have looked at some of these models and thought "tall, skinny, no hips, no boobs - that's how I looked at 13!"
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow 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?
Gina: I’m a believer anything is possible if you have the vision and are willing to put in the work to achieve it. I completely understand that for some, facial surgery is often necessary to make passing possible, but true passing comes from within as I mentioned earlier. I also have concerns with the massive popularity of gender related surgery.
In short, I fear ‘transgender’ has simply become a business, and big business at that. When I transitioned there were only four or five noted GRS surgeons in the entire world and the cost of surgery was just easily under $15,000 USD. Seventeen years later there are probably that many surgeons in Los Angeles alone!
In economic theory, competition is supposed to bring prices down and push quality up. Yet in the case of trans-related surgery, prices are higher than ever and climbing every year, and surgeons the world over have waiting lists. I’ve heard stories of people selling their home or closing their 401k to get the $50,000 needed for some surgeries. And the flip-side of this growth is the number of people who openly regret their surgery seems to be growing larger as well.
As to specific advice, I would simply say to examine what’s truly in your heart and not let the cheering sections online and at conferences’ sway you one way or another. This is your life; your one shot in this world. Live it the way you – and only you – need to.
With Aleshia Brevard.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Gina: I didn’t have any transgender or transsexual role models nor was I part of an LGBT group or community prior to transition. I wouldn’t have known if/where one existed in my hometown at that time and don’t recall hearing the word ‘transgender’ until the last decade or so.
I think I was 13 when I heard, or more accurately saw, the word ‘transsexual’ for the first time. It was in a magazine while seated next to my mom in the optometrist's office. The story was of a woman in her early 20’s who'd undergone surgery and was now studying for a nursing degree. I was so enthralled that I secretly tore the article out and read it over and over in my room.
In my twenties, the only references I recall were the occasional tabloid stories on Roberta Close and Caroline ‘Tula’ Cossey. They were - are – remarkable, stunning women, and their stories showed me what was possible.
My therapist asked me early on ‘so you’re a woman – What kind of woman will you be?.. What will you stand for?.. Who are the woman around you and in history you admire and why?..’. I was floored. I’d been so focused on the medical part of transition that I hadn’t given proper thought as to who I truly wanted to be.
Role models that quickly emerged include Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore, Dolly Parton, Nora Ephron, the American Suffragettes, and my favorite at the time was Dixie Carter’s character of ‘Julia Sugarbaker’ on the tv show ‘Designing Women’. She was strong, opinionated, proud, compassionate, and beautiful. Everything I aspired to be. 
About ten years later I met my first role model who also happened to be transsexual, Aleshia Brevard. I consider her a role model not because she’s transsexual, but because she succeeded in realizing so many of her dreams in spite of it. I was introduced to Aleshia through the pages of her first memoir and then we met personally a short time later. We just clicked with each other and have been close ever since. She was, is, and will always be a role model for me and someone I lovingly consider as ‘my other mother’.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Gina: Seeing the impact my coming out had on my Dad. He and I were always so close and making him proud was something I placed a high value on. Summoning the courage to look him in the face and say ‘Dad, I’m transsexual’ took months of preparation with my therapist. I knew my revelation would be robbing him of the many dreams he had for me, but seeing his initial reaction was absolutely devastating. He’d always been the rock of the family and it seemed I had broken him with just three little words.

It took many years to rebuild our relationship and I’m happy to say we’ve done that. My being female finally clicked for him and my Mom when they visited me and my then-boyfriend, David, in Florida some seven years into transition and four years post-surgery.
Funny side note; during their visit the four of us went out to dinner. David – who knew my gender history – was determined to impress my parents. On the way out of the restaurant my Mom held me back a bit as David and my Dad walked ahead. “He’s a very nice man” Mom said, “but he’s not for you.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her passing judgment on my dating life. Time quickly proved she was right. David was a nice man, but he was not the right man for me. Mother really did know best.
I’m sure there are times when my parents miss the boy and young man they gave birth to and raised, but they have become more wonderful and supportive of the woman I am than I ever imagined possible. This is why I tell young sisters and brothers to not take the initial negative reaction of loved ones to heart.
A friend of mine said a common phrase in the gay community is “it often takes us 30 years to accept who we are, yet we expect our family to get there in 30 minutes”. The same certainly holds true for the trans community. We must allow people the right to their feelings and whatever time they need to process. 
With her ex-boyfriend in Florida.
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Gina: I have not. I thought about it prior to surgery, but I knew it would have been a mistake and didn’t want to potentially ruin someone else’s life because of what I knew deep-down to be inevitable.
Since transition I’ve been asked to marry once, had it alluded to twice, and was even asked to “just spend our lives together”. None of those relationships stood the test of time for one reason or another.
Still, love is very important to me, as it should be for everyone. And while I’m not dating anyone special now, I maintain belief I will find the right person and marry one day.
A few years ago I visited a good ol’ fashioned Tarot Card and Palm Reader while in New Orleans who said “I see two great loves in your life. And you’ve already had one.” I will always be the optimist.
What I’m looking for in a partner has also matured. The most handsome guy in the room may catch my eye, but it’s going to take a great deal more to catch my heart or even have me shaving my legs for a date. Pretty faces and toned bodies fade; a genuine heart and warm sense of humor is eternal.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Gina: The emotional answer is I most enjoy not having to think about it. I love the natural congruity of my mind, body, and soul. I also cherish the emotional depth of friendships I have with a core group of girlfriends. That’s what I observed in women and was most jealous of before my transition. On a lighter note, I love getting dressed up for a night out. Picking out a great dress and doing my hair and makeup is one of the best feelings in the world.
Special night out.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Gina: I believe all women can make a huge difference and encourage their participation at every level, regardless if they are transsexual, transgender, or cis.
I follow the goings-on of national politics, LGBT and otherwise, though I have no interest of becoming personally involved. Politics as I see it is just a battle of egos, ideology and partisan rhetoric; a 
lace where measurable results are seemingly irrelevant. While I love to debate and am good at it, I am intrinsically a problem solver with a GSD degree. That’s my acronym for ‘Gets Stuff Done’. It's why I went into business; that's a world where actions truly do speak louder than words.
Monika: Some time ago you acted in your own show called “Miss Understood”. Have you got any plans for the follow-up of the show?
Gina: You saw that did you?... I enjoyed writing and performing the ‘Miss Understood’ monologue as part of the show 'Trans Sister Tales' and am definitely interested in doing more with an audience. I have some ideas, but they’re not fully formed so I’ll keep them to myself for the time being.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Gina: I’ve never actually seen one. On one hand, any pageant that rewards and encourages people to be their individual best is a good thing and something I would support.
On the other hand, I prefer to see transsexual women competing alongside ciswomen as that is reflective of the world we live in. That’s why I am so proud of and impressed with Jenna Talackova. I would rather finish Top 20 in an all-encompassing beauty pageant than be crowned queen of a transgender pageant. But that’s just me.
Vintage hat from Italy, circa 1962.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Gina: I love fashion and had my own line for three seasons in the mid ‘90’s. I’m a unique blend of Detroit, Tennessee, San Francisco, and Italy, so my outfits vary a great deal depending on my mood. In general, I prefer the classics, such as a black, Donna Karan sheath dress.
You’re also just as likely to find me in a pair of great jeans, cowboy boots, and leather jacket walking thru the city. Being 6’ 1” tall, long A line skirts and dresses also work well.
From Aleshia I’ve learned that ‘drapey is better than form-fitting’ as I’m no longer 30. My color palette in clothes includes a lot of black, teals, rust, deep blues, greens, fawn-like browns, and off-white. Makeup color choices vary with the outfit and season. I limit trendy to nail color; it’s inexpensive and a great way to stay current.
As for quirky, there are two things: first, I absolutely adore hats. Newsies, cowboy, and especially the wide brimmed styles reminiscent of the great starlets of the 1930’s and 40’s. I have a quite a collection including some vintage Italian hats from the early ‘60’s. Secondly, I have an affinity for retro – from the structured look of Joan on Mad Men to the flowing tops with bell bottom pants of the early ‘70’s. I’ve incorporated certain pieces reminiscent of those styles into my wardrobe and just love the look. 
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Gina: Not really. My local activity has been focused on TEEI, The Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, and mentoring where I can. I've been advocate for TEEI, The Trevor Project, and GLSEN (among other non-LGBT causes) for a number of years and have reached a point in life where I’m tired of being essentially just a check writer. I'm interested in becoming personally active in just one or two causes. I’ve not yet decided what those will be or the role(s) I would like to play, but I’m working on it.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself? 
Gina: No. I love to write, but don’t feel I’ve accomplished nearly enough in my post-transitional life as of yet to warrant such a thing. No offense to anyone, but I’ve seen too many autobiographies by individuals whose only noted achievement seems to be having undergone gender transition, and for me that’s just not enough.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Gina: Yes, incredibly so! I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible and am just getting started!
Monika: Gina, thank you for the interview!
Gina: Thank you, Monika. It’s been a pleasure.

All the photos: courtesy of Gina Grahame.
Done on 11 February 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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