Sunday, 10 March 2013

Interview with Veronique Renard

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Veronique Renard, a Dutch writer, Buddhist and pro-Tibet activist, the author of "The Tibetan Freedom Struggle trilogy and her autobiographical book titled "Pholomolo - No Man No Woman". Hello Veronique!
Veronique: Namaste Monika, thank you so much for contacting me. I hope my contribution to your website will be helpful to many people.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Veronique: I am still working on my next novel, Comrades of the Cut Sleeve, a story about a closeted gay Chinese military general who is in the process of liberating himself. These days all my books are about how to find happiness, enlightenment, I suppose.
Monika: You are one of the few people that met Dalai Lama in person. What impact did the meeting have on you?
Veronique: Meeting him first time was very interesting. However, he didn’t mean that much to me at that time. I kind of accidentally met him.
I still feel embarrassed that I just shook hands with him like most other westerners tend to do. However, meeting him last time, (seven years later) was phenomenal! After living close to him for 7 years in the Indian Himalayas he was the man who helped me to accept myself as a Pholomolo, the Tibetan word for transsexual.
This time I prostrated myself in front of him, the way Tibetans great him. He enjoys westerners who pick up Tibetan manners and customs. I lived with the Tibetans and Indians for 7 years. I ate their food and drank their water. And after a few years I felt I became more and more Tibetan.
2003/4 near her hut in Varkala.
Monika: Your “The Tibetan Freedom Struggle” trilogy is the reflection of this meeting? 
Veronique: Yes. I was travelling through India in the spring of 2000 to find a cure to my depression. I accidentally stumbled upon the Tibetan refugee community in the north Indian Himalayas. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and lived in Dharamsala ever since. I didn’t return home to Holland but rented a room opposite the Dalai’s monastery between 2000 and 2007.
I heard so many stories from refugee friends that I thought I should somehow get those stories across to concerned people in the world. I thought I should use my skills as a novelist to write books about the Tibetans. My memoir Pantau in India became a best-seller in the Netherlands, but my follow up trans-memoir Pholomolo was only published in English in the USA.
Pholomolo is a Tibetan word, but it’s a different type of freedom struggle. Although Pholomolo doesn’t sell as many copies as Harry Potter, the book has become some sort of cult-book, read by people all over the world. So far, critics and readers gave it perfect reviews. I haven’t heard anything negative about it yet. I am truly happy with this.
Monika: Having studied about Tibet and its history and present situation, do you think that it stands a chance of its independence?
Veronique: I actually agree with the Dalai Lama on this. He doesn’t strive for independence, but autonomy, genuine autonomy inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I think this would actually work out well for both the Chinese and the Tibetans. So my message to Beijing would not be: Free Tibet, but Respect Tibet.
Monika: You are a Buddhist. What is the attitude of Buddhism towards transgender people?
Veronique: The Tibetan Buddhists call us pholomolos. Pho means Male and Mo means Female and Lo means no. Not man, not woman. I liked that idea. Since the Tibetans explained to me the phenomenon of transsexualism, I started to feel a lot of self-worth. They think we are special, holy, half-god-like. It’s almost a joy to introduce myself to Tibetans and Indians as a transsexual! Buddhism doesn’t have much to say on this particular matter.
Buddhism is all about finding Nirvana, enlightenment, and everybody has the right to follow the path of the Buddha, including transsexuals, so there is no religious discrimination toward us.
In Asia people often turn to half-man-half-woman figures to receive their blessings for good luck. Transsexualism is a totally different thing in Asia. They are the shamans, the holy people, the priests, those figures who find their place somewhere between the gods and the human people. We are everything; both man and woman, human and god in one body. We are unlike non-transsexual people.
At the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, India in 2003.
Monika: Have you experienced any act of discrimination at work due to your transgender status?
Veronique: Not as a writer (I hope). But as an office worker during my previous career continuously. It would sometimes take months before one or two colleagues figured out I might be transsexual.
Recent studies showed that 48 per cent of Dutch people would feel uncomfortable being in the presence of a transsexual person. I used to work for large corporations, so as soon as people found out, hundreds of people started to feel uncomfortable being in the presence of me; their office manager.
So I had many, many short term contracts with large corporations and never left a company on friendly terms. After 16 years I was fed up with being fired from great jobs, just because my colleagues felt uncomfortable with me. I can now understand why so many transsexuals end up as prostitutes, as second class citizens, living in a box.
For 12 years I have been self-employed as a writer and artist (I make jolly nice paintings too!). I am not making as much money as I used to as an office manager, but I never get discriminated anymore by an employer. I believe I could run a multinational, but corporations just don’t want to employ transsexuals in top office jobs with many external contacts.
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?
Veronique: We’re different, mysterious, unique. There are very few of us. It’s a natural thing. Mother birds and siblings kill the weaker or abnormal brother or sister and throw them out of the nest. I think that is what is happening to us when we trans girls and gay boys get bullied at school, banned from toilets, ignored, separated, excluded, discriminated by society.
It’s easier to beat up a fairy or woman with a wig than a transman with muscles. A transman is a man after all. Nobody wants trouble with a man. Also, there is much jealousy. Transwomen are sometimes so beautiful that women get jealous. I see that a lot in Thailand. Women admire and hate them for their beauty and they hate transsexuals because men love them so much.
On the beach near Venice with her
second fiance in the early 1980s.
Monika: Your autobiographical book is titled “Pholomolo - No Man No Woman”. Do you regard yourself as no man no woman?
Veronique: Not when I was young. I just thought of myself as female. Always. I only started to develop that feeling in 2000, when I immigrated to Asia, after learning more about Asian transsexuals.
When I drive a jeep across the highest mountain passes in the Himalayas, it’s not the girl who is steering the car, it’s the boy inside me. This boy is gay, but he is a masculine macho guy who dares to steer a jeep across a mountain.
The girl inside me is present most of the time, I would say 80 % of the time. It depends on what I need to accomplish. I am a woman, but inside me are two people, a feminine woman and a masculine man.
Monika: You lived for a long time in such countries as the Netherlands, India, Thailand and China. What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women there?
Veronique: In some ways better than in the West, in other ways not. In Thailand, transsexuals are totally accepted by society, however, they can’t change their gender and name on their ID cards. In 1985 I already had Female in my passport and birth-certificate, but the Dutch society still doesn’t accept me.
In India transsexuals are called Hijras and are totally different from all other transsexuals. They are half-gods and act as priests to bless wedding couples and new-born babies.
So it’s all very different from western cultures. I think transsexuals have fewer problems in Asia than effeminate gay men. Generally, transsexuals in Asia are admired and many have celebrity status.
In Thailand many effeminate gay boys decide to have a sex change in order to feel admired and accepted. Parents prefer a trans-child over a gay child. It’s also a way out of poverty. Transsexuals have many advantages and skills to make good money. They make a business out of their transsexualism.
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 witness the same trends in the Netherlands, Thailand and China?
Veronique: In Thailand transsexualism is a part of the culture, so each show on Thai TV has at least one transsexual or a man with lipstick and skirt in it. In the Netherlands it appears that only very recently one started to put transsexual people in front of TV cameras. It’s a very new thing for the Dutch, but there is still a long way to go before the Dutch are okay with transsexuals.
In the Netherlands I still don’t speak about my transsexualism to new people I meet. In Thailand it’s often part of my introduction. I still feel I need to hide my transsexualism in the West, but I can celebrate my uniqueness in Asia. But it’s still better than Uganda!
As a natural blond I found it interesting
to dye my hair black. I regretted it
later when trying to make it blond
again. I had short hair for years.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Veronique: I grew up in a small farming village in the Netherlands. Those God-fearing people there talked about tractors, hayforks and cows. I moved to India at 34 (where I developed wisdom and found happiness). I moved to Thailand at 41 where I married and found a new kind of happiness.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Veronique: I played with the girls in the dolls corner at kindergarten and sided with females ever since. Even as a toddler I knew I was different because boys were different from me. I was more like the girls.
So as I always felt part of a group called Females, I always felt I was/am like them. Therefore I called my female penis a birth defect that has been fixed in hospital at age 18. I have never been a boy. For the first 18 years of my life, I was a girl with a penis.
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?
Veronique: Yes. I was scared at high school. I feared for my life. For 4 years I was a very unhappy child close to suicide. I got bullied for being a slender blond fairy gay boy with a handbag. The children at school came from farms. They still talked about tractors and hayforks. I talked about David Cassidy, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and handbags.
Our school opened each morning with a prayer to God and ended the day with a prayer to God. So you can imagine how much I got to endure. I even got bullied by the teachers, especially our religion teacher and the school’s principal. I got back at the bullies and the teachers 10 years later at a school reunion. I made them all apologise to me. One teacher left the building because he couldn’t stand being in the presence of a transsexual.
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?
Veronique: I was so young, I transitioned from boyish child into a young adolescent girl. I was only 17 when I started hormones. I had the big operation at 18. I never got to know what I would have been like as an adult male. As I was so young, I could experience life like my girlfriends. I got my first boyfriend at age 18 as a girl.
I experienced my entire adult life as a female. This prevented me from lying about my past. I never had a past as a man. I never needed to adjust the truth. I was able to write a truthful autobiography without mentioning my transsexual history.
A photo taken by the same photographer
as Pholomolo's book cover. Here
I was 19, one year post-op.
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?
Veronique: It must be a horror. I am sure some T-women struggle with their looks yet they might be more feminine than I am. I feel blessed with my looks. As I already looked like a girl it was very easy to transition. It was difficult for me to pass as a boy at that time. I don’t need to do anything to pass as a woman.
I am even lucky at 48 to be considered attractive by many people. It’s not fair. I never had a pimple in my life, never a weight problem, and I never had to remove unwanted facial or body hair. I never menstruate, no PMS.
However, mentally I have had my share of problems. Thus good looks alone are not enough to find happiness. It helps a lot, I agree, but you need to develop your female spirit in order to pass as a woman. Passing as a woman has more to do with the spirit that you project.
There are plenty of women, especially older women, who look like men. They have short grey hair, no make-up, glasses and wear unisex clothes. It’s sometimes difficult for me to see whether they are male or female. Always need to look for earrings or breasts. But as soon as they start speaking to me, I know whether they are female or male.
So it is not their looks but their voices and spirits that project and reflect their true gender. The voice is most important. Spend all your time on your voice. Lots of time. All the time. I can’t stress the importance of the voice. It’s the voice that makes you a woman. It doesn’t even need to be high, but feminine and confident. So instead of spending much time and money trying to look like a model who’s 20 years younger, try to be comfortable with the slightly unusual looking woman that you are. Look at women your own age and try to be and look like them (if you want to blend in).
Unfortunately transsexuals are often very insecure regarding their looks so they always try to look better than other women. This is hard work. I stopped doing that at 24. But remember, even though I look good, if my voice hadn’t been good, I wouldn’t pass either. I started voice training at 18 with a professional voice coach. At 47 I still practice in my bathroom.
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?
Veronique: I can assure you it is very possible. Most western patients travelling to Thailand for SRS are over 50. The results are great. The skin of older people is easier to work with as it is thinner. If they feel they might be happier with a late transition they must do what they feel they must do. I think at that age they might not care anymore what other people think of them.
The fact that they waited so long has often to do with being afraid to come out of the closet and make a huge change. It’s not easy to do this between the age of 25 and 50. At 17 I was too young to understand the consequences of my decision to transition. At 60 you’re old enough not to care.
So I think transitioning is easiest as a very young person or a very old. However, physically, it is better to change as young as possible. With hindsight, my timing to transition during puberty was perfect and that made life much, much easier as an adult female transsexual.
At 19, I remember still feeling a bit insecure
presenting myself as a woman. It took
a few years to feeling fully comfortable.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Veronique: Practically zero. I only knew about Caroline Cossey, the James Bond girl who appeared with her story in magazines in the early 1980s.
This I took to our GP who had no knowledge of transsexualism. There were only 200 transsexuals in Holland back then. I had no idea what to expect. I was part of an experiment. It turned out well.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Veronique: I am not sure which coming out you mean. I had many. I came out at 14 as a gay boy, at 17 I came out as a trans girl to my parents and friends, yet I kept that a public secret until recently. I came out in 2007 by means of a book published in English in the USA.
I came out as a transsexual celebrity in Holland just a few months ago when I was invited to speak at a gay and trans conference in the Netherlands. The Dutch still had no idea, as I never talked about it during interviews and no journalist ever asked about it.
So I had many coming outs. Some are good, some are bad. There are plenty new people I meet who do not want to be friends with me just because I am a transsexual. And of course there are also people who don’t want to be friends with me because they don’t like my personality.
Monika: You are married. Marriage is a special event for all women. Did you enjoy being a bride, hen party, trying on a wedding dress and finally your wedding ceremony? 
Veronique: I didn’t have a traditional western-style wedding. I actually felt more comfortable with a traditional Buddhist style wedding. My Chinese husband felt comfortable with that too. Buddhism doesn’t believe in a God creator. Communists don’t believe in God either, so a Buddhist wedding worked out well for this Dutch-Chinese marriage.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Veronique: The fact that I can feel relaxed this way. I love to interact with straight men as a woman. I used to fear straight guys as a young gay male-kind-of-like child. Straight males used to bully me and beat me up. Now they feel attracted to me. So that feels good. My enemy has become my lover.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Veronique: No I am not active in politics. Like the Dalai Lama, I never voted in my life and we try to refrain from speaking politics. I do accept invitations these days to speak about LGBT-issues. But no matter where I speak, I always speak as a Buddhist, a student of the Dalai Lama.
Taken by my friend Cameron Wolf in
Bangkok in 2008. It was part of a photo
shoot for a charity for an AIDS Calendar.
It was a nude calendar. It was my first
and only nude photo shoot.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Veronique: In Thailand they are huge. It’s the biggest thing on Thai TV. In Holland it was a brief hype over a decade ago. I have mixed feelings about them. There are many different type of transsexual women.
Some don’t like pageants, find them degrading, while others love them. I can understand what thrill it must be to be voted the prettiest tranny. I wouldn’t reject that idea either. I love it when people call me pretty. The older I get, the better that word sounds.
However, I see myself as an academic. I only wear makeup when I need to impress a man or need to go on television. I don’t care for clothes. So it’s not my personal thing.
Monika: So what kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Veronique: I don’t care for fashion and makeup. I have a few outfits that I can wear at funerals and television interviews. I have a Tibetan Buddhist habit that I might wear in Asia. I have traditional Tibetan clothes and hats that I wear in the Himalayas.
I wear traditional Indian clothes when I am in South India. In Bangkok I dress up as Madonna and dance in skimpy clothes on gogo-stages in jet-set gay clubs in the Silom area. In Holland I wear jeans and t-shirts. I have one pair of decent shoes. It’s not about clothes anymore. I dress in the west like Steve Jobs did.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Veronique: In Thailand my husband and I have been adopted by the LGBT community. Almost all my/our contacts are with LGBT people. I really like them. My husband is a plastic surgeon specialised in SRS.
In India, most of my contacts are with Tibetan monks and nuns and Buddhist students from all over the world. In Holland most people aren’t aware of my transsexualism, but I am willing to speak about it and interact with Dutch LGBT’s when I am there. For some reason, it’s not happening in Holland for me.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Veronique: I create my own life. I would say I feel content and relaxed 95% of the time. At the moment we’re spending time in our Japanese holiday home in a nature reserve in Holland where I have created a Japanese garden. After living in the heat of Bangkok for years, I really feel happy with the four-seasons-in-one-day type of climate in the Netherlands. We’re considering staying here for some time.
Monika: Veronique, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Veronique Renard.
Done on 10 March 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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