Sunday, 28 April 2013

Interview with Lisa Salazar


Monika: Today’s interview will be with Lisa Salazar, a Canadian transgender advocate, author of the book titled "Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life" (2011). Hello Lisa!
Lisa: Hi Monika, thank you for your interest and for the opportunity to share with you and your friends.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Lisa: I have been a self-employed graphic designer all of my professional life. Unfortunately, my current work situation is very different from what it was five years ago — I am severely underemployed.
I attribute this to four reasons; first, my client base has shrunk slowly as many of my clients (who are about the same age as me) have retired; second, the economic slow down has made finding new clients and employment very difficult; third, my age (I’m 62); and fourth, being transgender is a liability when it comes to doing business.
In the absence of graphic design work, I have decided to go back to school this coming September to get a masters degree in Pastoral Care and learn how to offer faith-based support to the transgender persons and their families. I believe there is a need for this and I hope to help somehow.
"Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good
Life" (2011) - Amazon.
Monika: You have solid transgender advocacy background. What are the current issues on the Canadian transgender advocacy agenda?
Lisa: Let me first explain that I am a reluctant advocate. When I transitioned five years ago, I had the notion I would be living the rest of my life in complete obscurity and privacy. I was going to go stealth, hide and blend into the woodwork. If I had my way, nobody would need to know anything about my past.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Six months after my surgery in the spring of 2010, a friend asked me to be one of the presenters at an event called “Interesting Vancouver.” He wanted me to share my story and told me I would have fifteen minutes to do it in.
This seemed completely preposterous to me, here I was trying to be a private person and accepting this invitation to speak to three hundred people seemed like a sure way to torpedo my privacy row boat out of the water forever.
I had a moment of crisis trying to decide what to do, but this forced me to see the futility of trying to hide my past; but more importantly I thought, what all my attempts to hide my past would communicate to my three sons, that their existence was a liability to me? God forbid they would ever feel that way; they are the most important legacy of my life and I love them more than my life.
I know this is a long answer to your question, but it is the only way I can explain how I became an advocate. The experience of sharing my story publicly surprised me because I found that I had a voice, and shockingly, what I had to say was of interest to people. And the further realization was how opinionated I really am!
Lisa in 2008.
Case in point, a couple of years ago I wrote a short comment to the editors of The Province (one of the two major newspapers in Vancouver) about my opinion regarding the transgender rights bill making its way through the Canadian Parliament. 
Whatever it was I said caught the eye of the editor and I was invited to write an OpEd on the topic. It was published the following week. A few days later, a radio station called to invite me to talk about what I had written. This, you could say, is how my inadvertent advocacy was born.
With respect to the proposed legislation to extend protection to on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, Canada is really close to passing the current version of the bill. Bill C-279, as it is called, has passed in the House of Commons and is now in the Canadian Senate.
Unfortunately, the Senate has a Conservative majority and the Bill could still die and never become law. If passed, this bill will provide Federal protection from discrimination and violence on the basis of gender identity and expression.
A couple of Canadian provinces have already passed this kind of legislation to amend their respective human rights codes, but we really need explicit language in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms so all transgender and gender-variant persons in Canada will enjoy this level protection. I am hoping 2013 will be the year Canada passes this important law.
Monika: Politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the Canadian transgender community in this respect?
Lisa: Canada is a big country, geographically speaking. From my perspective, this has resulted in a very fractured and disjointed transgender community. Ontario and Nova Scotia, the two provinces that have recently passed the laws I mentioned above, seem to have cohesive organization and interaction within their borders, but I see no national movement that speaks for all Canadian trans folk.
That is not to say there is no discussion or lobbying taking place, because many individuals have invested a lot of time an energy to support and promote Bill C-279, and they need to be thanked for their tireless efforts. I look enviously at organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality in the United States and wish we had a Canadian equivalent.
Lisa in 2010.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Lisa: As a new comer into this LBGT club, I was dismayed to see just how dissed the Ts were by the other letter holders.
It still comes as a shock to me when I give workshops and a gay or lesbian person admits to me they did not understand how different and difficult life was for trans people and thank me for helping them finally get it.
I was under the erroneous impression that the LGBT umbrella was a happy collection of people. Then you read the stats that many organizations that claim to be LGBT don’t even have a transgender person on their board of directors and though they include the T in their monicker, they really do nothing on behalf of gender-variant persons.
This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else. The Vancouver Pride Society has recognized this deficiency and to their credit, have installed trans people in their board and are making a real effort to be more inclusive of trans people. However, this is very recent; they have been around for a long time.
Monika: Is there anyone in the Canadian transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the US gay activism? 
Lisa: Harvey Milk was a very iconic person, its hard to find to many individuals who have his stature. As I said, I am a new comer to this scene, having live the first fifty-eight years of my life deeply closeted. I know of no-one that I can think of on a Canadian national level who has had the kind of impact Harvey Milk had in the U.S. (and the world). I apologize to any Canadian who may be deserving of recognition, I just don’t know if any exists.
Lisa in 2011.
Monika: You have been living in three countries: Colombia, USA and Canada. What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women there?
I only have direct experience in Canada and anecdotal knowledge of Colombia and USA. It is undeniable that Canadian trans persons have it far better than their Colombian and American brothers and sisters. 
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in Canada as a whole. Once you leave the larger urban centers, you will find lack of trans-friendly services and pockets of intolerance where any gender-variance is likely to result in some form of negative reaction. The challenges faced by trans persons are as real in Canada as anywhere.
From my conversations with others, it can be said that we are underemployed and we experience a silent discrimination that is systemic. I have experienced it myself, and as I shared earlier when talking about my career.
For example, I know of at least one client who hired someone else to replace me for a large project; It turns out he was worried about the optics—he projected his own prejudice on his staff and customers when he expressed concerns about my presence in their office. He didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t find this out for several months; it wasn’t until one of his assistants confessed this to me. How can you fight that kind of discrimination? The answer is through education and advocacy — even if it is only one person at a time.
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?
Lisa: I was fifty-eight years old when I transitioned. That was almost five years ago; it was in the Summer of 2008. By that time, I had already lost about 15 kilos and undergone 200 hours of electrolysis to remove my beard. I wanted to attract as little attention to myself as possible and it was important to me to present as authentically as possible for my age group.
Being a very visual person, I studied women my age whom I found attractively dressed and took mental notes of what they wore to work, to go shopping, etc. In this regard, I did not go through a delayed adolescence, I never purchased or wore a mini-skirt nor tried to look like a teenager.
In my opinion, there is nothing more pathetic than a sixty year-old woman trying to look half her age ... so imagine how sad it is to see a trans person trying to pull it off. Even though I lined up my ducks the best I could, I was terrified about the prospect of going out in public as a female. Unlike some trans persons I have met, I never went out in public cross-dressed.
Lisa in 2011.
I knew little to nothing about how to apply make-up and I didn't have an extensive wardrobe. Purchasing clothing became easier with time, but the first three to four months of living full-time were full of panic attacks, with me coming home so tightly wound up and scared, I though I was going to throw up. Transitioning was not cake walk for me.
Despite the challenges I faced, I must say I finally felt true to myself and was no longer having to pretend to be something I was not. The gender dysphoria (distress) I had lived with all my life seemed to evaporate.
Equally important to me was the positive feedback I received from family and friends. Their complements were very welcomed affirmations. Even my mother (86), who has always been very fashion conscious liked my choice of clothing.
With respect to my job, the fact that I was self-employed made me fear the worst. My livelihood was literally put on the line, but my clients were amazing. As far as they were concerned, as long as my work continued to be of the same quality and professionalism I had always delivered, they would continue to use me. And they did, at least as long as they were still working. As mentioned earlier, many of my clients have been retiring and this has resulted in considerably less work and fewer referrals.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Lisa: Let’s face it, I was so well repressed, I had little contact with other transgender persons. Thanks to the Internet and sites like Lynn Conway’s website “Transsexual Women Successes,” I was encouraged to see others who had “made it.” I read their stories and wondered if I would be able to succeed.
Honestly, I seriously doubted it and this depressed me horribly. I learned a lot from Lynn’s website and as time went by, there was more information available on the Internet that helped me understand more about myself.
Let’s also remember that the word “transgender” itself was only coined less than twenty-five years ago. Therefore, I was gleaning relatively new information. Compared to the vacuum I grew up in, now there were mountains of resources. Unfortunately, as I will explain later, I refused to give myself permission to act on any of it.
Lisa in 2012.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Lisa: I came out to family and friends nine months before I transitioned. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best periods of my life.
With the exception of my wife, who had known about my ‘problem’ since about 1980, my coming out was a total shock and surprise to everyone else. I had done such a good job at hiding my secret by living as the model husband and father and respected member of society, nobody ever suspected anything. I found the process of disclosing equivalent to undressing in front of people — I felt terribly vulnerable.
I always feared I would be judged and thrown away and that my life would be over; that I would loose everything if and when people learned my secret. Like many others trans persons before me, I wrote a letter to help me explain things as clearly as possible. 
To my delight and surprise, I experience universal acceptance from all I came out to. I felt as if a huge load had been taken off my shoulders and I have never felt as loved and affirmed as I did going through the process. But it was an emotionally exhausting thing to go through. 
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life? What was the reaction of your spouse to your transition decision? What role does religion play in your life?
Lisa: My marriage lasted 37 years. My wife and I divorced one year after my surgery; she was my best friend for forty years. We met in California at a Bible study in 1971. We developed a very platonic relationship. At the time I knew I was moving to Canada to work with my older brother in a little over a year. A few months before I met her, I had a religious conversion experience which filled me with the hope I was going to be “normal” and that somehow Jesus was going to heal my gender problem — that was my sincere belief.
Imagine how grateful I was when I fell in love with her; to me, it was the answer to my prayers and I interpreted this as God beginning to correct the flaw in my brain. We were married in the Fall of 1974 and we settled in Vancouver. We had our first of three sons in 1976.
After the birth of our second son in 1979, and not seeing my gender struggle go away, I came out to my wife. It was a confession—that I felt inadequate as a man, that I had always been attracted to female things, etc. Since the word transgender and its accompanying definition was not available to me, this was the best I could do. Because of my Christian faith, I had compartmentalized this issue and categorized it as a spiritual struggle. That is how I tried to deal with it and for the next ten years I tried as hard as I could to be the best man I could be with the love, help and prayer support from my wife. 
Lisa in 2012.
Disappointingly, no amount of prayer and self-discipline seemed to make any difference; I still had the same thoughts I always had. I felt defeated and like a hypocrite and this produced a depressing amount of guilt.
In view of my ongoing need to cope, my wife made some allowances and I purchased a few women’s under garments, I only wore them in the privacy of our bedroom. I slept in them and the following morning, when I would revert back to male mode, I felt as if I was ripping my skin off. This was not a solution, anymore than applying a small bandage strip to a gaping wound. 
Though my faith was the source of much guilt, I do credit it with keeping me sober of mind - I never engaged in any risky, addictive, or self-destructive behaviors.
Today I am both grateful for the life I had together with my ex-wife, and sad about the fact our marriage did not survive my complete transition. In the end, my wife was unable to live with me in a same-sex marriage. We still share three wonderful, loving, adult sons and two little granddaughters. It could be worse.
Monika: What is the attitude of the Christian religion to the transgender phenomenon? Is there any reference in the Bible in this respect?
Lisa: This, perhaps is what motivates me the most as an advocate — I want to help raise awareness among Christians that being transgender is not a sin. Truthfully, this was the issue that kept me from acting on my diagnosis twenty one years ago.
When they told me at the Vancouver Gender Clinic I had a serious case of gender dysphoria and the recommended course of action was for me to transition socially, medically and surgically, I laughed. There was no way I could begin to contemplate making any of the changes on the list of things that according to them I needed to do. I opined that I was going to take my struggle to the grave and walked away resigned to my fate. Not only was I not prepared mentally, socially, or financially, I was not able to reconcile my diagnosis spiritually.
What did God have to say about this? All I could find in the Bible to help me deal with my problem left me convince I would be sinning if I gave in to my gender struggle. I was not sure how to deal with what the doctors offered me as a solution. Until I solved this dilemma, I was not going to proceed with transition.
Fast-forward to 2006; I was in dire straights. I had come to the point where I started to fear having a total mental collapse — a serious breakdown of some kind. I didn’t wan to loose control, but the alternative to transition still seemed untenable. I knew I was in trouble because I was thinking about death all the time... I wanted God to end my misery. Ironically, as I read and re-read the passage in Matthew chapter 19, which deals with marriage and divorce, I came to a new understanding of human sexuality.
The key to my spiritual impasse was Jesus’ comments about eunuchs. It was poignant to me that his brief mention on eunuchs in this conversation about God’s perspective on marriage was encapsulated with the caveat that not everyone would be able to understand what he was going to say.
Why was I drawn to that particular passage? It was in this passage from which I had extracted one verse out of context to use as the sledge hammer to pound myself into spiritual submission...“God created us male and female.” I used that phrase over the years in my vain attempt to “retrain my mind.” For your readers who are interested in this theological discussion, I invite them to my blog. Search for “eunuch” and you will find several blog posts on the subject at lisainbc.blogspot.com.
Lisa in 2013.
Monika: What inspired you to write "Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life"? 
Lisa: Writing a book was the farthest thing from my mind when I transitioned. The inspiration was an innocent exchange of emails with a very curious friend who wanted to know all the juicy details of my life.
It all started with a short list of questions in an email, which then turned into a string of follow-up emails with a never ending list of questions. I protested that if she kept it up, I would have a book written before we knew it.
She found my story “riveting” and “inspirational” and pushed me to continue telling her my story. She suggested I copy the answers I had already sent her and paste them in chronological order and to use this as a starting point. 
This exchange took place a couple of months before my surgery in Montreal. It was perhaps the best thing I could have done to prepare myself for surgery; it put me in a very tranquil state of mind. I found the process of writing about my life both cathartic and therapeutic.
I had never written anything down about my gender confusion for fear of it being discovered. There I was, and committing things to paper and ink was at times embarrassing, at times sad, and at times humorous. I did a lot of laughing and crying during the writing process. I finished the book in 45 days.
To decision to publish the book was another matter. When word got out that I had written my story, friends wanted to read it. I made a deal with every person I shared the manuscript with, that they tell me if they found any spelling errors or grammatical problems. In this way the book got edited.
The feedback was consistently the same, that I should publish the book because it was going to help a lot of people, especially people who want to understand how one can be a transsexual Christian. My spiritual journey, which is one of the treads in the book, is what makes my book slightly different from other transgender stories.
Monika: Having transitioned yourself, what would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Lisa: More than anything, I am cognizant that not all transgender persons have the same level of access to medical and surgical transition as I have been blessed with.
Additionally, there are many other barriers to transition which prevent many from ever achieving the congruence they so desperately need. Speaking from a position of privilege is something I am reluctant to do, especially since I have received heart-breaking letters and emails from trans women who tell me they envy me for one reason or another; It is all very humbling.
There is another painful reality that also tempers my answer to your question... even if one has access to all the care to transition medically and surgically, there will always be some whose bodies will always be impossible to retrofit.
I know two trans women who began their transition but changed their mind after they realized how impossible it was going to be for them to never draw attention to themselves. Both of these women were over 6 feet three inches tall and were large persons. They have had to pay a huge emotional and psychological price.

Lisa's blog: lisainbc.blogspot.

For me, one of the most important things I felt I needed to do was loose weight and have my beard removed. The total cost for 300 hours of painful electrolysis was over twenty thousand dollars. This cost was more than what my medical plan pain for my bottom surgery. I know this cost is a deal breaker for many. I also had facial feminization chin reduction. This also had a substantial price tag.
Again, for me, these costs were necessary; I needed to have the confidence to present as authentically as possible. I wish I could wave a wand whenever I meet a trans person who has had to forego those things that could improve how they present and have accepted their fate with courage and grace; I wish for them what I have been able to do. 
Do you see why it is so difficult for me to answer this question and to offer advice? However, there is one word of encouragement I want to give, make an effort to stay healthy.
This by far is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It doesn't cost you anything and it will make an incredible difference if you should decide to transition. I have been physically active for 20 years—I jog, walk and and do body weight exercises four times a week. With all my interactions with doctors over the last five years, one thing I have been congratulated for is my level of fitness. You can do it too.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Lisa: Yes, I am a very happy person. I know this is a cliché, but it is true to say that I have never been as comfortable in my own skin as I am today. The only regret I have is not that I wish I could have transitioned sooner, but that I lost my best friend. I miss my wife very much and at times I feel very lonely without her.
My consolation is that I am still alive and life is good and I am passionate about helping make the path wider and smoother for trans persons (and their families) who are following behind. Peace.
Monika: Lisa, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: Courtesy of Lisa Salazar.
Done on 28 April 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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