Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Donna Rose with whom I would like to discuss the role of transgender women in the US politics, culture and society. Donna is an athlete, a writer and educator, and a well-known LGBT advocate and activist. Her 2003 memoir “Wrapped in Blue” continues to educate and inspire. She is the former Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center Coalition of Central Pennsylvania, and board member for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). Hello Donna!
In my “other” life I’ve described myself as a reluctant activist. Although I wouldn’t call that a career in the typical sense, at one point advocacy efforts were as important an element of my life as my career or anything else I did.
The list of battlefields where many of us do NOT have equality in this country is as long as it ever was. Violence and harassment. The ability to get and keep a job. Schools, and youth. Healthcare. Communities of worship. Homelessness. The ability to serve in our armed forces. The loss of loved ones, and loneliness. It’s a long, long list that can have devastating consequences on our lives.
The underlying issue is the ongoing stigma of mental illness and perversion that we’ve been struggling with for generations. The only way to make progress across the board is to push the culture change that is necessary to correct these misconceptions. The good news is that we’re making tremendous headway there.
I realize that some feel that the T has no business under that umbrella but I am not one of those people. That would be to cut off your nose to spite your face. A far more effective approach is to recognize that we’re different, and that many of our needs are unique, we’ve got to have a place at the table with bigger, stronger allies when policy and strategy are developed.
The fact that we often DO have that voice, at the highest levels, is indicative of success rather than failure. Is there ground still to cover? Of course. BUT – we are far more active, organized, mobilized, engaged, and vocal today than we were a decade ago and the fact that the passage of an inclusive Federal Hate Crimes act and dedication to an inclusive ENDA demonstrates that success.
As I mentioned, I strongly believe that the key element for broader awareness and success is a cultural one, not a political one. Politics rarely outpaces the societal “comfort” that provides the cover to move social agendas. Often, that broader awareness comes through the various media you describe.
For example, I’d argue that a key element to moving our society on gay and lesbian issues was the TV show “Will and Grace”. That said, we have not yet had what I call our “Will and Grace” moment…. we haven’t had the media mainstream media visibility that catapulted their issues, their needs, and their “humanity” to new heights.
Many recent popular media portrayals of trans characters are more realistic than decades-old stereotypes, and are far more plentiful. Can things be improved? Of course. But I think the key is to recognize that we’re making progress – in a large part because we’ve stopped being invisible and are much more active in telling our own stories.
At the last Democratic National Conference there were 7 trans delegates, which speaks volumes to our involvement and our effectiveness. Mara Keisling from NCTE is regularly invited to the White House as the face and the voice of the trans community at those lofty levels. I don’t know that we’ve seen our singular Harvey Milk yet, but I honestly don’t know that we need someone to become a martyr to gain that ground.
|During her transition.|
The advent of the internet and access to what I’d call “success stories” of everyday people with whom I could identify played a huge role in the slow process of self-acceptance that’s necessary to make the huge decisions involved in transition. There are a number of people who played huge roles in my transition, but will probably never know.
When I found Andrea James’s FFS pages it showed me that there was hope. When I found Beck Allison’s story I found somebody who could articulate her feelings in a way that resonated with me.
When I found Dr. Lynn Conway’s website I found dozens of people who shared their humanity to help others. I owe all those pioneers a huge debt and much of my own activism is my effort to pay their selflessness forward.
As far as I’m concerned the transition process is more about quality of life and inner peace than it is about body parts or clothes and it took me a long time to accept that transition and happiness were not mutually exclusive.
The other hardest part was coming out to my wife and son. They were the center of my world and I was acutely aware of what would happen if/when I came out. It is that fear that kept me bottled up for decades. There is a quote I like: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Rather, it is the recognition that something else is more important than fear.”
At some point, I reached a stage where authenticity and hope were more important than the paralyzing fear I was experiencing. That’s what it took to overcome it and move forward.
Transition, and often beyond, is very difficult if you’re obsessed with who might know about your history. You’ve got to grow some thick skin before you can move forward. I could say some flowery things like, “it’s what on the inside that counts” or “it doesn’t matter what anyone else things” but those things are of little comfort when confronted by someone who is challenging your gender. It took me quite a while to get past the stares and the snickers but it was something I needed to do to be me.
So, when it comes to advice I think the best thing I could say is that a key element in all of this is time. It’s easy to dwell in the difficulty of the moment, but time helps overcome discomfort. Be creative finding support, be open to thinking about things in new ways, but most of all – be patient.
The most important role in my life at the time was as a “dad” to my son. He was 14 at the time I came out so there was a real risk I’d lose him. He totally retreated away from me for almost a year afterwards, but I’m thrilled to say that our relationship is stronger and more fulfilling today than ever.
As for the importance of love – that’s a complicated subject. I love to love. I love to be loved. I’m fortunate to have some very important people in my life that I love and who love me back. But at the center of it all is an element of self-love. Without that – well, nothing good can happen.
|In South Carolina.|
But I gradually realized that something was missing. I needed closure. So, I started to collect various parts of my diaries and letters I had written to try to make sense of things.
As I did it I realized that I was creating exactly the kind of thing I would have loved to have had in my own life only there was nothing like it.
I’ve got a very busy and full life, so making the commitment that it would take to do that would be difficult. My main outlets for my ongoing story these days are my website and my blog. They don’t take nearly as much time or energy to share. Whether another book is forthcoming is something I’d like to do, but we’ll see….
For those who do not, none will suffice.” The peace that comes with daring to rebirth yourself is partly a by-product of the difficulty of the journey. Those things you mention are real. They exist, and there’s no getting around that. Be smart. Be aware. Be careful. But, don’t be afraid.