Saturday, 17 May 2014

Interview with JoAnne Wheeler Bland


Monika: Today's interview will be with JoAnne Wheeler Bland, a woman and a transgender activist, a practicing attorney for 44 years, former Special Justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court, former Vice-President of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, current Board Member on the Fairness Campaign Coordinating Committee (in Louisville, Kentucky), current member of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education's Committee on Equal Opportunity (the Diversity Committee), Keynote Speaker for the 27th Annual Kentucky Governor's Equal Employment Opportunity Conference whose topic was "The Transgender Worker", Frequent guest speaker at Women's and Gender Studies at Kentucky Universities, Frequent guest speaker at numerous Kentucky Universities (on the issue of Transgender), frequent guest speaker at PFLAG Meetings across Kentucky, studied Theology for 13 years, a former United Methodist Certified Lay Speaker, former Evangelist and Teacher, former Church Choir Member, architect and interior layout designer, interior decorator, consultant to Kentucky School Districts on Transgender students, consultant to Kentucky Courts on issues of Transgender, Counselor and Advisor to parents, adults and children regarding Transgender issues. Hello JoAnne!
 JoAnne: Thank you for interviewing me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself ?
JoAnne: First of all, I am a 69 year old woman. I was born in Alabama in 1945 and was raised in Kentucky. Like many, if not most, of the Transwomen near my age, I knew that I was "different" when I was a small child. I had no words to describe it other than for some reason, I felt like I was really a girl inside. At night, I used to wish, hope, dream and pray that I would wake up and be the girl that I knew I was. My family was not wealthy. We had a farm. We lived in a small town of 250 people in rural Kentucky. There was no access to any information. And I assumed back then that I was "the only person in the world who felt like I did".
Elementary school was difficult for me in that I was very timid and spent most of my time alone. I always hated the bathroom issue. I could not go into a boy's bathroom I felt that I did not belong in there. I did not like to play with boys. They were too rough for me. I preferred to play with the girls. I was always very intelligent. School was always easy for me. I was a straight A student.
High School was equally difficult. I avoided playing sports. I could not go into the boys locker room. My father and my uncles were all great sports participants. I had tremendous pressure put on me to play sports. I just could not do it. I hated puberty. I hated the hair that grew on my body. I hated my penis. I hated the sexual changes that happened - because I was developing male sexual characteristics and I did not want any of them.
This is her "before" photograph.
It was taken on the day that she
was sworn in as a Special Justice
on the Kentucky Supreme Court.
I continued to be alone as I grew up. I did not have any close friends. I was always afraid to get too close to anyone - for fear that my innermost secret might come out accidentally. I did not date very much. I wanted a platonic relationship with girls. I did not want a sexual relationship. And I sure did not want to date boys. I hated boys, men and everything masculine. After High School, I started College at the University of Kentucky. I ultimately graduated twice, first with a BS in Business & Economics and later, with a Juris Doctor Degree in Law.
While in college, I dated thinking that it would "cure" me. After obtaining my Law Degree, I got married thinking that "would surely cure me". It didn't ! I began practicing Law in the Fall of 1970.
I tried to become totally immersed in my Law Practice as a means to keep my mind off thinking about who I really was inside. Constantly (24/7), I could not get my Gender Dysphoria off my mind. I constantly tried to stay busy and engrossed in something as a way to keep my dysphoria at bay.
My spouse and I bought 50 acres of land. I spent hour upon hour clearing the land - anything to stay busy. Eventually, we built a house on the land and I kept most of the 50 acres manicured like a golf course or park.
Eventually I became interested in genealogy and worked at that for 10-12 years. Then I got involved with theology and became immersed in that for 15-20 years. I studied theology a minimum of 4-5 hours per day for 13 years. I became very active in church work and eventually began to teach and preach.
In 2009, at the age of 64, I got to the point that I just could not deal with my gender dysphoria any more. I was so physically and mentally and emotionally tired of trying to suppress and repress my feelings inside. I was always some what depressed because of it, but I hit rock bottom in 2009. I was suicidal. I just felt that I could no longer live pretending to be someone that I was not. 
Toward the end of 2009, I finally accepted who I was and what I was. I knew that the time had come - either transition or commit suicide. It was a tough decision. It would have been much easier to die. I wanted to kill my male persona - I hated him. But from deep within, JoAnne pleaded with me not to die. JoAnne wanted a chance to live. Killing "John" would also kill "JoAnne" and JoAnne wanted desperately to be able to finally live. I chose to transition and I set out to make it happen after the first of the year 2010. I knew the WPATH Protocols and what they called for. So to that end, I started seeing mental health professionals in February of 2010. Soon afterward, I started on HRT and Laser Hair Removal. I was seeing three mental health professionals at the same time that year. 2010 was a difficult and at the same time exciting year.
Difficult - in that I lost my spouse of 40 years, my law partner of 30 years, my land, my home, my law practice, my possessions, my animals, most of my family, my church family, my social friends and my standing in the community. And still exciting - in that I was on a mission - a mission to let JoAnne be free. Hours upon hours of therapy, hours of Laser Hair removal, Hormone replacement therapy, and I started living full-time on September 2, 2010. A week later, I scheduled my Gender Confirming Surgery. On February 5, 2011 (one year to the date when I started mental health therapy, I flew from Louisville to Scottsdale, Arizona.
And on February 8, 2011, I had 12 hours of Facial Feminization Surgery and one week later on February 15, 2011, I had 14 hours of Gender Confirming Surgery and more Facial Feminization Surgery - all performed by the most awesome man I know, Dr. Toby Meltzer, M.D. I spent 18 days alone in Scottsdale - most in the hospital. I returned to Scottsdale in January of 2012, to have the final cosmetic stage on my lower surgery and more Facial surgery. All in all, I have had 32.5 hours of surgery from Dr. Meltzer. On both occasions, I returned to Kentucky and continued my life as JoAnne.
This shows just how much her life
just glows now.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. How did you get started ?
JoAnne: I have always been a Don Quiote type person who wanted to help the "little guy". I have been that type of lawyer. After my first return home from Scottsdale, front page stories of my life were featured in newspapers. From those articles, people everywhere started contacting me with questions about transgender. 
Mine were from mothers and grandmothers who were dealing with transgender children. They started bringing children to me. I became an instant role model. I began to counsel children, parents, friends etc. And it has never stopped. I love being able to help others face their gender dysphoria.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on the work of the transgender rights organizations that you are a member of?
JoAnne: I am not a member of any transgender rights only organization. I have been involved with LGBT rights organizations. I have noticed that there really are very few transgender rights only organizations. I have been advocating for transgender rights pretty much on my own.
Monika: What are the most pending issues on the transgender agenda ?
JoAnne: Here is my list of the most pending issues: 1) Education, education, education. This is by far the most important. And we need education of not just the general public. We have to educate members of the LGB community as well - they really do not understand us. And last but not least, members of the transgender community need to educate themselves as well.
I am totally amazed by how little transgender people know about being transgender. They do not know the WPATH Protocols. They do not know legal issues. They do not know medical issues. They do not know employment issues. They do not know how to dress and act in public. These are but a few. 2) Getting the transgender message out. This is part of education. How the public sees transgender women's narratives is so important. 3) Discrimination 4) Violence 5) Employment 6) Schooling 7) Presentation - this is the second time I have mentioned this - I cannot emphasize this enough - how we are seen and how we act in public is so important. 8) Distancing ourselves from the "drag culture" is also EXTREMEY important - in my opinion.
The general public (in their ignorance) equates drag queens as being the epitome of Transgender women. Drag queens are primarily "Gay" men who perform as female caricatures in bars and clubs. This is not who Transgender women really are. We are not performers. We are not pretenders. This is our being. It goes to the inner cores of our lives. 
So many of us have succumb to suicide or have been on the very edge of death over our gender dysphoria. Watching "Gay" men dressed as women, performing as mere caricatures of real Transwomen (and cis- women) hurts our image in public. They are having fun performing for money and frivality while we are on the very brink of life and death. And as I said earlier, the general public equates real Transwomen as nothing more that drag queens.
Monika: You are a fantastic example that it is never too late to transition.
JoAnne: I guess that's true. I knew that I was different at age 5. I tried to run from from it, hide from it, suppress it, repress it, deny it and hope that it would would leave me alone for 65 years. It took 65 years for me to realize that this is never going away. I guess I was a little slow. But once I made up my mind to transition, I went from start to finish in 53 weeks. My only regret is not doing it earlier. However, I guess it was the right time for me - as my life has just taken off in every direction after I transitioned.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
JoAnne: Knowing that I would lose my spouse, my friends, my family, my church family. I knew what would happen if I transitioned - and it did.
Lecturing about Transgender at a University.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed ?
JoAnne: Not really. I have made myself a model for others. I really had never met or knowing seen another transgender person (other than my sister, Monica) before I started living full-time.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far ?
JoAnne: I never go to the movies. I did get a DVD of "Transamerica" and watched it after I had my surgery. I do not read any fictional material of any type. I do read transgender narratives. I only deal with real life stories.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
JoAnne: I have mixed emotions. First of all, I no longer think of myself as a transgender woman. I see myself as "just another woman". I come and go as I please as a woman (because I am a woman). My narrative is different from that of others. I guess we each have our own personal narrative.
I have been blessed to be able to present and pass and act and be just another woman. I realize that the majority of transwomen do not have the things that I get to enjoy. That pains me deeply. For the most part, transgender women have a hard time unless they have financial stability, presentation ability, emotional stability and acceptance where they go.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
JoAnne: Oh I definitely think that transgender is the new civil rights movement of our time. And I am excited to be part of that movement. 
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely lady yourself but what advice would you give to ladies with the fear of not passing as a woman?
JoAnne: This is a terrible test as you put it. This is where education is so important for transgender ladies. If you want to pass and/or be accepted, then for God's sake, dress for the occasion and to a lesser extent for your age. It has been my experience that transgender ladies overdress in public and use way to much makeup. If you want to be accepted and treated as a woman - then look and act like one. It is easy to see transwomen because they look the part - I cannot emphasize this enough. Yes I know - we did not get to dress like teenagers and the like.
But if you seriously want to be seen and accepted, then you have to look like other women in the setting that you find yourself in. Admittedly I overdressed early on. But I was willing to learn. And how do you learn - the same way you learn about anything. Observe, study and practice, practice, practice. The majority of genetic or cis-gender females do not know how to dress either.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns ? Do you think transgender women can make a difference?
JoAnne: I am a member of a local Democratic Women's Club in Central Kentucky. I enjoy being a part of this women's organization. I am also involved in lobbying campaigns involving LGBT Rights in state and local government. I have been campaigning for Transgender rights in state government for over two years and just recently I was successful in getting "gender identity and/or gender presentation" added to the definition of diversity as it applies to our State Universities and Community colleges.
I "AM" making a difference everywhere I go. I have a personal goal of educating at least one more person about transgender everyday. And some days in my speaking engagements, I may educate between 200-250. I plan to make a difference in every way that I can, every time that I can, every place that I can, for as long as I can. That is the motto that I live by.
Presenting an Award at a Kentucky
Fairness Alliance Gala.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this acronym, is the transgender community able to promote its own causes within the LGBT group?
JoAnne: It is hard. As I stated earlier, we have to educate the LGB community about transgender. They really don't understand us. I have also noticed that the transgender community is not as well organized as the LGB community. We seem to be very fractured because the transgender umbrella covers so many different possibilities. Post-ops have different interests than crossdressers, etc. We have a harder time coming together as one unified body. 
Furthermore, we are financially poorer than the LGB community. I have been trying to enlighten LGBT organizations that I have been a part of, but this is a real issue. There are times when I feel that the "T" is barely a part of the LGBT community, but we are so disorganized and do not have adequate financial resources to fight for our civil rights.
Monika: Could you tell me the importance of love in your life?
JoAnne: This is very important. Many times, transitioning means the loss of love in our lives. Again I have been Blessed - whether it be my out-going personality of the fact that I pass, I have had no problem with women chasing after me - as well as a few men. I was never attracted to men.
And at this point I have to make this statement: "Surgery does NOT change your sexual orientation !" This is true. It is possible I guess that I might be bisexual for the right man, but I have ALWAYS considered myself to be a Lesbian - and an extremely Femme Lesbian at that. Even when I was married, I considered myself to be a lesbian. At the present time, I am in a relationship with a "Soft-Butch Lesbian". She treats me like the lady that I am.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors or trends?
JoAnne: I love fashion. The outfits that I wear are what any other woman my age would wear to whatever venue that I happen to be at. As a lawyer, I wear a business suit to Court. If I am going to a formal gala, the I wear a very stylish cocktail dress. If I am going to the supermarket, I wear blue jeans in winter and shorts in the summer.
I always present as a very well put together classy professional woman. Colors come easy for me. I know how to put an outfit together and do the right makeup and accessorize my outfit. I usually wear pastels.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
JoAnne: I am considering writing several books. Sometimes I think that we have enough narratives or personal memoirs. I plan to write something different about transgender.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now ?
JoAnne: Yes - I am trying to sell my condominium in Louisville and move back to the country. I recently purchased an amazing lot location and I am currently designing a new home to build on that location. I plan to continue to educate, do public speaking, continue counseling on transgender issues. I plan to for that as long as I am alive.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
JoAnne: First of all - I would tell everyone - "your gender dysphoria will NEVER go away". It took me 65 years to accept that. Try to do something about it as early as you can. Don't wait until you are old like me. Enjoy living as the woman that you know that you are inside. And never - never give up. You can make it happen. It does require a lot of dedication and planning to make a successful transition.
I feel that I have made a truly amazing and complete transition. We are all different. What I have done was what was right for me. I could not transition without doing so completely. I have always been a minute detail person. I try to think of everything. I realize that others may choose to not transition completely for a variety of reasons. I accept that.
But for me personally - I could accept nothing less that what I have done. I have paid a tremendous price for my transition - financially, physically, emotionally, and socially. But as a result, my life has just blossomed beyond my wildest imagination.
Monika: JoAnne, thank you for the interview.

All the photos: courtesy of JoAnne Wheeler Bland.
Done on 17 May 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for offering sage advice to our trans youth. So many of us have learned that we can not make the woman inside go away. You could have told my story. I will add one thing regarding family. Don't wait until the children are all grown up. They need to see the real you while they are growing up. My two older adult daughters can't bring themselves to meet with me or even communicate regularly. I believe they think I killed their dad. My youngest who is 15 saw my transition at age ten. I went against the advice of the court appointed "expert" and did not wait to transition. That was the single best decision I have ever made. My youngest did not have the easiest time on the beginning, but with a good therapist and lots of engagement with me, she has made her own mental transition with me. She still calls me dad and that is ok. The only caveat, is that gaining your spouse or ex spouse's support is crucial. Many courts are non-supportive. Fortunately, I was able to overcome court opinion by getting a counselor who could testify early in the process.

    Thank-you for your service to the community. Marie

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Marie! Let me know whether you would like to share your experience in an interview.

    Regards, Monika

    ReplyDelete

Search This Blog

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...