Thursday, 5 June 2014

Interview with Melissa Marie Alexander

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Melissa Marie Alexander, an American transgender activist, Vice Chair of TransOhio, businesswoman, lawyer and college teacher. Hello Melissa!
Melissa: Greetings Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Melissa: Sure. I have had the pleasure of working three careers in my live time following my education. For over twenty years I practiced law in a law firm primarily doing litigation, employment and labor law and building my client base. I spoke at my conferences and seminars.
Upon leaving practice of law I began a new career as a business owner in the meeting and event planning industry. I served on the Board of Directors for Ohio MPI and received my CMP designation from the Convention Industry Council. Following the same I reentered the teaching field which I had also done in the 1990’s on a part time basis and now have 13 years of teaching experience either at Adjunct or full-time status. I truly adore teaching and love working with students and take great pride in my work and the preparation for my classes.
I think my presence has influenced lives and has also opened up some eyes about the talents in our community and has taught the students a little more about transgenders. In 2012 I received an award for Master Teacher from a state organization and in 2013 I gave the commence address at our school. From a personal standpoint, I am a hugger who loves pets, music and arts. My hobbies include cooking and baking and I do a great deal of volunteer/outreach work in the community and within my church.
In Washington D.C. in front of the
Capitol on lobby days for NCTE.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. Could you name some of the initiatives that you took part in?
Melissa: I have presented at or organized/managed the six annual conferences for TransOhio since 2008. TransOhio was founded in 2005 by Shane Morgan and I am currently the longest serving Board member for TransOhio besides the Founder. I have been on the Board of Directors since 2009.
I prepared the extensive documentation for our non-profit organization to finally receive 501 (C) (3) status with the IRS. I also serve on TransOhio’s Speakers Bureau and have conducted presentations and workshops for business, organizations, schools, churches and colleges in the area.
Additionally, I have participated in workshops and events for Equality Ohio and presented a workshop at Southern Comfort in Atlanta and travelled to D.C to lobby Congress for passage of the ENDA legislation. I enjoy marching in the Columbus Pride Parade each June!
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Melissa: I began the process at age 47 shortly after the death of my father which closely followed the unexpected deaths of my brother by an accident and my mother’s death the year before. These traumatic events left me to face the truth about who I really have been all my life but hid so very well under a shell to avoid discovery.
I asked myself a simple question after my father’s funeral. “You have just written three eulogies for people you loved reflecting on their lives… How do you wish to be remembered when your time comes? –as Melissa or this other person I have pretended to be during my “life” to hide her from the world.
I remember back to when I discovered my true gender when I was a child of four or five years old. I broke down and cried – not just for the losses I had experienced but also for the fact I had not found the courage up to this point to break through this shell I had created and live life in my true gender as Melissa.
A few weeks later I began searching for a therapist to work with and began the process of transitioning. I knew the process would not be easy and that it would take some time but I was determined to begin the process despite the risks and the costs and I am not just speaking of financial ones! The other costs were far more painful.
As I will explain subsequently, I received neither support of my friends who knew the other person nor any support from my family. I did receive support and encouragement from other brothers and sisters in our community.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Melissa: Yes Monika I did. I had met many other members of our community at various events and conferences beginning back in 1995 and some I got to know some of them quite well. Many of these women were ahead of me in the process of being out and transitioning.
I learned a lot from them over the years. Some of these people were: Stephanie Heck, Chloe Prince and Debbie Dunkle. I also read Jenny Boleyn’s book “She’s Not There”. However, the book which had the most profound impact on me was “Wrapped in Blue” by Donna Rose. I connected with her story and felt a good deal of overlap with my story. Donna is down to earth and I enjoyed meeting her after I transitioned.
Taken hours after her facial surgery in
Boston with Dr. Spiegel in January of 2009.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Melissa: The risk of losing it all. I attended the Be All Conference in Chicago in May of 2007 and was eating lunch with other transgender women when the subject of coming out and transition came up. I asked the question of when you know if you are ready to come out and begin the transition process. One woman who had done so many years before spoke up and said “Melissa … are you prepared to lose it all- career, family and friends?
Now you may not lose all of these things yourself BUT you had better be prepared to do so or you should not do so!” When the need to come out and begin living life in your true essence overcomes fear of these risks you know you are ready. I hoped for the best.
When I finally did come out and tell people about myself, I felt the shell which had covered me for so long cracking into pieces and weight of the years of lies lift from me but the risks she mentioned came so very true! I destroyed my career, all of my old friends turned away from me and my family abandoned me. I have not had any contact of any nature whatsoever with my adult children since I came out despite my efforts to do so. Those efforts have all been rebuked. My ex disdains me and she has good reason to feel betrayed but she needs to let go of the venom for it is only toxic to her.
I think the reason many in our community lie to others all the years because they fear the response of losing their friends and family and then when they do come out and tell the truth the very things they fear happen because everyone gets upset at them for lying to them for so many years. Well-you know I lied to myself as well all those same years and I learned to forgive myself and move on. I think my old friends and family need to do so as well.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Melissa: Like everything else we are making process but it is not without struggle and setbacks. We can’t give up and have to embrace the victories and strides in progress that do come and brush ourselves off when we get knocked down and keeping moving forward.
Rights and dignity will eventually come for all transgenders but clearly the situation is not there now. Transgender women face some acceptance problems by some sis gender women and phobias by many men. This has created additional problems for transgender women but education and continued activism will keep us moving forward over time.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Melissa: Most definitely Monika. Human kind has always faced struggles for human rights from each ethnic group which came to the U.S. Struggles for racial equality continue to go on even with progress. In the 1970s women fought the struggle for rights and privileges in a patriarchal society that has oppressed women for centuries and the struggle still carries on today.
Our brothers and sisters in the LGB communities have fought for equality and are making inroads in areas like same gender marriages and DADT removal. The next logical frontier for human rights is transgenders. I look forward to doing my small part to keep the struggle going. No one is free until all free!
A few months after her GRS with Dr. McGinn
 in Philadelphia as she got prepared for her first
day of teaching classes on her new job in 2009.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Melissa: I was disappointed with films like “Trans America” which depicted a cis gender woman playing a transgender woman but enjoyed “Boys Don’t Cry” for using a women to play the role of an FTM transsexual. Maybe someday we will see more transgender actors and actresses and I truly hope so.
Jared did a pretty good job of playing the role of a transgender sex worker from that time period depicted in the movie. He is an actor and as such it was a role for him – a role for which his peers recognized his talent and work. There are good stories out there in books and some films.
Many newspapers seem to misgender transgender people however in the articles about their activities and unfortunately their deaths. Far too many of our community face violence and deaths from attacks and suicides and that always make me deeply sad. 
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?
Melissa: The T is NOT silent and should not be! We may be the smallest segment of the LGBT community but we are an important one. Transitioning is not easy for many particularly on the job. Much more education of the public is needed however as many people confuse sexual orientation with gender identity.
We do share a common ground though- we are both discriminated against for being who we are as people and that should not happen. We can accomplish more working together to obtain the rights we already hold but have been systematically denied by our opponents in this country which primarily operate by spreading fears. The so called “bathroom” issue is a perfect example of such hate and fear.
Her Michigan vacation in fall of 2011.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Melissa: There are many voices of activism in this country but no one single leader in the transgender community and maybe there should not be one. The more voices the better as long as we all are fighting for freedom, equality and dignity of all human beings.
Activists like Janet Mock are powerful and I love her work but we do not need to rely solely on a single leader to do the work we all should be doing. What would serve us best are more voices and more activism and educating. 
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Melissa: I have always been fascinated by politics since I was young. I have never missed an election- general, primary or special – since I was 18 years old. I have worked in three U.S. Presidential campaigns and a Governor’s race. I have participated in lobby days for NCTE and for Equality Ohio. I am involved in ongoing efforts to enact legislation in Ohio to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for housing, employment, public accommodations and credit. I will remain active in efforts and in politics for many years to come. I think transgender women can make a huge impact in politics and hope someday to see more transgender women enter political races and hold positions of leadership. In time it will come!

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Melissa: Monika, without love the world can be a very difficult place and I have the love of many wonderful friends who have become my family! I have more friends now than when I lived the old life of lies. I have been very blessed to have the love and support of my partner Paula and she has stood with me in our efforts to make things better for our community and in her support of my career and in the activism.
Monika: Your marriage ceremony with Paula must have been a touching and romantic moment…
Melissa: I cried tears of joy. This was the wedding I always dreamed of where I could wear the beautiful gown and carry flowers. We had fun trying on and selecting dresses and in planning our celebration together. We wrote the ceremony and selected the music ourselves. Although it is not legal in Ohio it did not matter to us. To us -we expressed our love for each other before our friends who had become our families. Hopefully, one day soon we can make it legal as well. Paula has been a gift in my life!
Getting fitted for her wedding dress
before her marriage in fall of 2009.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Melissa: I adore fashion. Paula laughs when she sees me carrying home bags of shoes from DSW for she knows I cannot just buy one pair! I love jewelry as well. My outfits are business causal which is the attire appropriate for my work. Slacks, Capris and skirts combined with sweaters in the fall and winter and layered look of tees and camis with a cardigan or dress blouse in summer and spring is my usual fare.
I would say about 70 % of my wardrobe comes from Christopher and Banks which makes mostly business casual and casual clothing for career women ages 40-70 and that is my demographic. I was invited by them recently be a fashion model for their spring line and they gave me a huge discount for doing so which I gladly used to stock up on my wardrobe.
I love purple and lavender as well as earth tone colors. I learned a great deal about accessories from observing my mother when I was young!
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Melissa: Absolutely – I have more times than I care to count. Maybe someday I will sit down and do this.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Melissa: Presently I plan to continue my teaching, activism, organizational involvement and outreach work as I have been doing. In five to seven years I hope to be retired! I will not take it easy however. I plan to still teach a class or two because I love teaching and being with and engaging students but not on the same schedule I am now.
With the additional free time I plan to take up art and photography as well as refine my cooking and baking talents. I will use the additional time to get even more involved in our struggle for rights and dignity and to help others less fortunate than I on a larger scale than I do now.
I currently use my culinary talents to help prepare meals for the homeless and those in homeless shelters and I will want to do more of that as well as other outreach work to better the communities I live and work in. I did a lot of this as well in my “other life” so it has always been a significant part of my life and journey and always will. Maybe I will write that book. I know Paula and I would like to travel more as well as we love visiting new places and experiencing life! I have made it to 48 out of 50 states.
With Paula outside her church in Spring of 2010.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Melissa: You are not alone but you are unique. You are loved by many. So be happy! Yes-you may lose it all but it is worth it. It is so worth it living your life being who you truly are and you can stop pretending! You have many friends in the sisters and brothers you will meet in our community.
Don’t ever consider taking your life from us because we need you and we value who you are and can be! I encourage you to seek out friends in the community and find a therapist who you feel comfortable with and find your path. No two transitions are the same and should not be.
We are unique even in our little community. It is so worth it that if I was given a chance to do it all over again I would still come out and transition despite the results I experienced for I love living my live now everyday as Melissa and that makes it all worthwhile- it truly does!
Monika: Melissa, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Melissa Marie Alexander.
Done on 5 June 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful conversation well said. you make some of us feel a little embarrassed


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