Friday, 17 October 2014

Interview with Alessandra Bernaroli

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Alessandra Bernaroli, a transsexual activist from Bologna in Italy, whose legal victory was an important step for transgender rights in Italy. Hello Alessandra!
Alessandra: Hello Monika, thanks for this opportunity to talk about LGBTI Civil Rights!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alessandra: I was born a man in 1971 and lived my life forcing myself to adhere to the image that the society established for people who had male appearance. In my teen years there wasn’t Internet nor so much “correct” information about transsexualism, so I always tried to deny my intimate feelings, believing that they were wrong and it was happening only to me and no one else in the world.
However, that was not true; now I know it! So I behaved trying to look as manly as possible, and I succeeded easily in doing this also because of my physical appearance, which was, at that time, indubitably a male appearance both in aspect as well as in attitude. Year after year my deep feeling to be a woman didn’t disappear, of course.
I graduated in economics, served one year in military service, practised charted accounting and finally worked as a clerk. In the meantime, I found love and I got married. Until then, it was 2005, I was a man!
Monika: In June 2014, after your gender reassignment surgery and a five-year court battle to remain married to your wife, Rome's Constitutional Court ruled that just because you were a woman did not mean that your marriage should be disregarded. What was the feeling?
Alessandra: Well, initially we (me and my wife) didn’t believe it could really happen! We didn’t think that in such a reactionary country like Italy this Court could be so courageous and unconventional to give such a ruling. So this piece of news was a very unexpected one and initially we were so joyful, but … after a while, after reading the whole text of the judgement, we started to think that Italy is still Italy, after all.
In fact, on one hand, the Court said that is not possible to dissolve our marriage because this will mean an infringement of the Italian Constitution; but on the other hand, at the same time, this Court said that it is not possible for a same sex couple to be married in an union called “marriage”, because this will represent an infringement of the Italian Constitution!!!
It is not completely clear what this judgement will mean in future, but we can point out some elements: first of all, there is a sort of “cognitive error” in a way that a transgender couple is assimilated to a lesbian couple. That’s not true: in fact homosexuality is related to sex, but transsexualism refers to a gender of person, so they involve different spheres, biological and social ones.
In Italy, unfortunately, at this time there is not any law allowing same-sex marriages, but our case is completely different: in fact our marriage, a transsexual marriage if we can define it like this, was initially a “regular” heterosexual marriage (celebrated in a Catholic church because in Italy Catholic marriage complies with the Italian legislation due to an article of the Constitution) in which one of the spouses had a gender (not sex, if we wish to be meticulous) change.
This change is regulated by a detailed law (of 1982, revised initially in 1987) and this law speaks clearly that the marriage could be valid until the will of the spouse didn’t say stop! But as we know, in Italy law is written for the friends and (mis)interpreted for the others, as we used to say!
So, in brief, maybe for the fear that giving us the full and unconditioned ruling in favour of our marriage would have introduced same-sex marriages in Italy, some judges (because in Italy there is not any dissenting opinion, for instance as in the case of CEDU sentences) made pressure for writing an enigmatic judgement, which unfortunately collided with logic and common sense, too.
It’s interesting and important to underline that the Catholic Church has not cancelled our marriage that curiously is still valid for the Church (and the Church doesn’t change the name of transsexual person, even after SRS). Being effective for Church, means that it is not contrary to “public order”. In the end, there is this bitter flavour of a Nation; Italy is not capable to make a clear decision in order to pave the way for progress and respect for human beings …
Monika: The legal battle was a long and difficult process…
Alessandra: Yes, it has been a long legal battle, maybe too long and it has not ended yet. In fact, as I said before, now our lawsuit comes back to “Cassazione” Court (Supreme Court) that, given the decision of the Constitutional Court, should say the last word about our marriage.
I hope that finally they will be courageous enough to provide us with a clear and civilized ruling. This battle is really difficult, because it implies a change of mentality, different cultural approach, and that’s not easy, especially in Italy.
The problem is not only the Catholic culture that permeates the thinking of older and even younger generations; more generally, the difficulties we face up to are the mirror of a blocked society, unable to change, indifferent to the proper and natural claims of an important part of the society, namely a trans, gay and lesbian community.
Our battle, in this sense, could be seen like a fight for the future of our society, deciding if the civilization could go farther towards liberty, well-being and self-fulfilment of people or towards barbarism and regression.
Lady in white.
Monika: How important is this legal victory for the transgender community in Italy? 
Alessandra: This legal battle is for sure fundamental for transsexual (and, in general, for intersexual and LGB, too) civil rights in Italy; but if you, with the word “transgender community”, refer to the world of trans organizations, I’m not sure that there’s a real consciousness of the very importance of this battle in the minds of this kind of “political activists” (it’s an euphemism)!
The matter is that Italian trans organizations have never been numerous and full of many members and, not only for this reason, haven’t got really a lot of clout on politics, despite some LGB activists (even a self-styled transgender) that have had some little political roles, even sitting in the national Parliament.
In my opinion, the attitude of organizations towards politics was of pursuing some “ideological” cultural targets referred to the so called culture of diversity or freedom of expression, which, of course, are important and fundamental points, but they do not aspire to achieve the legal recognition of civil rights.
The result, at present, has been some political chairs for some lucky ones, some public tasks and just nothing that could really change and improve the transsexual and intersexual lives.
Monika: Intentionally or not you have become a transgender icon in Italy...
Alessandra: Oh, I don’t know if I am now so “iconic” as you said. For sure it was not my starting intention, because, believe it or not, after my SRS I thought to live in stealth as long as possible! Maybe it was utopian, I must admit it, just because I worked in a big bank and I was for many years a union leader in my institute.
Now things have changed, and yes … I want to give the most powerful contribution I can to cause a strong change in my country, because I think the time is ripe and T* people have waited so long until now!
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?
Alessandra: I started my transition process in 2007, at age 36, but, as we all know, the feeling of a mismatching between body and mind is inside you since the childhood. I started the process when I was able to achieve a strong self-consciousness of my very essence. I found that the process is both physical and social, and it is so complex, to say the least!
Regarding the physical side, once I decided about the kind of surgery I needed, it was difficult for me to find out the right surgeon and clinic in which I could undergo the operation.
In few years I had SRS in Thailand (Dr. Suporn), FFS in Spain in three separate steps (Facial Team) and voice surgery in USA (Dr. J.P. Thomas). Maybe I was lucky and for sure the surgeons were very good, so I didn’t have any complications and nowadays. I’m very satisfied with the overall result.
With reference to my social acceptance, certainly it was a more difficult process. I was very worried about the transition, because I thought that I would never ever be able to live, act, look and live as a woman.
In fact, I worked hard all my life to be as manly as possible! Instead, after a very short period as a transvestite, in a sort of real life test, after starting TOS, I found every day easier to live in my feminine habits.
Evening in the city.
Due to my friends and work colleagues, I underwent the changing process gradually, starting to dress little by little in a more unisex way and, most of all, trying to speak about LGBTI matters every time I had the occasion to do it. I made myself understood, so it was possible for the other people to figure out the difficulty of the transsexual phenomenon in a world full of stereotyped messages.
I put every effort into explaining my situation and needs to all the persons around me. The effort was well repaid, I can say now! My parents, after the initial astonishment and disbelief, supported me thoroughly. However, the major and most important support came and is coming from my wife. 
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Alessandra: To say the truth, in Italy at that time there was not such a role model to look up to. Abroad, surfing the web, I was fascinated by the success stories of some transsexual persons like: Andrea James, Lynn Conway, Caroline Cossey, April Ashley, Coccinelle, Amanda Lear, and Jenny Hiloudaki. Moreover, I found many interesting and useful stories of various girls on the old “geocities” web.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alessandra: I feared that people would not respect me by saying that I was a transsexual woman. I feared the weight of demanding my identity, fearing that someone could have questioned it, which never happens to anyone else but transsexual person.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Italian society?
Alessandra: The present situation of transsexual women, but unfortunately of all LGBTI people too, is not a happy one! There is no law protecting us from ignorance and prejudice, apart from an anti-discrimination labour law that originates from the European directive 2000/78/CE (and apart from the sex change law of 1982 that is no longer adequate nowadays).
In addition, there is a hostile social and political leaning towards transsexual community (in fact, against the whole LGBTI community). I’m not able to really understand from what this blind hatred arises from; maybe just from ignorance, or perhaps it is the convenient scapegoat of a society that is devoid of plan for its future. 
Nowadays I don’t see scope for future improvement. Politics is blocked in austerity and our people place all hopes in judges and court. This is a solution for the single case, but in order to build a society we need acceptance (of culture of difference, of various gender expressions), recognition (by fair and equal laws) and also promotion of positive images of transsexual and LGBTI roles, so they are as good as the WASP heterosexual role models.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Alessandra: Yes, I think that at present homosexual rights have been well understood by society and day by day more and more countries have an inclusive legislation that equals hetero and LGB people.
In the meantime, transsexual and intersexual people are, at best, only half a way from equality. Probably the problem is in the different nature of transsexualism versus homosexuality. The fact is that homosexuality refers only to sexual preference, so it leads to the so called “heterosexual paradigm”; for example, that men should just sexually desire women and vice versa. This (wrong) belief now is clearly outdated (I mean, generally in the world, but it’s not like this in Italy, for instance) and came from the need of sexual reproduction.
In a park.
Transsexualism, instead, does not relate to sex but to the more complex concept of “gender”, which is the conviction that there are only two biological sexes, and they are different in their “very essence”, so it isn’t possible to be of one sex in a moment and of another sex in another moment (or both).
One consequence of this point of view is that some people think there are only two possible gender roles and expressions in nature; to be precise this fact is not directly correlated with transsexualism, instead with the freedom of gender expression.
Having said this, we can see that the battle for transsexual rights is also a battle for power, because when you say that women and men are at the same level and are made of the same essence, you cannot justify anymore women’s exclusion from social life and leadership.
In a way, it seems to me that the battle for transsexual civil rights is similar to the battle that African American people fought for equality in the United States after the Second World War. Definitely such activists like Martin Luther King and Malcom X are the source of inspiration for me.
Monika: A few months 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?
Alessandra: Well, generally speaking I think that so far transgender stories have often been based on two approaches: marginalization tale or queer-style stories. Essentially it seems to me that the transsexual character has been seen like a complicated/problematic person with difficulties; a person that is not able to integrate in a social context due to different social claims. The only salvation has been to find out a place, a sort of reservation, in which they can live their lives as good as possible.
So, in brief, I have seen conventional tales. I’d like to see stories of success in education, work, politics and generally in society, life, and relationships, which is never too easy.
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?
Alessandra: Transgender is a term that I don’t like to use, because in my opinion it’s too vague and, after all, doubtful. I prefer to use transsexual and intersex. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world but in Italy the so called “trans community” was too much politically oriented and not numerous enough to be visible.
Certainly the number of transsexual people that wish to come out from stealth and stand in a battle for civil rights is not higher, but this couldn’t even be a problem. The matter is that L-G claims are not the same as T claims; in the first case they are mainly related to marriage, adoption and homophobia, whereas T claims are connected with: access to medical care; standards of care (even in childhood), public support and counselling; legal matters regarding civil status, name change, sex indication; document change process; discrimination at work and at school; discrimination in family, social discrimination and transphobia. So, in my opinion there are too many differences.
Work convention.
Monika: How strong is the transgender movement in Italy?
Alessandra: I'm used to judging the work of organization not by their manifestos and agendas but by the achieved results. So, from my point of view, in Italy the promotion of transgender rights started well long ago, in 1982, with the sex change law (at that time it was the third in Europe, after Sweden in 1972 and Germany in 1980).
However, the law was more the product of far-sighted politics than the pressure of an organized trans movement (that, as a matter of fact, it wasn’t even born at that time) and, moreover, since then there has not been any progress (with the exception of the implementation of international standards of care, which changed the worst Italian standards of care, but unfortunately only in few hospitals) despite the great fuss of the trans organizations.
And secondly, since then there has not been any progress (with the exception of the implementation of international standards of care, which changed the worst Italian standards of care, but unfortunately only in few hospitals) despite the great fuss of the trans organizations.
At present it seems to me that the Italian trans movement doesn’t have too much influence on politics and decision makers; there is no lobbying for trans people. As I said, maybe that movement, despite lobbying independently, tried to search for support from a specific political party and this was a great error. Perhaps better qualifications of such activists would be more beneficial and helpful too. For this reason, I thought that these days the legal solutions could be more effective in Italy in my battle for civil rights.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Alessandra: Some time ago I tried to approach politics, but I wasn’t able to find the right occasion. I find so little interest in the topics I care about. These days the Italian politics is not held in high esteem by the citizens, so I think it is better not to have to deal with it.
I’m a member of “Rete Lenford”, which is an organization for social advancement. As a result, I took part, amongst other things, in the formulation of a parliamentary bill on civil and transgender rights, which was proposed in this present (XVII) legislature.
Moreover, Rete Lenford organizes many meetings, discussions and events on LGBTI issues.
As for transgender women in politics, I’m not sure about whether they would be able to make a difference if they were elected members of parliament. In Italy, some years ago, we had a would-be transgender person, but I cannot say whether this fact has improved our rights; as a matter of fact, I don’t think so.
The point is that in politics, one person alone cannot do too many things; it’s necessary to create a network of relations. I think that the recent months have witnessed in Italy the emergence of a “class of common interest” for LGBTI civil rights; maybe the time for action is going to come!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alessandra: Love is everything. It is the reason to stay together when all the society is against you, even when the common sense says no. When you’ve no rights, love is your shelter.
On the flat roof of the Constitutional
Court in Rome on the day of her victory.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Alessandra: … who knows? Now it’s not the time for me to sit down and write a book, it’s just time to move and fight the last round (at least, here in Italy)! Maybe when this battle reaches the end, I’ll consider the idea to write a book, with the help of my wife, too.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Alessandra: At the moment, apart from being a member of Rete Lenford, I’m also a member of an organization called “Parksdiversity”, which is a non- profit organization, whose members are Italian companies or Italian branches of international companies.
Its mission is to support member companies in developing business opportunities related to having in place a comprehensive diversity strategy. I'm a member of the team, in the role of T* advisory. In the bank where I work I’m a trade unionist, too.
So I could act on two fronts to implement best business practices.
I think that the European Union could lead an important role in levelling the common ground of Member States in the field of LGBTI civil and family rights. So, in my opinion, EU should be a focus point, implementing strategies for national civil rights.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Alessandra: Well, the scientific definition of dysphoria is quite definite, but all of us live and struggle in different ways, enclosed in a different milieu, too. Therefore it is difficult to put forward specific recommendations, but what I must say is to fight for yourself with all your strength and try to live your life as well as you can. Listen to your heart and not to the judgement of other people.
Monika: Alessandra, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Alessandra Bernaroli.
Done on 17 October 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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