Monday, 9 February 2015

Interview with Joann Prinzivalli

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Joann Prinzivalli, a transgender activist, title insurance lawyer, blogger. Hello Joann!
Joann: Cześć Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Joann: Certainly! The problem with me saying a few words is not always knowing when to stop. But I’ll try. I’m a lifelong resident of the New York metropolitan area. I was the child of working class parents of Italian-American extraction (half Sicilian, a quarter Napolitana, and a quarter Abruzzeze).
When I was four years old, I knew I did not fit in with the boys, but by the time I was six, I realized that if I wanted to live, I had to hide the real me from everyone. As a teen, I read Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography, and realized that I was not the only person in the world like me.
When I sought psychiatric help, I was told that I could not be transsexual “because you like girls, and we won’t cure you of one mental disorder to give you another one.” (At the time in 1970, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder). I did not know I was supposed to jump through hoops to transition. So I went back into hiding myself, trying to assimilate with societal expectations.
It wasn’t until after my younger brother passed away in the late 1990’s that I realized that I might never be me. It was a YOLO (You Only Live Once) moment. Still, I was reluctant to go fully forward – in the 25 years since I saw the psychiatrist I had gotten married and we had children. What happened, though was that I experienced all the collateral damage of transition even before formally starting. Divorced, briefly homeless, lost friends and family, and finally, lost job. There was nowhere to go, but up. So, the day after I lost the job, I was me, and stopped hiding. With the loss of family, I adopted the trans community as my family.
I had already gotten involved in working with trans activist groups, lobbying in Washington D.C., Albany, New York, New York City and in Westchester County, New York. It was at a 1999 pre-transition public hearing in Westchester where I was “outed” by the news media during my testimony in favor of trans-inclusion in a local human rights ordinance. That was in the news cycle the day before Thanksgiving – both on the local cable news station and on Fox News NS Good Day New York, where I was outed to a potential 17 million people. That led directly to my job loss.

Having a legal background, I realized that I could put this to good use. I wrote the first draft of the New York Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which has passed in the state Assembly six times but has never gotten a vote in the state Senate. I got involved first with the trans community, and then with the larger LGBT community, and then with other activist communities – I am on the board of the Lower Hudson Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and was for a period of time the chapter chair. Working toward.
Monika: You hit the headlines in 2011 when the American media covered your dispute with the New York City Health Department that demanded you to undergo SRS in order to have your birth certificate changed accordingly. Did you win the lawsuit in the end? 
Joann: Actually, there were brief headlines in late 2009 when I started the lawsuit. I was going to use a loophole to get married to another woman – my unamended birth certificate. Since there was New York case law that held that I could not legally marry a man, I should be allowed to marry a woman. However, the New York City Bureau of Vital Records refused to give me a birth certificate, because my current driver’s license did not match the name and gender on the birth certificate, and my old driver’s license was not acceptable because it was expired.
The clerks told me that I would have to have a judicial name change in order to get a copy of my birth certificate. Since helping people with judicial name changes is my pro bono work, I tried to explain to the clerks that if I were to want to apply for a judicial name change, I would be required to provide the court with a copy of my birth certificate as a prerequisite. To no avail.
A legislative teach-in in Albany.
So I resolved to take this up with the court – and I figured that I would also challenge the regulations regarding birth certificates as “arbitrary and capricious.” None of the organizations that help trans people with litigation initially wanted to help – they knew, as I did, that there were three very bad cases from the 1970’s.
But I knew that the science had changed a great deal since that time. So, the first thing the court did was order the City to give me my birth certificate. Then there was the City’s motion to dismiss.
Despite having the flu, I made mu oral argument in December 2009, but it took until June 2010 for the judge to decide – and the judge found that the claim based on the regulations being “arbitrary and capricious” was sufficiently stated that the City had to defend.
Monika: Were there any legal ramifications of the ruling of the state Supreme Court? 
Joann: Once the court ruled that I had enough of a case to proceed, the advocacy organizations got interested – and Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund came through first, so I selected them to continue the case. I am a title insurance counsel, not a litigator.
While the pleadings were amended to add additional representative petitioner/plaintiffs, the City used delaying tactics to keep the mater in discovery. Meanwhile, advocacy organizations, including TLDEF, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and others, started negotiating with the New York State Department of Health to change the state birth certificate regulations. That happened in mid-2014. The pressure from the lawsuit against the City was a factor.
Similarly, the new mayor of New York City appointed a health commissioner who actually understood the developing understanding of the nature of trans people – and the city council and health department worked together to put through new legislation and regulations so that surgery will no longer be a prerequisite for having the birth certificate corrected.
The legislation was recently passed, and the regulations are just about ready for implementation. This will make the lawsuit “moot,” but it is also the accomplishment of the goal of the lawsuit – it doesn’t matter if the goal is achieved by way of litigation, or by legislation, and it doesn’t matter where the credit goes, as long as the community is benefited.
Monika: Are there still any pending legal issues that should be tackled in order to improve the situation of the transgender community in New York?
Joann: The Governor and the State health commissioner have announced that there will be some long-needed changes in health insurance coverage and Medicaid, as they relate to medical care for trans people. The changes represent an improvement. There is a question as to whether they are going far enough.
The Governor, in the text of his State of the State address, called for the legislature to finally pass GENDA – the civil rights bill that would provide legal protections for trans people statewide, in housing, employment, public accommodations and other areas. 
Another concern is the treatment of trans people who are incarcerated – either awaiting trial or serving prison sentences. Trans people are often placed in prisons on the basis of exterior genital shape and not on the basis of their actual gender. The use of crude and unscientific approximations does not do justice to those of the trans community who find the criminal justice system a Kafka-esque experience. 

Monika: What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Joann: We have come a long way in public perception. In 1965, a blue ribbon panel of medical experts believed that trans people were delusional members of their initially-assigned sex for whom any treatment is merely “palliative” (i.e. only makes us feel good). While there are segments of the population that still believe the world is flat, that whales are fish, and that the blue ribbon commission report represents the latest science, an increasing number or people are more aware of the changes in the understanding of the nature of trans people. 
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Joann: Transition is a continuing process. I transitioned on January 15, 2000. Prior to that, from 1998, as my suppression was breaking down, I experienced severe dysphoria that could only be held at bay if I allowed me to be myself once or twice a week. Still, it was not until after I was myself full time that I even started electrolysis and took care of having my driver’s license and social security records corrected.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Joann: While I was getting myself involved with the trans community, there were a number of people who had an influence. Andrea James, for her website; Melanie Anne Phillips for her website on developing a female voice, S. Kristine James, who founded CDI in New York City, Nancy Lamar, who was president of that organization. Carrie Lee who opened the door the first time I visited. Tammie Anderson, who co-founded the trans group at The LOFT in Westchester with me in 2000. Paisley Currah, Melissa Sklarz, Pauline Park, Donna Cartwright, Sylvia Rivera and others who were involved in political advocacy. Cathy Platine, who founded a revival of the Cybelline rites and who is the Battakes of the Maetreum of Cybele in Palenville, NY.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies people that you admire and respect now?
Joann: In addition to the above, there are Jillian Weiss, who is one of the best resources in America on the impact of employment law on the members of the trans community. Suzan Cooke, who would eschew the term “transgender” but who has been in the movement since the 1960’s (Compton’s Cafeteria riots in 1965 San Francisco), and is one of the popularizers of the idea that trans people are not members of their initial sex. The acronyms MTF and FTM are inaccurate – a trans woman is a Woman Born Trans (WBT) and a Trans man is a Man Born Trans (MBT).
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Joann: The most difficult thing is the way my children have been estranged from me. While it took my parents five years to reconcile themselves to my transition, my children, sadly want little or nothing to do with me.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Joann: There have been social justice movements for human rights and dignity that date back as long as there has been history. In America, the movement for African-American civil rights, and the Women’s movement have borne a relationship that has been paralleled by the relationship between the LGB and Trans movements. Both the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Movement grew out of Abolitionism.
“Gay Liberation” between 1969 and 1973 was initially inclusive of the trans community, but there have been periods in which trans people have been told that our rights “have to wait” just as the leaders of the women’s movement were told the same in the 1870’s when it came to the right to vote. I think our movement is much needed – but no one is free until all are free. There are times when I also focus on issues facing other communities – their struggles are ours as well. 
The NYC Council vote on birth certificates.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Joann: There was a point in time when the only fictional media portrayals one could find of trans people seemed to be that of sociopathic killer or pathetic suicidal misfit. That is, unless we were assumed to be men in drag.
Many more recent portrayals, since the mid-1990’s have been an improvement, to the point where trans characters are becoming more mainstream.
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?
Joann: It isn’t a function of the order of the letters, though there are still some who use GLBT and a few who go with TBLG, as if the order really matters. More recently, it’s been LGBTQ, LGBTIQ, and even LGBTIQQ (Intersex, Queer, Questioning) There is sometimes an uneasy relationship among advocates, and it’s not unidirectional.
This is not unlike the strained situation between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass in the 1870’s – however, there are many L, G and B activists who recognize that “no one is free until we are all free” and that we do need to work together. (In fact, it may be that the “B” is more left out than the “T” in many.
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?
Joann: That is a tough question. The trans community is an order of magnitude smaller than the gay community. I don’t know of any direct analogy to Harvey Milk. Andrea James and Calpernia Addams have worked in the background to help filmmakers and television producers produce more realistic trans characters.
Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, and a young, now teen-aged child named Jazz (who was first introduced to the American television-viewing public by Barbara Walters) have all had a recent influence on public perception.
Monika: On your blog you write that “God Loves Transsexual and Transgender People”. So why is God merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Joann: I’m going to separate the science from the theology. There were two Australian studies in 2008 that identified genetic predispositions for embryonic/fetal development that could result in an individual whose brain development opposite the genital tract development could fall within the spectrum of trans identities. The science is not a genetic “on/off” switch like those overly-simplified explanations of genetics illustrated by discussing Meel and fruit flies. From the standpoint of genetic and developmental studies, we’re just different. It’s not as if we’re God’s little joke.
From a Christian theological POV, because we are different, we might pose a challenge for some people, much in the way that lepers posed a challenge to Francis of Assisi – it’s not trans people who “pass” – it’s the people who are able to face their fears and prejudices who do the passing – for them, we’re the test. And far from being God’s joke, or some sort of mistake, there is enough theology to point out that trans people are actually very special from a Judaeo/Christian POV. Genesis 1:27 – human beings are created as “male and female” in the “image and likeness of God.”
In the second Creation story, there is the original Adam, who consists of whatever it was that remained Adam, and whatever it was that was separated out to make Eve. God is like the original Adam “male and female.” A rabbi wrote an article a few years ago about the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) – if it’s read backward in Hebrew, it translates as “He/She.” Then in Isaiah 56:1-7, there is a special place in God’s house for “eunuchs” (which includes trans people). In Matthew 19:12, even Jesus says nice things about trans people (eunuchs); and in Acts 8, the first person to be baptized turns out to be one of us – an eunuch from Ethiopia who happened to be reading from the Book of Isaiah while meeting Philip.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Joann: I am an elected Democratic Party district leader in White Plains. I founded the New York Transgender Rights Organization, which serves as an umbrella organization for local activists. After writing the GENDA bill in December 2002, I have advocated for its passage for the past 12+ years.
I have worked with the NYCLU and through a church organization involved with the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform, which grew out of a number of shootings of African-American men in Westchester County. I help teach small groups techniques for effective lobbying. Yes, I believe trans women can make a difference.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Joann: After my divorce in 1999, it took me a few years before I could even contemplate the possibility of another relationship. The Trudy came into my life, and she made things better.
Love, in a larger sense, is what keeps power from becoming tyranny, and leads to justice. If one carves out the miracles and resurrection from the narrative of the Gospels, what is left is a social justice theology that is centered on love and non-violent (except for the episode of driving the money changers out of the Temple) resistance to oppression inspired Gandhi and Dr. King in their missions to seek justice by similar non-violent means. Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Dr. King c standard.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Joann: There are a lot of these books out there. I am sure there may be a book in me to write, but it’s more likely to be on theology, politics, and the relationship between liberty and responsibility.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Joann: The passage of GENDA is my primary avocation, together with trying to make time for the pro bono work helping trans people in the nearby counties just north of New York City obtain judicial name changes.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Joann: The first thing is to know that just because we are different, that does not mean there is something wrong, immoral or pathological about our existence. Self-acceptance is essential. We have to be able to love ourselves for who and what we are by our natures, as we can’t love our neighbour if we cannot love ourselves. And no matter how low the collateral damage might be, it really does get better.
Monika: Joann, thank you for the interview!
Joann: Proszę bardzo!

All the photos: courtesy of Joann Prinzivalli.
Done on 9 February 2015
© 2015 - Monika 

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