Friday, 11 March 2016

Interview with Debbie Ballard

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Debbie Ballard, an American IT architect consultant, writer, the author of the biographical books titled “Debbie's Secret Life: LGBT in Stealth” (2013), and “Living in Stealth: Undercover (2015)”. Debbie was also a leader in the commercialization of the Internet (1992-1996), Linux and Open Source (1996-2004), Globalization (2004-2013). Hello Debbie!
Debbie: Hi Monika, it’s a pleasure to be able to participate.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Debbie: I’m a transgender woman. I knew that I was a girl inside by the time I was 2 years old, several times during my life I reached out for help, and because of laws and restrictions on the medical profession, I was forced to keep my gender Dysphoria a secret. I started to transition in 1988, and was about to start HRT when I was faced with the choice of giving up transition or never seeing my children again. Shortly after my daughter graduated from college, in 2009, I began to transition again. I went full time in 2013 and have been living as female ever since.
Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Debbie: Both of my books are mostly autobiographical. My first book, “Debbie’s Secret Life” was based on notes from 12 step inventories over the previous 30+ years. This book was mainly to help other people understand what it was like to grow up transgender and what it was like to try to transition. It was a nice first effort, but much like many other transgender autobiographies.
The second book “Living in Stealth: Undercover” was intended to really focus on what happens to transgender girls who do NOT get help with transition. I grew up in a time when the “treatment” for transgender girls was not transition, but rather an attempt at forced brain-washing that included shock therapy and aversion therapy – described in great deal in “A Clockwork Orange”. I had seen too many conservatives who had no clue what it was to be transgender. I wanted to write a book that was addressed to parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, doctors, and political leaders.
This was a book intended to show people that most transgender girls are not Olympic Athletes, they are not even Alpha males. Transgender girls have brains and biology that are different from cis-gender men. Undercover describes the experience of knowing you are a girl, and having to keep it a secret, life a spy working undercover, like a Jew living in Nazi Europe.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Debbie: If I can do anything, I want to give transgender women hope, courage, and strength. We know too well the fear. When we are younger, there is the fear of being bullied by not just one or two boys, but a dozen or more at a time. Later, we fear losing friends, lovers, girlfriends, or boyfriends. Many of us go on to get married and live in fear of losing wives, children, property, and careers.
In my books, I point out these fears, confronting them head-on, but I also show the wondrous life that opens up when we finally have the courage to be our True Selves.
My greatest regret is that I had to wait 50 years to transition. I would like to spare others that regret.
via Amazon
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Debbie: By the time I was 3 years old, most of my friends were girls, and I preferred the friendship and company of girls to boys. When I was 6, we traded clothes with each other and the girl whose house we were playing in got very upset. She rushed me into the bathroom, stripped me, called me evil and an abomination, she put me in my boy’s clothes and sent me home. She then called the school, the PTA, and through the phone tree, got to the school board, the principal, and the teacher. After that I was forbidden to play with girls during school hours.
I was forced to play with boys, and nearly every time, the result was beatings, injuries, bruises, and often even hospitalizations. Dressing up was my only chance to feel “Right”, and I did it often. By the time I was 10, I fit my mom’s clothes, and was a very pretty girl. But because of the laws and medical profession standards of the time, I had to keep it a secret.
In other areas, my parents were very supportive of my transgender nature. I learned to cook, crochet, knit, sew, do housework, including laundry, ironing, and cleaning. My dad frequently said “You’ll marry a rich doctor or lawyer and be a wonderful housewife”.
I went to a women’s college, one of 25 men in a college with over 800 women. I loved being “one of the girls”. Ironically, they saw that I was a girl inside, but when they gave me a magazine of transvestite men with hairy legs and flat chests in hose and dresses, I found it disgusting. I knew how to be a pretty woman, but no one saw that.
I started transitioning in 2009, shortly after returning from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. I went to Sweden, and started to develop my female public persona. By the time I got back to the United States, I had set up e-mail and Facebook accounts as Debbie Lawrence.
When my dad was about to die, he asked me to come out to Colorado. His first conversation was “If I can’t give you anything else, I want to give you this – Be yourself, even if that means being Debbie”. I almost broke down right then. Later, he saw me with my long hair, light make-up, and thought I was my mother, coming from heaven to take him home. He told me he loved his beautiful oldest daughter. A few months later, I was starting HRT.
Monika: It is amazing to see so many talented transgender women working for the IT business, just to mention: Lynn Conway, Jessica Bussert, Danielle Hallett, Kate Craig-Wood, Rebecca Heineman, Megan Wallent or yourself…
Debbie: When you are transgender and left handed, you have to learn many different ways of learning, many different views of the world, and many different methods of misdirection and perception of others. Many of us have extremely high IQs.
The IT industry is an area where gender is not considered relevant. In fact, women in IT are appreciated. When you aren’t allowed to play with girls and playing with boys is dangerous, you have a lot of time to yourself. Mom encouraged my feminine interests, but dad also wanted to encourage my interest in technology. I had a Chemistry set at 8, my first Crystal Radio at 9, I’d learned Morse Code by 10, had a ham radio license by 11, a general class license by 12, and was reading and doing math at College level by the time I was 13.
Unfortunately, I was also lacking social skills. Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory is very much like me when I was 13. My mother insisted that I spend more time with children my own age (instead of adults). I joined a friend’s church youth group, but quickly got kicked out because I got into a biblical argument with the Youth pastor (and was winning).
I developed an interest in music, theater, performing arts, and stagecraft. I enjoyed performing, but I also enjoyed directing and managing. Over time, I developed the skills and thinking necessary to manage and coordinate very diverse teams, both in skills and culture. Ironically, my perceptions from growing up as a girl in boy’s world made this even easier.
During and after college, I paid the bills by doing technical sales, electronic parts, CB Radios, Stereos, VCRs, Video Games, and Computers. A customer gave me my first programming job. I started with smaller companies, often working shoulder to shoulder with PhDs from MIT on some cutting edge technologies.
When IBM called, I was very excited because I knew they had a strong diversity program. I had even heard that they covered HRT and SRS. I have been grateful to be able to work for a company that encouraged me to switch to full time as Debbie as soon as I was ready.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Debbie: Several. I had seen adult films of Sulka and Shannon as well as reading books about Christine Jorgensen. I have also read some autobiographies including a number of books on Kindle. I have been active in several transgender support groups both online and offline, as well as several Facebook groups. Seeing other women going through transition, seeing the results of HRT and hearing about SRS have given me the courage and strength to continue with my own transition.
via Amazon
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Debbie: I am a big fan of Katie Leone (Leanard), I love her books and they almost always leave me moved touched and inspired. I also love the books by Karin Bishop, who also touches my soul with her books. I hope someday to be as good a writer as these women.
I don’t know if Maddie Bell is transgender or not, but I love the Gaby series. It seems like the story has taken forever to evolve, but I can’t wait to read the next installment.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Debbie: Overcoming my own fears. I had always thought that I had kept my secret pretty well. I was afraid that if people knew, I’d get bullied again, I’d get thrown out of college, my girl-friend or wife would leave me, I’d lose my job, I’d lose my home, I’d lose my kids.
In 1977, I hit bottom. I had turned to drugs and alcohol, and ended up in a psychiatric ward. I tried to commit suicide (again), this time by swallowing glass shards, and ground glass and not telling anybody for 4 days. When I told them I was a girl inside, they told me I couldn’t talk about that ever again. I don’t ever want to go to that place again.
Once I came out, I found out that my “big secret” wasn’t that much of a secret. At my high school and college reunions, nearly everybody said “It’s about time!”. Everybody knew there was a girl inside. They were afraid to talk to me about it, because they were afraid I would reject them if they did.
The hardest part about coming out was when I had to abort my first transition. I had lost over 100 lbs, I was healthier than I had ever been, I had some great relationships, I had friends, I had a great job, and I had some wonderful kids.
Aborting transition was a horrible idea. I doubled my weight, I had a heart attack and a stroke, I struggled with work and relationships, and I didn’t see my kids face-to-face for 5 years. I should never have aborted the transition.
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?
Debbie: There are so many things we have in common with the LGBT community. Long before boys who were ACTUALLY homosexual were being persecuted for being gay, everybody assumed I was gay because I was so feminine. In elementary school, they called me “Sissy”, in JR High, they called me “Fairy” and “Queer”. In high school, many boys who actually were gay asked me for dates. I introduced them to each other and enjoyed their protection (one was a full-back on the football team).
Most of the gay men assumed that I was just gay and was femme. When asked “Are you gay”, I would honestly say “Yes, I’m a lesbian”. I’m bisexual by preference, enjoying certain types of men. I had a crush on David Cassidy and Davy Jones of the Monkeys, but in practice, I have preferred lesbian activities with women. I was never well endowed and did not like it when men or women tried to seduce me as a boy. It seemed rough, crude, even painful. In an earlier version of “Debbie’s Secret Life”, I tried to discuss some of the sexual issues, but feedback was “There are some secrets Debbie should have kept”. Perhaps I will put this in a different book.
The important thing is that those outside the LGBT community tend to treat us as one group. The right wing conservatives, homophobes, and transphobes are often rather ignorant about the different distinctions between the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities. Transgender women are often assumed to be Drag Queens like Rue Paul. While some Drag Queens are transgender women, only a very small percentage of transgender women are Drag Queens (dressing up as overly feminine women for entertainment purposes).
There are so many things we have in common. The bullying, the harassment, the violence, the high suicide rates, the fear of coming out, the lies, the deceit, the isolation, the fear of, and actual, rejection by family, friends, love interests, communities, and employers.
Keep in mind that transgender women can have the same range of sexual preferences as normal people. There are transgender women who like men and consider themselves heterosexual. Other transgender women are attracted to women and consider themselves lesbian. Many of us are bisexual, attracted to some men and some women. Many of us are attracted to partners who exhibit transgender traits, for example women who are more “Butch” or men who are more “Femme”. As a transgender woman, many of my lovers were bisexual and considered me the best of both worlds.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Debbie: There are so many really wonderful books on Amazon for Kindle, I personally have a collection of roughly 200 such transgender stories, both fiction and non-fiction. Most will never make the best seller list, even though they are often wonderful love stories and wonderful romances.
The press coverage is often too sensational. Jazz Jennings is probably the best representative. She is a truly transgender girl who, like so many of us, knew she was a girl almost as soon as she could talk. She is seen as a real girl, and since she never shows her genitalia, you wouldn’t know she wasn’t a girl if she weren’t so open about it.
When Caitlin Jenner transitioned, it was joked about, hinted at, and during his Diane Sawyer interview, he tried to remain male in appearance as best he could. When she finally did the Vanity Fair photo spread, she was beautiful, especially for a 65 year old woman. However, people again treated it as a joke.
Meanwhile, two dozen transgender girls have walked in front of trucks, one recently took some deadly seeds. Even in death, their parents reject their transgender status, and claim they tried to get “help” from therapists who tried to convince them that being transgender was an illusion.
When Mike Huckabee announced that he wished he could tell the coach he was transgendered so he could shower with the girls, I pointed out what it was REALLY like to be transgender. This was the point at which I decided to rush the release of “Living in Stealth: Undercover” that covered only the period up to the first marriage, rather than the entire story.
The next story “Living in Stealth: The Iron Mask” will discuss the struggles of living the dual life, where some know and accept, some know and reject, and others must be kept from ever knowing. The effort required to maintain the emotional “Armor” against those who either have rejected or will reject us.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Debbie: I don’t politically lobby directly, but I advocate openly on Facebook groups, and I contribute to a number of political groups that support transgender rights.
I have made it a point to focus on the constitutional rights of transgender women. The GOP Bathroom bills and other measures to violate privacy violate the 4th Amendment (Privacy), 5th Amendment (Due Process), 8th Amendment (Cruel and Unusual Punishment), and 14th Amendment (Protection of these rights from states and organizations).
Many in the GOP are claiming that the 1st Amendment (Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech) give fundamentalist Christians the right to not only violate the rights of transgender and gay men and women, especially transgender women and gay men, but also gives them the right to openly instigate hate crimes and to encourage the suicide and cruel and unusual punishment of transgender women and gay men.
Mind you, I have a strong personal faith, having been the product of numerous miracles that have made it possible to share this way today. I have a strong faith in a higher power, which I call God, and I not only believe in Jesus as his son, but also in his actual teachings.
Courtesy of Debbie Ballard.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Debbie: I’m a big fan of Gwinnie-Bee. I am a plus size woman, and try to dress appropriate to my size (20), age (60), profession (executive), and situation (work, church, shopping…). I don’t do much clubbing at my age. Even going through Penn station several times a week, I only appear as another woman.
There was a time when I dressed too “tarty”, a transgender “teen angst” period. My skirts were too short, my blouses too tight, my makeup too much, and my heels too high. I could stop traffic on 7th Avenue in New York City, but only because men thought I was available for hire.
After a make-over similar to “What Not to Wear” with my partner and spouse – Lee, I have learned to dress nicer than about half the women, and not as nice as the other half. This way I get a smile and a glance, then on to the next girl. I like dresses with jackets most of the time.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Some activists criticize their value, pointing out that they lead to the obsession with youth and beauty.
Debbie: The main issue I have with such focus on appearance is that there are too many transgender women who struggle with trying to be the prettiest girl in the room. Regardless of the nature, it’s important for transgender girls to see what nature and HRT will do before resorting to plastic surgery on the face or breasts. It took me about 2 years to stop seeing a “man” in the mirror. Nobody else saw a man at all. These days, I can’t see the man at all. This is all because of HRT, laser hair removal, and very light make-up.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Debbie: Love was always a struggle for me until I came out. It was very hard to believe anybody would even like me let alone love me, if they knew who I really was. I had male and female lovers and male and female close friends. They wanted me at first, but sooner or later, they would realize that I wasn’t the man they were expecting. For some girls, just reaching into my pants and feeling the “teeny weeny peeny” was enough throw cold water on their interest. If I depended on what was between my legs to please a woman, we would both be disappointed.
Once I came out, and started to transition, different people came out of the woodwork to offer friendship, support, and even love. Several bisexual women introduced themselves to me, and we had wonderful relationships. Unfortunately, one left me for another man, another just wanted a long distance relationship and I wanted more.
When I put pictures of both Debbie and Rex (my male name) on, about 1 in 100 women expressed a genuine interest. Several of them were quite serious. Eventually, I met Lee, who sent me a message saying “Dude, you’re wearing a dress, what’s that about”. I sent back a rather detailed letter explaining that I was transgender, had wanted to be like other girls since I was a kid, but didn’t know if I could transition. Two weeks of phone calls later, we had our first date. Two years later, we were married. 
Lee is still a very important part of my life. She fully supports me in my transition, and we are a happy lesbian couple. We sing in the church choir together, we date frequently, and we enjoy lots of love and romance with each other.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Debbie: I still actively advocate on-line. I still supporting transgender friendly groups, and I’m still politically active. I am also active in the “True Selves” transgender support group. 
I am working on three books. “Living in Stealth: Iron Mask” which I described above. The third book “Living in Stealth: Transformations” discusses transition, though I will probably merge first and second transition more closely, as I should have done in real life.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Debbie: The most important thing is to talk to somebody! Talk to you doctor, the school social worker, a teacher, the parents of a friend, your own parents. It is now unethical for a social worker or therapist to try and get you to deny being transgender if you are. If necessary, talk with a dozen people about it. Be true to yourself. You may lose much, but you will gain so much more.
In my own books, I share the pain that led to my own suicide attempts. Do not follow that path. Better to be rejected by a dozen people and find one who will accept you that to try and hide who you really are and never give anyone a chance to know who you really are.
Monika: Debbie, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Debbie Ballard.
Done on 11 March 2016
© 2016 - Monika 

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