Friday, 8 April 2016

Interview with Rachael Evelyn Booth

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Rachael Evelyn Booth, an American writer, poet, US Navy veteran, linguist, computer scientist, martial artist, entertainer, and the author of the biographical book titled “Wishing On A Star: My Journey Across the Gender Divide” (2016). Hello Rachael!
Rachael: Hi Monika! Thanks for talking with me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Rachael: I am a 64-year-old woman living with my wife in the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire. I grew up in rural northwestern Ohio where I first realized that there was something wrong inside of me. I would sit out in a little field behind our house waiting to wish on the first star so I could be a girl when I woke up the next morning. Thus the name of my first book.
As many other trans-people of my time did, I tried to find my way in society as a man by first joining the Navy, then getting married and having children all in an attempt to find something that would make me feel happy in my expected role in life. Nothing worked and all I ended up doing was bringing more and more people into my life that I hurt terribly when I finally had to move ahead and become the person I am today.
Monika: Your life is full of dramatic events: the Vietnam war, two marriages, three children, and nearly a third marriage. How did you find your strength to search for happiness afterwards?
Rachael: I never actually went to war. I was afraid I’d get drafted into the Army and end up as a soldier in the jungles having to shoot people. I also thought I might find my place in male society where I could be happy with who I was. Big mistake. So I joined the Navy where I was trained as a Chinese and Arabic linguist and was sent to different places because of that.
During the Navy I also got married and had children, all as part of an attempt to find a happy place for myself. Marriage and children brought that happiness but only briefly. 
After the Navy I worked for 30 years in computer programming and design for Naval shipboard weapons systems. During that time, I hit rock bottom and tried to commit suicide.
I finally realized that if I didn’t go ahead with my life to find my TRUE self, I was going to die. I had always thought that it took unimaginable courage to make this decision. It turned out it was the conviction that I was going to die if I didn’t. That realization took the weight of the world off my shoulders and I moved forward with my head held high.
Her autobiography.
Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Rachael: I had read many books by trans-people before and they were all either terribly flowery and difficult to read, terribly sad with a “poor me” mentality, or terribly boring with pages and pages of charts and data. I wanted to write a book that people would find informative, honest, and funny. I’ve used humor throughout my life as a tool to keep people interested in speeches, presentations, and everyday conversations. It works very well.
My main goal for writing this book was to show other trans-people who were living in that darkness that almost killed me that they’re not alone and if I could find a way to survive it and finally become a “full” person in both body and mind that they could, too. I also wrote it to help the trans-person’s family and friends learn what their loved one is going through in human terms that they could understand.
People just don’t get what it means to live every day of your life wishing that you didn’t have to live as the biological gender your birth certificate claims you are; hoping that you can find the strength to live to see just one more day. Most people are born male or female and they take it for granted – it’s just who they are. Trying to get people to understand what being transgender is like is similar to trying to explain what colors look like to a person who’s been blind from birth. They just don’t have any frame of reference to really understand it fully.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Rachael: The thing I’m proudest of myself for in my road to transition is that I never let any outside influence be a crutch for me to lean on that could possibly become a hindrance to me later. I was convinced that I could do this simply using my own inner strength. I knew that alcohol and drugs would only mask my pain and could lead to horrible addictions which would be just one more awful thing I’d have to deal with. I also stayed away from religion because I didn’t believe that any god was going to help me. I prayed to god when I was a child and when I go no answer I turned to the first star.
I think that each of us has our own inner strength that is much more effective than we can imagine. I’m not saying that you can’t get help – we all have to. I’m just saying that we have to use our inner strength to stay away from the “quick fix” that just gives us more problems to solve.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Rachael: I first started my transition in earnest in 1991 at the age of 40. After my suicide attempt it became the easiest thing in the world. Before that I never thought I’d ever find the courage to move ahead knowing that I could lose my job, my friends, and my family. As it turned out I lost my family for about 20 years but they’re back in my life now.
The most difficult thing I had to endure transitioning at work was the use of the ladies’ rooms. We had three ladies’ rooms in our building, one on each floor, and when some objected to me using them, I offered to use only one certain bathroom. That wasn’t good enough for the few mostly older and religious women who were offended by my presence. So I had to carry a big red sign that said “DO NOT ENTER” with me when I went to the bathroom, knock on the door and announce myself, and, if anyone was inside, wait outside until they came out. Then I would hang my sign on the door, go in and do my business, and then leave and take my sign with me back to my desk.
The fears of these women were that 1) I was going to ogle them while they were going to the bathroom (How? By standing on the seat and peering over the divider?), sexually assault someone while I was in there (I’d been on female hormones for enough time that I couldn’t get an erection if I wanted to), and 3) I’d spread AIDS on the toilet seats (they must have thought that if I was making this change I must have been a gay man and ALL gay men have AIDS, don’t they? I wasn’t and they don’t). You can see the misinformation campaign that I had to put up with.
Keep in mind this is 1991 and people hadn’t really ever heard of a transgender person before. I put up with this for one full year until I went to Belgium to have my Gender Confirmation Surgery and then tore up my sign and sprinkled pieces of it in all three bathrooms at work daring anyone to say anything about me being in there now.
My company came to see me as the valuable asset that I had always been, though, and before long I was working with the New Business group traveling around the country as a representative of my company in charge of writing software specifications for new contracts between my company and others. It was all very rewarding and gratifying. 
The guy who was living in Rachael's body
for 40 years.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rachael: I didn’t really have any role models at all. The only person I’d ever heard of who had done this before was Christine Jorgensen who had transitioned in the mid ‘50s. And the only transgender people I ever saw on TV were the ones who showed up on “The Jerry Springer Show”. They were always sensationalized and horrible role models for those of us regular people. But they were the impetus for me to start speaking publicly in nearby universities and colleges about the transgender experience.
I wanted people to know that transgender people were just normal people like everyone else with just a little different problem than most. I always enjoyed teaching others about the realities of being transgender and I always learned something more about myself with each lecture.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Rachael: Absolutely. Any transgender man or woman who has the courage to speak out loud and help our community by making the cis-gender crowd understand us more has my utmost respect and admiration. On Facebook right now is a veteran named Carla Lewis who posted a picture of herself wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m transgender and I served my country for your right to hate me”. How courageous is that? I’m proud to call her my friend. I also have two transgender female friends down in southern Vermont who are engaged to be married. I love them dearly and their courage in being out and proud is an inspiration to everyone where they live.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Rachael: The hardest thing for me was probably the same for everyone – breaking the news to family. My parents did not want to even talk to me about it when all I wanted to do was to explain to them that none of this was their fault. I think they were embarrassed by me and what people would think. When I almost died in 2005 from a tick bite that gave me Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and left me with a stroke and brain damage, they decided enough was enough. They didn’t like that I could have died and they’d have never seen me again. We are now a complete family again and they refer to me as their daughter. My dad even calls me “Sweetie”. I couldn’t be happier.
Of course there was also the problem with my children but they took it better than I could ever have hoped, even after the hate campaign that their mothers tried to drill into their heads against me their whole lives. Inside they knew better. They don’t call me Mom but they don’t call me Dad either. We’ve agreed that “Rachael” is just fine. My grandchildren refer to me as “Aunt Rachael” because of problems earlier with my kids trying to think of what was the right thing to do. My grandchildren are almost 18 now and after they’re adults I’ll insist that they drop the “Aunt” part and call me “Nana” which is another word in American English for grandmother.
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?
Rachael: That’s a difficult question. As you know sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity. But the two are usually tightly entwined. I know transwomen who are straight and have boyfriends or husbands but as males they were straight and had girlfriends and wives. But I also know many transwomen who were straight as men and are now lesbians. It can be very confusing. Did the straight men who are now straight women change their sexual orientation or was their early sexual orientation a function of fear of being seen as a homosexual man? Can sexual orientation change? This is a question for psychologists who know a lot more about it than I do.
But I think it’s a good thing that the ‘T’ is in LGBT because we are a group that is look upon as “different” and these groups historically band together for support against the dangers of the those who see us as different. In numbers there is strength and that has worked well for us all for
However there certainly is a rift in the gay/lesbian community where some believe we shouldn’t be under their umbrella. Keep in mind that just because a person is gay or lesbian, that doesn’t mean they automatically understand what it means to be gender dysphoric any more than any other cis-gender person.
Rachael's first company Christmas party.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Rachael: Recently we’ve been seeing better representations of transgender people in TV and the movies. “Orange Is the New Black” has the first openly transgender actress in it and the subject is actually talked about by the other inmates of the prison. “Transparent” shows an older man coming out to his family, painfully looking on his past life holding himself back for the sake of his children and then watching his early steps into becoming Moira.
The recent movie “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne (nominated for best actor) as Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander (won best supporting actress) as Lili’s wife was a stellar portrayal of what it means to be transgender. However, I was disappointed that the movie had such a limited release to theaters. I’m not really sure why with all of the Oscar buzz that surrounded the movie even before it was released. The only thing that comes to mind for this snub is the distribution company didn’t think the subject matter would appeal to most moviegoers.
Unfortunately, news stories are rife right now with state legislators passing “bathroom bills” to keep transgender people out of bathrooms of their gender identification. These are passed out of ignorance and fear that transgender women are nothing more than men in dresses looking to get some sort of thrill out of being in a ladies’ room.
This is a double-edged sword in the trans community. Female-to-Male transgender people can “pass” as male a lot easier than Male-to-Females. Given hormone treatment, trans-men grow beards and moustaches, their voices lower and they take on male characteristics. But their surgical remedies are not so simple. For Male-to-Females, after hormone therapy their voices don’t raise, their beards don’t go away, and they usually retain male facial characteristics that can only be changed through facial feminization surgery.
This is all exacerbated by the “good old boy” club which that if you’re a man you MUST be uber-macho. You’re absolutely sick if you’re anything else. So if you don’t “pass” well as a trans-woman and you’re trying to go into a ladies’ room, you must have ulterior motives. Unfortunately, these same people don’t look around to see how many cis-women don’t look particularly feminine themselves. So a lot of people are hurt by these short-sighted and cruel laws.
I think one of my biggest disappointments about what’s happening in the media about trans-people is the story of Caitlyn Jenner. It doesn’t show people what being transgender is really all about. Think about it. One day on TV she’s Bruce Jenner being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on TV. The next month she shows up as a sexy siren on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Then her TV program shows her at any of her many mansions worrying about her greatest problem – wondering what designer outfit to choose from closets full of them.
Being transgender is not a magic act. It does not happen overnight and the people going through it can hardly afford electrolysis let alone facial feminization surgery and designer clothes. PLUS Caitlyn holds tightly to her conservative political stances with seemingly no idea of what conservatives in this country continue to do to limit and/or destroy LGBT rights. She is clueless and does not represent real transgender people.
Monika: You also write books and poems that are not related to your transgender experience …
Rachael: Yes I do. I have a website for my books and poetry called where I list my books, what I’m working on and even put out my poetry for anyone to read. I wrote a lot of poetry during my darkest times before coming out so some of them aren’t so cheery to read but they’re a good indication of what I was feeling when I wrote them. I actually incorporated some of my poems in my autobiography because they helped show the despair I was feeling at different times in my life. Some of the, though, were written about the wonders I’ve witnessed in nature when I was backpacking in the mountains, something I used to do all the time.

Her books webpage.

Right now I’m writing a totally different kind of book. It’s the history of the tiny town I grew up in in Ohio. The book is titled “The Little Port in the Cornfields – a History of Evansport, Ohio”. This is something that is fascinating to research. Evansport actually WAS a little port in the cornfields – founded on a river where farmers and loggers could bring their products into a grist mill and a saw mill for processing and then floating them down the river to trains at a nearby town to be taken to Toledo to be sent out across Lake Erie. A direct cousin of Francis Scott Key had a shop there in the town’s heyday. I’m really enjoying writing this.
I’ve also got a time-travel science fiction novel in mind, and a novel about a discovery the professional sports is rigged from the very start of the season. This new direction in my life is a lot of fun for me.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Rachael: I absolutely do. Here in New Hampshire we’ve already had a transgender woman elected as a state Representative. Unfortunately, she was found to have done some pretty shady things and was removed from office. The good news was that it didn’t seem reflect on her being a trans-woman.
I, however had intended to run for a state Representative seat this year myself but have had to decline due to health issues that would keep me from doing what I needed to do to win the seat.
With the more frequent visibility of transgender people, I see a transgender candidate being elected to office soon. Kristen Beck, the transgender former Seal Team member is running right now to try to unseat the 30-year Democratic veteran Steny Hoyer in the Maryland primaries.
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.
Rachael: I personally think that all beauty pageants are demeaning to women. Any contest that pits one woman against another solely on her looks totally dismisses what it really means to be a woman. The more we continue these stereotypes, the harder it is for women to rise above these things that keep us down.
On the other hand, I personally know some drop-dead gorgeous trans-women who I would confidently put up against any cis-woman in a beauty contest – if I believed in them.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life? 
Rachael: There were two things in my life that I didn’t even think about when I was considering transition – my love life and my sexual orientation after surgery. I didn’t care about the first and I didn’t know about the second. I was convinced that being transgender meant I would never again find love and that I would live alone for the rest of my life. I had made that OK with myself. But I’ve never been one to give up trying.
During the year I was in transition I purposely stayed away from any dating at all. I knew far too many trans-women who had been beaten and nearly killed by men they were dating who found out they weren’t “fully” female yet. That was not going to happen to me. After my surgery I joined a dating service and started dating men – because that was what was expected of me by society. Sometimes you just never learn.
Rachael's first glamour shot.
Anyway, dating men just wasn’t right for me. Kissing a man was like kissing my dad and didn’t excite me at all. I then started dating women and found that was exactly what felt right. The next hurdle was to find out when to tell a prospective partner about my past. 
There are two trains of thought about this – tell a person right off the bat who you are so that they don’t feel you’ve been lying to them, or let them get to know you first and if you fall in love, THEN tell them and see if the love is strong enough to survive this knowledge. I chose the latter.
When my girlfriend and I had been together for about a year and had fallen deeply in love with each other, I had to draw on my inner strength one more time and tell her about who I used to be. I had never been more frightened in my life. She said she needed to think about it and would get back to me in a week or so. I thought she was gone forever. Two days later she asked me to bring my clothes over so I could have clean clothes to wear to work the next day. She is now my wife and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary with a motorcycle ride to Nova Scotia last summer.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Rachael: Right now I’m throwing myself into writing. I’m trying to restart my old classes in Women’s Self Defense and Assault Prevention classes. I may no longer be able to do martial arts because of my physical disabilities but I can teach self-defense. It doesn’t require martial arts skills.
I’m teaching myself German because languages have always intrigued me. I already speak Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish and I can get by in French with a basic knowledge of Russian and Japanese. Plus, I wanted to know that my mind can still learn languages. So far “Alles gut”!
I volunteer at a local ski resort to teach other disabled people to ski. When we moved up here to New Hampshire I got help myself to be able to ski again and this was my chance to give back to others. This was my 6th year helping.
I also play guitar and sing for patients at a local hospital and at a local assisted living home. One of the things that for years kept me from thinking I could ever become a whole person was my love for performing. I always thought that once I transitioned, the first time I strummed my guitar and sang in public people would point and laugh about the male voice coming out of the kind-of-female looking performer. As it turned out it was just another excuse I used to put off the inevitable.
The first time I performed in public I got great applause and numerous people telling me how pretty my voice was. My voice really hasn’t changed all that much other than some diction lessons I took during transition so that I could speak in a more feminine timber. I never had a particularly low voice but my language skills, along with the vocal coaching has allowed me to sing like I’ve always wanted to. In high school I had to sing tenor because boys weren’t allowed to sing Alto. I now sing Alto in a local Chorus and another women’s group.
I’ve also started a Facebook group called the North Country Transgender Support Group to help other transgender people find the assistance and friendship they need to not feel so alone and to find local medical and psychological help that others have used. My group covers northern New Hampshire and Vermont as well as Maine.
I can honestly say I’ve never been happier in my life.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Rachael: My greatest advice to other is to NEVER GIVE UP. Don’t let ANYONE bring you down because of how you feel inside. You alone know what’s right for you. There comes a time when you have to stand on your own two feet and not let yourself be governed by what other people think. When I came to decision myself it was the most freeing moment of my life. Nothing anyone could say would upset me anymore. It may have taken me 40 years to get to but I’m from a different generation.
The world is open to all of us now with help at every step. There are even doctors now who administer hormone blockers to transgender children so that girls don’t start menstruating and growing breasts and so boys’ voices don’t lower, growing beards and start bulking up at puberty. I wish I’d had that when I was young but if I’d even thought about saying anything to anyone when I was a child I risked hospitalization and lobotomy. Really.
And we all have a duty to speak up about our lives and let people know that we’re real people with a different kind of problem that needs to be addressed. Every voice out there makes it easier for the ones coming after us.
Monika: Rachael, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Rachael Evelyn Booth.
Done on 8 April 2016
© 2016 - Monika 

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