Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Interview with Juli Grey-Owens

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Juli Grey-Owens, an American transgender rights activist. She regularly speaks at public forums about the need for statewide Transgender Civil Rights. Grey-Owens is the Executive Director of LITAC, the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition; the founder and owner of Transgender Management Consulting, an organization which works to help organizations become transgender inclusive; and Board Co-Chair of TransPAC, New York’s first Political Action Committee. Hello Juli!
Juli: Hi Monika. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Juli: I guess that I would say that I have had an amazing personal journey. I’m now in my early 60’s and as I look back at my life, I can see how it has continued to change and develop into something I could never have dreamed of. I know that I have been very lucky, and have been “privileged” in many ways.
I was born white, male, and able-bodied. I have always been attracted to females, and because I was never traumatized by a severe case of gender dysphoria, people early on assumed that I was cisgender. These traits allowed me to experience opportunities that are not available to everyone. Being privileged does not mean things were handed to me or that I didn’t have to work for the opportunities that came my way. It simply means I had a head start at birth and through my early years. These personal traits allowed me to work within and outside society’s rigid gender rules.
With Governor Paterson, 2010.
My socialization as a young person was slanted male and provided me with strength, confidence, and the ability to lead. This is one reason why I prefer to state my gender as a “trans woman”. I think I feel different than a full biological woman feels. I certainly understand and support those trans people who call themselves a woman, but my personal experiences were male dominated, and I was successful at that game.
As I tell people, my experiences included being captain of my football team – they did not include dancing classes as a young girl, or being asked to go to the prom. I never had a period, and never had the opportunity to give birth. I also never had to deal with the prejudices that women have to deal with.
Monika: When I look at your achievements as an advocate of transgender cause, I am amazed with your contribution to the promotion of transgender rights in Long Island and New York State…
Juli: It just looks like a lot because I’m old and I’ve been doing it for a while!
I am someone who enjoys a challenge, and I’m a bit stubborn so I don’t easily give up. I have always hated bullies and people who force others to act or live a certain way, so it was only natural for me to begin advocating for my Community.
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in the American society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Juli: I would say that there is a change in the way transgender and gender non-conforming people are beginning to be portrayed by the media. Some of our most creative and passionate Community members are finally being seen for who they really are, and what they can contribute to society.
My Daughter helping the cause!
However, I really don’t believe that we are thriving right now! I see too much discrimination, hate, and violence directed towards our Community. I see parents that disown their trans kids. I see organized religions that prefer to hate rather than love us. I still see schools that do too little for our trans youth. And with the Trump Administration, I see powerful people who turn their backs on the poor, the weak, and the hungry – all groups that unfortunately include many of our Community members.
If some say there is significant progress by some of our members, then I would tell you that there is much more that we can do – if we are given an equal opportunity.
Monika: Being one of the co-founders of TransPAC, a political action committee dedicated to achieving full and equal rights for transgender people, do you find any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats address these rights?
Juli: Unfortunately yes. I wish I could tell you that we are treated equally as well by both parties, but there is no question that the Democrats have been more accepting and more willing to work for us. You must remember that it is not a perfect world, and it’s never correct to generalize, but I have seen the most progress under Democratic leaders than Republican leaders.
Monika: As transgender people, we represent 0.2-0.3% of the global population whereas the American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. Can you see any possible allies outside of the LGBTQ group to generate more political leverage?
Juli: First, I would point out that last year the Williams Institute doubled the estimated percentage of trans people in the general population to .6%. In my opinion, we will see that number continue to grow as more members come out.
But back to the question at hand; much of the work I am currently doing is building coalitions with other minority groups that are calling for equality and justice. I am proud to stand with those who may be undocumented, may be the victims of hate and discrimination, and are fighting for their rights. The transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) Community is too small to have political “mass”. If we try to do this work alone, we will never create change. We must find other groups who need us to stand with them and, in turn, will stand with us. 

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the penultimate letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Juli: I can’t speak about other areas of the U.S. or for that matter other countries of the world. But I can speak of my experience in New York and, again I am generalizing. I would say that the LGB communities have not supported the trans and queer communities to the level we desperately need and would hope for.
In New York, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have had statewide anti-discrimination protections since 2003. Once Marriage Equality passed in New York, we saw the LGB Community leave the remaining fight for transgender civil rights by the droves. The New York State LGBT advocacy organization, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), was forced to close down last year because funding dried up. This happened while the TGNC Community was still fighting for a statewide law to protect us from discrimination in housing, employment and public services.
Marriage Equality Speech - Manhattan 2015.
There are many individual gays and lesbians who are passionately fighting alongside us, but the LGB communities, as a whole, have deserted us. We need to face the fact that it is now our battle alone.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Trump towards transgender Americans?
Juli: I have a very hard time answering this question in a politically correct way. One simply needs to look at the people chosen to be a part of the President’s cabinet to know the actual attitude of the Administration.
The most important rule in dealing with this President and his Administration is: Don’t waste time and energy bothering with what he says - watch what he does and act accordingly! 
Monika: You are one of the generals whose army faces a tough and overwhelming opponent in the restroom wars? Is there a chance of winning this war?
Juli: We will absolutely win this war. However, it will never be complete, it will not be easy, and it will not be quick.
As our Community continues to make strides in media, positive role models will break down stereotypes, point out unfair treatment, and make the cisgender general public more comfortable with those of us who are trans or gender non-conforming. This will, in turn, create a change in our society which will hopefully deal with gender issues in a more positive way. As society deals with gender issues, the bathroom wars will slowly die out.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President or at least the First Lady?đŸ˜‰
Juli: I wish I could say yes, but I think it is highly unlikely since I have at best thirty years left. In my remaining time, I would be thrilled to see a trans man or trans woman be elected to the U.S. Congress.
Our Wedding.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Juli: In the reality of my life, I have never officially transitioned. I have always been the same person inside. I didn’t “become” the person I am now – I’ve always been me. Inside my soul, I always knew that I was different. The only thing that has varied throughout the years has been in the gender expression I chose to or was forced to exhibit at different times.
I know there are other members of my Community that live a different truth, and I honor and respect that. But for me, it has always been about deciding a direction, determining a goal, and finding a way to reach the goal. I had no problem using my gender expression in a way that would help me reach those goals.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Juli: Unfortunately no! You must remember that when I grew up there was no internet or media that covered trans issues. As I was growing up, I thought that I was “God’s mistake”.
I did not knowingly meet my first transgender person until after I graduated college. As I went through life, it was very hard to find role models that I could look up to. What I find most interesting is that the people I respect as leaders and role models today are all people much younger than me!
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Juli: Certainly there are trans woman and trans men that I admire and respect. I think Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality stands out as someone I very much respect for her work as a leader in trans civil rights. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Juli: Losing my first wife. I met my wife when I was thirteen, stated going out with her at sixteen, married her at thirty, had a child with her at thirty-five, and lived with her in total for thirty-eight years.
I told her of my trans-ness at twenty, and initially it was our “secret”. But as I grew older, I was driven to be out more and more. In 2003 I began to realize the importance of organizing and advocating for my Community. As I became more public, she became more afraid, and it also seemed to affect her feelings of her own gender and sexuality. We parted respectfully and on good terms.
AIDS Day 2016 with my wife Barbara.
My story does not end sadly, however. I met a cisgender heterosexual woman at church who I became “girl” buddies with. This turned into strong friends, which turned into lovers and life partners. This year we are celebrating nine years together, married for six! Now you can understand why I say I’m lucky!
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Juli: I do like fashion. My wife calls me the “Shopping Dutchess”! But I find that much of my day-to-day clothing is simply jeans and a top while at home or doing errands. I usually wear a conservative women’s pant suit at advocacy and political events.
I do get to wear more fashionable things because my wife belongs to an art gallery and there are monthly art openings which allow me to wear dresses, skirts and more current fashions. 
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Juli: I think they are important for our Community, especially for those just coming out. I actually appeared in two small contests thirty years ago and placed second in both. I still have my trophies which I prize.
However, at some point we need to expand our lives. I believe working to help our Community is one of the most important things a TGNC person can do. We need to make it easier to come out, and we need to fight for those of our Community who are homeless, hungry, undocumented, unemployed, underemployed, and without rights. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Juli: Yes, I have. I already have a title for it: “Just a girl on the road – a boy’s journey to womanhood”. If and when I get around to writing it, it will focus on telling the funny and not-so-funny things that have happened to me along the way.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Juli: Love is a very important component in my life and has always been. Here again, I would say that I have been extremely lucky. For most of my time with my first wife, it was a loving relationship. In some ways her limited acceptance of me and my being transgender allowed me to grow and develop. Once that relationship ended, I went through a period of confusion and fear – fear that I would never find someone who could love me as I am.
Then I met my second wife who has had an amazing impact on my life. I consider these years with her to be the “garden years” of my life, the period of time when I really bloomed into the person I was supposed to be. For those of us who have experienced true love, there is nothing like having a home where you are happy to just be with your loved one.
Add to this the fact that I have a daughter who has supported my work and is proud of the accomplishments that I’ve had. I know that “lucky” doesn’t really define how impactful it can be when you have support and love all around you.
Transgender Town Hall.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Juli: My first advice would be to try to stay calm, stay safe, take a moment and think about what you want in your life, who you want in your life, and how you can go from where you are now to where you want to be.
By trying to stay calm and stay safe, it means looking at our daily habits and making sure they do not put us in severe danger. Is your inner turmoil making you over-drink or take harmful drugs? Is your situation one where you must do sex work to survive – and if it is, are you practicing safe sex to prevent you from getting the HIV virus?
Can you take the negative energy, used in doing destructive things, and somehow put it to positive use, like finishing your education or volunteering at a social services organization? 
Are you in a destructive relationship that physically or mentally harms you? Can you take steps to safely remove yourself from a violent situation? Can you find a way to remove yourself from situations that are dangerous and perhaps not follow those who have uncontrolled destructive energy and actions?
Can you take a moment to wish for a better life? And from those wishes, can you think of solid positive steps that you can take to work your way towards the happiness and freedom that you deserve? It won’t be easy, but to know that you have the strength, the ability, and the intelligence to make your dreams happen is extremely important.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Juli: I would go further. Our dreams should not be dictated by what our bodies currently look like or what others do or don’t do. Surgery for some of us should be a means or a step to reach our dreams, but not the final end all dream. I have seen people who are still stalled after surgery. That’s because the things they really need are not based on solely on the biological tissue they do or do not have.
Additionally, for some of us, surgery should not even be a necessary step in reaching our dreams. Do what you can with what you have. Build on the positive steps you are taking, and continue to follow your dreams wherever they take you. If surgery is part of the plan, that is great. But issues of personal health, affordability, personal relationships, careers, and economic capabilities all play a part in making your life successful.
Remember, if you think it, you can do it!
Monika: Juli, thank you for the interview! 

All the photos: courtesy of Juli Grey-Owens.
Done on 22 March 2017
© 2017 - Monika 

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing and uplifting interview. Many thanks to both of you.


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