Sunday, 27 December 2020

Interview with Cassandra Heart


Monika: Today’s interview will be with Cassandra Heart, an American transgender woman that documents her transition on Reddit.com. Hello Cassandra!
Cassandra: Hi there! I feel really honored I was asked to do this.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Cassandra: I am a software engineer with a deep passion for cryptography, machine learning and distributed systems. I’m also married and polyamorous.
Monika: Why did you decide to share your transition details on social media?
Cassandra: When I was young, my exposure to transgender people was entirely through mainstream media depictions, which were frequently unfavorable. While the world is thankfully a much more understanding and accepting place today with significantly more positive depictions seeing time in the spotlight, the actual process of transition, what to expect strictly from hormone therapy versus additional procedures, is not as open.
It’s completely reasonable to not feel compelled to share this information, but I know that personally if I had been aware of what was possible, I would have taken these steps far earlier in life.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your Reddit readers? What do they ask for?
Cassandra: I get questions ranging from whether or not I've had any surgeries yet, what cosmetic products I use, advice on voice training, and some people ask about dosages. The last one I answer indirectly – consult with your doctor for appropriate dosages, everyone is different.

"I was tremendously fortunate in that my family was incredibly
accepting, as were most of my friends. The loss of some of them in
my life was painful, but unmatched by the sheer volume of support
and encouragement I received from those who stayed."

Monika: What was the strangest question that you answered? :)
Cassandra: The strangest was more by virtue of social ramifications, when I was asked to interview for the New York Post about my dating life, and ended up on their front page for a day because of the volume of matches I had on Tinder. After that, I saw entire communities discussing me, who never knew me or had any interaction with me, which was surreal. 
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Cassandra: I was tremendously fortunate in that my family was incredibly accepting, as were most of my friends. The loss of some of them in my life was painful, but unmatched by the sheer volume of support and encouragement I received from those who stayed. Seattle is a very trans-friendly city, so in the early days of transition, at most I really experienced the occasional odd glance or confused expression.
In the workplace, the experiences I had ultimately resulted in my talk at the Women in Technology World Series conference, "Building a Trans-Inclusive Work Environment", where I outlined strategies for companies, from early startups with no HR, to larger organizations with HR, but no process in place to address an employee's transition.
The hardest part of coming out was and still remains the difficulty in handling people in my life who refuse to accept my identity and continue to misgender me. People who have just met me refer to me by the correct gender at this point in my transition, even in incredibly trans-unfriendly locations, so it's hard to not take it personally.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Cassandra: I’m currently a year and nearly three months into HRT, so I can say for where I am currently, I’m extremely pleased, but looking forward to what the result will be when changes fully settle.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Cassandra: Truthfully, it’s disheartening that passing is still a critical factor in the way we are treated. But I don’t know if society will always see things this way. In just the last decade, public acceptance has grown by leaps and bounds. We’re certainly not there yet, but the trajectory of the progress being made seems to trend towards non-judgment.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Cassandra: Lynn Conway has been a tremendous inspiration to me, as has Sophie Wilson and Mary Ann Horton.
"The hardest part of coming out was and still remains
the difficulty in handling people in my life who refuse
to accept my identity and continue to misgender me."
Monika: Woow, you have taken me by surprise! I would never expect such a young woman like yourself to look up to Lynn Conway!
Cassandra: Her story in particular really resonated with me, because of how much of an influence she was on computing in general, and how eerily similar her childhood to twenties felt to my own, even if generations apart. I can only hope to impact the world of computer science even a tenth as much as she has.
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…
Cassandra: I can’t say I’m surprised to see so many transgender people in the industry if not just because technology is reshaping the world, and those willing to live their own truth by trailblazing the field of endocrinology by self-administration of hormones would likewise be trailblazing innovative fields like tech. That being said, I don’t quite feel worthy being compared to the others you mentioned – I’ve got a lot of work to do still!
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Cassandra: With this year's Supreme Court landmark rulings protecting transgender individuals in the workplace, a significant barrier has been overcome. That being said, the protections do not extend to cover harassment issues unique to transgender individuals, such as misgendering or reasonable bathroom access. Much of this varies by region, as some states, counties, and cities have stronger protections.
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Cassandra: I have to return back to how fortunate I feel in living in Seattle. My experience in interviewing as a woman felt no different overall, and my resume provides certain hints (my lectures section notes the talk I gave on trans-inclusive workspaces) as to my transgender status, so it’s certainly easily noted, but has definitely not resulted in any judgment passed on me.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment? Is it worth to mention that we are transgender? 
Cassandra: It’s extremely complicated and situation-dependent. If you have a career before your time of transition, it’s practically impossible to not make note of it, because otherwise past job references, sheer documentation retrieval, and any body of work previously attributed would be very confusing to make a claim to without the admission.
If stealth is desired, the best route I could advise is ensuring all previous employers have appropriately updated records, and all paperwork for name change out of the way. That being said, if there are still desired procedures that have not yet been completed, it’s unavoidable that someone at the prospective employer knows, or else insurance claims will be rife with difficulty or even impossibility.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Cassandra: I've always been fashion-obsessed, which reflected less strongly in my own appearance when presenting male, but I loved to sew dresses for partners and friends, and now, for myself.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Cassandra: There are pageants that are specific to many intersections, which is important while we still live in a world that does not have full equality. I feel that pageants generally open to women should be open to all women, and many thankfully now are. Otherwise, I do not have a specific opinion on the topic.
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Cassandra: I imagine few people dislike to be told that they are attractive. I can definitely say the volume in those compliments changed drastically since transitioning!
"To me, transition is part of my path of living
truthfully and completely."
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Cassandra: Most of my community involvement and activism has been online, especially as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic, but also because there is greater opportunity for impact compared to the local community, which already has widespread acceptance. 
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Cassandra: As a polyamorous person, love is just as important to me as it is to anyone else, just with the additional complexities of managing time across multiple partners.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Cassandra: I imagine I may have some stories worth sharing at some point in the future, but these stories haven't reached their true conclusion yet, so I wouldn't have a book fit for print yet.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Cassandra: My next step is continued advocacy for transgender equality in the workplace, continued volunteer efforts in providing easier access to information about transition and one-on-one counseling for those in the early days, and really just getting myself and those I care about through this incredibly rough time with the pandemic, which now with the vaccine becoming in reach, seems to be finally nearing an end.
Within the next 5-7 years, I'd like to have ramped up the volunteer efforts into a non-profit to help with the complexities of navigating workplace issues, and building a network of companies that are willing to put in place equitable policies to make the process of finding the next step in a transgender person's career as straightforward as it is for anyone else.
I also have plans to create a startup company working in the space of distributed computing, with the intention to launch a wholly unique competitor in the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) market to take on AWS, Azure and GCP.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Cassandra: As someone who started transition at 29, this proverb resonated strongly with me: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.
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?
Cassandra: To a certain degree, yes. While I had a personal life completely stymied by my delay in transition, I did not let the delay interfere with my career ambitions. While I may not have been happy with my past self on a personal level, the achievements and progress made under my dead name are still me, just with an asterisk and footnote.
To me, transition is part of my path of living truthfully and completely. When I am finally able to complete all surgical procedures, I do not feel like that is my opportunity for a new beginning, because my life has already been in motion. I just see it as one more chapter that contributes to the overall depth of life.
Monika: Cassandra, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Cassandra: Thank you for the opportunity. You were a delight to speak with!

All the photos: courtesy of Cassandra Heart.
Done on 27 December 2020.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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