Friday 25 January 2013

Interview with Aleshia Brevard: Part 1

Monika: Hello Aleshia! I am very happy that you accepted this interview to be included in my series of “Interviews with Transgender Icons”.
Aleshia: Thank you for asking that I participate, Monika. I blush a bit at being labeled an “Icon”, but hopefully by my age, one has learned to embrace any and all positive comments that come along – while summarily dismissing the negative.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Alexia: I recently turned seventy-five, hooray-hooray, so thankfully as a rather long-in-tooth retiree my time is pretty much my own. Gone are those bothersome pressures of younger years. Much of my time is now spent writing, having just finished the first novel. It comes on the tail of my two published memoirs and several produced plays. Most importantly, however, I’ve found contentment which I never even dream might be possible when I began my transsexual odyssey in the late 1950s.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Aleshia: I was born in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, in the southern United States. Most of my adolescence, however, was spent on the family farm in rural Middle Tennessee. It offered the solitude I needed to come to terms with myself.

Finocchio's 1961, prior to SRS.

Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Aleshia: Seems I was always aware that there was a painful difference. I was unlike anyone I knew; therefore I assumed there must be something terribly wrong with the person I was. Part of my nightly childhood prayer was for God to allow me to wake up the girl I knew myself to be. Never happened.
Each morning I awoke to discover that no miraculous changes had occurred while I slept. The body in which I found myself trapped remained a constant embarrassment. The only solution was to closely guard my painful secret, living out my true identity safely inside my head. It did not make for a happy childhood.
Monika: For most transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college, or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Aleshia: Fortunately I grew up in a very rural farming community. I lived my ‘secret life’ alone. Inside my head danced a gracefully, self-assured girl. On the outside, of course, I remained the awkward, introverted adolescent. Oh, sure, in the earlier school grades I was the proverbially ‘bullied’ child, beaten up on a daily basis, but by high school, most of those aggressions toward me had dissipated.
I had merely grown into the fairly accepted odd duck. Life was tolerable, made more so because of the boy with whom I went ‘steady’ during those still formative years of high school. He dumped me and got married, so almost before the ink had dried on my high school diploma, I was heading West, toward California and a new life.
I found employment at Finocchio’s, America’s leading nightclub for female impersonation. The problem with Finocchio’s was that to me it did not feel like ‘impersonation'. At long last, I was presenting myself as the woman who had secretly lived sequestered away for far too many years. My comfort level was yet to be attained.

During SRS recovery in
Tennessee, 1962.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Aleshia: I began my transition at the end of the 1950s, a grateful patient of gender guru, Dr. Harry Benjamin. I was twenty-one. Reassignment surgery was in Los Angeles, early in 1962. I felt as though I had been reborn.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Aleshia: Although I had expected to bolt out of the surgical arena, all problems left behind, it was not to be quite that easy. Physically “passing” was not the issue. I had, after all, been earning my living by traipsing around Finocchio’s stage as blond drag ingénue, Lee Shaw.
The problem that presented itself was the unexpected realization that real life is not lived on stage. Who knew? A more in-depth transition would come with learning the true measure of a woman is not found through powder or paint. After a difficult year of recuperation following reassignment surgery, I ventured forth to become a successful university co-ed, then while still in school a married woman.
My greatest lessons, however, were to be in finding my footing as an average student and housewife going about her daily life. To address the cosmetic surgery portion of your question, in the mid-70’s I did have breast enhancement. The surgery was a graduation gift from a girlfriend and her husband. I had, after all, just received my Master’s Degree in Theatre. What actress, my friends figured, could possibly succeed in the entertainment industry without an enhanced bosom!
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow transgender women to transition even in the late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Aleshia: My advice for women of any age is to first embrace the fact that females come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. Granted, the effects of testosterone can be, uh… bothersome. Facial feminization is available, certainly, and seems only logical if it can allow someone to align their physical being with their internal self. I reiterate, however, that a convincing presentation is more than skin deep. Self-acceptance accomplishes far more than bra-size or an upturned nose.

Tennessee, 1962.

Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Aleshia: When I transitioned the term “transgender” had yet to be invented. At that time, in fact, “transsexuality” was generally thought of as a ‘condition’, an awkward period through which one must pass, like some bothersome adolescence. 
Our goal was to move forward, as seamlessly as possible, easing into mainstream society to live as our authentic selves. We wished to live among, work alongside, and compete on an equal footing with other women, including those who had been born female.
Through Dr. Benjamin I met and became friends with Charlotte MacLeod, who had followed Christine Jorgensen’s transforming surgery in Denmark. Charlotte and another close friend from Finocchio’s, Kathy, whose surgery followed mine by a year and who was another patient of Dr. Benjamin, offered friendship and support. We shared our dreams and to them, I owe a great deal. At that time I was also aware of Bambi, in France. Bambi’s beauty and accomplishments offered me hope for the future. At that time, of course, transsexuals were few and far between. I’m fond of saying that few houses had yet to be built in the gender community.
Monika: Was it harder to be a transgender lady in the 60s and 70s compared to what transgender women can do these days?
Aleshia: That, Monika, is a very difficult question for me to effectively address. Professionally, both as a film/stage actress and, later, as a university professor of theatre, my life was lived outside the gender community. Only after publishing two memoirs, when in my 60’s and 70’s, did I first hear the term “transgender” and become aware of the community’s stated agenda. I have made an effort to remain available to the younger generation of those in transition, trying to honestly answer any inquiries they may have.

Picture with husband, circa 1972.

Even with this, however, I never fail to stress that my own is the only life to which I can speak with any authority. For me, as well as for my early sisters, the goal was never to live with a “T” before our names. Our objective was to blend so thoroughly that the things mixed could not be recognized. It was a choice, made not because we felt any shame about our transsexual history, but because our goal had always been to live fully as the women we’d been born to be.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Aleshia: ALL of it! Ah, but it’s quite possible that the greatest joy comes from knowing I am now complete, no longer the fragmented individual from childhood. I’m free to be myself. Oh, sure, I loved every moment I was fortunate enough to experience on film.
My earliest dream had been that I would somehow grow up to be an actress. Didn’t quite know how that was to be accomplished. Even as a kid on the farm I was aware that not every woman with dreams of stardom is lucky enough to have the dream come true. I was fortunate.
I am extremely proud that any successes I had in film, television, or on the road in theatrical tours came about from competing with other professional actresses. In short, to paraphrase a lyric from “Flower Drum Song”, I’ve definitely enjoyed being a girl.
Monika: Are you a feminist?
Aleshia: Hhmmm? I’ve never actively thought of myself as a “feminist”, and yet I remain a firm believer of equality for women. Perhaps my stumbling block is with what the term “feminist” has come to represent. I miss the old days of having men rush to open my door (which I knew I could open myself), lend a helping hand (even though I might not need it), and (hopefully) seeing in me a feminine example to prove men and women are very different creatures.

Costume shot for the Love God.

Monika: As a woman, you were married many times. Did you like being a wife? Why did your relationships break?
Aleshia: I’m not sure I was ever a very good wife, sad to admit. Might well be that I romanticized the true meaning of marriage. I like to think I was a better mother to my stepsons, however, teaching them that women are not intended as doormats. Companionship still holds appeal – but perhaps I am romanticizing that also. Bottom line: I’m happier and more content alone than I ever thought would be possible. Perhaps it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.


All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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