Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Interview with Diana Salameh

Monika: Today’s interview is with Diana Salameh, also known as Yasmene Jabar, an American film director and stand-up comedienne from Noxubee County, Mississippi, a remarkable woman and one of the most inspirational transgender icons. She is the director and producer of Desiree: A Ghost Story (2012). Hello Diana!
Diana: Greetings Monika, and thank you for asking me to take part in this interview. I hope you and your readers will have a better understanding of just who I am.
Monika: How would you define yourself? Are you more of a filmmaker, comedy actress, or stand-up comedian?
Diana: I feel myself to be a Renaissance Woman, I’ve had many artistic outlets over the years, photography, painting, sculpting, acting, and now I think it has evolved into film-making, however that doesn’t mean you won't see me doing cameo roles as Hitchcock did in his films or reviving a long-dead comedy character if I feel the time is right.
Right now I love weaving together a collection of images to tell a story. It’s just possible that I am exactly where I need to be and everything I have done up to this point has been a stepping stone.

Poster of Desiree: A Ghost Story, 2012.

Monika: Which film directors or movies are your inspirations?
Diana: Hitchcock of course is one of my all-time favorites, as is Charlie Chaplin, John Waters, and Steven Spielberg. They are all so different, but they all create Magic!
Monika: Your recent movie is titled "Desiree: A Ghost Story"? What is the movie about?
Diana: Well of course it’s a Ghost Story, one that’s set on a decaying bayou plantation named Desiree. We have the heroine Angelique Desiree who goes out to the plantation to find what she just inherited. While there she discovers dark forces that threaten to destroy her and those around her. We have Ghost, Demons, Voodoo, something for everybody.
The Star of Desiree is Trans Actress Alexa Diaz, editing is by Trans Filmmaker Mary McPherson. It is co-produced by Southern Sisters Entertainment.
Monika: Do you place any autobiographical elements in your movies or plays?
Diana: No Monika, so far all of my projects have been a pure fantasy but that’s not to say I want to draw from my own life for future projects.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
With her oldest brother
Buddy beating her
 into the snow, winter 1957.
Diana: I was born and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina on my family’s farm.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Diana: In many ways I had an idealistic childhood, growing up in a rural farming family and community. If I had not been born with my condition I expect I would have married, had a family, and still be within that community.
All I wanted growing up was to be a normal girl who would do just that. I always felt myself to be female, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that way. I actually began my quest when I was 12 years old, that’s when I began doing what research I could on the subject of sex change.
I read about Christine Jorgensen about that same age or at least that’s when I seriously began to think about the surgery for myself. This was all secret back then, nobody understood so the feeling of isolation was extreme. We had no Internet so information was hard to find.
I remember finding an advertisement for Michael Salem’s TV Boutique in the back of one of my father’s Playboy magazines. They sent me a list of publications they sold and one of those was Dr. Harry Benjamin’s 1966 book "The Transsexual Phenomenon", a Bible for the Transsexual.
When I was 13 years old I ran away from home driving my mother's VW Beatle and dressed in her clothing. All I could think of was to be somewhere I could live happy as a girl. However, I was still a child and after 3 days I drove home and was in a world of shit. My world fell down around me, the FBI had been called in because they thought I had been kidnapped, the local TV reported on it, and kids at school were interviewed by the police.
I was then to see my first doctor who would tell me I could never be female, it was only a fantasy and if I worked hard I could change the way I was feeling. All my female things were burned by my father, and I was threatened with reform school if I ever even thought of dressing like a girl again.
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?
Diana: I actually loved school for the first couple of years, that is until the boys began to pick on me and call me names like a sissy because I preferred playing with the girls instead of the boys. The rest of my school years are a blur because my body was there but my mind was somewhere else. When I later went to college I had already transitioned and had surgery to become female so I didn’t experience any problems.
Trick or Treat Time, 1964.
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?
Diana: I transitioned at the age of 18, that’s when I moved to Charlotte N.C. I began taking hormones via the black market as soon as I moved. There was a pharmacy on Trade Street that was run by a man named Jack. We would walk in place $5.00 on the counter and he would hand us our bottle of hormones. Poor Jack finally went to jail but that was long after I had no more use of his services.
I wanted nothing more than to be a normal girl but without higher education, I ended up in low-paying jobs and doing Drag Shows to make enough money to live let alone make money enough to save for my surgery. I asked my parents to give me the money for surgery but they refused. My mother said I would have pride in getting the money myself so that was the end of that.
She said if you want the surgery bad enough you will figure out a way to earn the money. That’s why I ended up like so many of my Trans Sisters in the sex industry. I was offered a job in a whorehouse that covered a massage parlor. The owner didn’t know my secret and neither did her clients. I will never forget how scared I was at first and was so surprised that nobody could tell I was not a natural woman.
There were other transsexual girls working the streets as well as in other whorehouses but they were known to be transsexuals but I was keeping my situation a secret and God was looking after me because I never had trouble or mishap. I used my time well and had my breast implants within that first year and GRS when I was 20. After that, I never went back and left all that behind for the regular life I had always wanted. That’s when I went back to school and started modeling.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Diana: Monika, I was born with DES Intersexed condition which means because of hormones my mother was taking during conception I was very feminized already. I grew no facial hair, my voice was very feminine and my features were pleasantly feminine. The only facial surgery I had was to straighten a crooked nose after a childhood accident.

5th birthday with the favorite doll Loreta.

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?
Diana: The best advice I could give anyone seeking transition is to be honest with yourself, take a long look in the mirror, and study what you see. If you need to make changes so you can fit into the world in which you live then you should do your best to make those changes.
I think the worst thing I see over and over is older Transgender Women who dress way too young for their biological ages. This brings more attention to them so that people have a chance to pick out their flaws. If you dress to blend with those around you, you do not want people to want notice little things that might give you away as not being a natural woman.
I know that many feel like teen girls when they begin hormones and they are going through a sort of female puberty but we have to fight those feelings and dress age-appropriate at least in public. But I think it’s great that transgender persons can transition at any time in their lives now. Male to Females now have FFS that can minimize male traits that once made it difficult for them to pass after their faces had hardened with age.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Diana: Well, of course. there was Christine Jorgensen, then Dr. Renee Richards, Canary Con and there was a local girl back in North Carolina, Angelia Honeycutt who I later did have a one-time meeting with. After I had surgery I learned about Caroline Cossey, also known as Tula, the famous James Bond girl. But today there are literally thousands of people to learn from, the road is so much easier now.

Miss Oleen's Pagent, 1975.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Diana: Knowing that I would lose some of my family members' support and love. It happens to almost all of us, there will be some who don’t accept you. I was lucky because my grandfather who was the head of my family accepted me back into the family so, in turn, nobody shunned me because of him, that is except one of my brothers who considers me dead.
Monika: Was it more difficult to be a transgender lady in the 60s and 70s compared to what transgender women can do these days?
Diana: Well first off we had to worry about going in public. If we were not totally passable we ran the risk of arrest because it was against the law to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex. Many of us used ID Cards with our photos on them saying we were transsexuals and were under a doctor's care.
I never had a chance to use my card because I was never asked about my gender as I passed well enough. Then it was difficult to find medical care because there was only a handful of Gender Identity Clinics in the US and none of them were close to me. I found a doctor who agreed to give me breast implants; I was the first transwoman he worked on. This opened the gate and many rushed to him for help. He was also planning to do my GRS but I changed my mind and went to Dr. Biber in Trinidad.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Diana: The thing I enjoy the most is just being a woman, just being myself. No more hiding who I really am.
Monika: Are you a feminist?
Diana: Yes and No. I love being a female and letting men be men, but I also want to be treated as an equal with rights of my own.
Diana having fun
in the sun at Lake Norman
about 1978.
Monika: As a woman, you have been married many times. Did you like being a wife? Why did your relationships break?
Diana: Yes, I have been married 4 times. And yes I loved being a wife but what you have to understand is that even after surgery we carry baggage with us that sometimes doesn’t let us settle into everyday life with a spouse.
I married my first husband because I wanted nothing more than to just BE a wife, and there wasn’t enough love there to keep it going when things got tough. I was 21 at the time and we only lived together 2 months before we separated. I could say it was because he drank too much and took drugs, which he did but if I had been more mature perhaps I could have tried to help him through his demons but I wasn’t and I didn’t, I ran from it.
My second husband, I was crazy in love with him, but so were other girls and he just couldn’t keep his hands off them. Here again, if I had been more mature I might have worked on how to pass that, or just waited for him to settle down. Now he is happily married with two beautiful grown sons. How could I have denied him that?
The third was after I had been single for nearly fifteen years, this time he was older and with a family of his own so I thought it was a perfect relationship, but again it didn’t work out and our union didn’t last very long.


All the photos: courtesy of Diana Salameh.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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