Wednesday 13 February 2013

Interview with Carla Lewis

Monika: Today I am meeting Carla Lewis, a transgender woman and activist, software engineer, mother of two, and US army veteran. She lives in east Tennessee with her lovely partner, Jaime. Hello Carla! It is a sheer pleasure to interview you. Welcome to The Heroines of My Life!
Carla: Truthfully, I’m honored that anyone would care to know about me.
Monika: Honest as usual! What are you doing these days?
Carla: The only recent significant change in my life was a closed head injury as a result of a rear-end collision in December of last 2011. I’m plagued with constant migraine-like head pain that makes it difficult to do some of the things I normally take for granted. That aside, I’m part owner of a small computer service company. That keeps me busy during business hours.
When I’m not at work, I enjoy the hell out of science fiction and fantasy movies, hero comics, and a newfound love of sewing and cosplay. The highlight of every year is now our annual trip to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia where I get to dress up as my favorite superheroine, Power Girl, and Jaime gets to be whichever hero I feel like creating for her.

Ready for shopping.

Monika: Where did you grow up?
Carla: I’m a native of Arkansas. I spent most of my childhood in a small town called Shannon Hills in Arkansas, a suburb of the capital city of Little Rock. In the mid-1990s I moved to East Tennessee, where I now reside, at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Carla: I think my childhood wasn’t that different from many. My parents divorced when I was quite young. My mother remarried when I was about four years old. I played baseball for many years as well as American football while in junior high school. In junior high and high school I played the French horn in the school band. I liked to play in the woods, ride my motorcycle, and eventually write computer programs.
Even so, from an early age I “knew” there was something different about me – a feeling of “wrongness”. However, I would never describe it as feeling as if I was in the “wrong body”. I believe I actively started cross-dressing at the age of eight.

Carla at graduation.

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?
Carla: I really don’t think so. I’m not quite sure how I was perceived by others, but I know I was sometimes perceived as an angry, smart, poor kid. I was often considered a “class clown” by many, seeking attention however I could get it.
I was often in trouble with the faculty and was disciplined often. Luckily, I had a reputation of being very smart and I didn’t have to study very hard. I got along most everyone.
Monika: You served in the US Air Force Space Command. Did you want to be a soldier? Why did you end up there?
Carla: I never wanted to be a soldier, but rather an astronaut. My grades were good enough to be awarded many academic scholarships including M.I.T. Unfortunately, I could never afford housing or other expenses at such schools.
Instead, I attended a local university and quickly lost interest. I joined the Air Force as an alternative to college, hoping I would find the motivation to do something with my life. It just so happens that my entrance and performance scores were such that I was put in Space Command. While I could have probably enjoyed a successful career in the military, things didn’t turn out as I had hoped.
Eighteen months into my enlistment, I was married with two children. At my newest duty assignment, I was required to undergo a rigorous security investigation because of the sensitive nature of my assignment. During the investigation, it was discovered that I had gender issues and I was discharged from the service.
Monika: When you were transitioning into a woman, you were in your late twenties. Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Carla: It was the most difficult thing I had ever done, but not for the reasons many would suspect. Being a husband and father, I had committed to filling that role to the best of my ability and foregoing any dream of ever transitioning.
Truly, back then, I wasn’t really aware that it was an option. Even though my wife had been made aware of my gender issues when we were in high school, this was not the issue that ultimately destroyed my marriage, but rather her infidelity.

Carla in her 30s.

At the time I was working as a software engineer at Philips. Also working there was my father-in-law and mother-in-law. When my wife finally decided to leave me for another man, she and her family made sure that everyone at the company knew I was transgender. Having lost my children, my wife, and sure that I would have lost my job, I overdosed on sleeping pills. Not having shown up for work for a couple of days, my boss found me unconscious in my home. I remained hospitalized for quite some time.
During my hospital stay, I had lost my home, my vehicle, had no clothing, and no personal possessions left. My boss and his wife took pity on me and invited me to live with them until I could walk again and find a place of my own. Within a few months, I had started to rebuild my life, and transitioning was a part of that new life. I had lost everything but my life and had decided that life would not be wasted on living a lie.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Carla: When starting transition, I think most people have trouble passing. It isn’t necessarily because of appearance but because we don’t yet “own” the image we are trying to show everyone else. When I became comfortable with what was inside me, the outside was able to reflect it much easier. I have had breast implants – probably too big!
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow transitioning 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?
Carla: I don’t think it matters what age you are when you decide to transition. The real difficulty is accepting yourself. Happiness can really only occur once that happens.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Carla: I had very little knowledge about transgender issues or transitioning. The internet was still in its infancy. Unlike today, information on transitioning was still “underground” and inaccessible to many –at least, that is how it seemed.

At National Equality March.

I was aware of no role models at the time, but have since compiled a shortlist of those that I admire: Lynn Conway, Martine Rothblatt, Danielle Berry, Wendy Carlos, Amanda Simpson, and Lana Wachowski.
Monika: You have two fantastic children. As a result of your transition, they lost their father but gained a new mother. How did your transition influence your relations with your children?
Carla: I was unable to have contact with my children for several years. It broke my heart. My parental rights were removed and my children were adopted by their new step-father. I thought I would never see them again. My daughter turned 14 and sought me out. Jaime and I eagerly took her in.
A year later, my son came to live with us. Shortly after, my children’s parents divorced and the adoptive father died in a motorcycle accident. I petitioned for guardianship and it was granted. When I saw my children for the first time after many years of absence, it was as if I had just seen them the day before. Once again, I felt whole.
Monika: What was the reaction of your wife?
Carla: I don’t understand how we remained married for nine years. I don’t have much to say about her except that for many years I wished her nothing but ill will. Karma has destroyed her life over and over and now I feel nothing but pity for her.
Now you are a grandmother yourself! How does it feel? Do you spoil your grandchildren? 
Carla: It’s true, but it shouldn’t be possible. I don’t feel old enough to be a grandparent. The grandchildren live close by and I do spoil them when I can. It’s kind of fun to fill them with soda and chocolate and hand them back to their parents!

Another lovely haircut by Jamie.

Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Carla: The struggle of transgender people in America will be our last great civil rights struggle. In most communities, there is no one more despised, disparaged, or held in more contempt than a transgender person.
While each of us applauds the achievements of our transgender brothers and sisters, the truth is that a hundred fall for everyone that is lifted up. I want to see full equality, not just in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of my fellow Americans.


All the photos: courtesy of Carla Lewis.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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