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 The Heroines of My Life!
Carla: Truthfully, I’m honoured 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 new-found 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 favourite super heroine, 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 of 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, I was discovered that I had gender issues and I was discharged from the service.
Monika: When you were transitioning into 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 in her 30s.
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.
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, wife and sure that I would have lost my job, I overdosed on sleeping pills. Not having showed 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 to transition even at 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?

At National Equality March.

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.
I was aware of no role models at the time, but have since compiled a short list 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 and they me. Once again, I felt whole.
Monika: What was the reaction of you 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 the 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 every one 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. 
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you think we will have more and more such women?
Carla: I do believe we will have more and more transgender “celebrities” come out. However, while they are making trans issues more palatable for the masses, there are many more that are making contributions to humanity and actively fighting for equality that the public will never know.
Monika: At the same time sometimes we get horrible new about transgender women being killed or beaten just as in the infamous case of Chrissy Polis that was beaten by two teenagers in Macdonald’s because she used ladies’ toilet. How can we prevent it?
Dragon Con 2012 with Jamie.
Carla: These kind of incidents happen because transgender people are not viewed as human by many. Until transsexuals are universally seen as “people” these tragedies will continue to plague us.
Each November, when I read over the list of dead trans people and the method of their executions, I’m reminded that we are still viewed as less than animals by some. The human race has a long way to go.
Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to the day when a transgender lady could become the President of USA?
Carla: I do not believe that anything is impossible. A future transgender president could be out there right now, looking for inspiration in those around them. That is why we must all do our best to be visible in our respective communities. When you stand up for yourself, you are making a difference for everyone that follows.
Monika: We have not mentioned one person so far. You have been in the long-standing relationship with your partner Jaime. When did you meet for the first time? Was it a love at first sight?
Carla: Jaime and I meet at a support group meeting in 1999 shortly after my suicide attempt. She had just completed SRS and was visiting the group to discuss her experience. I was still presenting as male at the time and I did not know she was trans. I can still remember trying to catch my breath as she walked by. Years later, she admitted that she had felt the same about me.
Monika: How did she accept the fact that you were not a genetic woman? Did it help that she was transgender herself?
Carla: As far as physical attraction, we are an odd pair. Jaime only feels attracted to men, while I only to women. Even still, our attraction and love for one another is far deeper than our genitals.
Your partner underwent a gender reassignment surgery whereas you stayed pre-op. Why?
Carla: As I mentioned, Jaime was post-op when I met her. Since that time, I’ve been in perpetual transition. Concerned with raising teenage children, paying a mortgage and all the expenses that come with being an adult, surgery has seemed a financial luxury that I’ve not been willing to commit to. Truly, if I had the money today, I’d pay bills instead. 
Carla and Jamie.
Monika: Every time I look at your photos, what strikes me was that you always have a different haircut and you look fantastic! How do you do it?
Carla: More than anything else, Jaime is an accomplished stylist with an eight station salon. Many of my hairstyles are never selected by choice. Jaime wants to try a new cut or color and I am her guinea pig. As she is fond of telling me while in her chair, “You’ll get what I give you!”
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Carla: I am a jeans and t-shirt person. There have been times when an occasion or venue has compelled me to dress up, but if I had my way, I’d be in athletic shoes. I love faded jeans more than anything else.
Are your involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Carla: For years, I was one of the board members that organized our local pride festival in Knoxville, TN. Additionally, I try to stay politically connected across the state. Because of this, I know many people in the LGBT community, but I’ve never really been part of the night life crowd.
Monika: Could you tell me how you convinced the company to abandon a transphobic advertising campaign for Totino's Pizza?
Carla: This one event is really a minor footnote in the type of activity I’ve been involved in over the years. However, by chance I was reading news on some website and noticed a Totino’s ad in the sidebar that I thought was very offense to me as a trans woman.
Having recently had wild success with online petitions on with the arson case of Carol Ann and Laura Stutte, I quickly composed a letter and petition on and had success within a matter of hours. I was really blown away by General Mills’ response.
Monika: Have you read any book or article which shed a new light on the transgender phenomenon?
Carla: I try to keep up with any research that advances understanding of transgender people, but I often find that regardless of strides forward, science always fail to advance equality. It’s up to each of us to compel those around us to treat others with dignity and respect. I know that you a religious person.
Carla as Power Girl.
Monika: Do you think that a belief in religion could somehow help transgender women? What is the role of religion in your life?
Carla: I “was” a religious person in my youth. Raised in a Southern Baptist household with mandatory family Bible study and worship attendance gave me the foundation of Biblical knowledge that eventually led to my disbelief.
My questions to faith leaders went unanswered until I finally realized that my religion was just another myth. I’m not so bold or arrogant that I can profess there is no God, but I cannot profess that there is one either. That is why I consider myself agnostic.
Monika: Are you a feminist?
Carla: I’m not so strong in my positions that I would describe myself as a feminist, but I do take issue with stereotypical gender roles.
I believe each person has far more potential than the limits that cultural gender allows. I am adamant that I’ll not give my grandchildren any clothing item or toy that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes.  
Monika: Have you ever considered writing your own memoirs?
Carla: I’ve thought of doing so many times and am often encouraged to pursue it by others. Admittedly, I am not famous, a celebrity, or a dazzling public figure, but I have a wealth anecdotal material and life experience to share with others. My problem is that there is not yet a fitting ending to my life story.
Monika: Carla, thank you for the interview!

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

Interview 2017

Passion (01)

Passion (02)

Passion (3)

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