Monday 11 February 2013

Interview with Gina Grahame

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Gina Grahame, an American businesswoman, and writer from San Francisco, California. Gina is also a motivational speaker, coach, and creator of how to ‘be authentacious’, educating and people on personal authenticity, overcoming adversity, transgender, and LGBTQ issues. Hello Gina!
Gina: Hello Monika! 
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Gina: I’m a Global Sales Manager for a worldwide media company, specializing in the videogame industry.
Monika: You are involved in one project titled The Association of Transgender Professionals. How is it progressing?
Gina: It’s progressing well though my involvement is actually quite minimal. The group was in need of a corporate identity so I established an online contest whereby interested persons could enter their logo designs and association members would choose a winner. To stay true to the association’s core principle of financial equality, I initiated a cash prize for the winner. The charting of the group's course is in the very capable hands of others.
Monika: Have you ever experienced any act of discrimination at work due to your transgender status?
Gina: I don’t know a transsexual who hasn’t! I would say I’ve experienced more than some and less than others. Discrimination is a fact of life and can take many forms including age, sex, gender, ethnicity, weight, sexual preference, as well as transsexual and transgender. I’ve experienced it in three of those categories: as a woman, in relation to age, and as a transsexual.
Sure, I’ve been lost job opportunities and potential business because of my gender history, but that’s no reason to stop pushing forward. Life wasn’t a bed of roses prior to transition so there’s no reason to believe it would be now. I’ve come too far and been through too much to quit now, regardless of the opposition.
From my experience, I’ve learned that while companies and governments can mandate equality, they cannot enforce acceptance or respect. That must be earned by the individual. Everyone gets knocked down at times, the key to winning the admiration and respect of others is how you get back up and how you treat others.

With a morning smile.

Monika: Could you tell me why there is much hatred toward transgender women? I have a feeling that this hatred is stronger towards transgender women than transgender men. Any reason why?
Gina: Only my personal theories and feelings on the matter. I believe the vitriol disseminates from a very small percentage of people actually. And like most instances of hate, is based on the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar.
From women, I suspect it’s a fear of male privilege in being asserted into their lives in an unwarranted and inappropriate way, such as the exposing of one’s male genitalia in a women’s locker room, sauna, or dressing room. It’s also attending women-centric events with the intent of making a political statement rather than because one wants to actually take part in it. It’s my personal feeling that transwomen wishing to be accepted as a woman by other women should ‘honor the rules of the sorority they are pledging’ so to speak. Respect is a two-way street after all.
From men, I feel the hostility stems from a much deeper level. Let’s put aside the fact that transwomen have always been female at their core for the moment. Becoming a woman is seen to many men as a step down the social ladder. Women still make 30% less than men on average for doing the same work and are routinely passed over promotion in favor of their male counterparts (discrimination rears its head!), and so many people wonder why any man would ‘choose’ to give up so much. The converse is why some people have an easier time accepting transmen than transwomen.
Monika: How about a sexual level?
Gina: On a sexual level, I believe the indignation stems from the longstanding perception that transsexuality is somehow synonymous with homosexuality, which still makes many men uneasy. They understand the concept of transsexuality on the intellectual level, but when it gets down to their personal sexual attraction, that’s another matter entirely. And then there are the plethora of bottom-feeding talk shows where guys are publicly ambushed on ‘my boyfriend doesn’t know I’m really a guy’ type episodes. These may get ratings, but they do a disservice to us all.
Most of the men in my life haven’t had an issue with my transsexuality; they’ve had issues with their friends and family knowing I’m transsexual. While I may not fully agree with this, I understand it and have never held it against them. Besides, I’ve always viewed my gender history as just that –mine.
Being transsexual is at the core of much of my life experience and is the root of the most challenging and difficult times I've experienced. It’s not ‘coffee talk’ to be casually bantered about with voyeurs or the fairest of friends. The details of my history are something I chose to share only with those closest to me and would expect my partner to feel the same.

At Aleshia Brevard's house.

Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in the USA. Unlike in the previous years, some of them have the status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modeling, 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?
Gina: I think it’s inevitably so. Everyone should be able to live true to themselves and live as they see fit, whether that’s being completely open about their history to everyone or not. The personal choices of each should be respected.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Gina: In the suburbs that border the north side of Detroit. It used to be known as ‘home of the World Headquarters of General Motors’, now most people know it now as the area where Eminem is from. 
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Gina: My childhood was actually quite idyllic. I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood with wonderful parents who’ve been happily married for 60 years now. The neighborhood had lots of kids just like me: Southern parents, with a Dad that worked for, or in support of, Chrysler, Ford, or General Motors. Together we rode bikes, played basketball, baseball, football, and hung out in each other’s yard without fear of being abducted or shot. Bicycles gave way to motorized ‘mini-bikes’, and they, in turn, gave way to hot rods and drive-ins. One could say I was ‘quite the tomboy’ back then.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment where I would have said to myself ‘you’re really a girl’. In my case, it was really a rolling, gradual realization that began around age six. One incident would build upon another. Some were as small as wondering why I couldn’t wear things like my older sister, others were more blatant such as playing with makeup when no one was around or the way I carried my books in elementary school.
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?
Gina: No, not at all. Granted, I endured my share of being teased as a child for a number of reasons – tall for my age, skinny, glasses, braces, and of course, the way I carried my books.
But the taunting stopped at the gymnasium door. Being athletic, being better at something than most of the other guys, gave me a strong sense of self-confidence, and by the end of 7th grade the taunting had stopped completely. Of course, I had also changed how I carried my books and had adapted an outward style more in line with the other guys.
During those years, I completely repressed my feminine feelings. I think I was even the only football player who did not come to school dressed as a female cheerleader for the annual ‘Powder Puff’ game and Sadie Hawkins dance in high school! I couldn’t risk being seen as being ‘too comfortable’ in the role.
Still, my sense of being female would surface in unexpected ways. Funny story, long after transitioning a friend from high school reached out to me and said “ well this explains why you always seemed to take the girls side when we’d complain about our girlfriends – and why you referred to your car as a guy when we all referred to ours as a girl”. I certainly never gave it any thought at the time and found his comment to be over-analyzing and hysterical.

Retro-inspired bell-bottom pants.

All through school I told myself this was just a phase; that I’d meet the right girl one day and the intuition of being female would go away. It was the perfect plan except for one thing, the feelings didn’t go away, they intensified.
Monika: Did it change as you were growing older?
Gina: By my mid-twenties I could no longer run from it and that led to depression, a suicide attempt, then to a therapist, and finally to self-acceptance. The hardest time for me was the first few years of transition. I was a special event bartender at an upscale hotel, usually working in the company of 200-400 guests. 
Any sense of decorum people had at the start of an evening would be lost during the course of a seven-hour open bar. The comments made at my expense and to my face were very hurtful and repeated night after night with each new attending group. Michigan, the state I lived in, had ‘at will’ laws in place which meant I could be fired at any time for almost any reason.
If I were to have complained to management about the verbal abuse I was receiving from customers, it wouldn’t have taken them long to conclude that as an employee I was more trouble than I was worth. I also understood ‘corporate’ was watching my transition as a bit of test case and that future Trans employees would initially be judged by my actions and performance. And because no one likes to be a whiner, I knew complaining to co-workers was not going to win me any points. So I kept it all to myself, day in and day out, for the four remaining years I worked there.
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?
Gina: I began to transition at 29, and yes, it was incredibly difficult. The transition was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done and much more difficult (and costly) than I ever imagined. Electrolysis is the absolute worst part. I began to transition in the pre-Internet days when one had to really work to find solid information. I scoured libraries all over the Detroit area in search of anything on the topic.
I watched every bad Geraldo and Jerry Springer talk show looking for any common thread with their guests bought any book that appeared to offer advice. I drove hundreds of miles to attend conferences just in the hope of meeting someone else ‘like me’ as there were none in my area that I knew of.
Knowledge was gained first hand; it was hard fought for and highly valued. The sharing of it was held as a duty and an honor. I feel a lot of that has been lost in a world filled with thousands of blogs dedicated to before/after pictures and the feelings about one’s personal transition, with so little actually devoted to how one transitions – the medical, physical, emotional, societal, and psychological rode and potholes one must navigate.
Monika: Did you get any additional support?
Gina: I didn’t have any notable support outside of my therapist, though I did have the trust of two friends, one male and one female that I’d known for many years. Each knew my need for transition had to be genuine as to willingly give up all I had going for me at that time was otherwise unfathomable. But they were busy with their own lives and weren’t around much.
On a daily basis I relied on myself, my therapist, the belief that life would be better once I reached ‘the other side’, and the seemingly insignificant random acts of kindness of strangers.

Channeling her inner Ingrid Bergman.

Like so many of us, my announcement of the upcoming transition came as a shock to those around me, and none took it harder than my parents and siblings. I believed the only chance for their acceptance was for them to actually watch me go through it all. There were a lot of tears and angry outbursts to be sure, and things were strained for about seven years. But we made it through, together.
I can honestly say we are once again a family that truly welcomes and loves each other. I’m eternally grateful to my therapist for teaching me about the ‘stages of grief’ in preparation for it all. Without that knowledge, I’d have walked away from anyone at the first sign of their hatefulness – much to the long-term regret of all involved.
Monika: And your job?
Gina: As to the impact on my job, it was felt. I had been working there for two years prior to the transition. The most obvious impact was being requested off of functions by regular clients. To my boss' credit, she always had my back and after the first year began telling clients I was her best bartender and while they could request a particular bartender, they could not refuse a particular person for legal reasons. It was a bit of a stretch, but it did scare enough people away from making it an issue with my GM.
The second impact was more personal. Many times guys approached me wanting to have sex, and because I was transsexual they believed that meant I would automatically say yes and would be open to every kinky fantasy they had. We weren’t on a date when these conversations happened, they would ask me this in the middle of a ballroom when no one else was within earshot and while their girlfriends or wives were waiting back at their table.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a beautiful woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass?
Gina: Thank you for the compliment, that’s very kind. I’m of the belief that if one expects to be viewed and treated as a woman, then passing is incredibly important. But passing is not synonymous with beauty; In fact, the two aren’t even related. There are many beautiful crossdressers and drag performers who would never be thought of as female. 
And more to the point, the world is full of women of every size, shape, and level of beauty that go about their day with complete confidence the world sees them for the women they are. They know it in their soul and that truth radiates outward for all to see. For transwomen, the first step to achieving this is the stripping away of the mannerisms, attitudes, and responses learned during man-forming puberty spent around males. The lack of doing this is where the stereotype of ‘a man in a dress’ comes from.
This may sound incredibly simplistic, but ‘un-learning’ all you know is the hardest part of the transition. Surgeries are easy, they just take money. Undergoing second adolescence, female adolescence is pretty much the same process as it is for any other girl. Picture a girl of 12, and then see that same girl at age 22. Think of the changes she’s undergone in that decade – learning a sense of personal style through trial and error, dating mistakes, adjusting to new hormones, fighting internal inadequacies that she isn't 'good enough' or 'pretty enough', and developing a dream for themselves as the woman she aspires to be… sound familiar? We are no different.
Lady in blue with a hat.
Monika: On the other hand, there are some really deplorable situations like the one which happened in the UK some time ago when Suzanne Moore, a British controversial newspaper columnist, wrote in an article that biological women are angry with themselves for “not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” How would you respond to this?
Gina: I haven’t read the article so I’m not able to comment specifically. I will say the author sounds to be echoing the sentiments many women, including myself, have toward the promotion of unrealistic images in fashion magazines. Unfortunately, too many young women view these images as the physical ideal and something attainable when in reality they are not.
They are Photoshop-enhanced idealizations from the mind of an art director or editor. Even the models themselves don’t look like this in real life. Rather than attack the author for the transsexual reference, I'd suggest opening a dialogue on the fashion industry's fixation on the very skinny. Even I have looked at some of these models and thought "tall, skinny, no hips, no boobs - that's how I looked at 13!"
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?
Gina: I’m a believer anything is possible if you have the vision and are willing to put in the work to achieve it. I completely understand that for some, facial surgery is often necessary to make passing possible, but true passing comes from within as I mentioned earlier. I also have concerns with the massive popularity of gender-related surgery.
In short, I fear ‘transgender’ has simply become a business and big business at that. When I transitioned there were only four or five noted GRS surgeons in the entire world and the cost of surgery was just easily under $15,000 USD. Seventeen years later there are probably that many surgeons in Los Angeles alone!


All the photos: courtesy of Gina Grahame.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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