Sunday, 10 March 2013

Interview with Veronique Renard

Monika: Today I am meeting a fascinating woman. Veronique Renard is a Dutch painter and writer, Buddhist, and pro-Tibet activist, the author of "The Tibetan Freedom Struggle trilogy, and her autobiographical book titled "Pholomolo - No Man No Woman". Her full name is Véronique Françoise Caroline Renard. Inspired by the meeting with the Dalai Lama in India in 2000, she adopted the name of Pantau.
She is the great-granddaughter of the renowned French painter Paul Renard. Veronique lived and worked in the Indian Himalayas, Kerala, and Bangkok. In 2000, she established the Pantau Foundation with a view to raising funds and helping Tibetan refugee children living in exile in India. Hello Veronique!
Veronique: Namaste Monika, thank you so much for contacting me. I hope my contribution to your website will be helpful to many people.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Veronique: I am still working on my next novel, Comrades of the Cut Sleeve, a story about a closeted gay Chinese military general who is in the process of liberating himself. These days all my books are about how to find happiness, enlightenment, I suppose.
Monika: You are one of the few people that met the Dalai Lama in person. What impact did the meeting have on you?
Veronique: Meeting him first time was very interesting. However, he didn’t mean that much to me at that time. I kind of accidentally met him.
I still feel embarrassed that I just shook hands with him like most other westerners tend to do. However, meeting him last time, (seven years later) was phenomenal! After living close to him for 7 years in the Indian Himalayas he was the man who helped me to accept myself as a Pholomolo, the Tibetan word for transsexual.
This time I prostrated myself in front of him, the way Tibetans greet him. He enjoys westerners who pick up Tibetan manners and customs. I lived with the Tibetans and Indians for 7 years. I ate their food and drank their water. And after a few years, I felt I became more and more Tibetan.

2003/4 near her hut in Varkala.

Monika: Your “The Tibetan Freedom Struggle” trilogy is the reflection of this meeting? 
Veronique: Yes. I was travelling through India in the spring of 2000 to find a cure to my depression. I accidentally stumbled upon the Tibetan refugee community in the north Indian Himalayas. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 and lived in Dharamsala ever since. I didn’t return home to Holland but rented a room opposite the Dalai’s monastery between 2000 and 2007.
I heard so many stories from refugee friends that I thought I should somehow get those stories across to concerned people in the world. I thought I should use my skills as a novelist to write books about the Tibetans. My memoir Pantau in India became a best-seller in the Netherlands, but my follow up trans-memoir Pholomolo was only published in English in the USA.
Pholomolo is a Tibetan word, but it’s a different type of freedom struggle. Although Pholomolo doesn’t sell as many copies as Harry Potter, the book has become some sort of cult-book, read by people all over the world. So far, critics and readers gave it perfect reviews. I haven’t heard anything negative about it yet. I am truly happy with this.
Monika: Having studied about Tibet and its history and present situation, do you think that it stands a chance of its independence?
Veronique: I actually agree with the Dalai Lama on this. He doesn’t strive for independence, but autonomy, genuine autonomy inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I think this would actually work out well for both the Chinese and the Tibetans. So my message to Beijing would not be: Free Tibet, but Respect Tibet.
Monika: You are a Buddhist. What is the attitude of Buddhism towards transgender people?
Veronique: The Tibetan Buddhists call us pholomolos. Pho means Male and Mo means Female and Lo means no. Not man, not woman. I liked that idea. Since the Tibetans explained to me the phenomenon of transsexualism, I started to feel a lot of self-worth. They think we are special, holy, half-god-like. It’s almost a joy to introduce myself to Tibetans and Indians as a transsexual! Buddhism doesn’t have much to say on this particular matter.
Buddhism is all about finding Nirvana, enlightenment, and everybody has the right to follow the path of the Buddha, including transsexuals, so there is no religious discrimination toward us.
In Asia people often turn to half-man-half-woman figures to receive their blessings for good luck. Transsexualism is a totally different thing in Asia. They are the shamans, the holy people, the priests, those figures who find their place somewhere between the gods and the human people. We are everything; both man and woman, human and god in one body. We are unlike non-transsexual people.

At the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, India in 2003.

Monika: Have you experienced any act of discrimination at work due to your transgender status?
Veronique: Not as a writer (I hope). But as an office worker during my previous career continuously. It would sometimes take months before one or two colleagues figured out I might be transsexual.
Recent studies showed that 48 per cent of Dutch people would feel uncomfortable being in the presence of a transsexual person. I used to work for large corporations, so as soon as people found out, hundreds of people started to feel uncomfortable being in the presence of me; their office manager.
So I had many, many short term contracts with large corporations and never left a company on friendly terms. After 16 years I was fed up with being fired from great jobs, just because my colleagues felt uncomfortable with me. I can now understand why so many transsexuals end up as prostitutes, as second class citizens, living in a box.
For 12 years I have been self-employed as a writer and artist (I make jolly nice paintings too!). I am not making as much money as I used to as an office manager, but I never get discriminated anymore by an employer. I believe I could run a multinational, but corporations just don’t want to employ transsexuals in top office jobs with many external contacts.
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 then transgender men. Any reason why?
Veronique: We’re different, mysterious, unique. There are very few of us. It’s a natural thing. Mother birds and siblings kill the weaker or abnormal brother or sister and throw them out of the nest. I think that is what is happening to us when we trans girls and gay boys get bullied at school, banned from toilets, ignored, separated, excluded, discriminated by society.
It’s easier to beat up a fairy or woman with a wig than a transman with muscles. A transman is a man after all. Nobody wants trouble with a man. Also, there is much jealousy. Transwomen are sometimes so beautiful that women get jealous. I see that a lot in Thailand. Women admire and hate them for their beauty and they hate transsexuals because men love them so much.

On the beach near Venice with her
second fiance in the early 1980s.

Monika: Your autobiographical book is titled “Pholomolo - No Man No Woman”. Do you regard yourself as no man no woman?
Veronique: Not when I was young. I just thought of myself as female. Always. I only started to develop that feeling in 2000, when I immigrated to Asia, after learning more about Asian transsexuals.
When I drive a jeep across the highest mountain passes in the Himalayas, it’s not the girl who is steering the car, it’s the boy inside me. This boy is gay, but he is a masculine macho guy who dares to steer a jeep across a mountain.
The girl inside me is present most of the time, I would say 80 % of the time. It depends on what I need to accomplish. I am a woman, but inside me are two people, a feminine woman and a masculine man.
Monika: You lived for a long time in such countries as the Netherlands, India, Thailand and China. What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women there?
Veronique: In some ways better than in the West, in other ways not. In Thailand, transsexuals are totally accepted by society, however, they can’t change their gender and name on their ID cards. In 1985 I already had Female in my passport and birth-certificate, but the Dutch society still doesn’t accept me.
In India transsexuals are called Hijras and are totally different from all other transsexuals. They are half-gods and act as priests to bless wedding couples and new-born babies.
So it’s all very different from western cultures. I think transsexuals have fewer problems in Asia than effeminate gay men. Generally, transsexuals in Asia are admired and many have celebrity status.
In Thailand many effeminate gay boys decide to have a sex change in order to feel admired and accepted. Parents prefer a trans-child over a gay child. It’s also a way out of poverty. Transsexuals have many advantages and skills to make good money. They make a business out of their transsexualism.
Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in USA. Unlike in the 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 witness the same trends in the Netherlands, Thailand, and China?
Veronique: In Thailand transsexualism is a part of the culture, so each show on Thai TV has at least one transsexual or a man with lipstick and skirt in it. In the Netherlands it appears that only very recently one started to put transsexual people in front of TV cameras. It’s a very new thing for the Dutch, but there is still a long way to go before the Dutch are okay with transsexuals.
In the Netherlands I still don’t speak about my transsexualism to new people I meet. In Thailand it’s often part of my introduction. I still feel I need to hide my transsexualism in the West, but I can celebrate my uniqueness in Asia. But it’s still better than Uganda

As a natural blonde, I found it interesting
to dye my hair black. I regretted it
later when trying to make it blond
again. I had short hair for years.

Monika: Where did you grow up?
Veronique: I grew up in a small farming village in the Netherlands. Those God-fearing people there talked about tractors, hayforks and cows. I moved to India at 34 (where I developed wisdom and found happiness). I moved to Thailand at 41 where I married and found a new kind of happiness.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Veronique: I played with the girls in the dolls corner at kindergarten and sided with females ever since. Even as a toddler I knew I was different because boys were different from me. I was more like the girls.
So as I always felt part of a group called Females, I always felt I was/am like them. Therefore I called my female penis a birth defect that has been fixed in hospital at age 18. I have never been a boy. For the first 18 years of my life, I was a girl with a penis.
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?
Veronique: Yes. I was scared at high school. I feared for my life. For 4 years I was a very unhappy child close to suicide. I got bullied for being a slender blond fairy gay boy with a handbag. The children at school came from farms. They still talked about tractors and hayforks. I talked about David Cassidy, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and handbags.
Our school opened each morning with a prayer to God and ended the day with a prayer to God. So you can imagine how much I got to endure. I even got bullied by the teachers, especially our religion teacher and the school’s principal. I got back at the bullies and the teachers 10 years later at a school reunion. I made them all apologize to me. One teacher left the building because he couldn’t stand being in the presence of a transsexual.


All the photos: courtesy of Veronique Renard.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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