Sunday 28 April 2013

Interview with Lisa Salazar

Monika: Today I would like to invite you to meet Lisa Salazar, a Canadian transgender advocate, graphic designer, photographer, educator on the transgender phenomenon, and author of the book titled "Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life" (2011). Hello Lisa!
Lisa: Hi Monika, thank you for your interest and for the opportunity to share with you and your friends.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Lisa: I have been a self-employed graphic designer all of my professional life. Unfortunately, my current work situation is very different from what it was five years ago — I am severely underemployed.
I attribute this to four reasons; first, my client base has shrunk slowly as many of my clients (who are about the same age as me) have retired; second, the economic slow down has made finding new clients and employment very difficult; third, my age (I’m 62); and fourth, being transgender is a liability when it comes to doing business.
In the absence of graphic design work, I have decided to go back to school this coming September to get a master's degree in Pastoral Care and learn how to offer faith-based support to transgender persons and their families. I believe there is a need for this and I hope to help somehow.

"Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good
Life" (2011) - Amazon.

Monika: You have solid transgender advocacy background. What are the current issues on the Canadian transgender advocacy agenda?
Lisa: Let me first explain that I am a reluctant advocate. When I transitioned five years ago, I had the notion I would be living the rest of my life in complete obscurity and privacy. I was going to go stealth, hide and blend into the woodwork. If I had my way, nobody would need to know anything about my past.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Six months after my surgery in the spring of 2010, a friend asked me to be one of the presenters at an event called “Interesting Vancouver.” He wanted me to share my story and told me I would have fifteen minutes to do it.
This seemed completely preposterous to me, here I was trying to be a private person, and accepting this invitation to speak to three hundred people seemed like a sure way to torpedo my privacy rowboat out of the water forever.
I had a moment of crisis trying to decide what to do, but this forced me to see the futility of trying to hide my past; but more importantly, I thought, what all my attempts to hide my past would communicate to my three sons, that their existence was a liability to me? God forbid they would ever feel that way; they are the most important legacy of my life and I love them more than my life.
I know this is a long answer to your question, but it is the only way I can explain how I became an advocate. The experience of sharing my story publicly surprised me because I found that I had a voice, and shockingly, what I had to say was of interest to people. And the further realization was how opinionated I really am!

Lisa in 2008.

Monika: Quite a discovery!
Lisa: Case in point, a couple of years ago I wrote a short comment to the editors of The Province (one of the two major newspapers in Vancouver) about my opinion regarding the transgender rights bill making its way through the Canadian Parliament.
Whatever it was I said caught the eye of the editor and I was invited to write an OpEd on the topic. It was published the following week. A few days later, a radio station called to invite me to talk about what I had written. This, you could say, is how my inadvertent advocacy was born.
With respect to the proposed legislation to extend protections on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, Canada is really close to passing the current version of the bill. Bill C-279, as it is called, has passed in the House of Commons and is now in the Canadian Senate.
Unfortunately, the Senate has a Conservative majority and the Bill could still die and never become law. If passed, this bill will provide federal protection from discrimination and violence on the basis of gender identity and expression.
A couple of Canadian provinces have already passed this kind of legislation to amend their respective human rights codes, but we really need explicit language in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms so all transgender and gender-variant persons in Canada will enjoy this level of protection. I am hoping 2013 will be the year Canada passes this important law.
Monika: Politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the Canadian transgender community in this respect?
Lisa: Canada is a big country, geographically speaking. From my perspective, this has resulted in a very fractured and disjointed transgender community. Ontario and Nova Scotia, the two provinces that have recently passed the laws I mentioned above, seem to have cohesive organization and interaction within their borders, but I see no national movement that speaks for all Canadian trans folk.
That is not to say there is no discussion or lobbying taking place, because many individuals have invested a lot of time and energy to support and promote Bill C-279, and they need to be thanked for their tireless efforts. I look enviously at organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality in the United States and wish we had a Canadian equivalent.

Lisa in 2010.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Lisa: As a newcomer into this LBGT club, I was dismayed to see just how dissed the Ts were by the other letter holders.
It still comes as a shock to me when I give workshops and a gay or lesbian person admits to me they did not understand how different and difficult life was for trans people and thank me for helping them finally get it.
I was under the erroneous impression that the LGBT umbrella was a happy collection of people. Then you read the stats that many organizations that claim to be LGBT don’t even have a transgender person on their board of directors and though they include the T in their monicker, they really do nothing on behalf of gender-variant persons.
This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else. The Vancouver Pride Society has recognized this deficiency and to their credit, has installed trans people on their board and is making a real effort to be more inclusive of trans people. However, this is very recent; they have been around for a long time.
Monika: Is there anyone in the Canadian transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the US gay activism? 
Lisa: Harvey Milk was a very iconic person, it's hard to find too many individuals who have his stature. As I said, I am a newcomer to this scene, having lived the first fifty-eight years of my life deeply closeted. I know of no one that I can think of on a Canadian national level who has had the kind of impact Harvey Milk had in the U.S. (and the world). I apologize to any Canadian who may be deserving of recognition, I just don’t know if any exists.

Lisa in 2011.

Monika: You have been living in three countries: Colombia, the USA, and Canada. What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women there?
I only have direct experience in Canada and anecdotal knowledge of Colombia and the USA. It is undeniable that Canadian trans persons have it far better than their Colombian and American brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in Canada as a whole. Once you leave the larger urban centers, you will find a lack of trans-friendly services and pockets of intolerance where any gender variance is likely to result in some form of negative reaction. The challenges faced by trans persons are as real in Canada as anywhere.
From my conversations with others, it can be said that we are underemployed and we experience silent discrimination that is systemic. I have experienced it myself, and as I shared earlier when talking about my career.
For example, I know of at least one client who hired someone else to replace me for a large project; It turns out he was worried about the optics—he projected his own prejudice on his staff and customers when he expressed concerns about my presence in their office. He didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t find this out for several months; it wasn’t until one of his assistants confessed this to me. How can you fight that kind of discrimination? The answer is through education and advocacy — even if it is only one person at a time.
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?
Lisa: I was fifty-eight years old when I transitioned. That was almost five years ago; it was in the Summer of 2008. By that time, I had already lost about 15 kilos and undergone 200 hours of electrolysis to remove my beard. I wanted to attract as little attention to myself as possible and it was important to me to present as authentically as possible for my age group.
Being a very visual person, I studied women my age whom I found attractively dressed and took mental notes of what they wore to work, to go shopping, etc. In this regard, I did not go through delayed adolescence, I never purchased or wore a mini-skirt nor tried to look like a teenager.
In my opinion, there is nothing more pathetic than a sixty-year-old woman trying to look half her age ... so imagine how sad it is to see a trans person trying to pull it off. Even though I lined up my ducks the best I could, I was terrified about the prospect of going out in public as a female. Unlike some trans persons I have met, I never went out in public cross-dressed.

Lisa in 2011.

I knew little to nothing about how to apply make-up and I didn't have an extensive wardrobe. Purchasing clothing became easier with time, but the first three to four months of living full-time were full of panic attacks, with me coming home so tightly wound up and scared, I thought I was going to throw up. Transitioning was no cakewalk for me.
Monika: But you are happy.
Lisa: Yes, despite the challenges I faced, I must say I finally felt true to myself and was no longer having to pretend to be something I was not. The gender dysphoria (distress) I had lived with all my life seemed to evaporate.
Equally important to me was the positive feedback I received from family and friends. Their complements were very welcomed affirmations. Even my mother (86), who has always been very fashion-conscious liked my choice of clothing.
With respect to my job, the fact that I was self-employed made me fear the worst. My livelihood was literally put on the line, but my clients were amazing. As far as they were concerned, as long as my work continued to be of the same quality and professionalism I had always delivered, they would continue to use me. And they did, at least as long as they were still working. As mentioned earlier, many of my clients have been retiring and this has resulted in considerably less work and fewer referrals. 

All the photos: Courtesy of Lisa Salazar.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska


Part 2

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