Tuesday 28 May 2013

Interview with Kalina Isato

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Kalina Isato, a Chinese-American producer, musician, and media personality. Hello Kalina!
Kalina: Hi Monika! Thank you for speaking with me today.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Kalina: I’m back in school studying photography and counseling. I had my first art show in 2009 at the local LGBT center’s art gallery. I’ve also had many of my works on display at my school’s art galleries and won a prestigious award for best artwork in a show in 2011. I’m also getting into counseling and want to gain some solid skills so I can help people with any mental health or transition issues they may have.

Pretty in Pink.

Monika: How would you define your music? Where do you take your inspirations from?
Kalina: My music is a reflection of my life at the moment. When I first started creating music in 1988, it was all about freedom of expression, much like everything in my personal life.
When I graduated from college and graduate school and entered the world of computers, I took on positions of increased responsibility that culminated in a position at KPMG Consulting where I was a systems consultant for one of the largest consulting companies in the world. My life was so fast-paced, I didn’t have much time for myself. Consequently, my music was pretty fast-paced at the time as well.
It’s not until recently that my music started getting more chill and relaxed, but I still thoroughly enjoy the fast vibe. I get my inspiration from many great DJs and musicians, too many to name, everything from the 70s and 80s to modern times.
I like all kinds of music and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’ll hear a tune on the radio and think about how I could improve upon that song or make it my own with my own signature style.
Monika: How does your transgender status contribute to your artistic perception of the world?
Kalina: From 1999 to 2001 at the height of my music career, there were very few openly trans artists. I kept it pretty much a secret, but a few people did some research on me and outed me in public forums all over the Internet.
Many people in the music world knew my secret but didn’t care about my gender. They cared about the music. It was nice to know that my trans status wasn’t the reason why people enjoy my music.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Kalina: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, I was probably one of only a handful of Asian families in my old neighborhood of Bensonhurst. If you remember the scene in Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta strutted down the street grabbing a slice of pizza from Lenny’s Pizzeria, that’s the neighborhood I grew up in. I used to eat at that pizza joint all the time. I played hooky one day just to catch a glimpse of that movie being filmed on my street.

The Pitcher's Mound.

Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Kalina: I felt something at the age of four. I was watching King Kong starring the captivating Faye Wray and was entranced by how beautiful she was. As I watched her in the movie, something compelled me to put on a pair of my mother’s pumps. I wore them and walked around the room in them as she did. My parents caught me doing this and laughed. My father picked me up in his arms and I flailed my legs like Faye Wray in King Kong’s hand.
When I was 14, I had my own makeup (eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, lipstick) and wore makeup to school. I wasn’t open about it to my parents. They left for work before I left for school and came home after I got home, so it was easy for me to put on and take off makeup whenever I wanted.
I never really felt like a boy or a man. I socialized mostly with girls, had a few guy friends who were geeks like me, and never dated in high school and half of college. 
In my junior year in college and beyond when I did date, I’d invariably choose women who were physically larger than me. I enjoyed being with women, both genetic and trans, who made me feel like I was protected. When I started dating men in 2004, I enjoyed being with them because they always made me feel protected. I never played sports or did “guy things” growing up. Instead, I found solace in reading books. drawing, and programming on my computer.
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?
Kalina: Surprisingly, I never got beaten up for wearing makeup in school. All of my classmates knew I was different, but I suppose I was lucky because I attended prestigious schools, such as Mark Twain Junior High and Brooklyn Technical High School where discrimination was not tolerated. We had blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, straights, gays, and even one openly trans person at school whom I only heard about but never met.
I was probably the most likely candidate to be the second trans person. To show you how cool everyone was with me, I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school. I attended Boston University, the school that Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from so I was pretty much shielded from a lot of discrimination and allowed to be different at the school. I didn’t get to express myself as much in college because most of my friends were from other parts of the country and a few were gay-bashers, much to my dismay.
When I got to Philly, I just decided to just start expressing myself the way I’ve always wanted. 1992 was the first year I started making public appearances while fully dressed as a woman and calling myself Kalina Isato. It was a little strange at first because I wasn’t used to it, but by 1995, I was totally comfortable being myself.

A Night on the Town.

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?
Kalina: I started hair removal and HRT in 2003, but it took me several years of trying to salvage a marriage that was destined for doom before I realized that it was time to move forward, so in 2010.
I came out to my boss at work and through a careful approach that involved my human resources department, we made a formal announcement to the over 500 people in my department about my gender change. There was a bit of adjustment for everyone as they had to get used to calling me “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him,” but, on the whole, it was a very smooth transition.
I know other transwomen who’ve gotten hell from their coworkers or strangers they didn’t know, even at my workplace. I feel bad for them and occasionally reach out to help them.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Kalina: I rarely had problems physically passing as a woman even in the beginning stages. In my early years, my voice was deep as a result of my own vocal conditioning, which always gave me away when I spoke, but I’ve adopted a lighter, more subtle style of speaking that better suits me now. My surgeries include rhinoplasty and breast augmentation in 2011 and gender confirmation surgery in 2012.
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?
Kalina: Yes, I absolutely believe that anyone can transition successfully if they put their minds to it and obliterate old masculine habits. The best age to transition is before 21, but the longer you wait, the longer it will take to break old habits.

Wild Child.

Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Kalina: I’ve always admired Professor Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist, while I was studying computer science in school. I also knew about Renee Richards, Christine Jorgensen, Tula, JoAnn Roberts, Angela Gardner, and other notable transwomen back in the 80s and found them quite inspirational. In music, I’m totally inspired by Dana International and Harisu.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Kalina: Revealing the truth to my ex-wife. She didn’t take it too well. We separated shortly afterwards, but the good thing is we had two beautiful sons as a result. I get to see them each week, but it’s hard not being around them like I used to.
Monika: What did you feel when you were finally a woman?
Kalina: I felt a sense of completeness, like, “Wow, this is how it should’ve been all along.”


All the photos: courtesy of Kalina Isato.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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