Wednesday 11 December 2013

Interview with Meggan Sommerville

Monika: Today’s interview is with Meggan Sommerville, an American transgender advocate, and activist, former frame shop manager, writer, a blogger from Oswego, Illinois. Meggan hit the headlines in 2011 when she filed a complaint to the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) after she had been denied to use the women's restroom at the workplace. Hello Meggan!
Meggan: Hi Monika. I am honored you chose to pick me to be included in this awesome group of people.
Monika: Your professional experience covers a wide range of jobs: a veterinary technician in the Western suburbs of Chicago, an EMT/Paramedic, EMS Instructor, and a paid on-call firefighter for Bolingbrook, Illinois. Which did you like most?
Meggan: Well, to be perfectly honest, I loved them all. They all had their own ups and downs, but I am very thankful for each one of those jobs. Each job allowed me to better myself, challenge myself, and stretched my abilities, and at the same time, I was able to do something that truly made a difference.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Meggan: For the past 15 years I have been a frame shop manager for a national craft retailer. I oversee a department that frames all sorts of artwork for our customers. The artwork has ranged from the everyday children’s school art, autographed sport and celebrity photos, limited edition lithographs to the out-of-ordinary things like Monopoly game boards, a boat propeller, and wedding bouquets. It is a daily challenge and I love that people can come to me and my crew to help them preserve their memories and make their homes more beautiful.
I also currently write a blog called Trans Girl at the Cross for I am the only transgender blogger out of over 400 bloggers we have writing for ChicagoNow. I discuss issues that the transgender community is facing. I try to share my life, my faith, and what it is like to be a Christian transgender woman in today’s world.

Heading up my church's community
Easter Egg Hunt - 2013.

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?
Meggan: I began hormone therapy in 2009 and legally changed my name and gender marker in 2010 at the age of 40. I was only able to do it with the love and support of my parents and a few friends that came alongside me. I think the difficult part was that, at the time, I had no one in the trans community that I could lean on.
So in that regard, I was very much alone in the whole process. Even though I had been reading and researching transgender issues since I was 16, I had no one to go to with the practical questions about paperwork, hormones, etc.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Meggan: My heroine has always been Renee Richards. There were several aspects of her life that I identified with. I admire her strength and resilience. She is a pioneer in our community. I probably read her book a hundred times and it still sits prominently on the bookshelf. When it came time to choose my new name, it seemed only right that I incorporate her name as part of my own.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Meggan: That has to be the prejudice and discrimination that I have experienced. It’s truly sad that in today’s world prejudice still rears its ugly head. Hopefully, one day, we will only know these as words in a dictionary. But until then, we have to stand up against discrimination of any kind.
Unfortunately, those who have never experienced discrimination and prejudice don’t understand how important it is that we pass laws to enforce equal treatment. The United States Congress and every Presidential administration have dragged their feet when it comes to fair treatment of the transgender community. If they had passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, I and many others may not have suffered the blatant discrimination that we have.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass? What would you recommend to them?
Meggan: That one is difficult for me to answer. And I am not sure I am the best one to ask. I was very fortunate I had good genetics on my side (thanks mom). But that is not to say that I haven’t struggled with my presentation. I went through years of painful laser hair removal on my face just to get a more feminine look. I would shave my arms daily so they looked softer. We each have to do whatever it takes to align what we see in the mirror with who we are inside.
Feminine Facial surgery has never been an option for me. I have had two surgeries on my head, one to correct an overdeveloped lower jaw and another to remove the infection on the mastoid process due to bacterial meningitis. I never again want to go through that sort of thing. The pain and numb areas took forever to heal on me. But that is not to say I don’t totally understand why many trans women go through the surgery. It is a much-needed step in the transition process.
If it means anything to anyone and I know this is much, MUCH easier said than done, but just be yourself and what others think is irrelevant. Have confidence in who you are. Let the beauty inside show. Surround yourself with people that love you for who you are, not what you look like. And remember even many cis women struggle with their appearance. As trans women, we are no different. I use to be concerned about the little bit of facial hair I still have until I saw a cis woman with enough facial hair to have a pretty nice beard if she wanted. We each have to deal with it in our own way.

Before and after is pretty explanatory;
before was in 2004 - after 2011.

Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in US society?
Meggan: As far as we have come and the progress that is being made every day, there is still a lot of work we still need to accomplish. Transgender individuals are being denied appropriate healthcare because they are transgender. Insurance companies don’t cover transition-related procedures.
In over half the country, a transgender person could be fired just for being transgender. Over 20% of transgender women have been incarcerated at some time in their life – a percentage much higher compared to the general population. There are far too many cases of violence against transgender women in the US. We ranked third in the world for murders of transgender individuals in the last year, three just recently.
Now, what does that say about us as a country? Don’t get me wrong. There are some wonderful and hard-working transgender women in this country that are making advancements that I could only dream of. Toni D’orsay, Jen Richards, Christina Kahrl, Lana Moore, Janet Mock just to name a few. But these women need help. It is not the job of just a few individuals. It is up to all of us in our community to work for the betterment of the entire community.
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories which have been featured in the media so far?
Meggan: I may have a more cynical view than most. Many in the mainstream media in this country do not have the best track record with our community. Ignorance and prejudice are extremely apparent in the reports I see. Their attitude ranges from treating us as a curiosity or oddity to downright disrespect and disregard. Most of the time we are, as my best friend puts it, “swept under the rug”.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Meggan: As you can see, I am pretty outspoken in my views and I make no apologies for it. As of yet, I have not been part of any lobbying though if someone should ask, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. I have written the White House and expressed my views. I use my blog to try to continually help educate those that want to listen.
I think any person can make a difference, whether transgender or not. But the more voices that are in unison, the message carries a lot further. We need, desperately need, more transgender individuals stepping forward and that may be more transgender individuals that run for public office or in positions in the media.
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?
Meggan: Let’s face it. We are a minority. And a minority that is highly misunderstood and often feared. Working together as one unified community gives us a larger voice at times. Does all of the LGBT community face discrimination when it comes to hiring, promotions, housing, adoption, health care, marriage equality, - absolutely. But the LGB portion of the community doesn’t have to deal with many of the issues that the transgender community faces on a daily basis.
For example, the LGB community is not being denied access to gender-appropriate restrooms. The LGB individuals can now openly serve this country in the military where transgender individuals must continue to hide or be discharged. As I have said before, we need more transgender individuals and allies to speak out.

Performing for at the Laugh Factory
in Chicago, Illinois - 2013.

Monika: You are a religious person. Does your Church support the transgender community? What role does religion play in your life?
Meggan: Let me correct you just a bit. I would never say that I am a religious person. I believe in a relationship over religion.
What I mean by that is I have a one-on-one relationship with my savior Jesus Christ. Christ gave me his Word, the Bible, and I have the Holy Spirit living inside me to guide me through every part of my life. Anyone can go to church, but a relationship requires so much more. It requires an investment of time and energy. When you want to get to know someone better, you spend time with that person. God already knows everything about me and still wants to spend time with me so that I get to know Him.
To answer your question about whether or not my church supports the transgender community, the answer is no. The leadership of my church is not yet ready to take that step. I will say that I have been an active participant in the church now for over three years and have many people in this body of believers that support me.
A while back, the Holy Spirit really changed my heart and has opened up a huge mission field right here. There need to be individuals that are willing to stand in the huge gap that exists between the transgender community and the church. God has called me to be one of those people. It is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs God has ever asked me to do and I often feel extremely unequipped for the task, but I must have faith that God will use me to do what needs to be done.
Monika: Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Meggan: I don’t think God is merciless towards transgender individuals. God loves each one of us and wants nothing but the best for us. Psalms 139:13-14 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” I believe that what this refers to is who we are not our fleshy bodies. I believe that God fashioned my being, who I am inside, my soul, my spirit, my mind. How are we different than someone born blind or without arms? We’re not.
There are a lot of possible explanations for why our bodies are so flawed, but for me, I don’t focus on the why. That was my sole focus for most of my life until I understood that it is not about why things happen, but how can God use those things that happen to me for His glory. In the book of John in the New Testament, there is a man that comes to Jesus and the disciples ask Jesus who had sinned for this man to be born blind. Christ answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Being transgender is not something God did to me, it just happened. God has never left my side. He never abandoned me. God has brought me out of some pretty dark times and for that I give Him all the glory and praise. God didn’t do this to me. He’s been there to help me get through it and be the person He planned for me to be.

June 2013 - Me and my kids.

Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Meggan: Yes, I was married and have two absolutely awesome kids from that marriage. Love in my life? That is a loaded question. I have been separated and now divorced for just over 4 years.
Would I like to share my life with someone – certainly. Do I miss being able to snuggle with someone, share intimate secrets with someone, laugh at the stupidest things with someone – all the time. But love and a relationship with someone is going to be something I will leave up to God. I just have to be patient for the right guy to come along.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Meggan: Fashion? I’m kind of a jeans and cami top kind of girl. I love getting dressed to the nines, but those opportunities are few and far between. I love being comfortable and being outdoors. I’ll take a pair of hiking boots just as much as I’ll take a pair of 3” heels. The one thing I will say is that my wardrobe is dominated by purple. Over half my closet is some hue of color.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Meggan: I don’t think there should be such a thing. If we are ever to be accepted by those outside of the trans community, we have to stop separating ourselves from them. A beauty pageant should be about beauty, talent, and personality. It shouldn’t be about what gender we were assigned at birth. I applaud Jenna Talackova from Canada for challenging the status quo and doing what she believed in.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Meggan: I have been told, on more than one occasion, that I should be preparing a book about my life. Even my dad said so. But I often wonder if my life is worth space on someone’s bookshelf. Maybe someday the time will be right but right now though, is not the time. There are chapters in my life that don’t seem to be done yet, and any attempt at a book would really need to include those areas.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Meggan: Among other things, I continue to write both my blog and I am currently working with an illustrator for a short children’s book which we are shooting for a release by next Christmas. I’m not sure what my future may look like.
A project that I hope to begin working on and developing is the Transgender Faith Project. It has been on my heart for some time now and this is the first I have really made it public. My desire is to begin working on a mentoring project for transgender individuals along with a database of churches around the country that are open and affirming for the trans community.
My hope is to have a volunteer pastoral staff that will be able to counsel transgender women and men and answer questions from others in church leadership. I continue to pray that God will show me how all this will come about. It is a huge project and will take a lot of time, energy, money, and volunteers to make it happen.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Meggan: I think that compared to my life prior to transitioning, my life now is more complete. My faith in God is stronger than it has been in years. I have two amazingly awesome gifted loving kids. So I think I would have to say yes.
Monika: Meggan, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!

All the photos: courtesy of Meggan Sommerville
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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