Monday, 6 January 2014

Interview with Chelle Padraigin

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Chelle Padraigin, an American transgender activist and writer, hardware store owner, newspaper columnist, President of a Habitat for Humanity chapter, church pianist, member of many boards and civic organizations, and author of “Finally Chelle: The Musings of an Average Transsexual Woman”. Hello Chelle!
Chelle: Hi, there, Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Chelle: Hmmm… I’ve worked continuously since I was 12 years old—and that was 40 years ago—so that covers a lot of ground! The short version is that I started college as a music major, changed majors after one year, and got my degree in electrical engineering. I worked as an engineer for about 13 years before getting into the hardware business and I’ve owned a retail hardware store for over 15 years, now.
Monika: What are the objectives and current agenda of Habitat for Humanity?
Chelle: I live in a small county, in Georgia, so our chapter has to do as much as possible with a very little bit of money. Our goal is to help families get out of substandard housing and into safe, comfortable homes. Each family has to invest a certain amount of “sweat equity” as their down payment.
Basically, that means that they have to work a large number of hours learning and performing construction tasks and, in return, they get to move into a home with a mortgage that has a zero percent interest rate. They work hard to get into those homes, so it’s not like they get one-handed to them on a silver platter. They earn it!

“Finally Chelle: The Musings of an
Average Transsexual Woman” (2012),

Monika: What inspired you to write your autobiography?
Chelle: It never even occurred to me to write an autobiography but so many people told me that I should share my story that I eventually relented. I began by starting a blog at While I knew that my life was unusual I didn’t think that it rose to the level of “interesting.” Apparently, others disagreed, however, and my readers ultimately convinced me to write a book.
Monika: Which aspects of your biography could be used by other transgender women planning their transitions?
Chelle: If there’s anything that people get out of my book I hope it’s that being transsexual shouldn’t define who you are. It might describe the route you took on your journey to womanhood but it shouldn’t form the basis of who you are and how you live your life.
Most women come out of the womb with their vaginas-- I came out of an operating room with mine. Other than that, there’s no real difference between me and any other woman.
I live a pretty normal life in a small southern town. I’m active in my church and my community, people call me for recipe advice (I love to cook), I bring a pot of homemade chicken soup to my friends and neighbors when they’re sick, and I like to travel with my spouse. The bottom line is that I live an extraordinarily average life. I don’t “feel” transsexual. In fact—I usually forget that I am unless something reminds me of the fact. It’s the most authentic way to live and I hope that every trans woman ends her journey in that same place.
Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Chelle: I mostly did my own thing but there were two trans women who inspired me in my younger years. Renee Richards’ story hit the news when I was a teenager and it was then that I realized that it was possible for me to find sanity and wholeness. I followed her story very closely. If she blinked, I took notice of it. Also, Caroline Cossey (Tula) showed me that it was possible for a trans woman to be elegant, graceful, and beautiful. I have aspired to be the same and I find great peace in leading a wholesome, genteel life.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Chelle: I chose to live parallel lives for many years of my life. There were people who only knew me as male and others who only knew me as female and I was always terrified that the two would come crashing together. I had gotten to the point in my life where I was living almost full time as a woman—certainly 95% of the time, at least—but in the business world and in the town I live in I continued to present as male.
In order to live as the “real me” I ended up traveling a lot and having residences in multiple places. The hardest part, I think, was telling my family, and worrying about how a complete transition would impact my business. Thankfully, my family was enthusiastically supportive—including both of my parents—and my transition didn’t seem to impact my business.

Enjoying a Spring day in her backyard.

Monika: What is your view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Chelle: I’m disappointed that transgendered characters are not typically played by transgendered individuals. I’m also disappointed that transgender jokes are among the few kinds of targeted humor that are still considered politically correct. If you pay attention you can hear a transgender joke on television, literally, every single night.
Whereas gays have finally hit mainstream and are no longer considered unusual, trans people still have a large “freak factor” in the media and are considered newsworthy for no other reason than because they’re trans.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Chelle: I think that a lot of progress has been made. I love that U.S. citizens can get a passport in their new gender prior to surgery, which makes it a lot less embarrassing to travel.
And while I’m not a terribly big fan of President Obama I love that he has at least one trans person in a high position in his administration. If you can pass well, in the gender you transition to, I think that people respond pretty well in real life, even if the media still chooses to poke fun. I think that people who don’t pass well, however, still encounter a lot of discrimination and that’s a shame.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Chelle: I’m a political junkie - I read, watch, and write about politics all the time. I’ve been told by countless people who like my middle-of-the-road opinions that I should run for public office but I don’t think that the United States is ready for a transgender politician, just yet.
Do I think that transgender women can make a difference? Absolutely - but not necessarily as transgender women. Being a woman should be different enough. The numbers of women politicians are still small enough that if we start subdividing the group into black, white, Latino, transgendered, Asian, gay, etc., then the collective voice will not be as loud. As women, we shouldn’t allow others to divide and conquer us.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Chelle: Oh my goodness - those would be some pretty big shoes to fill! I think that thanks to Harvey, our society has become more accepting of EVERYONE under the LGBT umbrella, so perhaps we won’t ever have to climb as high of a mountain as he did because he prepared the way. He started a gay revolution, of sorts. I think that the trans community will get there, more, by evolution, however - a slow, barely noticeable increase in acceptance by society at large.
I think that it’s important for us to be patient as long as steady momentum is in the direction we want. If it starts to wane then we need to kick start things back in the right direction. The best thing that the trans community can do for itself is to live respectable, productive lives so that the rest of the world will see that we’re no different than anyone else.

An above-the-knee dress and boots are
about as crazy as she gets, fashion-wise!

All of the trans people I know, both MTF and FTM, live regular, normal lives where most people don’t even know about their former gender. Many of my friends have no idea that I’m transsexual. I think that if we all changed just a few minds at a time among the people who know about our gender history, collectively, we could have a big, positive impact on how we’re perceived by the world.
I guess that you could characterize my approach as “quiet activism.” I’m content to nudge things along-- but if I hit a brick wall I knock it down like a bulldozer. I feel like I’ve moved things forward with various government agencies who had trouble “seeing the light” until I finally had to shine it directly in their eyes. I hate having to do that but sometimes you have to be forceful to get things done. 
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Chelle: Interesting question. I’ve always loved to love but I noticed, after about a year on estrogen that I NEEDED to love. If I didn’t have people to love I think I’d go insane. I have a very large circle of wonderful friends who give me ample opportunity to spread lots of love around.
As for my personal love life, I’m a little unusual because I’m a straight woman who is married to a straight woman. Each of us is only attracted to men but we love each other completely and made it official by getting married, last year, after being together for 9 years. We met at a business function and she only knew me as male, at first. As she watched me transition she decided that she loved the “inside me” and the gift-wrapping didn’t matter. So if you see two women holding hands on the beach, watching the cute guys go by, there’s a good chance that it’s us.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Chelle: I love fashion but my taste tends toward “classy conservative.” I think I only have one pair of jeans and I almost never wear them. I’m fortunate in that I can do my face and hair in 15 minutes, throw on a nice outfit, and get complimented by strangers literally every day. I think that the very best fashion accessory a woman can wear is a smile. I smile all the time and make lots of eye contact (in an appropriate way, of course) as I go through each day. It disarms people and makes them smile back. I’ve had countless strangers engage me in the conversation for no other reason than because they liked my smile.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Chelle: I’m not a big fan of any beauty pageants, to be honest. I’m glad that they provide scholarships for women who are successful in them but I’m a firm believer that true beauty comes from within. If you’re beautiful on the inside you’ll be beautiful on the outside-- without ever having to put on a lick of makeup.

Her "biker chick" look, at a motorcycle
rally with family and friends.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Chelle: I’m actually considering writing a children’s book that stars our beloved boxer puppy. He has an incredible number of facial expressions and friends who have seen his photos tell me that I could easily write a book for kids around those pics. I’ve also developed ideas for three other books—none having to do with trans issues—and just need to find the time to write them.
Monika: Having transitioned yourself, what would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Chelle: Start the process now—and transition SLOWLY. There are a lot of things you can do in preparation that will make the ultimate transition much smoother. So many women get in a huge hurry and needlessly have surgery and other procedures done that wouldn’t have been necessary if they had taken their time.
Estrogen is VERY transformative. It took 5 years but it made my face MUCH more feminine. And if you give it enough time you probably won’t even need a boob job. Teenage girls don’t grow their boobs overnight and neither will you. I know trans women who start taking estrogen and immediately have boob jobs. That’s crazy! Give your body time to respond. I’ve been on HRT for 6+ years and I’m STILL noticing changes, especially in the hair that frames my face.
Start facial hair removal ASAP. It’s a long, slow process and the sooner you start the happier you’ll be. There are few things as joyful as leaving the house with no makeup on, other than mascara and eyeliner, and knowing you still look good. When you finally get to throw that pancake makeup in the trash you’ll feel like a million dollars.
Monika: Chelle, thank you for the interview!
Chelle: Thank you, Monika, for bringing our stories to those who might benefit from reading about them. And thank you for considering mine worthy of being on your website!

All the photos: courtesy of Chelle Padraigin.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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