Wednesday 29 January 2014

Interview with Jamie Roberts

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Jamie Roberts, an American transgender activist, a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, a public defender in LaGrange, former Chair of the Board of Directors of the Atlanta based organization called Georgia Equality, Treasurer of Atlanta Gender Explorations. Hello Jamie!
Jamie: Hello Monika!
Monika: For many years you have been involved in transgender advocacy and activism. What are the current challenges for the transgender community in Atlanta?
Jamie: I believe the biggest challenge for the Trans community in Atlanta is to create stable short-term emergency shelters as well as longer-term supportive housing for Trans people. The shelter and care system we have to deal with now in Atlanta is private and faith-based, which means they think that their god does not approve of Trans people, and any Trans person who seeks shelter with them must be housed according to the sex or gender assigned to them at birth and that your clothes you wear in their shelter must reflect the same.
This policy, universal throughout the city, presents an untenable choice to Trans women in particular, who must be housed with abusive men and wear male clothes to get shelter. This intolerable situation leads some Trans women to commit suicide and others to rely on sex work to survive. If no one is going to give us shelter that is safe and respects our dignity, then we as a community must figure out a solution ourselves.
Monika: What are the objectives of Georgia Equality in relation to transgender people? 
Jamie: Georgia Equality seeks to better the lives of Trans people by lobbying city, county, and state lawmakers and other policy decision-makers to pass laws that allow us to attend safe schools, find employment without discrimination, use public accommodations without discrimination, have access to safe medical treatment, and make families without being told we can't marry without sterilizing ourselves or have to give up custody of our children because of our Trans status.

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? Jamie: You raise an important question regarding our place as fellow activists in solidarity with gay men, lesbians, and the openly bisexual. One problem we will always face I think is the size of our population is lower than the other letters in the TLBG coalition as long as part-time crossdressers or people who pass very well refuse to identify themselves with us or to the community at large.
At the same time, we bear the most violence and discrimination of any identity in the coalition, at times even having our suffering co-opted by the other letters in the coalition while we ourselves are made invisible as Trans people.
So the answer to this question is of great import to organizers within our population everywhere. I've joked before with activists if other letters in the coalition that we're more huddled together out of fear of our common enemies than anything, and it's funny because there's a lot of truth to that. Often we don't have a lot in common with the other letters in the coalition other than our common enemies.
For myself, in my own mind, however, this is sufficient. That we are so small a minority yet so visible and vulnerable that we cannot afford to indulge a strategy that we engage with the world in isolation from our most likely allies. That many times our journey to the 'T' makes stops or is actively residing with the 'L' or the 'G' or the 'B'. I think often of how America and Western Europe had to ally with Russia and China to defeat the evil that was the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. We had to make friends with people we don't normally associate or identify with to overcome the forces that were actively trying to exterminate us. So I think it is a good analogy to our own struggle.
Monika: What are the usual cases involving transgender people that you deal with as a lawyer? 
Jamie: As a lawyer who represented Trans clients in private practice and who is currently employed by the state to represent people in criminal cases who can't afford a lawyer, I've had a lot of experience with many kinds of issues faced by trans people. Identity issues are always important- how we get the state and private parties to validate and acknowledge our gender identities.
I had a case where I defended a trans person getting evicted from public housing, I represented Trans people many times arrested for theft because they couldn't find a job and they're trying to eat or clothe themselves any way they can. Trans people that are broken down by age or disease or abuse who need disability.

She's watching you to see how well she'll be treated.

Most of the time, it's giving out bits of advice about this or that for free. It's what I feel I owe the community for my own luck and privilege, for who knows what will happen tomorrow and I could use a friend or an ally?
Many times I also contribute my technical knowledge and experience to build institutions that can serve the whole Trans community. If we can make them valuable and self-sufficient, then that's the legacy we leave after we ourselves are gone.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Jamie: Yes, my role models were Trans women in my community who built the organizations that were present to help me - I'm thinking Dallas Denny, Erin Swenson, and Dee Dee Chamblee. These women in Atlanta taught me how to carry myself with dignity and how to have self-esteem as well as teaching me the history of our struggle.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jamie: One of the hardest things about coming out was losing my marriage to my wife at the time. In hindsight, it was for the best, because her rejection told me a lot about her character. But it was hard losing that stability.
Also, the loss of nearly all of my friends. The most insidious part about my own coming out was still having all of these sexist, ableist, racist, cisgender cultural norms so embedded into my psyche since birth coming more into focus and becoming another, a social pariah in many ways, and still wanting so badly to pass as cisgender female to the point of obsession, and comparing myself to impossible standards of beauty, and feeling so disappointed when my body did not change in exactly the ways I wanted.
So coping with my own dysphoria began a long and painful process of questioning and examining all of my preconceived notions about normality, my own internal transmisogyny, my place in society, and starting the long process of self-reflection that continues to this day. Coping with the fact of how the world saw me before I transitioned 24/7 and how it saw me before then. Feeling disappointed at so many for letting me down.
Also the physical attacks, vandalism against my property, and public shaming I received intensely at first. Finding a way to manage and hold myself together despite the trauma.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society in general?
Jamie: I view the present situation of trans women in America with guarded optimism. While we've made a lot of gains in the last decade, particularly with a friendly federal administration working with great organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Lambda Legal among others. We're making gains in many local municipalities and state governments as well.
We know, however, that we may not be the best place for Trans people to live, compared to places like Argentina or parts of the EU or even Canada, for that matter. Our country is not only the largest exporter of violence on the planet but is also one of the most violent places to live for Trans people, up there with places like Brazil, Venezuela, and Honduras for numbers of Trans people murdered or violently attacked.
While we are more visible as a population in the media than we used to be and several of our own are becoming celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, we are still frequently maligned and misrepresented in the media.
For example, how the same year that Laverne Cox, a Trans woman, had this breakout role playing a Trans woman (in prison, unfortunately) in a very well-received series, we also saw a heterosexual cisgender male, Jared Leto, play a Trans woman in a movie whose character was terribly written, who was perpetually a victim of the 'tragic Trans' stereotype that is so prevalent in media written by cisgender people looking to add something exotic or titillating to their story.

I'm addressing the movie Dallas Buyers Club, about a cisgender white heterosexual who associated freely with white supremacists and who got HIV in the '80s and started an underground pharmacy because the US FDA would not research and approve new treatments.
The trans woman character in the film, Rayon, was never, ever addressed with female pronouns in the film, despite the film's own promotion labeling her 'transgender'. She was not based on any person Ron Woodruff actually knew but was there simply as a plot device to show the main character's moral evolution from having to deal with AIDS. And no one ever addresses the Trans woman with correct pronouns, everyone is mean and violent to her, and she's just there to suffer nobly and not critique or resist any of the bad treatment she endures.
So as if that's not bad enough, now the actor, Jared Leto, is winning all kinds of awards from misrepresenting our experience, and making it all about himself, how he had to humiliate himself to play the role, and refuses to acknowledge that he's making all this fame and money off of our blood and tears and who cannot even address his character as a woman at all but will only obliquely refer to the character and to Trans women in general as "creatures".
So while real Trans actresses can't get enough roles, here he is making us out as monsters and trying to reassure America that he's still a cisgender heterosexual male who hasn't been affected or queered at all by the experience. It's infuriating!
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Jamie: Certainly our Vice President Joe Biden said so last year so there must be some truth to that, if only in the minds of cisgender people who've never had to consider the idea until they were confronted with it in their normal everyday life or through the media. We know our struggle is not new but has been going on for quite some time. It's merely a sign of our progress that more people are talking about it now and that we're able to count specific victories in various places.
I think many people see our recent visibility as some kind of fad or media fixation, but we know the work continues city by city, state by state, in the nation after nation until we have the universal right to exist as we are and thrive. The struggle is very similar to other struggles against sexism, racism, etc.- there can be moments of rapid change followed by years of consolidating the gains and pressing onward toward the next goal.
It's a process that happens over several lifetimes. It will not take care of itself, either- power and privilege never seek to change for the sake of changing and must be shown and persuaded to do so or risk losing legitimacy.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Jamie: Yes, I am active in politics. Currently, I serve as Secretary of my County Committee of the Democratic Party of Georgia. I actively campaign for candidates and also lobby elected officials at the local, state, and national levels on many topics, including transgender rights.
I believe it is necessary for Trans people to be active in politics because it is the best way to ensure that people in power are educated about our lives and can learn to empathize with us. It 'a also the best way to shatter myths and stereotypes about us, to appear in public and civil society and show that we are responsible citizens who have something to contribute to society, given the opportunity.

Many days she feels quite happy
and content with herself.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jamie: Your question reminds me of a lyric by the poet and musician Leonard Cohen, that "love is the only engine of survival". I also recall A song sung by many including Whitney Houston, that "learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all."
Sometimes life and certain people can treat us really bad and we have to have a way to be resilient and not lose ourselves in our anguish and grief. You must remember that our species is an intensely social one and that our pain at being rejected or ridiculed or ostracized is very real and can be physically painful as well as mentally and spiritually painful.
We've evolved to care about what our neighbors think of us because there was a time that being separated from the tribe meant starvation and vulnerability to predators and death. Those feelings of extreme anxiety of separation from the tribe persist to this day.
In times past Trans people had to find ways to be useful to the tribe to not be completely cut off. So we became shamans or healers or we found some ceremonial or priestly role to fill that required being separated from society somewhat but also necessary. We've got to think about how we can fill such roles today if we are not blessed with a family or passing as cisgender.
Monika: And if we feel lonely?
Jamie: Sometimes if we've been abandoned by everyone the best thing we can do for ourselves is to get a cat or a dog to give us the unconditional love we need to maintain our own ability to love ourselves or others. We have to find the ways we give ourselves self-care in order to heal ourselves- this is that self-love thing I was talking about. Doing these things helps us restore our confidence in ourselves, which is then read by others and makes us more desirable, I think. After a while, we get pretty good at inventing our selves and that's when we become attractive to others.
We must also realize that love from others can come and go and that this applies to everyone, so loving ourselves is the only true lifetime relationship. I'm not talking in the autogynephilic sense, either, which is a means that some in the medical establishment have invented and use to fulfill their own prurient curiosity and capitalize on the misery of our body dysphoria, which is then used as a weapon to de-legitimize our existence. It's a way our oppressors seek to divide us and separate us from our most natural allies, other women that we wish ourselves to become more like. It's a way our oppressors seek our extermination by rendering our own existence as a pathology that operates to fetishize and oppress other women.
In other words, it's the most insidious and malevolent way to get others to stop loving us as well as extinguishing our own self-love by twisting our dysphoria and sexualizing it in a manner that is not consistent with our subjective reality. It also denies our existence as women by declaring that we're sick men in need of treatment. It is very similar to the kind of thinking that justifies genocide, painting a group of people as pathologic and perverse and seeking some kind of solution to the problem. So our survival depends on resisting the pressure to view ourselves as broken and unlovable, first and foremost.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jamie: My love for fashion grows more and more all the time! I've learned that finding clothes that fit your body well, even if they have to be specially tailored, is very important. There are certain colors that I love that I gravitate to-purple and green in particular. I live simple A-line dresses with interesting patterns. I have a couple of "little black dresses" and skirts that I wear.
I work in a conservative profession, so lots of skit suits. Accessorizing is very important for dressing for court and is the best way to display originality, so necklaces, earrings, pins, and bracelets are important. I must always have at least one black turtleneck because they can make a dress appear more formal. My long-term signature look also includes opaque tights in many colors.
Sometimes I think I transitioned just so I could wear them! My feet are big and flat like flippers so I go out of my way to find shoes that fit comfortably as well as look good on me. The one area I could work on is my hair. I grew it long and wear it up at work the same way. I get a lot of compliments for my hair- in fact, it's the thing most people compliment me on when they want to give me a compliment. Still, part of me wants to try something new to see if it makes me look more feminine.

Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Jamie: I've always had a dim view of beauty pageants because I've always prized my intelligence more than my looks. One of the rude surprises I got transitioning to female, in fact, was finally experiencing how much society views my worth as a human being, much less a woman, by my looks. So I see it as a privilege of winning the genetic lottery to even compete in such things.
Intelligence is similar in some ways but the acquisition of knowledge is what will help you survive when your looks have faded. To the extent that women need to feel validated by participating in them, I find it a little sad but I would never tell them they should not do it. In fact, pageants and balls are quite often ways way we find each other and form a community, so that's a good thing. It's also a good thing to allow ourselves to experiment with our best selves and perform and just have some fun. And if an attractive trans woman is able to leverage her beauty to get what she wants out of life, then more power to her.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jamie: No, I do not plan to do so, particularly because it's been done so often. Just speaking for myself, I would much prefer to learn how to write a good novel or screenplay than a memoir about myself. I guess I just don't think of my experience as being so unique or extraordinary to warrant such an effort.
My hope is that there are cisgender people out there who do read such works and learn from them. And I certainly think just the experience of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard and telling your story can be a powerful, cathartic thing. I just happen to want to spend my time on other things, I suppose.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Jamie: I want girls struggling with dysphoria to know that they are not alone, that there are many others just like you and there always has been. That if you can summon the courage to transition sooner rather than later that you'll be glad you did. That you are who you are even if no one sees you, yet.
So please be careful about putting yourself in situations where someone could harm you. That you should not waste your time associating with or trying to please toxic people. To not let others take advantage of you because you weren't so much to be loved by them. To have a pet and love them and care for them like you would yourself. Stay in school, if you can, and stay curious, if you can't. 
Monika: Jamie, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Jamie Roberts.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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