Thursday, 30 January 2014

Interview with Robyn-Jane

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Robyn-Jane, inspirational woman, blogger, transgender artist, and leader of the band "Robyn-Jane". Hello Robyn!
Robyn: Hi Monika, it's so great to have the chance to talk to you.
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Robyn: Having undergone my gender reassignment surgery last year on April 10, I am finally getting the chance to be the woman I was always meant to be. It has meant that work on our new album 'Bitter Honey' has been somewhat delayed but it has been a beautiful and life-changing experience.
Monika: You are a member of the band named "Robyn-Jane". How did you start playing together?
Robyn: We started playing together some years ago to back another artist who has since become part of our lineup. Our sound evolved from playing straight Blues and Country into the more sassy cabaret blues style we have today.

"We call our style 'Cabaret Blues'."

Monika: How would you describe your music? Do you draw much inspiration from other artists?
Robyn: We call our style 'Cabaret Blues'; we like to play small venues and get close to our audiences. It isn't Straight Blues or Cabaret it's an eclectic mix of the two.
Our lyrics are a challenging mix of hard talking about the way T-Girls are treated to sassy hard breakup blues. If guys have ever been mean to me or dumped me; they're in my songs! I also work as an acoustic solo artist playing Folk Chanson tunes with a Transgender flavor.
Monika: How does your transgender status contribute to your artistic perception of the world?
Robyn: I started out feeling that I had to speak out musically about the way society treats transgendered individuals. The Blues was always a vehicle for kicking back at the way individuals were treated; it also makes a fine vehicle for challenging the negative attitudes I've encountered in my fairly tempestuous love life so far. Guys treat you as an exotic novelty.
I'm a woman like any other; my music insists on respect and tolerance through pain and suffering. I guess in that way I fit into a long line of female Jazz/Blues artists from Bessie Smith through Billie Holiday and Etta James to Amy Winehouse. Blues has always been an outlet for deeply feminine suffering; I've chosen to add my own viewpoint as a Trans Woman to all of that.
Monika: Are you familiar with any other transgender musicians or artists?
Robyn: There are so many great transgender artists out there now. I have always been incredibly inspired by the work of Namoli Brennet and Transman; Joe Stevens of the Country/Americana band Coyote Grace.
Monika: You run your blog titled "Retrobassgirl”. Do you like blogging?
Robyn: I really do. Blogging gives your audience, your fans, and anybody who cares to listen, an insight into what your life is really like. I feel that it is no good if you are simply a name on a concert billing or figure on a stage. Those are facets of a person but hardly ever the whole story.
My blog offers an insight into what it meant to grow up transgendered and how it feels to transition. In my blog, I am incredibly open and honest. I give the naked truth. I feel that is important for non-trans people to understand what we go through and to offer inspiration to others.
Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in the USA. Unlike in the previous years, some of them have the status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modeling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you witness the same trend in the UK? 
Robyn: Yes I do. It is beginning to happen here in the UK, there are a number of well-known figures who spring to mind: Paris Lees for example; outspoken journalist and blogger.
Last year, Paris topped The Independent's 'Pink List' and is one incredible role model for the Trans community. She is now a well-known broadcaster and contributor to popular media coverage.
It is also worth noting how official attitudes have changed to the point where The Museum of Liverpool is currently holding a major exhibition celebrating the life of Trans woman and model, April Ashley.
"I have had a difficult life with
two separate identities."
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in British society?
Robyn: On the surface, things are pretty positive for transgender women in the UK. The current law means that there is government support officially recognizing transition and the chance to have your ID documents and birth certificate changed.
In spite of all that attitudes among the public and in the tabloid press are bad. I fear that there is still a high level of ignorance and misunderstanding about what it means to be trans. None of that is good. It still leads to trans women being abused, attacked, and victimized.
It also led last year to the highly publicized suicide of British primary teacher Lucy Meadows after she was vilified in the tabloid press and victimized in her local community. Laws will not change people's attitudes; it is up to us all in the LGBT community to tell the real story in order to change hearts and minds.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Robyn: I grew up in the Industrial heart of Northern England near Leeds. It was not exactly the easiest environment for a transgendered child and teenager! In a predominantly working-class environment, transgender children were not well received or tolerated. It was a tough period for me with bullying and intolerance dominating what should have been a happy young life. 
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Robyn: I think my first warning that things weren't right was when I went to school for the first time. I was so nervous, I held my mother's hand and that of my best friend Julie. We had spent our first four years together playing happily. I loved playing dress-up and sharing her dolls.
At the school gate, Julie was introduced to some other girls and ran off to play skipping and Double Dutch in the yard. I was told that boys didn't do things like that and I couldn't join with the girls. I had to play with the boys. I was so upset I played with neither. I will never forget that day: It was a harsh introduction to being forced into a role I hated.
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?
Robyn: Yes, the school was particularly difficult. Institutions can be so intolerant of difference and it is not only the students. I learned quickly to keep a low profile. Teachers can also be incredibly insensitive and cruel to transgendered kids. I rapidly found out that if a teacher made a comment about my high voice or the way I walked or acted, it became an open season for those who liked bullying me.
It was as though they had been given official sanction. If my Mum complained the reply was always 'Well boys will be boys'... particularly cruel as I knew that I wasn't one. What saved me and got me through was music and songwriting. On stage, I could be me or something approaching it. Without music, I don't think I would have made it into adulthood.

"Surround yourself with others who understand you."

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?
Robyn: I have had a difficult life with two separate identities; a public one and the real me. All that ended eight years ago when I came out to my best friend. She persuaded me that it was futile to keep hiding. It was a watershed moment.
The following day I started living full time as a woman... it was like moving from living a monochrome life to one of full color.
As I came out to other close friends I rapidly realized that they were far more accepting than I had ever hoped. The observation that 'I knew there was something different about you' was a very frequent one. The family was a different matter; it took a long time for them to accept.
I understand now that you are seen as having carried out deception and mistrust or disbelief becomes the predominant emotion. Eight years later, most family members now accept that this was not a choice and offer more respect yet only friends have apologized for any unkindness they expressed when I first came out.
Monika: And at work?
Robyn: My working relationships have been much easier. I work in an industry where there is a lot of tolerance of gender diversity and respect for it. I realize that I have been incredibly lucky. Of course, there have been haters and critics but when you have built up a level of respect before transition that does not evaporate as easily in work as in a family. Proving that I could move forward into independence and self-assurance as a female both as a songwriter/performer and an educator has won me respect and many new friends in the LGBT community.
Last year on April 10th, I was finally able to undergo gender reassignment surgery and complete the final stage of my journey. It changed so much more than I imagined. It gave me the courage to go out and date for the first time in my life, the empowerment to flirt and be social and to go out and meet guys. In summer 2013 I met and dated my boyfriend Martin who now lives with me and shares my life.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You do not have such a problem yourself but what would you recommend to other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass?
Robyn: For any transgender woman, being read and then singled out for ridicule is a huge fear, and quite rightly so. It is not easy to offer advice, I have been so fortunate myself. I would say this; there is no amount of surgery, makeup, or clothing that can make you a woman unless you feel confident in yourself and your femininity.
Surround yourself with others who understand you; make friends in the LGBT community, go to dancing classes, get vocal training, read women's magazines and novels, find other natal women to go out and be with, eat, sleep, play, and love as the woman you truly are. Most people look at the way you move and walk, your posture, the way you behave and speak and act not at your clothes.
Learn from other women around you the way that a little girl does. A woman who dresses like a man but moves like a woman is still read as female. Be that woman and you will create enough doubt in onlookers' minds about who you are. They will go on their way unsuspecting.
"I firmly believe that it is never
too late to transition."
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?
Robyn: I firmly believe that it is never too late to transition. Late transition can be hard but not impossible. Surgical methods have improved so much I feel that it is now a realistic option to transition well and gracefully even for older transgendered women. What is much harder I feel to shake off later in life is that accumulated compliance with society's norms about what a male should be.
For an older TS the work you put in at changing who you are and the way you act move, talk, live, and love is a much longer process than the surgery itself, be prepared to devote much time and energy to it.
Equality is a much-discussed topic but in spite of that, the world of being a woman is very different from that of being a man. You will need to accept a new position in society and work it to your advantage. You will need to learn how to flirt, dance, captivate and engage others in a way very different from the way men do.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Robyn: My role models are so diverse but all inspirational. Sylvia Rivera and her role in the Stonewall riots always inspired me. As I began to think about coming out and in the early years of my transition, Lynn Conway provided much-needed help and advice. There are others far too numerous to mention all but particular respect I think goes to Namoli Brennet who gave me the confidence that I could put my music back out there as a woman.
Paris Lees too, I greatly admire her tenacity as a journalist and willingness to confront issues head-on and in public. I cannot, however, forget those other Trans role models in my local community; unsung heroines who inspired me reassured me, supported advised, and guided me, without them I would not be here now.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Robyn: The hardest thing was the very first step. Telling that first-person and choosing them well takes so much agony and soul searching. Like taking your first physical steps the day after gender reassignment it is painful and can hurt so much. Maybe too, the real hardest part comes even before that moment; admitting to yourself that to move forward you will have to come out in order to get better and to be free.
That process took years for me and while I wish it hadn't I'm glad that I reached that point. When I came out that first time to my BFF I could use that conviction and self-knowledge to make myself understood and respected. The rest was way easier.


All the photos: courtesy of Robyn-Jane.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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