Thursday 6 February 2014

Interview with Debra Soshoux

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Debra Soshoux, an American transgender advocate and activist, known for “Beautiful Daughters,” the documentary that chronicled the first all-transsexual production of “The Vagina Monologues”, and LOGO’s “TransAmerican Love Story”. Hello Debra!
Debra: Hi Monika! Thanks for inviting me to your webpage.
Monika: In 2004 you appeared in the 2004 V-Day production of “The Vagina Monologues”, featuring an all transwomen cast, including: Lynn Conway, Andrea James, Christine Beatty, Verba Deo, Calpernia Addams, Leslie Townsend, Valerie Spencer and Asia Vitale. How did you find out about the project?
Debra: By chance, on the Internet. I was instantly excited when I read about it but I’m not a trained actor, I had terrible stage fright (still do) and after laser voice surgery my voice was very weak and uneven so I never thought to be in the cast. I knew I wanted to be part of it and it was in LA! Then my friend Christine auditioned so I did too and voilà! I got an absolutely plum role as the old lady.
Monika: The play was written by Eve Ensler and ran at the Off Broadway Westside Theatre in the 90s. It consists of monologues read by a number of women. Each monologue focuses on a specific aspect of the feminine experience: sex, love, rape, masturbation, birth, orgasm etc. All these sensations are related to the vagina as a tool of female empowerment, and the ultimate embodiment of individuality. How was it presented from the transgender point of view?
Debra: Like we’re part of the gang. Calpernia said it best – “Women’s issues are our issues too.”
Eve wrote a new piece (not exactly a monologue because it was performed by an ensemble of four transwomen) reflecting transwomen commonly shared experience of being targeted for violence precisely because we’re feminine. Many production, trans and cis-gendered, now include it when “The Vagina Monologues” (“VM”) is performed every February 20th or so as part of when V-Day to raise public awareness of violence against women.

At The Vagina Monologues cast party.
L-R: Marci Bowers, DeeDee Flores, Leslie Townsend,
Debra Soshoux, Cheryl Hoffman, Valerie Spencer.

Cisgendered women’s takes on us is a different matter again. I’ve watched over and again a natural disinclination to accept us as female melt away when women get to know us, when they can observe us and gauge whether our behaviors are just an act or whether they reflect an authentically feminine sense of self.
Monika: During the play you were accompanied by Jane Fonda, a famous American actress. Was it a stimulating experience?
Debra: Oh, yeah. Jane Fonda is an authentic Hollywood star as well as a political lightning rod. She put Andrea and Calpernia together with Eve Ensler. I still kick myself for having forgotten to bring my “Barbarella” album for her to autograph.
We were allowed perform with our scripts written-out on 3” x 5” cards, just in case we forgot our lines. Early in my performance I got past my stage fright and didn’t look at mine as I settled into my Granny groove. She had carried around a deep, dark secret for many years, something she finally confronts and confesses – to her interviewer and herself – which finally brings her closure. We can all relate to that.
FWIW, Jane’s son, Troy Garrity (who played Barry Winchell in “Soldier’s Girl” - Calpernia’s real-life story) told me he’d seen VM over 100 times and my performance of “The Flood” was the best he’d ever seen. I don’t know and don’t care whether he really meant it because I was floating on air.

Performing The Flood at The Vagina Monologues.

Beyond that, I was changed just being in a cast with so many amazing transwomen. Icons really, even ten years after. I’d read what Andrea James and Lynn Conway had written but Suddenly the paradigm of sex, gender and sexual orientation didn’t really sink in until I heard them talk about it in-person.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I think the “conventional wisdom” about us (which is not particularly wise – just conventional) was so drilled into me I had to feel it to believe it.
Sadly, the L.A. Times didn’t show but we played to a full house of 400 people, and not just transwomen. My Iranian client brought his very conservative and very skeptical wife who loved it. We reached a lot of people.
The day after the production it was all over and many of my new friends returned home to cities across the country. I cried all day.
Monika: Two years later the production was also featured in the documentary “Beautiful Daughters”, aired on the LOGO network and Showtime television. Did you like the film? 
Debra: I loved it. It was groundbreaking… still being screened on college campuses. It was very professionally done and is as relevant today as it was eight years ago. And I’m in IMDb!
Monika: In January 2008, you performed together with DeeDee Flores, Leslie Townsend, Andrea James, Mariana Marroquin, Ashley Love, Donna Rose and Bianca Leigh, in the Trans Sister Tales, a set of shows focusing on the society’s perception of transwomen. Could you elaborate more on that interesting project? Do you keep in touch with all the ladies?
Debra: I only knew about half the cast beforehand so again I was meeting another group of fabulous transwomen. We each wrote and performed our own monologues so it was taking VM to another level. My own piece chronicled my evolution from strictly hetero and homophobic to my present self. It was very cathartic and the audience laughed at all my jokes.
I rarely see other cast members, at least not in person. Does Facebook count? I’m a huge fan of Bianca Leigh and when I was in NY recently I made it a point to see her.

L-R: Andea James, Debra Soshoux, Marianna Marroquin,
Ashley Love, Donna Rose, Bianca Leigh, Leslie Townsend.

Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Debra: Well of course I’d heard about Christine Jorgensen but I knew very little about her. There was no Internet. The first trans person I ever met was Chrysis St. Laurent, aka International Chrysis. That was forty years ago. She was well-known in New York and she introduced me to the life. But she lived largely outside my comfort zone.
Beyond that, I was attracted to women, which the psychiatric establishment said disqualified me from being trans. And I believed them.
According to them I was also mentally ill. I never believed that but I didn’t challenge them. Nor did I challenge the legal establishment that denied transfolk due process and equal protection of the law.
Back then I was so clueless I couldn’t say for sure I wasn’t a transvestite. I wonder now how many people identify as such but who really are trans, stuck in a situation where they can’t transition, either because of family, job security, money, age, or an anatomy that’s just too male. That’s how I thought it was for me.
When I met Chrysis I took a half-hearted stab at transition which fizzled-out because I couldn’t look in the mirror and see a woman. Dr. Ousterhout didn’t start doing FFS until years later. I only learned about him when I stumbled across Andrea James’ TS Roadmap.
Andrea was everything I was not – focused, determined and brave. I obsessed on her account of her own FFS and had mine a year or two after hers.
I wrote to Lynn Conway from out-of-the-blue and she answered me. That blew me away. Then I was in the Vagina Monologues cast with her and Andrea. I was already two years post-op but that’s when I found my voice... what’s left of it.
I only learned about the Carrousel de Paris and Coccinelle, Bambi and April Ashley in particular when I got on the Internet. I had no idea they existed when I was seventeen and living in Paris. I can only imagine what my life might have been like if I had.
Since you asked about role models I must mention Pamela Harriman, even though she wasn’t trans. She’s simply inspirational. Google her and read her full-page NY Times obituary. I’ve also been a major Marilyn Monroe fan since forever.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Debra: No question - overcoming my fears of what others think of me. How dumb is that? Like anyone really cared. Looking back it’s beyond regretful; it’s downright embarrassing. Once I was able to get past it things started falling into place. And transition is an ongoing process. I’ll always be a work-in-progress.

Her first driver’s license pic as Debra,
a month after she started living 24/7.

When we transition most of us lose everything – family, friends, jobs, a roof over our heads. We learn that society’s civil niceties are not for us, that even the biggest losers feel they’re at least better than a trannie.
I planned things carefully. I delayed my transition until I had the wherewithal to insulate myself somewhat. But even as a lawyer who litigated divorces, when my ex sued me I learned that “justice” really is “just us, and f**k you.” It was an extremely rude awakening. 
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Debra: The electricity between and Rae in “The Crying Game” was compelling. Stephen Rae’s internal conflict as a straight male attracted to pre-op transwoman Jaye Davidson, whose the over-the-top femininity trumps Rae’s homophobia, rang true. Whose heart did Ludovic not steal in “Ma Vie en Rose?” I really liked Jamie Clayton in “Hung” and Laverne Cox is terrific in “Orange Is The New Black.”
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Debra: Not so much anymore. In 2008 I gathered signatures against Prop 8 (the California gay marriage ban) and recently I was on the picket line against the Pacific Justice Institute, the same cadre of duplicitous miscreants whose bathroom scare tactics are now targeting trans kids. I’m a member of the WPATH legal affairs committee.
You interviewed Dana Beyer. Remember that name. She just announced her candidacy for Maryland State Senate. Melissa Sklarz is doing great work in New York. When gender equality finally passes in those two states it will be very much because of them.

She knows, her roots are showing. Shoot her.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Debra: There’s a sticky wicket.
I was precociously romantic, a love junkie. Transition upset every preconceived notion I had about love. Now I’m not sure I really know what love is. I fell into the classic trap of mistaking sex with love, confusing my consuming need to be loved with love itself, which at its core comprehends the ability to love others. For that, however, you must love yourself, something I couldn’t do until after I transitioned.
My sex/love compulsion drove me to do some dangerously dumb things. It’s no exaggeration that transition saved my life. My emotions may not be as intense as before but that’s a good thing. Was what I felt before really “love” or just infatuation driven by insecurity?
Cynics may say that loving yourself is narcissistic but is self-esteem possible if you don’t like yourself? Instilling self-esteem is a major parenting big deal. It’s amazing to see so many trans kids coming out with supportive families. That was so not my experience.


All the photos: courtesy of Debra Soshoux.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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