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, participant in such projects and productions as “The Vagina Monologues”, “Beautiful Daughters” and "Trans Sister Tales". 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.
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.
She knows, her roots are showing. Shoot her.
Monika: What about sex?
Debra: Can we talk? I think transwomen play down our sexuality because society trumpets that’s all we’re about. We know they’re wrong. What we are is interesting. 
Most transwomen I know seem to have been oriented pre-transition toward women; fewer toward men. I think we’re more inclined to bisexuality that the average cisgendered person. That shouldn’t come as a total surprise to anyone.
I was precociously into girls and actually homophobic until my late teens. As I transitioned, my primary sexual orientation migrated from female to male. I don’t know but I suspect that’s relatively uncommon. Now I tell people that at one time or another I am, or I was, or I have been or I have been perceived as belonging at one time or another to each leg of the LGBT quadrad.
I reoriented gradually toward men, until fairly recently only sexually because romantic feelings for a man just weren’t happening. When I went full-time I’d already largely weaned myself off women. I still find them attractive but the dynamic is very different now. My sexuality changed drastically post-transition. The testosterone just wasn’t there anymore.
There are men who don’t care what their partner feels or doesn’t feel. I prefer someone who cares about me because now I really need that emotional connection. If I’m responsive, sex will be better for him, which in turn makes it better for me, and we both spiral upwards into great sex.
Conversely, if I’m not feeling it I’ll immediately sense his ardor fizzle and the sex will spiral downwards into a black hole. It’s a feedback loop, either positive or negative, not all that different from a cisgendered woman’s experience. But for transwomen the mental element is even more critical because we’re neurologically challenged, starting with just half the number of nerve endings and losing most of those during vaginoplasty.
I’m envious of hyper-orgasmic transwomen, some of whom had the same surgeon as I. But I’m not complaining. I have an active and powerful female libido. It comes on slowly and my sex fantasies are now strictly female, almost embarrassingly pedestrian. The dead hand of my former self still lurks in the background, monkey wrench in hand, threatening to destroy that delicate mood.
An attractive man’s attention is the best antidote to those pesky self-doubts. It all came together with a man who knew everything about me but loved me nonetheless and wouldn’t give up on me while I sorted things out… shades of Christina Aquilera, “What A Girl Wants.”
I’m still doing OK. Most of the men who come on to me these days take off when I tell them about my past but a few are able to overcome the “ick factor.” The ones who can’t? “Next!”
No, that’s not a tattoo.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Debra: We certainly upset people’s applecarts. When I started transition I couldn’t have imagined the progress we’ve made, especially in the last ten years or so. The bigotry of a very vocal and activist conservative element is appalling but it’s balanced by the increasing support we’re getting from more thoughtful quarters.
People can change. Parents, educators, businesses, government – ordinary straight people everywhere are shedding antiquated, blindered attitudes and recognizing that it’s indeed possible for someone to look one way but be another inside, even though they’ll never experience that feeling themselves. That’s remarkable, especially for a society so permeated with religious fundamentalism. The tide of change favors us.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Debra: As I’ve evolved so has my wardrobe.
When I started transition I’d already had FFS and my hair had grown-out but still I was surprised how easily I presented as female. I had very little fashion guidance and just had to figure things out for myself. I didn’t know though what was right for me so I started dressing androgynously and just kept pushing the envelope incrementally.
I was always slight but I wanted to draw attention away from residual male signals. Broader shoulders and a larger ribcage make blouses problematic and narrow hips can destroy the illusion of a female figure. My breast augmentation radically altered my geometry. I would have gone smaller if my waist had been smaller. A tummy tuck helped a lot and last year I dieted and dropped 15 pounds. I’m back to my high school weight. Now I’m a size 4 or 6 below the waist but an 8 above.
Fortunately, many wealthy women in LA are forever cleaning-out their closets so for several years I found lots of fine merchandise in thrift shops for next to nothing. Like many girls just starting out I went a little overboard with tight-fitting tops because I didn’t want to wear anything whose label read “large.” Over time I realized larger sizes made me look smaller and therefore more femme. Most button-front tops are too tight because my boobs are large so I prefer loose knits. They’re comfortable, stylish, and hide a multitude of anatomical irregularities.
The Navy doesn’t have a problem with her.
Even during my thrift shop stage I’d occasionally splurge on the good stuff at major end-of-year sales. Classics never go out of style. Over time I acquired a nice wardrobe. 
Shoes are problematic, even though I have relatively small feet. I wear an 8½ or 9 wide (American size) and often have to stretch out the toe box, even with wide widths. I had bunion surgery even before I started transition so I stay away from high heels. They usually hurt.
I love ballet flats. They’re comfortable, I don’t need to appear any taller than I am, and toe cleavage is as sexy as high heels.
Transwomen have a shorter distance crotch-to-waist so women’s slacks are usually uncomfortably loose “down there” but younger women’s jeans fit well, especially hip-huggers, which are low-rise. I’m not working anymore so I usually dress very casual… lots of skinny jeans.
As I male I was very monochrome, but even then I tended toward the androgynous. Now I can wear color. I love pastels. I feel best in reds and pinks but I also have a lot of black and white. It’s amazing how much better I feel with a little lipstick.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Debra: I’m OK with them. Yes, I understand pageants objectify women and I understand the problems with judging people on looks. Yes, radical feminists go apoplectic because to them we embrace all the worst female stereotypes, the ones from which they’re running for their lives.
I believe these images’ appeal is not merely a function of a dominant patriarchy; rather, they tap into a deeper female sub/semi-consciousness. Well, mine for sure. I feel confident enough about my femininity and my credentials as a person to present however I want.
Jenna Talackova probably feels the same.
As humans we evolved as we did for a reason. Human males have the largest penises relative to body size of any primate species and only human females have permanent breasts. That should tell you something about human sexuality. Why fight it?
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Debra: It does seem that you can’t be anyone in the community unless you’ve written a book. 
After my surgery I wrote a very candid personal essay that Lynn Conway graciously posted on her Transsexual Women’s Successes webpage (Gallery page 2; look for “Debra/Attorney”). That’s probably going to be it for me, except for interviews like this (Thank you Monika!).
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Debra: A number of things.
First of all, understand that there’s nothing wrong with you. Transfolk are born as such everywhere in roughly the same proportion to the general population every day of every week of every month of every year since who-knows-when so if we’re not “normal” neither is any person whose height, weight, intelligence, etc. is more than one standard deviation off the median.
Actually, there may be a few more of us now because of things like DES given to pregnant women in the 50s and 60s to avoid miscarriages and all the hormones in our food supply. But really, so what? It’s really the rest of society that has the problem. The science that says we’re born this way just keeps growing yet they’re in denial. Most of them try to justify their prejudices with religious dogma for which there is not a scintilla of credible evidence. Therefore, what they believe is by definition irrational yet they insist our sense of ourselves as female inside is “delusional.” 
A smiling lady!
I was miserable for so long because I too bought into their b.s. That’s over. I finally learned I’m OK. When the conversation turns to my gender I sometimes say very matter-of-factly, “You do know about me, don’t you?” and then go blithely on with whatever I’m saying, as if my being trans is irrelevant, which it usually is. It’s surprising how easy this is and the effect is profound.
Most people don’t have an original idea in their heads about us. What they think they know they usually got second-hand. I’m confident so people usually take their cue from me. If I haven’t won them over at least they keep their mouths shut. It reminds me of something I learned in the Navy: “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you.”
Get educated. Know the basics (sex, gender and sexual orientation). It’s the paradigm that clears out the cobwebs of the fuzzy thinking that feeds the demagogues. There are many good resources. IMO, Lynn Conway’s website is still the best. I also like Annie Richards’ “Second Type Woman.”
A lot of t-girls are younger and prettier than I but I still do OK. I think it’s because I can converse reasonably knowledgeably and entertainingly on just about anything without a “like” or “you know.” Speech matters.
Look the part. I’ll bet every culture, every language has an expression akin to “don’t judge a book by its cover” yet that’s everyone’s first impulse. We’re simply a lookist species.
So many transwomen go through puberties that for a woman are disfiguring but medical procedures can redress a lot of the damage. Yes it’s expensive so it’s doubly unfair but if you can afford it why handicap yourself unnecessarily? That’s like practicing bleeding. 
Looking like a woman does not make one a woman. I’m a woman because a je ne sais quoi inside that keeps drawing me toward the female refuses to go away. Looking like a woman made it easier for my inner female to emerge and blossom until she just became second nature. People, in turn, are more accepting because I vibe more as female. Life is easier, and a lot more safe.
J’adore la France!
My looks worked against me when I applied for a job as a trans lawyer with a major LGBT rights organization. I learned that the radfem who interviewed me can’t stand femme transwomen. Judging by the numbers, they’re far more accepting of transmen. That makes some sense.
Many if not most FtMs spend years in the lesbian community cultivating a butch persona. After a while they realize they’re actually male inside. But that connection to the lesbian community persists and renders them more acceptable to gays as well.
This is the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about but until we air this disgraceful bit of laundry it will continue to fester and breed nothing but bad feelings between and among people whose bread is really buttered on the same side.
I can’t help feeling jealous of kids today who transition before puberty. They almost seem a different species. They’re unclockable and they will never acquire a lifetime of toxic male experiences that just play with your head.
Sadly, hormone blockers are no panacea and even their road will be bumpy. I suppose if they totally woodwork they could avoid that awkward conversation with a prospective lover that often results in rejection. I’m uncomfortable doing that, especially with someone I like. These girls are now front-and-center in our fight for equality. The Right’s attack on young trans girls is inexcusable–scandalous, really-but it will pass and we will prevail. I just hope these kids remember and appreciate the older transitioners who paved the way for them.
Monika: Debra, thank you for the interview!
Debra: Thank you, Monika.

All the photos: courtesy of Debra Soshoux.
Done on 6 February 2014
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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