Friday 28 February 2014

Interview with Donna Rose

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Donna Rose with whom I would like to discuss the role of transgender women in US politics, culture, and society. Donna is an athlete, a writer and educator, and a well-known LGBT advocate and activist. Her 2003 memoir “Wrapped in Blue” continues to educate and inspire. She is the former Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center Coalition of Central Pennsylvania, and a board member for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). Hello Donna!
Donna: Hi Monika. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you today.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Donna: I’m not sure what career you’re asking about. In my “real” career I’m an IT consultant and have been working with Fortune 500 and DoD clients for the better part of the last 35 years. That’s my “career” – it pays my bills, it’s my profession, it’s where I spend half of my time.
In my “other” life I’ve described myself as a reluctant activist. Although I wouldn’t call that a career in the typical sense, at one point advocacy efforts, were as important an element of my life as my career or anything else I did.

Delivering a speech.

Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Donna: In my opinion, the trans advocacy “agenda” has always been a simple one. Equality. We simply want to be able to live our lives, find happiness, and experience the broad spectrum of human emotions the same as everyone else. It’s that simple.
The list of battlefields where many of us do NOT have equality in this country is as long as it ever was. Violence and harassment. The ability to get and keep a job. Schools, and youth. Healthcare. Communities of worship. Homelessness. The ability to serve in our armed forces. The loss of loved ones, and loneliness. It’s a long, long list that can have devastating consequences on our lives.
The underlying issue is the ongoing stigma of mental illness and perversion that we’ve been struggling with for generations. The only way to make progress across the board is to push the culture change that is necessary to correct these misconceptions. The good news is that we’re making tremendous headway there.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Donna: I’m comfortable that the Obama administration is dedicated to the concept of full LBGT inclusion. They are on board with the fact that Trans Rights are Human Rights, and this is the first president for whom the word “transgender” rolls off his lips regularly and without hesitation. Whether it’s Hate Crimes, military service, workplace protections, or just dedication to common decency he has never faltered.
Monika: American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect? 
Donna: Well, the transgender community – or rather, the transgender “communitIES” – would have little success if left to fend for itself. The thing that provides the leverage of our success is our inclusion under the broader LGBT umbrella. The LGB community is much larger, much more established, has developed many of the relationships necessary to establish political influence, and has provided the important “validation” for inclusion in broader LGBT initiatives.
I realize that some feel that the T has no business under that umbrella but I am not one of those people. That would be to cut off your nose to spite your face. A far more effective approach is to recognize that we’re different and that many of our needs are unique, we’ve got to have a place at the table with bigger, stronger allies when policy and strategy are developed.
The fact that we often DO have that voice, at the highest levels, is indicative of success rather than failure. Is there ground still to cover? Of course. BUT – we are far more active, organized, mobilized, engaged, and vocal today than we were a decade ago and the fact that the passage of an inclusive Federal Hate Crimes act and dedication to an inclusive ENDA demonstrates that success.

Pre-transition life.

Monika: What do you think about transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books, etc. so far?
Donna: In my opinion, these depictions are a big reason for our successes in political and other broader societal forums.
As I mentioned, I strongly believe that the key element for broader awareness and success is a cultural one, not a political one. Politics rarely outpaces the societal “comfort” that provides the cover to move social agendas. Often, that broader awareness comes through the various media you describe.
For example, I’d argue that a key element to moving our society on gay and lesbian issues was the TV show “Will and Grace”. That said, we have not yet had what I call our “Will and Grace” moment…. we haven’t had the media mainstream media visibility that catapulted their issues, their needs, and their “humanity” to new heights.
Many recent popular media portrayals of trans characters are more realistic than decades-old stereotypes and are far more plentiful. Can things be improved? Of course. But I think the key is to recognize that we’re making progress – in a large part because we’ve stopped being invisible and are much more active in telling our own stories.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Donna: That’s a difficult question to answer because it’s such a broad one. The fact that the most significant single issue many of us deal with when we announce a workplace transition is a struggle to use the appropriate bathroom is indicative of deeper resentments and discomforts.
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?
Donna: Going back to what I’ve said before – I’d argue that some of the high visibility “outings” in recent years have as much or more of an impact on trans “activism” than any trans political activist can or does. People like Chaz Bono force society to recognize that transpeople are everywhere, that we’re more like them than different. We’ve got an army of people quietly getting involved and making a difference in political and activist roles across the country.
At the last Democratic National Conference, there were 7 trans delegates, which speaks volumes to our involvement and our effectiveness. Mara Keisling from NCTE is regularly invited to the White House as the face and the voice of the trans community at those lofty levels. I don’t know that we’ve seen our singular Harvey Milk yet, but I honestly don’t know that we need someone to become a martyr to gain that ground.

During her transition.

Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Donna: One of the things that prevented me from transitioning for a long, long time was NOT having a transgender role model. There were none. When Renee Richards jumped onto headlines across the world in the late 70’s it was a big thing for me.
The advent of the internet and access to what I’d call “success stories” of everyday people with whom I could identify played a huge role in the slow process of self-acceptance that’s necessary to make the huge decisions involved in the transition. There are a number of people who played huge roles in my transition, but will probably never know.
When I found Andrea James’s FFS pages it showed me that there was hope. When I found Beck Allison’s story I found somebody who could articulate her feelings in a way that resonated with me.
When I found Dr. Lynn Conway’s website I found dozens of people who shared their humanity to help others. I owe all those pioneers a huge debt and much of my own activism is my effort to pay their selflessness forward. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Donna: Actually, I think there were a couple of things that I’d say were hardest. One was self-acceptance. I had always felt so “normal”, and not having ever met a real-life transperson I had nobody to use as a realistic role model. I had a difficult time seeing past the pejorative stigma that tainted the entire trans experience.
As far as I’m concerned the transition process is more about quality of life and inner peace than it is about body parts or clothes and it took me a long time to accept that transition and happiness were not mutually exclusive.
The other hardest part was coming out to my wife and son. They were the center of my world and I was acutely aware of what would happen if/when I came out. It is that fear that kept me bottled up for decades. There is a quote I like: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Rather, it is the recognition that something else is more important than fear.”
At some point, I reached a stage where authenticity and hope were more important than the paralyzing fear I was experiencing. That’s what it took to overcome it and move forward.

CNN Dialogues - Donna Rose. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a lovely lady yourself but what advice you would give to ladies with the fear of not passing as a woman?
Donna: I hate to be harsh, but I’m a firm believer that transition is the last thing that people need to try, not the first. It’s incredibly difficult, and the reality of life after the transition is often far different than the fantasy world we hope for.
Transition, and often beyond, is very difficult if you’re obsessed with who might know about your history. You’ve got to grow some thick skin before you can move forward. I could say some flowery things like, “it’s what on the inside that counts” or “it doesn’t matter what anyone else things” but those things are of little comfort when confronted by someone who is challenging your gender. It took me quite a while to get past the stares and the snickers but it was something I needed to do to be me.
So, when it comes to advice, I think the best thing I could say is that a key element in all of this is time. It’s easy to dwell in the difficulty of the moment, but time helps overcome discomfort. Be creative finding support, be open to thinking about things in new ways, but most of all – be patient. 
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Donna: At the time I came out in the late 90’s I had been married to a woman I loved totally and completely for almost 20 years. We had built a wonderful life together – a home, a family, a shared vision of the future, and a bond stronger than death. I would have done anything to protect her from being hurt, and that effort kept me bottled up for a long time.
The most important role in my life at the time was as a “dad” to my son. He was 14 at the time I came out so there was a real risk I’d lose him. He totally retreated away from me for almost a year afterwards but I’m thrilled to say that our relationship is stronger and more fulfilling today than ever.
As for the importance of love – that’s a complicated subject. I love to love. I love to be loved. I’m fortunate to have some very important people in my life that I love and who love me back. But at the center of it all is an element of self-love. Without that – well, nothing good can happen.

In South Carolina.

Monika: What inspired you to write your autobiography titled Wrapped In Blue: A Journey of Discovery (2003)?
Donna: When I started writing I never intended for it to be a book or anything that I’d ever show to anyone else for that matter. My transition was done, my marriage was done, I had moved away to start a new life in a brand new city where nobody knew about my past, and it seemed to be everything that I had asked for.
But I gradually realized that something was missing. I needed closure. So, I started to collect various parts of my diaries and letters I had written to try to make sense of things.
As I did it I realized that I was creating exactly the kind of thing I would have loved to have had in my own life only there was nothing like it.
Monika: Are you going to publish the second part of your memoir?
Donna: I’d like to, but realistically I don’t know. The missing element at the moment isn’t motivation. It’s time. It took me over two years to put everything together for Wrapped In Blue.
I’ve got a very busy and full life, so making the commitment that it would take to do that would be difficult. My main outlets for my ongoing story these days are my website and my blog. They don’t take nearly as much time or energy to share. Whether another book is forthcoming is something I’d like to do, but we’ll see….
Monika: What would you recommend to transgender women that are afraid of transition, discrimination, and hatred?
Donna: I go back to that quotation about Fear. The day any of us gives in to what others would have us be rather than who we dare to be is the day we surrender. My dad used to say, “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who do not, none will suffice.” The peace that comes with daring to rebirth yourself is partly a by-product of the difficulty of the journey. Those things you mention are real. They exist, and there’s no getting around that. Be smart. Be aware. Be careful. But, don’t be afraid.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Donna: Yes. I am very content. My family is closer than we’ve ever been before. I wake up in the morning next to someone I very much love. I’ve got more dear friends than I ever imagined. My career is still going strong. There are more things I want to do in a day than hours to do them in. And I am very much at peace. As far as I’m concerned – that’s what this journey was all about. Finding peace.
Monika: Donna, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Donna Rose.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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