Tuesday 4 February 2014

Interview with Michelle Enfield

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Michelle Enfield, a Navajo transgender activist and advocate, HIV counselor, and the winner of the 2012 Alexis Rivera Trailblazer Award. Originally from Lukachukai, Arizona, she lives in Los Angeles, California. She has first-hand experience working with homeless youth, and specifically with the Native American population providing HIV education and support. Michelle is a member of the Transgender Service Provider Network (TSPN) and co-chair of the Underrepresented Cultural Communities with the LA Department of Mental Health. Hello Michelle!
Michelle: Hello Monika. Thank you for your time and effort to connect with the many transgender advocates and activists throughout the world.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Michelle: I’ve been in the HIV field, professionally, for over five years, although I’ve been involved in HIV for many more. I was introduced to HIV/AIDS via a story in Reader’s Digest when I was a freshman in high school. At the time, I had a boyfriend whom I was intimate with. After the first time, we had sexual relations, I read the article and got scared of sex. I learned some information on HIV/AIDS through magazines but they didn’t make me an expert, by any means.
Later on, after high school, while still living on the Navajo Reservation, there were a couple of people I knew, close to me, that died from complications of AIDS—but it wasn’t talked about. My friends and I were told by our departed friends’ family that they died of walking pneumonia. Of, course, there was more to those stories, but no one insisted on getting more than the half-truth that was told.
In 2008, after moving to Los Angeles, I had an opportunity to further educate myself in the field of HIV and became an HIV test counselor. I love talking about safe sex and learning about the complexity of relationships, including sexual practices. As I began to counsel individuals and their partners I began learning more about myself. Through this process, I became more aware of myself and this term ‘transgender’ and thus began my advocating journey. 

Profiles of Hope: Michelle Enfield, LA County Dept
of Mental Health (LACDMH). Source: YouTube.

Monika: You have been active as the Program Coordinator with the Red Circle Project. What is the project about?
Michelle: The Red Circle Project is currently the only HIV prevention program in Los Angeles County that specifically targets the Native American/Alaska Native gay, two-spirit, and transgender community. Los Angeles County has the highest population of Native American/Alaska Natives in the country so we definitely have our work cut out for us as far as outreaching is concerned. Last year I was the only staff at RCP, but this year Kenny Ramos works with RCP and he is the Prevention Training Specialist. The Red Circle Project provides a safe, supportive environment with HIV education along with culturally competent resources, referrals, innovative materials, and programming.
Annually, March 20 is recognized as National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and RCP commemorates this day by sponsoring “Celebrating All Life & Creation” Pow Wow. This pow wow is held in the city of West Hollywood and this year will be held on June 28, 2014. It’s a special pow wow because it brings many non-Native communities together and raises awareness of not only HIV but of the Native American culture.
We also hold monthly support groups and reach out to the community on a daily basis to raise awareness of HIV and two-spirit history. Be sure to check out Red Circle Project on Facebook.
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Michelle: It’s a challenge to portray the transgender individual/community to the general population. For the TG community to tell their stories is one thing, but to have stories written about them, portraying them in a positive position, then to put those stories into mainstream media, requires an extreme amount of finesse.
Recently, the advocacy work of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have added more emotional substance to the works that are out there, which, hopefully, will allay people’s opposing perspectives of the transgender community…and will encourage audiences to challenge their own long-standing beliefs of what socially defines what a transgender individual actually is.

Her tattoos are her diary. Taken in January 2014.

Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Michelle: I find the transgender community much like a child. Before I came into the community and began participating in advocacy, I thought the community was passionate and radical. Now that I’ve been in the community, I find that it places a lot of expectations on those outside of the community for assistance… much like a child would depend on their caretaker.
The community needs to become more self-aware and begin searching within for strength to grow up. Many communities show resilience and that is extremely true of the transgender community, but we cannot continue to tell stories of the challenges that we’ve been through and expect others’ sympathy to be the foundation of our strength. 
We need to tell stories of how we overcame challenges, make a note of how we overcame them, then make a list of what we are going to do next…and actually do them. And, although there are plenty of transwomen who are doing great political advancements for the transgender community in America, like Mara Keisling and Joanne Keatley, I’d like to see more transgender individuals become involved in areas outside of places we already expect to see transwomen.
There are many trans-people that take up social services as their career, but this field is not the only field in which a difference can be made. We need representation in every field. Ubiquity creates normalcy. I’d like to see more trans- representation in fields like math and sciences—nothing like a smart woman who can articulate solutions to social issues but who can also “solve for x.” We need more trans people showing off their brains along with their beauty. I’m not so great at math myself, so I try to log on to khan academy at least twice a week.
Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? I read somewhere that you were inspired by Caroline “Tula” Cossey, a British model and actress…
Michelle: I saw Tula on a television show and as much as she was a pioneer in her own right, what she did for me was to speak the actual word transgender. I hadn’t heard that word before and I didn’t know any words that defined what I was doing—not to be confused with who I was, because at the time I was living on the Navajo Reservation just being me—makeup and all, clueless to my personal actually being political.
Without her courage to pursue her passions and to become the public figure she was, it would have probably taken me a little longer to begin this self-reflection that includes me as someone they call ‘transgender.’ This journey that has taken away my genderless being on the reservation to this, sort of, walking protest.

Profiles of Hope: Michelle Enfield, LA County Dept
of Mental Health (LACDMH). Source: YouTube.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Michelle: Coming out? I always thought that ‘coming out’ is a very Western way of thinking. I was always just me; feminine and curious. But my comparative experience to ‘coming out’ was revolved around hormones; making the final decision to begin taking hormones, that is. I never felt like a girl—and don’t know how it feels—but I do know that I’ve always exhibited feminine ways.
I also know that my choice to express myself the way that I do requires a great deal of courage. I vacillated between whether or not to take hormones—not knowing whether Mom would love and accept me after taking them. Finally, I decided that my happiness was ultimately going to let me lead a life that I believed in and that hormones would extend the way that I navigated through life. My mother’s love and acceptance are still there, post-hormones, and which is still a huge influence on me.
Monika: What was the role of transgender women in the culture and history of the Navajo Indians?
Michelle: The nádleeh is the term that is used in my culture: a more feminine male and seen as contributors to the community. They sometimes expressed themselves femininely and had significant others of the same sex. They weren’t ostracized, but rather, they were utilized to strengthen the community through ceremonial inclusion, herb gathering, caregiving, and moderators between other individuals. Growing up, there were many feminine males that I encountered—both family and family friends—but nobody talked about their femininity. They were just ‘fun’ to be around.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Michelle: I have walked the San Francisco City Halls with the likes of Masen Davis and Jameson Green, to the halls of Washington D.C. with Kylar Broadus, to advocate on several bills that were on their way to benefit the transgender community. It is a great feeling to be a part of a larger movement that will assist a human to become a more productive citizen.
I think that any person involved in politics can make a difference—now; whether they make an objective positive difference remains to be seen. We can’t just vote and think that our vote will make the difference we seek, either. We need people in politics that can create policies and ensure those policies are implemented. We have to trust in ourselves and stop thinking others will do what we cannot.

Michelle and Anthony. Taken on
the Navajo Reservation; November 2013.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Michelle: I’m a mess when it comes to love because I fall deep and I fall hard! At the moment I am very satisfied with the ‘someone’ in my life, Anthony. His creativity, intelligence, and sharp wit make me want to become a better person on a daily basis. This is not to say that there aren’t other people in my life that do the same thing, but Anthony is in a different category.
And with that being said, I must also say that self-love is extremely important. I’ve been in love with others for the wrong reasons and it felt like I was dying inside because I wanted more from them than what I could give to myself.
It’s important to remember who you are and that no matter who you’re with—or how they treat you, be it good or bad—that you continue to reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself. The love and respect you give to yourself are priceless.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Michelle: I like fashion, but I don’t necessarily understand it. That is, I don’t always look as great as I think I will when I put an ensemble together, but I’ll wear it anyway! As far as color goes…I go through phases of all black, black with a splash of color, all color, but, inevitably I’ll go back to all black. I’ve been told I resemble a bruja.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Michelle: There are many stereotypes that fall upon many communities and highlighting some of those stereotypes sometimes undermines the more substantial contributions people can make.
Although I’ve participated in a beauty pageant, I think that we should start looking at other strategies that develop and showcase mental attributes that transgender individuals possess. By embracing what’s below the surface will enhance the surface; I’m not sure it works the other way around, yet, in the transgender community.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Michelle: Yes, I have! I’ve hitchhiked across the country, been asked to be in commercials, almost married for money, and have driven a semi-truck while sitting on the truck driver’s lap. I have so many stories to tell, and when I do, they’re going to be raw, so stay tuned….
Monika: Having transitioned yourself, what would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Michelle: Mental strength should be worked on first. There are many people who will challenge the transgender community and debate on whether your transition is valid utilizing language, e.g. literal definitions of man and woman. Then, emotional strength should be worked on.
There will be many words used and positions taken that will sometimes seem to undermine your journey. Sometimes the words used will seem offensive and may cause some emotional damage, but the words are only words until they are given power. If you have mental agility, you should be fine no matter where you are on the transition “spectrum.” A strong sense of self is the foundation of every other decision made in your life.

Michelle Enfield - SF Trans March 2013.
Source: YouTube.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Michelle: I sit on the L.A. County Commission on HIV and there are always projects in the works; one project we just began involves a comprehensive needs assessment of the Native American/Alaska Native community in Los Angeles County.
I’m also a member of the Transgender Service Provider Network and we are continuously working to better the local community. Currently, with the Affordable Care Act being implemented, we are strategizing ways in which the community will have fewer challenges when accessing HRT. 
Monika: Michelle, thank you for the interview!
Michelle: My pleasure. It’s great what you are doing, Monika. I enjoy scrolling down my Facebook wall and coming across other transgender individuals who are doing such great work all across the world. Thank you for bringing awareness to both the transgender community and the non-transgender community.

All the photos: courtesy of Michelle Enfield.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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