Sunday, 23 February 2014

Interview with Virginia Stephenson

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Virginia Stephenson, an American transgender activist, pastor, writer, spiritual practitioner, Director of the Transgender Spiritual Council, co-author of “Can Christians Be Saved: A Mystical Path to Oneness” and "Your Heart Is My Home". Hello Virginia!
Virginia: Thank you Monika, it is a pleasure to talk with you!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Virginia: yes, I spend most of my time trying to build bridges of understanding, love and trust between people. We have all grown up in a culture which supports the “us and them” mentality, which builds walls between people and groups. I have found spiritual ways that we can connect with each other that will enrich our own lives and those around us.
I do this through writing: my second book is being published this year, and through leading a heart circle in the Oneness community weekly, and through participating in organizations like the trans-Spirit Council The Council seeks to support trans groups around the nation, specifically transgender youth.
Monika: Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Virginia: That is the perspective that many of us have at some point in our discovery that we are transgender. I hope that as we walk our journey, that we are able to see it as being more of a blessing than a curse.
God, Spirit, Creator can be seen as an ally and a lover, not as a punisher. I know that as a result of my crossing gender, that I learned much about myself and my world, and discovered talents and abilities and gifts that I can give back to those around me.

Virginia smiling.

Monika: In one of my previous interviews, Lisa Salazar indicated that transgender persons are said to be some of the least likely to become involved in religious institutions (like church) since most have been rejected and judged by their Christian families, friends and faith communities. Would you agree?
Virginia: Yes, Lisa is right, especially in speaking of traditional conservative religious institutions. That is why many trans folk look outside of traditional institutions for spiritual involvement.
We may participate in native religion, or pagan ritual, or Eastern philosophy, or in deep meditative spaces. Churches, after all, are only one of the many ways to God. I have found that the true “means” for us all to know God, is in our own hearts.
Monika: What is the general attitude of the Christian religion to the transgender phenomenon?
Virginia: Suspicion, persecution, rejection, and resistance. Isn’t it a shame that the Christian Church so deeply fights people that are “different” and tries to make everyone conform to their idea of holiness or some such thing.
Again, I am speaking of the fundamental churches, who seem to have a vendetta against LGBT persons, under the guise of “God’s will”. Many of the more liberal churches are “open and affirming” for LGBT persons.
Monika: Is there any reference to transgenderism in the Bible?
Virginia: There are no direct references, but there are many stories in which it could be inferred. For example, eunuchs in the Bible refer to gender variant persons, so many of these stories could be about transpeople. Strong women who occupied traditional male roles, such as Deborah, could have been today’s version of transmen.
According to much research, transgender persons were sought after in ancient days as healers, shamans, mediators, priests and priestesses and were honored in their ability to “walk between the worlds”. We need to reclaim those ancient traditions and roles.

Virginia thinking.

Monika: Some time ago you were introduced to Mahayana Buddism and Zen. What is their attitude towards the transgender phenomenon?
Virginia: It all depends on the local temples, but just look at the representations of Avalokitesvara and Guanyin. This was the same person, but represented as a feminine man or as a woman.
Most of the temples recognize women and men to be equal in all respects and allows them to serve in all capacities. This would be true of all genders. Buddhism is more of a way to think… or not think, and a way to live one’s life. In this way it is not a religion but a WAY.
Monika: You developed your spiritual practices as a Oneness Blessing Giver and created a ritual for transition and healing for transpersons, based upon the ancient myth "The Descent of Inanna." Could you say a few words about it?
Virginia: In the ancient texts a transgender person rescued Inanna from the Underworld. As Joseph Campbell said, myth serves to teach us about ourselves and our place in the world. The ritual I created is an exciting play where we can actually feel some of those lessons and places in our hearts. 
The ritual becomes an initiation into feeling the suffering of the world and stepping into a place of power to help and serve others with love. We are able to feel the suffering of all transgender persons, and ritualistically step out of the place of suffering into accepting and living life.
Monika: In 2009 you became a director of the Transgender Spiritual Council. What are the goals of that organization? 
Virginia: Leeza Edwards, Wren Walker Robbins and I and our advisory members, have the intention of seeing the world transition from patriarchal control to a partnership between all genders, nationalities, and ethnicities. To that end we seek to spiritually support all transgender groups, especially the youth in those groups. We present a 2-3 day “convening” where we teach from native, Buddhist, pagan and Christian sources, to build community, understanding, trust, and love between all of us.
In past convenings, we have done activities such as nature walks, writing workshops, trans rituals, feasting together, and deep listening and heart space talking. We have been greatly encouraged and impressed with the personal strength and commitment of our trans youth!

Dressed up at the ball.

Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Virginia: I transitioned in 2001, and even though I lost my job because of it, I had a remarkable support system of friends and family who walked with me through it all. My 2 children have always been my greatest supporters, and me theirs too!
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Virginia: Eva Hayward, Nancy Nangeroni, Wren Robbins, Penn Baker, and many others.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Virginia: Fear. I had never faced fears like that. Fear of losing friends and family, fear of losing my job, fear of losing my life! But it was through that experience that I discovered what the Buddhists meant about losing “attachments”, and I experienced a new found freedom when I lost my fears and accepted things as they were. It was a spiritual awakening for me, and a journey that I cherish to this day.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Virginia: Well, we try. But fortunately our LGB allies have stood by us and supported our cause, too. Keep in mind that we are bringing notice to ourselves to gain rights of equality, which when we receive them, will enable us to recede into the mainstream to live lives like everyone else. I see us as about halfway up the slope to the pinnacle of full equality, so we can then start the journey down to be like everyone else.
As a long time participant in our political struggles, the help of gays and lesbians has been important to our achievement of the rights we have. I know that we can all cite examples when we have not been helped by certain organizations, but I can cite many allies that have stood up for us.

Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Virginia: Isn’t it amazing how the transmen have come into the political and social arenas of activism and are being so effective. Years ago, there were very few transmen involved, and now there are more transmen than transwomen involved in my city.
In fact, the out, active and visible transwomen are now young persons, and some of the older transwomen like myself are finding other causes and just living our lives. I think a main issue for transwomen are the expectations of people that we all “pass”, and this expectation holds us back from acceptance of our individual gender places and spaces.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Virginia: Honey, I have been fighting this issue for almost 20 years, I feel like I am past the frontier. But I understand the issue is still new for some…. like Republicans??
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Virginia: I was the main trans lobbyist during the 2003 NM legislative session where we became the first state to have a non-discrimination Act AND a hate crimes law pass with gender identity in BOTH bills. I believe the transgender women can play any part they choose in politics, but know this. It is a lot of work and we still have to earn our way into places of power by supporting a party or a group faithfully for a period of time.

With her son Josh.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Virginia: Love is all there is. I try to practice unconditional love for myself, and then out of that wonderful place, to love others unconditionally too.
Love for self means that we love ourselves WITH the parts that we may want to change. Many of us wait until we think we are perfect to love ourselves, and very few of us reach that place. The key is to practice love for self NOW.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Virginia: I have never seen one myself. Again, while I think they may support some unfortunate stereotypes, I certainly support and love those trans persons who want to participate and wish them the very best in their lives.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Virginia: My first book “Can Christians be Saved: a mystical path to Oneness” had many of my personal stories in it. I preferred to write a spiritual book with supporting personal stories, rather than a formal autobiography.
My second book, being published this year with my co-author, Buck Rhodes, is about the steps to finding the Authentic Self.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Virginia: Find a good experienced counselor. Do a lot of research…you will find there is NO one way to transition or to be who you truly are. “Full” transition is not “better” than crossdressing. Each path is different and there is no hierarchy that is relevant.
Find who you truly are and be that person. Your own personal goals and path is first for yourself, and then so you can effectively help others and the world. Journey to find that place where you totally accept yourself just as you are.
Monika: Virginia, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Virginia Stephenson.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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