Monday, 10 March 2014

Interview with Dr. Lynn Walker

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Dr. Lynn Walker, an American transgender activist, educator, retired US Army officer, and bishop in the Orthodox Catholic Church of America. Hello Lynn!
Lynn: Hi Monika. It’s very good of you to invite me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Lynn: I live in Brooklyn with my spouse and two cats, teach occasionally, and direct a couple of housing programs for a non-profit AIDS service organization.
Monika: Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Lynn: I don’t necessarily agree that God is merciless. It seems to me that nature and the creator love variety, and in the last hundred years or so we’re seeing that more clearly. Gender identity is not A or B, but may be better represented as a spectrum – far more nuanced than the scale developed by Dr Harry Benjamin.
It also seems to me that randomness is part of the way the world works, and it’s what enables great creativity as well as great strength of character. I’m not saying that the mind-body thing isn’t a serious matter, for it really is. It’s not at all easy to face the reality or realities of the trans experience.
But struggle is not unique to us, either. There are many physical, spiritual, psychological situations that present enormously difficult challenges for people all over the world. The part about merciless, though. Some people are merciless, perhaps for religious or cultural reasons, or for fear. Maybe it’s a phobia, or it could have to do with misunderstanding or ignorance.

At the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference,
with her friend and colleague, Bishop Tim
and her spouse Francesca.

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?
Lynn: Certainly, I’ve known many trans folk who have been rejected by family, friends, and faith communities based on what seem to me to be to be errors in understanding scripture, tradition, and history.
Yet at the same time, there are a good number of trans people whose religious faith has been constant, and steadfast, and sometimes strengthened, by the ties that they have with their families, friends, and religious communities. The Philadelphia Trans Health Conference has for several years had a spirituality track, and has attracted a number of religious people and clergy – trans people, along with their families and friends.
One thing that is so very sad for me is that so many trans folk have had such an awful experience with their faith communities. Here and there the situation is different, and many faith communities that identify as reconciling, open and affirming are in fact trying to be exactly that.
Monika: What is the general attitude of the Christian religion to the transgender phenomenon?
Lynn: Within Christianity in general, there is such a wide variety in attitudes – from outright rejection and condemnation to acceptance and celebration – among the many communities of faith. I’m not sure I could say whether there’s a general attitude. In the Christian churches with which I’ve been associated, the general attitude has been exceptionally positive, friendly and encouraging.
Monika: Is there any reference to transgenderism in the Bible?
Lynn: Not precisely, for the idea of transgenderism, as we experience it in the 21 Century, is not an idea likely to be found in ancient documents. Of course life has changed in serious ways over the last several thousand years. In this twenty-first century, our domestic and public lives can’t really be compared with people in first century Greece or Israel.
There are references in the Bible that may be used to support or condemn us, and of course there are the usual dozen or so “clobber passages.” Over the last decade or so, though, there have been a number of writers who have addressed those passages, and these have been of great help and support to so many of us who have been perplexed.

With Francesca on Pride Sunday 2013 at the Church of St Luke
in the Fields.

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?
Lynn: I suppose I could say that I was always female, but just happened to have a body with an XY chromosome configuration and a masculine shape. But in terms of transition to what I believed to be a more authentic way of life. I was in my late 30s, having lived with the questions, doubts, fears, and uncertainties for many years.
Around the time I retired from the Army, it was time to make a positive shift in terms of work and social life. There were a number of difficulties, largely around employment and loss of income. I have been blessed with a network of supportive friends and a loving family.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Lynn: Among my friends, I had a number of people who served here and there as role models. Not only trans people, either. There are people of courage and resilience all around us.
Around that time, though, I was active in the International Foundation for Gender Education, and in the Gender Identity Project at NYC’s LGBT Community Center. I was also active in the Imperial Court of New York. There, I had the friendship of a great many good people.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Lynn: There is not just one thing. Leaving a job that I enjoyed enormously, and taking a serious pay cut was difficult. Taking a big chance when telling family and friends was frightening. Requesting an indefinite leave of absence from my church was another. Divorce was yet another.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Lynn: In general the administration seems actively to support equal rights for all US citizens, and I’m very glad about that. There seems to have been a serious shift at the federal level in the direction of commitment to equality of opportunity for more people. In a very few places, there is a move to require health insurance companies to cover trans related health care, and this is encouraging. The administration might exert some influence in this area, so that this might become the general rule.
There are still places in the US where trans people can be fired from their employment because they are trans. I would like to see more in the direction of better medical care in the VA Medical Centers, and I would like to see the US follow the example of other nations and make it possible for trans people to serve in the military.

At a competition in Fort Lee, New Jersey, enjoying
ballroom dancing.

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?
Lynn: Sometimes I wonder. It takes lots of people in crowds to attract attention, and it takes money. There are so few trans folk, and a good many of us don’t care to engage in advocacy. Further, a good many of us don’t have much money to support causes, even if the causes are our own.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Lynn: We’re doing a lot better than 20 years ago. There are advantages to living and working in NYC – and I believe our situation here is generally pretty good. At the same time, we continue to witness and experience countless murders, assaults, and incidents of sexual assault, and domestic violence. There are many hostile work environments, and trans folk often encounter unfair treatment.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Lynn: (grin) Well, it could happen. It seems unlikely, but we can hope.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Lynn: Certainly, one of many new frontiers. It is interesting that Facebook has just recently made a change to enable people to choose among a large number of gender and sexual identities (around 50, I think).
At the same time, we do well to remember that the struggle for gay, lesbian, and bisexual human rights continues. Recent legislation in Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Uganda make it clear that we need to continue to press for equal rights for all of us in all the LGBT communities.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Lynn: I am not active in politics, though I have participated in lobbying efforts in support of HIV/AIDS services and in connection with gender expression non-discrimination. And yes, I believe that when trans folk are willing to stand up and be noticed, when we are willing to meet with political people and when we become politically active, we can exert enormous influence.

Wedding with Francesca.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Lynn: It’s important to me. I’m in a wonderfully supportive, loving relationship with another woman. We got married this year.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Lynn: They could be as good as any other beauty pageant – if they can support the truth that trans women have great talent, imagination, intelligence, passion, courage, and wit. So they need to be more than just about physical beauty, eh?
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Lynn: As you just said, many have written. What’s one more story? Of course I’ve thought about it, for I think I have a good story to tell, but to what purpose? I wonder if it might be better to write a few essays to focus on spiritual and religious issues that come into our lives.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Lynn: I’d start by saying that it might help to step away from the term ‘dysphoria,’ and start thinking that in fact, nature thrives on diversity and variety. But at the same time, I would need to acknowledge the enormous struggle that many of us endure – simply to survive, simply to live as the people we are. Too many of us encounter violence, insult, assault and discrimination.
One thing, and I think the most important thing to do is to reach out to others in the trans community for support and friendship … and then to reach out to their health care providers to urge them to seek up to date information, and perhaps to consider joining WPATH.
Monika: Lynn, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Dr. Lynn Walker.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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