Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Interview with Laura Calvo

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Laura Calvo, an American politician, transgender advocate, served as Treasurer of the Democratic Party of Oregon, the first transgender woman elected to the Democratic National Committee, Vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee LGBT Caucus, according to Just Out - one of the top 25 LGBT community leaders of the past quarter-century. She’s been awarded the IFGE Trinity Award, and Spirit of Pride Award by Portland Oregon’s annual Gay Pride organization. Hello Laura!
Laura: Hello Monika! I was pleasantly surprised to be included in your interviews. 
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Laura: I’m a child of the ’60s growing up in the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco. In the mid 70’s I went to work for the city of San Francisco as a paramedic. My first political action was helping with Harvey Milk’s campaign. I then moved to rural Southern Oregon in the ’80s and eventually to Portland Oregon in 2004, where I currently live.
Along the way, I eventually found myself and have no regrets other than I wish that I had the foresight way back then to have found myself earlier. I’m not sure how much that would have changed where I am at now, but if I’m honest perhaps I would not be involved with politics as I am now.

In Denver, CO, United States.

After moving to Oregon, I was involuntarily outed at work in 1995 and lost a career in law enforcement as result. At the time there were no legal protections making employment discrimination illegal. I was sick that there was no recourse. The bottom fell out of my life and I went through a very dark time.
One day in 2003, I responded to an email asking for people who had been unfairly discriminated against in the workplace. The email was asking people to provide their stories of discrimination as written testimony for a legislative hearing on a law that would ban future discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I testified at the hearing in person and that was a life-changing experience.
For me, it began my journey into politics. I saw at the time where there was a means to channel the grief I was still suffering into something constructive. Three years later the bill was signed into law and I felt some closure in that I contributed to that effort. But I saw the work was not done and continued my efforts.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. Could you name some of the initiatives that you took part in?
Laura: As I mentioned, I was involved with the Oregon Equality Act as well as the Oregon Family Fairness Act which provided relationship recognition for same-sex couples, so-called domestic partnerships. By the time we had the ENDA issue rise up in 2007, I was involved with the leadership of the Democratic Party here in Oregon and National Stonewall Democrats. The tragedy of that whole ENDA issue really caused me to buckle down even further in politics. Here in Oregon, we already had a coalition of people who helped put the Oregon Legislature and all of the statewide elected offices in the hands of Democrats. The Party fully embraced inclusive equal rights and that continues today.
In 2008, I was a part of the effort to elect Senator Jeff Merkley, who had become a dear friend by that time. It was an amazing effort and resulted in electing someone who was eager to champion LGBT rights in the U.S. Senate and more to the point for me personally, trans* issues.
As Healthcare reform started to heat up, I was involved with helping government agencies here in Oregon provide trans* inclusive health insurance for their employees. I also became involved with Oregon’s Healthcare Insurance Exchange as a sitting member of the Consumer and Small Business Advisory Committee.

Courtesy of Laura Calvo.

Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Laura: Speaking from my personal perspective and experience, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that there has been a historic sea change in this area when you compare President Obama’s administration with any other in the past.
I also have to say that the attitude of this administration has not only been inclusive of transgender Americans but has also included trans* people from other countries also. No other administration in history has sent experienced U.S. Department of Justice investigators and prosecutors to a foreign nation to aid in the investigations of the murders of trans* identified citizens of a foreign country.
This administration has recruited trans* people for cabinet-level Presidential appointment positions in the Department of Justice and Department of Defense. Changes in passport procedures, social security administration procedures, veteran affairs, Health, and Human Services, as well as many other government departments have been the order of the day and continue with efforts to educate government workers responsible for these processes which impact trans* people every day.
Just recently the Department of Justice announced a new program to provide trans* specific training to police departments across the county. Having had the opportunity to speak with President Obama, Vice-President Biden, some of the Cabinet Secretaries, and the staff associated with those offices, I have come away with the impression that there is a personal and genuine attitude of respect for trans* people within this administration.
Monika: You were following quite closely the US last presidential campaign. Was there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats addressed the needs and rights of the transgender community?
Laura: The differences are dramatically stark. To be fair, unfortunately, the Republican Party has been driven by extremists, beyond mainstream conservatism, dialogue who really don’t give credence to science or fact and only wish to throw us back to the days of the Old Testament. Even then, their interpretation of the bible is skewed to a point where there is no happiness unless people are literally publicly stoned to death in the public square for offenses proscribed in the bible. It’s sad that such a vocal minority has been able to impact so much of American politics.

Courtesy of Laura Calvo.

It’s also noteworthy that it’s not just the manner in which the needs and rights of the trans* community are addressed. The American middle class is disappearing and the masses of poor are growing, while hope is also dwindling. Much of the problem is directly related to the difference with which the Republicans address the issues that face the U.S. and the world.
Each and every barricade, obstruction, or another impediment to alleviating the issues which impact the majority of people, is exponentially multiplied for trans* people, and people of color who start out with a deficit.
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?
Laura: One of the several Merriam-Webster definitions of politics is, “the total complex of relations between people living in society”. When you consider the totality in combination with the limited resources and numbers of trans* people in general, then factor in the multi-billion dollar Lobby industry and unlimited campaign spending to influence American voters, I’m of the opinion that trans* people have done remarkably well in pursuing their goals.
It’s a very long slow slog, with many disappointments along the way, and there is still so much to accomplish. But when you take your nose off the grinding wheel, step back and look at some of the progress I think you can say there has been some success to note. Trans* people are coming out at much earlier ages, transitions in the workplace are still a gamble, but less so now than 5 or ten years ago.
There is certainly more U.S. case law that supports barring discrimination based on gender identity today than ever before. Medically there are more resources and more modern thinking in the area. Grade school educators are far more aware and supportive. Even prison systems are far more aware and taking steps to improve the way they handle their inmates.
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?
Laura: First I’m not sure that there is an actual hierarchy or order of preference among the actual words, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. Also, I feel there are many more letters behind the letter T*. Our Bisexual family members are oftentimes more misunderstood than Trans* people, perhaps even more so by our L & G family members. I know that’s kind of hard to think about at times and may be difficult to understand for some.

In Denver, CO, United States.

Overall I do feel that Trans* people are better able to promote their own cause better than they have been able to in the past.
As of late as 2000 many might recall that inclusion of Trans* people in the LGBT movement was being hotly debated by some of our biggest and most powerful advocacy organizations. Trans* people and their allies have been able to settle that debate, although it’s been a bumpy ride and it’s still not uncommon for some gay folks to continually question if trans* people belong as part of the movement. However, those people are a lot timider in general about voicing that opinion.
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?
Laura: The 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are now so remarkably in the past and the tempo of history and life, in general, is moving so much faster now that it’s really difficult to point to just one person. In my way of thinking, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and we walk hand-in-hand as we all walk towards the future.
There are many ways to engage in activism and each of us has our own way. Perhaps one of the most powerful is the person who lives their everyday true life with dignity and integrity for all to see. I think that was some of the very essence of what Harvey Milk had dreamed and was about.
So, here’s to all the folks, from the very young child who goes to school as their true selves, to the employee who transitions at work, to the ally who speaks up when something is said or done, to all of the people who spend countless hours volunteering for campaigns and causes, to those who are beaten and murdered every year as we remember them on the Trans Day of Remembrance, and to those who struggle every day.

Invesco Jumbotron, DNC 2008.

Monika: Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Laura: Well, I certainly hope so since I’m in politics. I don’t think it’s limited to women. I feel that Trans* people do make a difference in politics.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Laura: Oh my, as a general rule whenever I hear of a new film, show, book, or whatever, my tendency is to cringe a bit as I’m unfortunately expecting a shallow and stereotypical portrayal of a character that I’m probably not going to find very flattering or accurate. 
Ms. Cox on Orange Is The New Black has been an exception. It’s a great show and in general treats the character with some authenticity given the circumstances. Dallas Buyer’s Club, I have not seen it yet and I’m still a bit skeptical about seeing it. In general, I think it’s getting better. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Laura: That’s a great question. I’m trying to think back and the best answer that I have is that I really didn’t have a “Trans*” role model to follow. If I had any role models to follow in general they were the people in my life that I admired, some of whom may have been trans*.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Laura: The hardest thing about coming out was actually that I, in essence, came out three times. Once to myself. While in that process, I was involuntarily outed. That was a very painful and demoralizing experience that took a long time to heal. Then I came out of my own choosing and under my own terms. The difficulty there was the realization that there was no going back to the shadows.

With President Bill Clinton.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Laura: Another great question and it’s really difficult for me to answer. I think much depends on the individual and how they navigate their everyday life. There are so many complex interactions and real-life situations that enter into the question.
I feel that the present situation is unfortunately hinged upon race and class. If you are poor, a person of color, and without much in the way of resources, the situation is life-threatening. If you’re white, educated, and have resources available the situation is certainly less life-threatening and certainly a lot more hopeful. That’s also probably true across the board for everyone in American society. I’m also pretty sure that it goes beyond geographical boundaries.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Laura: No offense Monika, but I find myself having a problem with the wording of the question. I find it difficult to think of a new frontier for human rights when we have so many other issues to solve in regards to human rights globally. In other words, I don’t feel like we should set off on the exploration of a new frontier when we have plenty to work on now.
A new frontier also kind of says to me that trans* rights are new and different from other human rights. In my way of thinking human rights are universal. We are not a new species of humans and our struggles have been ongoing for centuries. Our people have been struggling and persecuted for centuries. It’s not a new frontier but rather a very old turf. It is just now, in our modern society that we are at the dawn of recognizing these struggles and doing something about it.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Laura: I’ve lived, loved, and lost. No regrets.

Courtesy of Laura Calvo.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Laura: I’m intrigued and admire some of the fashions trends. However, I’m so not fashionable by any stretch of the imagination. I’m happiest and most comfortable in jeans and a hoodie. I work outdoors so sunglasses are a must and most often on top of my head. Shoes are always sensible and I don’t own a pair of heels.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Laura: Working in politics there is always a new project(s). Mainly it’s due to the election cycle. So we are now gearing up for the 2014 election cycle. I work closely with ten constituency groups and two county parties at the state party level and then as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee LGBT Caucus. There are always new projects! 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
Laura: I think my recommendation is to really remember to take of yourself, be forgiving of yourself and others. Remember that you’re most likely the hardest on yourself. Try not to forget about all the other things in your life which bring you joy and try to keep doing them as you deal with it.
Monika: Laura, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Laura Calvo.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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