Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Interview with Melissa Sklarz

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Melissa Sklarz with whom I would like to discuss the role of transgender women in US politics, culture, and society. Melissa is a transgender advocate and activist, delegate to the Democratic National Convention in New York, presiding over Stonewall Democratic Club. Hello Melissa! 
Melissa: Hi Monika!!! Thanks for doing this and for reaching out to New York City!! 
Monika: I am tempted to ask about your family roots. Your family surname sounds Polish …
Melissa: The family surname Sklarz means glassworker or window cleaner, depending on which part of Poland or the Czech Republic you are from. My estimate is my family left Poland in the late 18th Century and then went to Munich for 3 generations. My family arrived in New York City in the late 1850s.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your career so far?
Melissa: I transitioned in the early 1990s and then became a peer counselor at the Gender Identity Project in the mid-90s. People asked about resources for trans people and I discovered there were none. I started getting involved with the government and the political system at that point, and have continued on from there.

Melissa Sklarz on learning about "transvestites".
LGBTCenterNYC. Source: YouTube.

Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Melissa: President Obama is a great friend of the trans communities. He has done everything possible through Executive Order to change the way the US Federal government deals with trans issues. He has changed passports, legal recognition, hired trans people and added legal support at the Federal level. However, deportation is still a problem as is employment protection so I hope those are next on the agenda.
I was one of the leaders to bring trans rights to New York City in the late 1990s and the bill was signed into law in 2002 by Mayor Bloomberg. Since then we have been trying to bring the same rights to New York State, but have had limited success. 2014 is our 12th year in front of the legislature.
Monika: You are very active in US politics, promoting the transgender cause. Could you elaborate on some of your initiatives and projects in this respect? 
Melissa: I have worked at the local, state, and Federal levels since 1997. I have helped make the non-trans political communities and aware and supportive of our needs and causes. I ran for office for a local Democratic post in 1999 and won, being the first trans person elected to office in New York. That gave me and our communities access to lawmakers and political and community leaders. I have helped with civil rights, health care, birth certificate modernization, education, and aging.

Happy to have marched with so many amazing people in
the St. Pat's for All Parade.

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? 
Melissa: At the last Democratic Convention, there were 12 transgender delegates, including myself. We ranged from all over the country and were all integral parts of our local Democratic establishments.
That is now three national conventions in a row I have been selected in New York. There has never been a trans person involved with the Republican Party that has been taken seriously by them. Although they claim to be the party of individual freedom, I guess it does not apply to gender expression.
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?
Melissa: The transgender communities are a very small portion of American culture, and our political power reflects that. There are even transgender people who do not identify as trans and many more stay hidden. It is hard to build a political movement when so many stay away from publicity. But no one ever changed sex to go into politics, at least none in the US.
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?
Melissa: Sadly, it is very difficult for our communities to be heard and to acquire resources and funding in an LGBT environment. There are so many different LGBT people with so many needs. Gay marriage affects the most people with legal identities and so, that has carried the day. While working within the LGBT community is OK, a stand-alone trans operation might work best. We hope to find out soon here in New York.

Melissa Sklarz Speaks Out Against NYPD's Stop &
Frisk Policy. GLAAD. Source: YouTube.

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?
Melissa: I guess Sylvia Rivera stands out to some as that Harvey Milk like in essence. But we have no political leader to evoke the same passion. Laverne Cox and Janet Mock seem to be acquiring cultural leadership at this time. So political leadership may not inspire the same way now as Harvey Milk did in the 1970s. 
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Melissa: Living visible, authentic lives help Transgender women tremendously. There are hurdles and race is always a dividing point in the US. Black and white experiences are different for all and that includes trans women. African American trans women face more poverty and violence and that is a huge barrier for all.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the US President?
Melissa: No, I do not think I will see a trans woman as President of the US. But I am a lot older than I look. But Dana Beyer is running for state Senate in Maryland this year and we have to learn to walk before we can run.

Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Melissa: The best role model I had was Renee Richards. I knew many trans women in the 1970s but they were all very pretty and fem but they lived for the night and few worked.
Renee Richards showed me that transition may not be done starting at 14 or 15 and that there were hurdles to overcome. I was very moved by her and was able to relate.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Melissa: The hardest thing about coming out was facing the fear and the possible rejection. Trans life was different in 1990 but I was already homeless and in serious job jeopardy, so I had nothing to lose. I was an athlete as a kid and was terrified that my transition would never work and that I would never find a safe niche.
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Melissa: I was never married nor do I own a pet. I have spent so much time trying to relate to myself that I am catching up on relating to others. But time will tell. 
Monika: How do you recollect your acting in "Transamerica" (2005) with Felicity Huffman? Did you like the movie?
Melissa: The writers of Transamerica came to me 2nd hand because they wanted real-life experiences. So we ate and talked. One year later, I got a call, saying they finished the writing, they got funding, they were making the movie. I congratulated them. And then they said they had a part in it for me. I laughed but agreed to do it.
I got enough lines to get an application for the Screen Actors Guild, but I did not join and I did not quit my day job. The movie had trans people telling a trans story by a serious, sincere production. I relate today better today to "Orange Is The New Black" as a trans story. I am happy to have been involved with "Transamerica".

Melissa Sklarz, First Transgender Person Elected
to Public Office in New York State.
DeVote Campaign. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Melissa: Yes, I hope to write my memoirs. As you know, look how simple it is for me to write my thoughts on paper. Instead, I have 20 years of stuff piling up as my narrative gets longer and longer.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Melissa: I am happyish. I go in and out of therapy and always wonder if I can be better or get things right. No one complains about my journey except for me. My family loves me and I have been successful in the workplace, and have used my access to teach and try to make a difference. I am always looking forward to what happens next.
Monika: Melissa, thank you for the interview!
Melissa: Thank you again Monika for your patience and persistence.

All the photos: courtesy of Melissa Sklarz.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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