Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Interview with Riah Roe

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Riah Roe, an inspirational American girl, transgender activist and advocate. Hello Riah!
Riah: Hi Monika, thank you so much for that kind introduction.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Riah: Well, as you mentioned, my name is Riah (Rye-uh) Roe. I currently call Minneapolis Minnesota my home. I moved here during the summer of 2013 shortly after I graduated from Concordia College in western Minnesota.
Throughout my studies there I focused primarily on critical issues within the field of gender and sexuality. Now, being a more conservative private college there really was not a program for that so I ended up with a double major in Psychology and Sociology with a minor in Women's Studies.
As for recreationally, I absolutely love spending time with my dear friends. I went to roughly twenty-three schools as a child and so I never really felt very connected to say a town or family members outside of my single-parent family.
However, a consistent theme throughout my life has been befriending like-minded individuals (usually outcasts) and sharing experiences together. It was inevitable that one day that experience sharing would eventually develop into social justice advocacy.
Monika: You are a very dynamic transgender activist. Could you elaborate more on some projects and initiatives that you took part in?
Riah: Sure, of course. Well I would say my first informal initiative was to put my story out into the world. When we think about traditional communities we often think of people who live and interact with each other frequently.
That being said, I find that the transgender community is often fragmented by geography. While it is true that we belong to every race, tax bracket, country, and time period, two trans* people could live in the same town and not have any means of knowing each other existed. And even if they did happen to know each other it is no more likely they would get along better than any two cisgender people in a town.
So shortly after embracing my new identity I felt sort of calling to share my story and connect with others; both in and out of the queer community. Thus my YouTube channel was born. Through that medium I was able to share the very beginning of my "journey" so to speak.
However, after awhile I felt I needed to work on making the smaller communities I was a part of more trans-inclusive. For example, my college charged fines for men and women being on each other's dorm floors after a certain point at night so needless to say they were not very well equipped for their first transgender student. In a way it was unfortunate that I had to interact one on one with upper level administrators just to feel safe in on-campus housing. I really should have been studying instead.
Slowly but surely campus life became a little bit easier. A few other students came out as transgender shortly after I did and I turned my efforts towards the Fargo-Moorhead area itself. I did this by working with two wonderful organizations, the Pride Collective and Community Center and their subsidiary Tri-State Transgender (TT). Through these spaces I was able to meet wonderful activists who focused on all sorts of LGBTQI* issues in the Fargo-Moorhead community.
In particular, I found that my speech clinician Dr. Richard Adler was a particularly impressive driving force. Working closely with the trans* community, a Transgender Resource Guide was made. I was excited to assist him in every way I could alongside my academic studies, FM Derby Girls practices, and martial arts training under Grand Master Marquart.

By happenstance, I found myself one of the few out transgender residents at a critical point in North Dakotan trans* history. Senate Bill 2252, an LGBT non-discrimination bill was introduced at the end of January 2013. I was proud to join forces in a movement comprised of many impressive North Dakotan activists such as legislature Joshua Boschee, and attorney Thomas Fiebiger. I was even fortunate enough to be able to testify in front of the North Dakota Senate Judiciary Committee on the importance of this legislation. Unfortunately, the bill failed in committee just three weeks after its introduction; a true testament to what it feels like to be queer in North Dakota.
Monika: Which issues on the transgender agenda should be addressed as soon as possible?
Riah: I have never been a fan of the "Oppression Olympics", meaning activists who argue that the injustices they face are more oppressive than the injustices other's face. However, if I were to identify key issues that need to be addressed immediately I would say they fall within three categories.
The first being Law Enforcement Relations and Police Brutality. The LGBT community as a whole is already apprehensive of law enforcement agencies across the country. Trans individuals even more so, due to the disproportionate amount of violence perpetrated against them by those meant to serve and protect.
The next would be Reforming Medical and Legal Processes. The amount of roadblocks to transitioning is astonishing on every level. Gatekeepers range the gamut from endocrinologists to therapists; legislatures to state judges. And all of the hurdles vary from state to state; sometimes even city to city.
Which brings me to the third, finally ending Public Accommodation, Housing, and Employment Discrimination. This category of issues is one of the most impactful because it truly affects the day to day life of trans* identified people. Without access to public restrooms, shelter, and an income many turn to crime, coerced sex work, or worse; suicide.
Until those systemic issues are resolved, trans* communities will only rarely be able to gain the agency and capital to produce the wider policy changes necessary to end trans-oppression.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Riah: Well I would be lying if I said that I had seen or read even most things that feature transgender characters. However, it seems there are already some pretty disturbing trends present in the media's representations of trans-individuals.
Overall, transgender women are portrayed in only the narrowest of stereotypes. They are the "non-passable tranny" sex workers, dying from HIV-AIDS, or gay men attempting to trick unsuspecting straight men into have sex with them. And yes, it is true that these are the real experiences of some Americans. However, what sort of messages are being sent to cisgender Americans if these are the only representations available? As for transgender men? Well, they are still practically invisible, with maybe the exception of Chaz Bono.
We need to boost trans-visibility, yes, but we also need to transform the way they are portrayed to accurately reflect the diversity of the community. And yes, there are many cisgender actors who can play transgender roles with talent and skill.
However, with so many transgender actors being excluded from the media, I think the best way a cisgender actor can be an ally is to reserve transgender characters for transgender actors. Not unlike how male actors reserve female roles for women or white actors reserve black roles for people of color.
By age 21, Roe had already studied
academically on three continents.
Monika: In one of your interviews I read that Kate Bornstein was one of your inspirations…
Riah: Yes! I first heard Kate's story at the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference in Madison Wisconsin back in 2009. At the time I seriously considered coming out and transitioning. However, I decided to wait another two years before shifting from presenting as a gay cisgender man to a transgender woman.
Luckily, I was able to cross paths with Kate more intimately during the Living In A Binary World Conference that Concordia college co-operated with North Dakota State University. Before the event we had a fabulous dinner together and by the end of the evening she had given me her phone number and she insisted on me calling her Aunty Kate.
Kate's book Gender Outlaw - On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us was inspirational, educational, and one of the many catalysts that facilitated the beginning of my transition. So for that, Kate has a very special place in my heart as a mentor, colleague, and friend.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any other transgender role models that you followed?
Riah: Unfortunately, living in North Dakota I had very few role models to connect with in the first place. However, one of the most memorable is named Dee. She is a humble and gracious transgender activist. Not only that but because of her determination and leadership she has strengthened the foundation upon which the western Minnesota/eastern North Dakota trans* community is connected. Her guidance, leadership, and network of transgender folks in the area were truly instrumental in my development during the first few years of my transition. For that I am eternally grateful. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Riah: I think that there was no single thing that was the hardest. The reality is that transitioning in the public eye as an activist opened up the floodgates for a wide variety of oppressive, uncomfortable, and even dangerous situations in my life. I think one of the hardest things is not only coming out once, but doing so to every person I ever meet. I often have to bring up the fact that I am transgender. Less supportive people will often say something like "Well, you wanted to be treated like a woman so why keep bringing up the fact that you're transgender, why not just live as a woman and move on?"
Besides being a gross oversimplification of what my gender identity is, it is simply not right to ask people to hide such an impactful part of their identity. If I want them to become an ally to me in the fight for trans justice (cisgender) people need to be well-equipped with the knowledge of real experiences. Now, that being said, it usually isn't simply a matter of just saying "Oh by the way, I'm transgender." It often requires a series of extensive conversations and education. Needless to say this is one of the most challenging aspects of being out.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Riah: Unfortunately, there is no single situation for transgender women in American society. America is riddled with immense social inequality. The experiences of a black transwoman in stealth from New York could be virtually unrecognizable when compared to an out white transwoman with disabilities in Arizona.
However, a common thread through the American trans movement is this issue of bodily autonomy. In the same way that Americans value freedom of religion or political beliefs, we need to acknowledge that the ability to make choices over our body is inherently linked to many people's pursuit of happiness. Whether this manifests in tribal body art, punk piercings, fashion, or gender expression, all humans deserve ownership of their bodies free from societal or governmental interference.

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Riah: I have reflected on this question before and I am excited that it might be. Simply because transgender individuals rock the fundamental foundations upon which most of our oppressive systems are built.
To not only question; but physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically demonstrate that our preconceived notions of sex and gender are malleable is a huge deal. Most humans have strong gender identities (whether they know it or not). Those identities in many ways dictate how they interact with broader society and what opportunities are offered to them. Trans justice is justice for all people who have had opportunities denied to them because of their gender identity. 
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?
Riah: This question takes form in every movement. Over the years I have flip-flopped between being proudly a part of the wider LGBT community and a full on trans-separatist. This is because many LGB-identified people do not experience major oppression based on their gender. At least not *usually* to the extent that the trans* community does so regularly.
Reflecting on my college experience, there were many brilliant minds working to make the Concordia community more inclusive. However, there were often major disconnects between cisgender leaders both at the administrative and student level and gender-variant individuals. The only student organization that was focusing specifically on queer issues was the Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA). Year after year, I and other gender minorities petitioned the gay/lesbian leaders of the organization to fight for a change of name to something more inclusive such as the Sexualities and Genders Alliance (SAGA).
However, gender variant individuals were told by leadership that keeping the name exclusionary was necessary to garner campus support. It was feared that students, administration, and alumni donors may not support the pressing gay and lesbian issues such as marriage if they were to make such a move for inclusivity. However, marriage wasn't really the most pressing issue for gender variant people at Concordia. They were too busy encountering restrictive policies, harassment, and even violence on campus. Unfortunately, this "under the bus" phenomenon is all too common in the wider LGB/T movement as well.
For me, it felt exclusive and I hope that future leadership seriously considers how it can be 100% inclusive in both name and function.
I do not have a concrete answer on what the movement for gender and sexuality liberation should be referred to as. However, I think it is important to remember that we all as individuals have radically different life experiences in relation to our gender identities, race, sexual and romantic orientations, socio-economic status, and ability levels. I truly believe that one should not only advocate for their own cause (e.g. only trans folks working on trans issues) but rather we should all work in solidarity with everyone who experiences oppression.
Martial arts, debate, and roller derby
are just some of Roe's hobbies.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Riah: I am active in politics! I think everyone should, to the best of their abilities, be involved at some level. Even though it can get messy and confusing, state and national policies affects every member of society. Currently, I divide my energy among a few specific movements. I mainly focus on gender, race, class, and ability.
Do I think transgender women can make a difference in politics? Absolutely. Everyone can and should.
So what are my political beliefs? Well, those are constantly evolving as I learn more about the world we live in and hear the stories of others unlike me.
First and foremost, I am really tired of all the negativity in the world. The only way we can create a better world is to learn how to forgive and support others. Attempting to create positive social change is hard work.
It requires a lot of emotional labor because our work is tied into our own identities and day to day experiences. Often it makes us feel like there is a real "Us Versus Them" war. I simply do not believe this is true. People's perceptions of the world are limited by their experiences. And many experiences lend credibility to warped or misguided assumptions about the world.
It requires a sort of vulnerability to have the messy conversations required to change the hearts and minds of others. There is no room for shaming, anger, or hatred in the movement towards a better world. These may be natural emotional reactions towards oppressive systems (and those sustaining them) but time after time we see that those people need our support the most to change. If we are serious about creating tangible change in these movements we need to be willing to put our fear that our efforts are in vain aside. We need to set aside the "left/right" identities and drop the flame wars. And most of all we need to get back to supporting our neighbors; because we only have so many trips around the sun together.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Riah: Love is a tricky creature as it manifests in so many ways. Without the love I experience from my allies I would have most likely been one of the many transwomen lost to suicide. In particular, a few people worth mentioning would be Dr. Susan O'Shaughnessy, Mr. Bruce Vieweg, Ms. Courtney White, and Ms. Jennifer Buchanan. Throughout the many trying times during my transition I would say these were my closest friends who demonstrated routinely what good ally-ship looks like.
While I have an amazing network of allies, I often joke that I am chronically single. Unfortunately, when I put myself out in the dating pool I find myself regularly dehumanized by cisgender men who say they want to only "try a transgender." I think the worst part is that often these are genuinely good men who are wonderful people. However, the systems we have created to police/structure our relationships (dating norms, sex industry, marriage) have misguided otherwise kind cisgender people into harming trans* people.
But overall, love is important in my life because it fuels my determination. I hold love for all people, regardless of who they are, or even how terrible they may treat me. It is what drives me to social justice and political advocacy, because kindness breeds kindness, even in the face of adversity. Supporting people and advocating for issues that do not directly affect you is, in my opinion, the most noble form of love. 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Riah: A few years ago my best friend and I were on a bus in South Africa. She joked that she was going to nominate me for "What Not To Wear" so I could get a new wardrobe. The reality is that I often wear plain and non-flattering comfortable clothing. This is partly due to my rejection of the Beauty Myth (re: Naomi Wolf), but also a deep sense of gratitude that I can afford durable clothing at all.
My social justice chest tattoo is incomplete, much like my social justice work. That being said, fashion can be such an interesting outlet for creativity and self-expression. I personally love the dark, femme look. My dream outfit is black pants with flair that begins at the knee, a two inch heel with gladiator straps, and a dark red butterfly cinched top that accentuates my tattoo.
I also have a social justice chest tattoo which is incomplete (not unlike my work). The premise of it is a woman's hands holding a dagger between two coin purses. The coin purses are split open at the bottom with coins falling out. It represents femininity as a tool for redistributing the power withheld by the brother institutions of racism and sexism.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Riah: As much as I wish I had the ability to sit and write for the length of time necessary to publish a memoir I currently cannot. Hopefully future Riah is a little bit more on the ball or can find a talented biographer!
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Riah: Well I have recently relocated to the beautiful Minneapolis metro area. That being said, I am still trying to find the next opportunity suited to my particular strengths, weaknesses, and general world view. As of right now, I provide advocacy and education to those in the social and professional circles I run in.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
Riah: Remind yourself every day that you are lucky. You are lucky to see a system (of gender) that very few are even aware exists. The challenges you will face, the hatred that will be thrown at you, the fear you will undoubtedly feel is a direct result of your brave choices. Even if those choices only exist in your mind and worldview.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote that "Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form." Every act of gender variance is a form of insubordination to the patriarchal systems that police gender norms and obstruct every human's bodily autonomy. I recommend remembering that.
Obviously, each person must evaluate their situation and make the best choices for their own life. When you question whether or not you are doing the right thing, I encourage you to reflect on the trans* individuals who have laid down their lives for us to continue this movement. Their strength is channeled through us as we work to make the world a better place for all people.
Monika: Riah, thank you for the interview!
Riah: Thank you so much Monika. I find the work you do truly inspiring. Whether intentional or not you are documenting trans* history during a revolutionary time for humanity. It is quite the noble mission!

All the photos: courtesy of Riah Roe.
Done on 8 April 2014
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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