Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Interview with Riah Roe

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Riah Roe, an inspirational American girl, transgender activist, and advocate, known for her transgender activism at Concordia College, a private college in Moorhead, Minnesota. 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 a while, 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.
Monika: What happened later?
Riah: 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.
This 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 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 bodies 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.


All the photos: courtesy of Riah Roe.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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