Saturday 17 May 2014

Interview with JoAnne Wheeler Bland

Monika: Today's interview will be with JoAnne Wheeler Bland, a woman and a transgender activist, a practicing attorney for 44 years, former Special Justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court, former Vice-President of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, current Board Member on the Fairness Campaign Coordinating Committee (in Louisville, Kentucky), a current member of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education's Committee on Equal Opportunity (the Diversity Committee).
In addition, JoAnne was a keynote speaker for the 27th Annual Kentucky Governor's Equal Employment Opportunity Conference whose topic was "The Transgender Worker", frequent guest speaker at Women's and Gender Studies at Kentucky Universities, and she participated as a guest speaker at numerous Kentucky Universities (on the issue of Transgender) and at PFLAG Meetings across Kentucky.
She studied theology for 13 years, and was a former United Methodist Certified Lay Speaker, evangelist and teacher, church choir member, architect, and interior layout designer, interior decorator, consultant to Kentucky School Districts on Transgender students and to Kentucky Courts on issues of Transgender, advising parents, adults, and children regarding transgender issues. Hello JoAnne!
 JoAnne: Thank you for interviewing me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
JoAnne: First of all, I am a 69-year-old woman. I was born in Alabama in 1945 and was raised in Kentucky. Like many, if not most, of the Transwomen near my age, I knew that I was "different" when I was a small child. I had no words to describe it other than for some reason, I felt like I was really a girl inside. At night, I used to wish, hope, dream, and pray that I would wake up and be the girl that I knew I was. My family was not wealthy. We had a farm. We lived in a small town of 250 people in rural Kentucky. There was no access to any information. And I assumed back then that I was "the only person in the world who felt like I did".
Monika: How were your school years?
JoAnne: Elementary school was difficult for me in that I was very timid and spent most of my time alone. I always hated the bathroom issue. I could not go into a boy's bathroom I felt that I did not belong in there. I did not like to play with boys. They were too rough for me. I preferred to play with the girls. I was always very intelligent. The school was always easy for me. I was a straight-A student.
High School was equally difficult. I avoided playing sports. I could not go into the boys' locker room. My father and my uncles were all great sports participants. I had tremendous pressure put on me to play sports. I just could not do it. I hated puberty. I hated the hair that grew on my body. I hated my penis. I hated the sexual changes that happened - because I was developing male sexual characteristics and I did not want any of them.

This is her "before" photograph.
It was taken on the day that she
was sworn in as a Special Justice
on the Kentucky Supreme Court.

I continued to be alone as I grew up. I did not have any close friends. I was always afraid to get too close to anyone - for fear that my innermost secret might come out accidentally. I did not date very much. I wanted a platonic relationship with girls. I did not want a sexual relationship. And I sure did not want to date boys. I hated boys, men, and everything masculine. After High School, I started College at the University of Kentucky. I ultimately graduated twice, first with a BS in Business & Economics and later, with a Juris Doctor Degree in Law.
While in college, I dated thinking that it would "cure" me. After obtaining my Law Degree, I got married thinking that it "would surely cure me". It didn't! I began practicing Law in the Fall of 1970.
Monika: Did you try to forget your dysphoria?
JoAnne: I tried to become totally immersed in my Law Practice as a means to keep my mind off thinking about who I really was inside. Constantly (24/7), I could not get my Gender Dysphoria off my mind. I constantly tried to stay busy and engrossed in something as a way to keep my dysphoria at bay.
My spouse and I bought 50 acres of land. I spent hour upon hour clearing the land - anything to stay busy. Eventually, we built a house on the land and I kept most of the 50 acres manicured like a golf course or park.
Eventually, I became interested in genealogy and worked at that for 10-12 years. Then I got involved with theology and became immersed in that for 15-20 years. I studied theology a minimum of 4-5 hours per day for 13 years. I became very active in church work and eventually began to teach and preach.
Monika: When did you discover that you cannot live as a man anymore?
JoAnne: In 2009, at the age of 64, I got to the point that I just could not deal with my gender dysphoria anymore. I was so physically and mentally and emotionally tired of trying to suppress and repress my feelings inside. I was always somewhat depressed because of it, but I hit rock bottom in 2009. I was suicidal. I just felt that I could no longer live pretending to be someone that I was not. 
Toward the end of 2009, I finally accepted who I was and what I was. I knew that the time had come - either transition or commit suicide. It was a tough decision. It would have been much easier to die. I wanted to kill my male persona - I hated him. But from deep within, JoAnne pleaded with me not to die. JoAnne wanted a chance to live. Killing "John" would also kill "JoAnne" and JoAnne wanted desperately to be able to finally live. I chose to transition and I set out to make it happen after the first of the year 2010. I knew the WPATH Protocols and what they called for. So to that end, I started seeing mental health professionals in February of 2010. Soon afterward, I started on HRT and Laser Hair Removal. I was seeing three mental health professionals at the same time that year.
Monika: And you had challenging years ahead.
JoAnne: Yes, 2010 was a difficult and at the same time exciting year. Difficult - in that, I lost my spouse of 40 years, my law partner of 30 years, my land, my home, my law practice, my possessions, my animals, most of my family, my church family, my social friends, and my standing in the community. And still exciting - in that, I was on a mission - a mission to let JoAnne be free. Hours upon hours of therapy, hours of laser hair removal, Hormone replacement therapy, and I started living full-time on September 2, 2010. A week later, I scheduled my Gender Confirming Surgery. On February 5, 2011 (one year to the date when I started mental health therapy, I flew from Louisville to Scottsdale, Arizona.
And on February 8, 2011, I had 12 hours of Facial Feminization Surgery and one week later on February 15, 2011, I had 14 hours of Gender Confirming Surgery and more Facial Feminization Surgery - all performed by the most awesome man I know, Dr. Toby Meltzer, M.D. I spent 18 days alone in Scottsdale - most in the hospital. I returned to Scottsdale in January of 2012, to have the final cosmetic stage on my lower surgery and more Facial surgery. All in all, I have had 32.5 hours of surgery from Dr. Meltzer. On both occasions, I returned to Kentucky and continued my life as JoAnne.

This shows just how much her life
just glows now.

Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. How did you get started?
JoAnne: I have always been a Don Quixote type person who wanted to help the "little guy". I have been that type of lawyer. After my first return home from Scottsdale, front-page stories of my life were featured in newspapers. From those articles, people everywhere started contacting me with questions about transgender.
Mine were from mothers and grandmothers who were dealing with transgender children. They started bringing children to me. I became an instant role model. I began to counsel children, parents, friends, etc. And it has never stopped. I love being able to help others face their gender dysphoria.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on the work of the transgender rights organizations that you are a member of?
JoAnne: I am not a member of any transgender rights-only organization. I have been involved with LGBT rights organizations. I have noticed that there really are very few transgender rights-only organizations. I have been advocating for transgender rights pretty much on my own.
Monika: What are the most pending issues on the transgender agenda?
JoAnne: Here is my list of the most pending issues: 1) Education, education, education. This is by far the most important. And we need education of not just the general public. We have to educate members of the LGB community as well - they really do not understand us. And last but not least, members of the transgender community need to educate themselves as well.
I am totally amazed by how little transgender people know about being transgender. They do not know the WPATH Protocols. They do not know legal issues. They do not know medical issues. They do not know employment issues. They do not know how to dress and act in public. These are but a few. 2) Getting the transgender message out. This is part of education. How the public sees transgender women's narratives is so important. 3) Discrimination 4) Violence 5) Employment 6) Schooling 7) Presentation - this is the second time I have mentioned this - I cannot emphasize this enough - how we are seen and how we act in public is so important. 8) Distancing ourselves from the "drag culture" is also EXTREMELY important - in my opinion.
The general public (in their ignorance) equates drag queens as being the epitome of Transgender women. Drag queens are primarily "Gay" men who perform as female caricatures in bars and clubs. This is not who Transgender women really are. We are not performers. We are not pretenders. This is our being. It goes to the inner cores of our lives.
So many of us have succumbed to suicide or have been on the very edge of death over our gender dysphoria. Watching "Gay" men dressed as women, performing as mere caricatures of real Transwomen (and cis- women) hurts our image in public. They are having fun performing for money and frivolity while we are on the very brink of life and death. And as I said earlier, the general public equates real Transwomen as nothing more than drag queens.
Monika: You are a fantastic example that it is never too late to transition.
JoAnne: I guess that's true. I knew that I was different at age 5. I tried to run from it, hide from it, suppress it, repress it, deny it, and hope that it would leave me alone for 65 years. It took 65 years for me to realize that this is never going away. I guess I was a little slow. But once I made up my mind to transition, I went from start to finish in 53 weeks. My only regret is not doing it earlier. However, I guess it was the right time for me - as my life has just taken off in every direction after I transitioned.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
JoAnne: Knowing that I would lose my spouse, my friends, my family, my church family. I knew what would happen if I transitioned - and it did.

Lecturing about Transgender at
a University.

Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
JoAnne: Not really. I have made myself a model for others. I really had never met or knowing seen another transgender person (other than my sister, Monika) before I started living full-time.


All the photos: courtesy of JoAnne Wheeler Bland.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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