Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Interview with Antonette Rea

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Antonette Alexandra Rea, an inspirational transgender poet, and activist from Canada. Hello Antonette!
Antonette: Hi Monika, thank you for your interest.
Monika: We are having this interview at the time when you are recuperating from the car accident. How is your health, Antonette?
Antonette: I am in a far better mental space than I had been due to the pain and limited mobility while I heal. I was hit by a car and dislocated a shoulder and my other hand remains numb though the feeling returned in my shoulder and sciatica has settled down at the moment.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Antonette: I was a street surviving Queen of the night. My street poet handle used to be “Miss Understood.” My poetry was a coping mechanism when working the stroll and then it became a useful healing vehicle for processing so much adversity. The adversity that I didn't think had affected me until I had stopped using drugs and escaped from a life of prostitution. Sex and drugs go hand in hand it seems in some form or another.
My writing has allowed me to process so much negativity, where family and friends were nowhere to be found. Performing these difficult poems in front of an audience is like taking the bandage off a wound because It’s almost healed. There will always be the scars, but I can now let the past go and live more at the moment.

A poster currently being posted
around Vancouver's west end. I'm
a poster girl at the age of 60, who
would have ever thought...

Monika: You have gone through many struggles in your life, from drugs to homelessness to the sex trade, which makes your poetry very personal...
Antonette: My poetry was my most valuable possession. Poetic non-fiction that I had written longhand on scraps of paper and stuffed into my zippered binder and for a while, carried with me wherever I went.
My writing was raw and emotionally driven, while in my addiction. I was uninfluenced by other poets or writers as I was caught in a life of prostitution and drug addiction. I was incapable or not able to read other books or even have the attention span to watch a movie from start to finish let alone read the works of others. Those who have suffered through addiction may have a better understanding of what I am saying.
Monika: I could not find any complete list of your poetry works. Could you list them now? 
Antonette: I don’t really have a list. I have circulated Chapbooks and have some published in magazines and anthologies.
I have a manuscript of about 86 poems that I compiled last year with the idea of finding a publisher for which I haven’t been motivated enough to send out enquires. I am also working on another compilation more to do with my spirituality, a sensitive subject to many.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender poetry or art? What does it mean to be a transgender poet/artist?
Antonette: I would imagine there are many trans artists as we tend to be a very creative bunch. I did feel pressure to perform gender-specific pieces as I imagined that is what the audiences expected to hear. Much of my poetry reflects aspects of the human condition, which transcends gender variance. My latest transition was coming to terms with aging, weight gain, and wrinkles. To accept myself as an older, more mature woman, as all women must. (and men to a lesser extent it seems, as they aren't usually using their looks to survive in whatever circles or boardrooms.)
Monika: Has your transition influenced the way you write your poetry?
Antonette: My creativity seems to be tied to my feminine nature. I didn’t even realize how much of myself I had sacrificed in order to try and live my life as others, like my parents, would have me. Eventually, everything came crashing down all at once. I realized I had been miserable for a long long time. I wasn’t being honest with myself and had been living a lie to please my parents and hopefully win their love. I had nothing left to lose.
I realized I had to be all of me and not give a damn what other people might think, which is what my mother seemed to care the most about. I picked up right where I had left off with a somewhat androgynous look. I also began writing again without it being a conscious effort. Antonette was and is the best part of who I am as a person and writing was a natural creative process entwined with my feminine side, so yes, my transition influenced and also freed my creative spirit.

With her daughter. She is her shining light
who gave her a reason to keep living
during the dark periods of her life.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Antonette: I suppose my transition was delayed for a number of years while I had a family and put the feminine back in the closet. I went into denial when it came to my feminine side. I initially flirted with my feminine side from a very early age. The negativity from my parents came in the form of ridicule and humiliating comments.
I transitioned into Antonette after my marriage failed and I was free to be me. I realized I had been living a lie and that if I was ever to find happiness I had to be honest with myself first and foremost. Letting Antonette surface from the chains within was a very natural and exhilarating feeling. I was in my 40’s when I gave up putting on the guy during the day so that I could have a job and have a legitimate income.
Unfortunately, I was met with an extreme amount of negativity from what seemed like everyone including the police and RCMP. I had no support from family or friends, except my daughter with whom we have a very special bond.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Antonette: I don’t recall having any role models. I was the Queen of the first ave in a small rural town where I was out there loud and proud. Daring others to confront their prejudices. I was in many fights and incurred severe injuries while dancing to my own tune.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Antonette: The loneliness, being homeless (especially during winter) and the victimization, violence and unjust incarceration, and public humiliation at the hands of the R.C.M.P. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police).
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Canada? 
Antonette: It has become so much better over the last 5 or 6 years. The medical community has become more supportive, especially when it comes to hormones and SRS. The attitudes seem to be more knowledgeable and accepting with respect to gender presentation both M-F and F-M. Although, look out if you’re all alone living in a small “redneck” town. Major Cities seem to be far more tolerant even when it comes to their suburbs.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Antonette: I don’t know about the “new” frontier. Transgenderism has been out on the frontier for way too long now. I remember the struggles for women's rights, equality, and acceptance for people of color, the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. I began carrying a purse to school the very next year, my final year of high school, 1970-71.
Monika: You took part in Gwen Haworth’s documentary short “A Woman with a Past”, which offered a glimpse into your life. Could you elaborate more on that project?
Antonette: Gwen and I have worked together providing educational workshops about gender variance and areas of respect. We seemed to compliment one another as our experiences are very different and that we work well together. This project was Gwen’s idea. I feel we shouldn’t forget the past, whereby the only employment option for a trans woman was in the sex trade, but see how far we’ve come as a minority to finding acceptance of Trans women or men into all avenues of society. To stand up to all forms of oppression and offer support where we can towards the struggle many of our sisters still endure in other areas of the globe.

"A woman with a past' - trailer. Gwen Haworth.
Source: YouTube.

Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Antonette: I haven’t seen many positive presentations of trans women in film. There are so many creative trans artists and writers I think a more realistic positive attitude is evolving within the artistic communities that education and acceptance from the masses could eventually be realized?
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?
Antonette: Hopefully, those under LGBTQ2s banner can be allies and help educate and support trans individuals in a domestic dialogue, the workplace when being discriminated against or verbally abused, etc., as many of them have had to deal with similar prejudices themselves.
Monika: Is there anyone in the Canadian transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism? 
Antonette: There are many trans activists chipping away at the ignorance that perpetuates negative behavior towards acceptance and equality of all genders, especially in the areas of housing and employment.

Courtesy of Antonette Rea.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Antonette: No, I am very poor, but hopefully one day a trans person will gain the support needed to be successful in politics. At present our allies, who have lobbied for our specific inclusion in Canada's “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” will be elected and able to assist in our acceptance by the general public.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Antonette: Ah, to fall in love, I’m still holding out hope. It is very difficult to find love when working as a whore. The unconditional love I received from my daughter gave me the strength to try, once again, to escape from the ghetto and a life of prostitution & addiction. A life where I had given up on the idea of ever escaping alive and was just putting in time until I die. Her love combined with mine gave me the desire to live and change my life. 
Monika: Are you working on any new project now?
Antonette: Yes, I am working on a play or theatre production of my “poetry” for The Frank Theatre Company based on selected pieces from my unpublished poetry manuscript of past work while in “the life” to present a journey of sorts. The Director, Jimmy Tait, will be coordinating the other elements such as a composer, two dancers, and a video artist to compliment me and my poetry or spoken word.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Antonette: We have to be honest with ourselves first. In a way it’s a journey of self-discovery, exploring aspects of yourself that may have been with you for as long as you can remember. To not explore your gender, but hide such secrets inside, is a recipe for misery.
Once I let Antonette out, there was no going back even when I thought I couldn’t take the violence and humiliation any longer. She had tasted freedom, it was not a decision any longer, Antonette would not be denied, she was to be embraced and to walk tall with her head held high.
Monika: Antonette, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Antonette Rea.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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