Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Interview with Gerri Cannon

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Gerri Cannon, an American transgender activist, truck driver, carpenter, and computer professional. Hello Gerri! 
Gerri: Hi Monika! It’s a pleasure being able to share some of my stories with you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Gerri: Only a few? I’ll try. I am a person with many skills and interests. I worked in the computer field for just over 30 years. After being laid off for a second time I started my carpentry business. When the US economy crashed I found myself with a number of customers that couldn’t pay me for work I had completed. So, I learned how to drive Big Rigs and wet on the road. In addition to having a wide range of jobs, I am also a proud parent and a friend to many.
Monika: Being a truck driver and carpenter, you work in a very macho environment. How can you cope there as a woman?
Gerri: I was really concerned about this when I started. The number of women in the trucking industry is small, but growing. I have found that while there are many old-time drivers that don’t care to have women on the road, there are also many men that appreciate that we are out here doing a job, like everyone else.
I rarely let people know that I’m a transgender woman. Most everyone just knows me as Gerri and that I have an excellent driving record. My company supports Gender Identity in their non-discrimination statement and has provided me with the support I needed to do my job with minimal problems. Plus we have many female drivers in our workforce. So I fit right in.

Tri Ess National Conference Nov 2001 – Chicago.

Monika: You have been running your own carpentry business since being laid off from your corporate job…
Gerri: My Carpentry business sort of grew on its own. When I was released from the Computer industry I struggled to find a job, along with thousands of other very qualified laid-off people. I started doing some small carpentry projects for friends and my business grew.
For 4 years it grew until the economic problems. I loved doing carpentry projects. Every job was something new and I could express my creativity in people’s homes.
I was just getting ready to expand the business when my income essentially stopped. And the banks increased their fees on my credit accounts, so my financial situation was terrible! I decided to go back to school and learn to drive big trucks. I had to survive.
Monika: In addition, you are an active advocate of the transgender cause.
Gerri: Even though I started the Tri Ess New England group I have been a Speaker with Speak Out Boston, a GLBT Speakers Bureau. I helped with fundraising efforts for The Human Rights Campaign in Boston as well as the Greater Boston Business Council, a GLBT Business Professional group in Boston.
I have been actively involved with PFLAG – NH (Parents Family and friends of Lesbians and Gays) and have spoken at the national conference in Washington, DC. I found that sharing my story helped many other people learn more about Transgender people. But it also helped me realize that I could have an impact to help others like me at the same time.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Gerri: Wow, That’s a tough question to answer, since I have always felt that I’ve had a feminine part of me that existed back in my teenage years, over 45 years ago. The difficult process was living in conflict with myself until I was in my mid-forties.
I had married a lovely lady, we had two lovely daughters and I was a role model for them and my community. The difficulty was building up enough courage to let the people I loved know that I needed to explore this part of me that had remained in the shadows. And when I went looking for support I found the options were very limited in New Hampshire. My family was not very helpful during those times. I was essentially on my own to find or build resources to help myself and others like me.
In 1999 I worked with a number of crossdressers in southern NH to build a Tri Ess chapter to support ourselves and our families. Tri Ess was a national organization and we utilized a lot of the materials they provided to start our New England chapter. The Chapter still exists and helps other Cross Dressers and families, but I am just an on-looker at this point.

At the Out and Equal Conference in Phoenix,
AR - 2004 Working at the HP Booth.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Gerri: First of all I suppose I should mention that I am essentially still in transition as far as many people are concerned. I have not undergone Gender reassignment surgery, yet. I have taken my own path. Which is what I let others know as well.
We all have our own personal needs, family and work situations, as well as financial barriers that may need to be overcome. I have met many transgender people on my journey and I don’t ask them about their procedures or status. That’s their business, not mine. I live my life as a transgender woman today and that’s it.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Gerri: That hardest thing was finally deciding to live full-time presenting as female. I had been out to many gay clubs and even gave many speeches as Gerri, but I would always return to my male presentation to go back to work or to visit with relatives. Once I finally decided to present as Gerri full time, I felt a freedom that I hadn’t felt up until then.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Gerri: I know many transgender women across the US. Many of us are out and visible. But many more are hiding or struggling to live their lives below the radar screen, so to speak. How we are treated varies widely across the US. The Laws in the US are inconsistent.
Many communities victimize trans people because they don’t fit the stereotypical role models of being male or female. In many areas, the general public is afraid of transgender people because we have been positioned as being sexual deviants and/or child molesters. It’s kind of hard to hold a job or get a job when you are already being positioned as a criminal.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Gerri: Oh my god, YES! The more trans-people and our supporters need to stand up and let the rest of the world know that we are just as normal as anyone else on this planet. We have the need for the same rights as anyone else. The challenge is to get by the pictures that have been painted of us in the minds of the general public.

In Austin, Texas for Business, just enjoying a night out, 2005.

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?
Gerri: I think the stories have been okay. Could they be better, YES! I think the actors and actresses that taken on the roles in these films have done a good job, but have they done a good enough job that transgender people are satisfied with their work? Not yet.
It’s kind of hard to share the wide range of stories that we have to tell people. Our journeys and challenges are all so unique. I think Hollywood needs to seriously look at using some transgender people in future films so that these people can express the pain and challenges they have had in a realistic form. Many of these movies are good, but they aren’t as real as they should be to get the points across.
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?
Gerri: Can the transgender community promote our own cause within the transgender community? That is the question. Transgender people are a wide variety of people that have all experienced different paths to get where they are. We all still struggle with using a common dialog to describe ourselves.
Slowly this is changing as people start to see the benefits of working together to move toward some common goals. It’s a very hard process when working with people in various stages of hormone usage and family disruption.
So once you get by the Transgender community challenges we are faced with the GLB folks, who think they know what we are about, but don’t. When a gay man comes out as being gay he still looks the same. So his life continues on with minimal interruption. When a transgender woman or man comes out, so does a whole new wardrobe of clothing and presentation. Life changes drastically when a transgender person comes out. It is really hard to get others to realize how different this is.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Gerri: Five years ago I was a part of the effort to get Same-Sex Marriage approved in New Hampshire. At the same time, I was also very active in trying to get Gender Identity and expression include in our state non-discrimination laws. We came very close to passing the gender identity inclusion. I spent many hours with State representatives and Senators to educate them on the serious problems that exist for Transgender people in our State. We won the Marriage question.
The Transgender proposal passed in the NH House of Representatives but failed in the Senate. The question will return in the next year or two. I will be there to have my voice heard, again!

My first Truck Driving Job, 2010.

Yes, transgender people have a voice and they need to use it. We are human beings, just like everyone else. But sometimes our experiences are just slightly different. We need to be heard along with everyone else. We are not criminals, perverts, or child molesters. We are intelligent men and women that have had to overcome physical challenges to become who we are.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Gerri: Wow… Love is very important. And sometimes so hard to find. When I told my wife, she didn’t speak to me for 2 months. Our love life was severely impacted at that point. About 6 years later we moved into separate homes. We are still married. We are friends. We are not lovers. That is a tragic part of my story.
When we told my parents my Dad came over to me and gave me a big hug and told me that he’d always love me as his child. My Mom wasn’t sure what to do. Her Catholic upbringing was telling her that I was doing the wrong thing. It took her a couple of years to let me know that she was okay with me being who I am. She died a couple of years ago. I miss her a lot.
My daughters struggled with the changes I was going through. And I must admit that I didn’t always help my own situation when I looked for their acceptance. Now they are very accepting of me the way I am. I value their love above all others at this point.
But I must admit that I have many lonely days. My current job as a truck driver doesn’t help, when I travel for 3-4 weeks at a time and go home for 3-4 days before going back out again.
Yes, I look forward to finding a new job that allows me to stay home and build new relationships with people and hopefully new people to love.
Monika: Probably there are not too many transwomen like yourself that attend Pilgrim Congregational Church in Nashua. How supportive is the community there?
Gerri: When I first started attending Pilgrim Church the only people that knew that I was transgender were the Minister and a few people who were involved with GLBT efforts in the church.
After my face appeared in the Local news media, supporting transgender rights in Concord, the cat was out of the bag. Some people initially had issues with it. But then they began to realize that I was the same person they knew. I was the same caring person they had come to depend on. From that point on life went on as usual. I was just another member of the Congregation.
I have recently moved to another part of New Hampshire and joined another Congregational church. So far I have just been accepted as any other new member of their church. I don’t expect to encounter any problems.

October 2002 – Human Rights Campaign Fund Raiser – Boston
with her daughter Sarah.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Gerri: Until I started driving trucks I enjoyed wearing all sorts of lovely clothes. My style is primarily a classy business look. Skirt suits were my favorites. My casual look is primarily long flowing skirts and tops vary widely. Until I get off the road I have decided not to invest in a lot of clothes, other than what I need to work in.
Part of the problem is that I’ve gained some weight sitting in a driver’s seat for 10-11 hours a day. I really need to lose a few pounds so that I can wear all of the nice clothes I have hanging in my closet. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Gerri: Oh yes! I have written many chapters of material over the past 15 years. Eventually, I will pull it all together. Stay tuned, there’s a story coming one of these days. 
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Gerri: I just purchased an older home this past fall. It’s a 1905 New Englander, near the Portsmouth, NH area. It needs some help. The good thing is that it is home for me for the foreseeable future. I will work on it a little bit at a time and it will become another expression of who I am.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Gerri: Gender Dysphoria is a real thing. It’s not something that will go away when you get older. If anything it will only get stronger. Face it and enjoy it. Transgender people have the opportunity to experience life in both genders. Yes, It does get harder to change your physical presentation as you get older. So embrace yourself at an early age and move forward to enjoy who you are.
Monika: Gerri, thank you for the interview!
Gerri: Monika, thank you for asking me to share my thoughts!

All the photos: courtesy of Geri Cannon.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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