Thursday 5 June 2014

Interview with Melissa Marie Alexander

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Melissa Marie Alexander, an American transgender activist, Vice-Chair of TransOhio, businesswoman, lawyer, and college teacher. Hello Melissa!
Melissa: Greetings Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Melissa: Sure. I have had the pleasure of working three careers in my life following my education. For over twenty years I practiced law in a law firm primarily doing litigation, employment, and labor law and building my client base. I spoke at my conferences and seminars.
Upon leaving the practice of law I began a new career as a business owner in the meeting and event planning industry. I served on the Board of Directors for Ohio MPI and received my CMP designation from the Convention Industry Council. Following the same, I reentered the teaching field which I had also done in the 1990s on a part-time basis, and now have 13 years of teaching experience either at Adjunct or full-time status. I truly adore teaching and love working with students and take great pride in my work and the preparation for my classes.
I think my presence has influenced lives and has also opened up some eyes about the talents in our community and has taught the students a little more about transgenders. In 2012 I received an award for Master Teacher from a state organization and in 2013 I gave the commence address at our school. From a personal standpoint, I am a hugger who loves pets, music, and arts. My hobbies include cooking and baking and I do a great deal of volunteer/outreach work in the community and within my church.
In Washington D.C. in front of the
Capitol on lobby days for NCTE.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. Could you name some of the initiatives that you took part in?
Melissa: I have presented at or organized/managed the six annual conferences for TransOhio since 2008. TransOhio was founded in 2005 by Shane Morgan and I am currently the longest-serving Board member for TransOhio besides the Founder. I have been on the Board of Directors since 2009.
I prepared the extensive documentation for our non-profit organization to finally receive 501 (C) (3) status with the IRS. I also serve on TransOhio’s Speakers Bureau and have conducted presentations and workshops for businesses, organizations, schools, churches, and colleges in the area.
Additionally, I have participated in workshops and events for Equality Ohio and presented a workshop at Southern Comfort in Atlanta, and traveled to D.C to lobby Congress for passage of the ENDA legislation. I enjoy marching in the Columbus Pride Parade each June!
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?
Melissa: I began the process at age 47 shortly after the death of my father which closely followed the unexpected deaths of my brother by an accident and my mother’s death the year before. These traumatic events left me to face the truth about who I really have been all my life but hid so very well under a shell to avoid discovery.
I asked myself a simple question after my father’s funeral. “You have just written three eulogies for people you loved reflecting on their lives… How do you wish to be remembered when your time comes? –as Melissa or this other person I have pretended to be during my “life” to hide her from the world.
I remember back to when I discovered my true gender when I was a child of four or five years old. I broke down and cried – not just for the losses I had experienced but also for the fact I had not found the courage up to this point to break through this shell I had created and live life in my true gender as Melissa.
A few weeks later I began searching for a therapist to work with and began the process of transitioning. I knew the process would not be easy and that it would take some time but I was determined to begin the process despite the risks and the costs and I am not just speaking of financial ones! The other costs were far more painful.
As I will explain subsequently, I received neither support from my friends who knew the other person nor any support from my family. I did receive support and encouragement from other brothers and sisters in our community.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Melissa: Yes Monika I did. I had met many other members of our community at various events and conferences beginning back in 1995 and I got to know some of them quite well. Many of these women were ahead of me in the process of being out and transitioning.
I learned a lot from them over the years. Some of these people were: Stephanie Heck, Chloe Prince, and Debbie Dunkle. I also read Jenny Boleyn’s book “She’s Not There”. However, the book which had the most profound impact on me was “Wrapped in Blue” by Donna Rose. I connected with her story and felt a good deal of overlap with my story. Donna is down to earth and I enjoyed meeting her after I transitioned.

Taken hours after her facial surgery in
Boston with Dr. Spiegel in January of 2009.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Melissa: The risk of losing it all. I attended the Be All Conference in Chicago in May of 2007 and was eating lunch with other transgender women when the subject of coming out and transition came up. I asked the question of when you know if you are ready to come out and begin the transition process. One woman who had done so many years before spoke up and said “Melissa … are you prepared to lose it all - career, family, and friends?
Now you may not lose all of these things yourself BUT you had better be prepared to do so or you should not do so!” When the need to come out and begin living life in your true essence overcomes the fear of these risks you know you are ready. I hoped for the best.
When I finally did come out and tell people about myself, I felt the shell that had covered me for so long cracking into pieces and the weight of the years of lies lift from me but the risks she mentioned came so very true! I destroyed my career, all of my old friends turned away from me and my family abandoned me. I have not had any contact of any nature whatsoever with my adult children since I came out despite my efforts to do so. Those efforts have all been rebuked. My ex disdains me and she has good reason to feel betrayed but she needs to let go of the venom for it is only toxic to her.
I think the reason many in our community lie to others all the years is because they fear the response of losing their friends and family and then when they do come out and tell the truth the very things they fear happen because everyone gets upset at them for lying to them for so many years. Well-you know I lied to myself as well all those same years and I learned to forgive myself and move on. I think my old friends and family need to do so as well.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Melissa: Like everything else, we are making a process but it is not without struggle and setbacks. We can’t give up and have to embrace the victories and strides in progress that do come and brush ourselves off when we get knocked down and keeping moving forward.
Rights and dignity will eventually come for all transgenders but clearly, the situation is not there now. Transgender women face some acceptance problems by some sis gender women and phobias by many men. This has created additional problems for transgender women but education and continued activism will keep us moving forward over time.

A few months after her GRS with Dr. McGinn
 in Philadelphia as she got prepared for her first
day of teaching classes on her new job in 2009.

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Melissa: Most definitely Monika. Humankind has always faced struggles for human rights from each ethnic group that came to the U.S. Struggles for racial equality continue to go on even with progress. In the 1970s women fought the struggle for rights and privileges in a patriarchal society that has oppressed women for centuries and the struggle still carries on today.
Our brothers and sisters in the LGB communities have fought for equality and are making inroads in areas like same-gender marriages and DADT removal. The next logical frontier for human rights is transgenders. I look forward to doing my small part to keep the struggle going. No one is free until all free!
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?
Melissa: I was disappointed with films like “Trans America” which depicted a cisgender woman playing a transgender woman but enjoyed “Boys Don’t Cry” for using women to play the role of an FTM transsexual. Maybe someday we will see more transgender actors and actresses and I truly hope so.
Jared did a pretty good job of playing the role of a transgender sex worker from that time period depicted in the movie. He is an actor and as such, it was a role for him – a role for which his peers recognized his talent and work. There are good stories out there in books and some films.
Many newspapers seem to misgender transgender people however in the articles about their activities and unfortunately their deaths. Far too many of our community face violence and deaths from attacks and suicides and that always make me deeply sad.

Her Michigan vacation in the fall of 2011.

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?
Melissa: The T is NOT silent and should not be! We may be the smallest segment of the LGBT community but we are an important one. Transitioning is not easy for many particularly on the job. Much more education of the public is needed however as many people confuse sexual orientation with gender identity.
We do share a common ground though- we are both discriminated against for being who we are as people and that should not happen. We can accomplish more by working together to obtain the rights we already hold but have been systematically denied by our opponents in this country which primarily operate by spreading fears. The so-called “bathroom” issue is a perfect example of such hate and fear.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Melissa: There are many voices of activism in this country but no single leader in the transgender community and maybe there should not be one. The more voices the better as long as we all are fighting for freedom, equality, and dignity of all human beings.
Activists like Janet Mock are powerful and I love her work but we do not need to rely solely on a single leader to do the work we all should be doing. What would serve us best are more voices and more activism and educating.


All the photos: courtesy of Melissa Marie Alexander.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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