Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Interview with Nicole Garcia

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Nicole Garcia, a transgender activist from the USA. She is currently the vice-chair of the board of ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full-participation, a founding member of Trans* Lutherans, and a member of the advisory committee for the Trans People of Color Coalition. Nicole has held positions on the boards of the Interfaith Working Group and The One Colorado Education Fund and is a former member of the Latino/a Roundtable. Nicole has an MA in Counseling from CU Denver and is in private practice as a mental health counselor in Longmont Colorado. Nicole is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity through Luther Seminary. Hello Nicole! 
Nicole: Hello Monica. It is a pleasure and honor to be here.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Nicole: I was born the oldest son in a Mexican-American, Roman Catholic family. I tried very hard for 42 years of my life to live up to the expectations of my family and church. I married a beautiful woman in 1994 and became a law enforcement officer in 1996. I did all I could to prove to everyone that I was a man.
Looking back, I know I was actually trying to prove to myself that I was a man. In 2002, my wife and I divorced. After the divorce, I was suicidal and drinking heavily. I realized my life was a mess and I entered counseling. I found a wonderful therapist who helped me quit drinking and I worked on ending my severe depression. It was early in therapy when I told my counselor of my life-long cross-dressing behavior. She referred me to a support group at the Gender Identity Center of Colorado.

Attending the Luther Seminary classes during
the polar vortex in January 2014.

In early 2003, I attended a transgender conference in Denver. It was at that conference that I came to terms with the fact that I was a woman. I had always known that fact, I just refused to accept my femininity. It felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders and for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of peace.
My transition had its ups and downs. I can’t say it was easy transitioning while working as a parole officer, but I had a wonderful group of friends and co-workers who surrounded me with love and support.
It took about a year for my family to come to terms with my transition. They each went through a transition of their own, but now they love me as I am. It was a long journey to fully realize my life as Nicole, but I have grown into a strong, confident transgender Latina.
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?
Nicole: In the secular world, I do what every person ought to do and make my opinion known. I call my state and federal representatives when bills I think are important are being considered. I go to the statehouse and to the halls of Congress periodically to make sure my representatives can put a face to my emails and calls. My real work takes place in my church. I was raised Roman Catholic, but in 2003 I discovered the Reformation and became a Lutheran. I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Since 2004, I have been a voice for the transgender community in the ELCA.
I am a member of two organizations, ReconcilingWorks, and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries that strive for the full inclusion of the LGBT community within the ELCA. I have facilitated workshops on gender identity and gender expression throughout the United States, usually in church halls and basements.
I have had the opportunity to speak at major regional and churchwide gatherings of the ELCA. As a Latina, I was honored to be a keynote speaker at the 2012 TransFaith in Color conference. I know my voice has been heard for just this week, I have been invited to join the ELCA committee that is writing a Social Message on Gender Violence. Social messages of the ELCA are topical documents adopted by the ELCA Church Council to focus attention and action on timely, pressing matters of social concern to the church and society. It is my intention to demonstrate to the ELCA that violence against the transgender community is real and must end.

ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation.
Story: Nicole Garcia. Source: YouTube.

Monika: You are a very religious person. Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Nicole: You ask the question human beings have been asking God for thousands of years, “Why me, Lord, why me?” Transgender people are not the only people who suffer in this world. Why do people who live full lives only to lose their precious memories to dementia? Why do children die before they have the opportunity to grow up? Why are parents taken away in accidents or illnesses? Why was I born in a male body with a female brain?
I can talk for hours about the wisdom of theologians who have tried to answer this question over the centuries, but to be perfectly honest, the only answer I can give is - I don’t know. I cannot presume to know or understand the motivation of God. I believe in my heart that God made me a transgender Latina so I will be strong enough to make a difference in this world.
Monika: In one of my previous interviews, Lisa Salazar indicated that transgender persons are said to be some of the least likely to become involved in religious institutions (like church) since most have been rejected and judged by their Christian families, friends, and faith communities. Would you agree?
Nicole: As a seminary student, I am authorized to wear a clerical collar. I unusually wear a collar when I serve in church services. My congregation accepts me as a transgender Latina of faith and supports me emotionally and financially with my calling to ordained ministry. I do not wear a collar when I go to transgender gatherings or conferences because I don’t want to traumatize anyone. I realize many members of the transgender community have had negative experiences in different “Christian” churches.
I am sorry to say that there are Christians who ridicule and ostracize transgender people, but there are also Christian denominations that support and welcome transgender members. I believe that trust and faith in a higher power is a personal decision. It is up to each person to be open to a relationship with God or to reject any concept of a higher power.
As a person who has a deep, personal relationship with my Lord, I will proclaim the Gospel of full inclusion to anyone who wants to listen. I do not force my beliefs on anyone, but I am willing to talk with anyone who wants to share what I have.

Preaching at a worship service in August 2013.

Monika: What is the general attitude of the Christian religion to the transgender phenomenon?
Nicole: I would not say that there is a “general attitude” because I do not believe there is a single “Christian religion.” There are Christian denominations that condemn transgender people for altering God’s creation.
There are also denominations that accept and love transgender people as children of God. I believe and preach about “creatio continua”, the concept that God is always changing and recreating the world, which, to me, means transgender people are a part of God’s ongoing creation. God created me to transcend the concept of gender to enable his creation to achieve new heights. How can I, a mere human being, put a limit on the infinite power of Almighty God?
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Nicole: I began my transition in 2003 and I do not recall any role models that I followed. When I started to attend support groups at the Gender Identity Center, I found people who were like me and I found friendship, but there was not anyone I considered a role model. I am happy to say that the internet has enabled more transgender people to be known and there are many role models for transgender individuals to follow.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Nicole: When I first came out, I was afraid of rejection, of being ostracized, of being murdered. I am happy to say that I was able to overcome my fear. Now I realize that coming out is not a one-time event. I have to come out on a daily basis. I have to decide every day if I want to disclose my status as a transgender woman every time I meet someone new. There is always the residual fear of being rejected for living a life I was born to live, but I don’t let my fear stop me for I am surrounded by people who love me and believe in me.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Nicole: Frankly, I think our situation is dire. We are misunderstood and seen as a threat to the fabric of society if we are given any thought at all. There are relatively few of us who are out and active. There are many transgender women who want to be more active, but employment is often an issue and without a steady income, it is difficult for some people to pull together enough money for a bus ride across town, much less pay for a plane ticket to lobby in Washington.
Then, there is the reality that there is not a significant amount of money available through grants and foundations for transgender causes. Most of the time, we are a footnote in a grant request through LGB organizations. With all that said, we cannot be stopped. Our voices will be heard. I belong to a few organizations that are good at running a non-profit with a minimal budget because we are willing to volunteer our time.

ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full
Participation. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Nicole: Yes. The fight for transgender rights is happening right now in the United States. The USA is a patchwork of cities, towns, counties, and states. Each level of government has the ability to pass ordinances or statutes to extend protections to uphold the human rights of transgender people. Slowly, but surely, local governments are recognizing the basic rights of transgender people. We have a long way to go in many parts of the country, but we are making progress.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Nicole: I am not very impressed with the way most transgender characters are portrayed in any media outlet. Transgender people are rarely the main characters. In the occasional movie or TV show where the transgender character has a significant role, they are almost always played by a cisgender actor.
I am happy to say that over the past couple of years, a few incredible transgender actors and media personalities have been given the opportunity to showcase their talent and skill in their chosen professions.
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?
Nicole: Transgender individuals have to take leadership positions in LGBT organizations, either on the board of directors or on staff. We have to ensure the LGB communities know that the transgender community has a voice that will be heard. I know how lonely it can be sitting on a board as the only transgender voice, but we have to be a part of the leadership structure in order to make change happen. It will take our time and energy to educate, educate, and educate until transphobia is no longer a factor in the LGB organizations.

Performing "The Vagina Workshop" as a member of
the Boulder Colorado production
of The Vagina Monologues in April 2013.

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?
Nicole: If you are referring to the activism of Harvey Milk, yes there are many incredible transgender people who have been appointed to high-level government positions in the United States. There are transgender individuals who have been elected to local government offices. There are transgender clergy in mainline Protestant denominations. There are transgender people who are emulating the work of Harvey Milk. I am sorry to say that there are far too many transgender people who, like Harvey Milk, are murdered for living the truth.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Nicole: I am politically active by calling and emailing my elected representatives. I occasionally have the opportunity to visit the offices of my state and federal legislators. The voice of the transgender people won’t be heard unless we make contact with our representatives. Transgender women have to speak up in order to make a difference.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Nicole: How do I say this? I am not good at relationships. I was married for eight years to a wonderful woman and I failed miserably as a husband. After my transition, I had a couple of romantic interests, but they were short and ended badly. I love my family and I have several close friends, but at this time in my life, I am happy to be on my own.
I figure if I am meant to have a love interest in my life, someone will appear. I have a beautiful turquoise ring that I wear on the “ring” finger of my left hand. That is the only finger the ring fits and I love the way it looks on my hand. Not long ago, someone saw the ring and asked if I was married. I jokingly replied that I was married to Jesus – I know that he loves me and that I am never alone, but he isn’t very good at conversation.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Nicole: I don’t think my life is that interesting. I have been on an incredible journey during my 54 years, but I don’t know if anyone would want to read about it. I am a storyteller. I love talking in church basements or into a microphone. I don’t know if a book could capture my golden voice and intricate intonation. I write things down now and then, but I don’t know if I have the time or motivation to actually write a book about me.

Colorado Outspoken. Source: YouTube.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Nicole: On May 17, 2014, I earned a Master of Arts in Counseling from the University of Colorado Denver. My current project is opening up a private counseling practice. I specialize in trauma, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief, and loss. These are all areas that impact the transgender community. I hope to have many transgender clients but would like to be available to the LGB community as well.
I also want to reach out to family and friends of the LGBT community. Parents, siblings, partners, and friends of people in transition need to have a safe place where they can process their emotions. I am also working toward a Master of Divinity degree through a specialized distance learning program at Luther Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota.
I have been granted entrance to candidacy in ordained ministry in the ELCA. This is a big deal. It is a long and complicated process to become a pastor in the ELCA. To sum it up, I am going to continue what I do best – counseling, speaking, teaching, and preaching.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Nicole: Find a good counselor. Yes, I am biased, but therapy helped me stay centered and on track during my transition. For the vast majority of transgender people, it is not an internal struggle where one needs a counselor. A therapist can help a transgender person develop the coping skills necessary to deal with the world around them.
No matter how strong a person is, there are only so many times that wrong pronouns, gendered restrooms, verbal abuse, and, occasionally, physical violence that a person can tolerate before life becomes unbearable. Remember, no one has to transition alone.
Reach out and find a support group. Select a counselor who will listen and be there for you. These days, video counseling is possible for those who live in areas where support groups aren’t being held. Please remember, you are not alone. There are a lot of us who are here to help.
Monika: Nicole, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Nicole Garcia.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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