Friday, 17 October 2014

Interview with Alessandra Bernaroli

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Alessandra Bernaroli, a transsexual activist from Bologna in Italy, whose legal victory was an important step for transgender rights in Italy. Hello Alessandra!
Alessandra: Hello Monika, thanks for this opportunity to talk about LGBTI Civil Rights!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alessandra: I was born a man in 1971 and lived my life forcing myself to adhere to the image that the society established for people who had male appearance. In my teen years there wasn’t Internet nor so much “correct” information about transsexualism, so I always tried to deny my intimate feelings, believing that they were wrong and it was happening only to me and no one else in the world.
However, that was not true; now I know it! So I behaved trying to look as manly as possible, and I succeeded easily in doing this also because of my physical appearance, which was, at that time, indubitably a male appearance both in aspect as well as in attitude. Year after year my deep feeling to be a woman didn’t disappear, of course.
I graduated in economics, served one year in military service, practiced charted accounting and finally worked as a clerk. In the meantime, I found love and I got married. Until then, it was 2005, I was a man!
Monika: In June 2014, after your gender reassignment surgery and a five-year court battle to remain married to your wife, Rome's Constitutional Court ruled that just because you were a woman did not mean that your marriage should be disregarded. What was the feeling?
Alessandra: Well, initially we (me and my wife) didn’t believe it could really happen! We didn’t think that in such a reactionary country like Italy this Court could be so courageous and unconventional to give such a ruling. So this piece of news was a very unexpected one and initially we were so joyful, but … after a while, after reading the whole text of the judgement, we started to think that Italy is still Italy, after all.
In fact, on one hand, the Court said that is not possible to dissolve our marriage because this will mean an infringement of the Italian Constitution; but on the other hand, at the same time, this Court said that it is not possible for a same sex couple to be married in an union called “marriage”, because this will represent an infringement of the Italian Constitution!!!


It is not completely clear what this judgement will mean in future, but we can point out some elements: first of all, there is a sort of “cognitive error” in a way that a transgender couple is assimilated to a lesbian couple. That’s not true: in fact homosexuality is related to sex, but transsexualism refers to a gender of person, so they involve different spheres, biological and social ones.
In Italy, unfortunately, at this time there is not any law allowing same-sex marriages, but our case is completely different: in fact our marriage, a transsexual marriage if we can define it like this, was initially a “regular” heterosexual marriage (celebrated in a Catholic church because in Italy Catholic marriage complies with the Italian legislation due to an article of the Constitution) in which one of the spouses had a gender (not sex, if we wish to be meticulous) change.
This change is regulated by a detailed law (of 1982, revised initially in 1987) and this law speaks clearly that the marriage could be valid until the will of the spouse didn’t say stop! But as we know, in Italy law is written for the friends and (mis)interpreted for the others, as we used to say!
So, in brief, maybe for the fear that giving us the full and unconditioned ruling in favour of our marriage would have introduced same-sex marriages in Italy, some judges (because in Italy there is not any dissenting opinion, for instance as in the case of CEDU sentences) made pressure for writing an enigmatic judgement, which unfortunately collided with logic and common sense, too.
It’s interesting and important to underline that the Catholic Church has not cancelled our marriage that curiously is still valid for the Church (and the Church doesn’t change the name of transsexual person, even after SRS). Being effective for Church, means that it is not contrary to “public order”. In the end, there is this bitter flavour of a Nation; Italy is not capable to make a clear decision in order to pave the way for progress and respect for human beings …
Monika: The legal battle was a long and difficult process…
Alessandra: Yes, it has been a long legal battle, maybe too long and it has not ended yet. In fact, as I said before, now our lawsuit comes back to “Cassazione” Court (Supreme Court) that, given the decision of the Constitutional Court, should say the last word about our marriage.
I hope that finally they will be courageous enough to provide us with a clear and civilized ruling. This battle is really difficult, because it implies a change of mentality, different cultural approach, and that’s not easy, especially in Italy.
The problem is not only the Catholic culture that permeates the thinking of older and even younger generations; more generally, the difficulties we face up to are the mirror of a blocked society, unable to change, indifferent to the proper and natural claims of an important part of the society, namely a trans, gay and lesbian community.
Our battle, in this sense, could be seen like a fight for the future of our society, deciding if the civilization could go farther towards liberty, well-being and self-fulfilment of people or towards barbarism and regression.

Lady in white.

Monika: How important is this legal victory for the transgender community in Italy? 
Alessandra: This legal battle is for sure fundamental for transsexual (and, in general, for intersexual and LGB, too) civil rights in Italy; but if you, with the word “transgender community”, refer to the world of trans organizations, I’m not sure that there’s a real consciousness of the very importance of this battle in the minds of this kind of “political activists” (it’s an euphemism)!
The matter is that Italian trans organizations have never been numerous and full of many members and, not only for this reason, haven’t got really a lot of clout on politics, despite some LGB activists (even a self-styled transgender) that have had some little political roles, even sitting in the national Parliament.
In my opinion, the attitude of organizations towards politics was of pursuing some “ideological” cultural targets referred to the so called culture of diversity or freedom of expression, which, of course, are important and fundamental points, but they do not aspire to achieve the legal recognition of civil rights.
The result, at present, has been some political chairs for some lucky ones, some public tasks and just nothing that could really change and improve the transsexual and intersexual lives.
Monika: Intentionally or not you have become a transgender icon in Italy...
Alessandra: Oh, I don’t know if I am now so “iconic” as you said. For sure it was not my starting intention, because, believe it or not, after my SRS I thought to live in stealth as long as possible! Maybe it was utopian, I must admit it, just because I worked in a big bank and I was for many years a union leader in my institute.
Now things have changed, and yes … I want to give the most powerful contribution I can to cause a strong change in my country, because I think the time is ripe and T* people have waited so long until now!
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Alessandra: I started my transition process in 2007, at age 36, but, as we all know, the feeling of a mismatching between body and mind is inside you since the childhood. I started the process when I was able to achieve a strong self-consciousness of my very essence. I found that the process is both physical and social, and it is so complex, to say the least!
Regarding the physical side, once I decided about the kind of surgery I needed, it was difficult for me to find out the right surgeon and clinic in which I could undergo the operation.
In few years I had SRS in Thailand (Dr. Suporn), FFS in Spain in three separate steps (Facial Team) and voice surgery in USA (Dr. J.P. Thomas). Maybe I was lucky and for sure the surgeons were very good, so I didn’t have any complications and nowadays. I’m very satisfied with the overall result.
With reference to my social acceptance, certainly it was a more difficult process. I was very worried about the transition, because I thought that I would never ever be able to live, act, look and live as a woman.
In fact, I worked hard all my life to be as manly as possible! Instead, after a very short period as a transvestite, in a sort of real life test, after starting TOS, I found every day easier to live in my feminine habits.

Evening in the city.

Due to my friends and work colleagues, I underwent the changing process gradually, starting to dress little by little in a more unisex way and, most of all, trying to speak about LGBTI matters every time I had the occasion to do it. I made myself understood, so it was possible for the other people to figure out the difficulty of the transsexual phenomenon in a world full of stereotyped messages.
I put every effort into explaining my situation and needs to all the persons around me. The effort was well repaid, I can say now! My parents, after the initial astonishment and disbelief, supported me thoroughly. However, the major and most important support came and is coming from my wife. 
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Alessandra: To say the truth, in Italy at that time there was not such a role model to look up to. Abroad, surfing the web, I was fascinated by the success stories of some transsexual persons like: Andrea James, Lynn Conway, Caroline Cossey, April Ashley, Coccinelle, Amanda Lear, and Jenny Hiloudaki. Moreover, I found many interesting and useful stories of various girls on the old “geocities” web.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alessandra: I feared that people would not respect me by saying that I was a transsexual woman. I feared the weight of demanding my identity, fearing that someone could have questioned it, which never happens to anyone else but transsexual person.


All the photos: courtesy of Alessandra Bernaroli.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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