Sunday, 30 November 2014

Interview with Pam Bennett

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Pam Bennett, an American advocate for the LGBT community, politician, military veteran, and blogger. Hello Pam!
Pam: Hello from Annapolis, Maryland U.S.A. Happy to be here.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Pam: Asking a politician (former, but never say never) to say only a few words is like asking the sun to not shine too much today. My first thought every day is that I am the luckiest person on earth. The job I do is a lot of fun, enhanced with wonderful co-workers and bosses who care about their employees.
I live on a beautiful little peninsula, southeast of Annapolis, in the Chesapeake Bay. My cat, Boo, loves sailing on my boat. All of this is what I think of each morning because I also temper my happiness knowing that so many transgender people around the world cannot even dream of my world. I have had a great life, too many downs, but a lot of ups to make it interesting.
Monika: You are a very active politician. Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Pam: Transgender women are making a difference in politics. Our track record is still more losses than wins, but over time we will succeed. Each one of us who runs builds a world where other transwomen can run, and win. We are breaking trail, my biggest issue is that there was no one behind me in Colorado to take up the big T and advance where I had not. We have to have women willing to be leaders. I am always available if a transwoman wants to talk about running for office.
Monika: You ran for the Council seat in Aurora, Colorado. Why did you want to be a city councilwoman?
Pam: Serving is something in my genes. The military was one form of serving, something many civilians might not understand. The various jobs I worked at during my life have all been producing something for America and the world. And, as my transition therapist, and Veterans Administration psychologist, put it, I am a classic politician – someone who is a combination of Type A personality with a Super-Ego. I enjoy talking and meeting people, and just helping them. My city, Aurora, had a place for a Progressive person on city council, I thought it was me, not enough voters did though.
Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Pam: This is an excellent question, one that I have wondered about since 2010 when he put out an executive order giving transgender people the same employment protections (not rights!) as other protected classes (a legal term for minorities and women) in the federal government. I tend to think there has been more of an unspoken support compared to the need to “evolve” on gay marriage.

Campaign Kick Off 2007.

Monika: Is there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats address the needs and rights of transgender community?
Pam: The Democrats tend to be more supportive at the start. Republicans may change later, or they may not. Republicans can have one behaviour in public, but undermine you in private. The vocal support to the world, but passing legislation to isolate and harm in politics. 
Democrats in politics are usually waiting to see how you are doing. My volunteers were great. They wanted a strong Democrat to win the election so they worked hard. One of my campaign managers said that when I address people, one on one or a large group, they spend a few minutes trying to figure who or what I am, then after five minutes they are mine and do not care about my gender.
Monika: The American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect?
Pam: Poor. It is a question of who writes the checks. Transgender communities must rely on others, for almost everything. Adding us on to the G-L-B, is still being fought by many gay and lesbians. What is important to our cause of equality, safety and freedom is impressing on politicians that all are only as equal as the least of us.
We have many allies in public service who will work for us. We have to support them in any way we can. The most important and visible is for trans people to run for office. A face, a name and a real campaign is great advertising. A real campaign is running on the issues, not equality. Equality should be a given by any LGBT politician, it is not an issue for the voters.
Monika: You have been also involved with The White House Project advocating the higher participation of women in politics. How important is this project?
Pam: The sad is the WHP is fini. What it did for woman cannot be understated. In Colorado, which is where I am most familiar with, many women learned how to get over their hesitations about running; they learned how to run for office and they won. There are a couple of start-ups trying to duplicate WHP, they do not have the leadership or the money. Maybe it is something I might help with. 
Monika: You are an Air Force veteran. Did you like the army?
Pam: Some of my best buddies are Army vets. The military is something best lived as an officer; I was not an officer. Back in the early 1970’s when I was in Vietnam War was shutting down, but I was still supposed to have orders to go when I tore up a knee. That delayed things for a while, but there was still the White House and members of Congress along with the Pentagon wanting for us to go back in to “save” the country, I was supposed to have orders for that. At the time I was still proving “I am a guy” so although being trans was in the brain, I worked very hard at blocking it. If I stayed in I suppose something would have happened to get me discharged out. I learned a lot in the military, much of it is a discipline to work and take the mission.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Pam: None, however I did have the Gender Identity Center of Colorado support group to help me. Several of us started transition at the same time so we went through many changes together. I read about Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, but the truth is I never knowingly met a trans person until I walked into GICC the first night.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Pam: Losing part of my family. Everything else does not fall in to any category that could be considered “hard”.

Pam on her boat.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Pam: It is rough. We face terrible consequences for who we are in terms of isolation, physical violence and lack of employment, with resulting issues such as lack of health care. When I look at the FBI reports and employment reports it is very discouraging.
But, on the other side we are being employed. We are being portrayed on television and in the movies as real people, not monsters. We have more protections in more states, life for us is improving. I believe improving faster than I would have guessed ten years ago.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Pam: We are right now, especially in bring full equality to the United States military. Around the world the plight of trans people is under reported. When I was running in 2007 I started to receive mail and email from transpeople around the world. It was tough for me, as a few of the people were in countries that were punishing us. Sending anything to anyone could expose them to their authorities.
Monika: Some time 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?
Pam: We have been slowly breaking away from the slasher, murderer, freak, cross-dresser image that Hollywood likes so much. Having Andrea James and Calpernia Addams in that industry has had a good response. Those two are fighting to have our lives portrayed correctly.
In Washington, D.C., transwomen are always subject to assault and murder. The local media covers these better now, especially pointing out how high the crime rate is against us. Other cities are slowly coming around.
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?
Pam: For the most part the L-G-B is supportive of the T. But not always. Remember HRC and Barney Frank throwing the T under the bus to pass ENDA, knowing what they were doing. Although HRC is now under new direction and Barney brought full ENDA out to Congress, the damage was done.
I did not care for or trust HRC before and I am still waiting for them to do something that I can say they are helping us. Various lesbian groups have issues with women who were born with the wrong parts, but I can live without their judgments, other transwomen feel they need to fight, I say go girl, go.
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 the gay activism?
Pam: In 2007 and 2009 I felt like I was doing something similar politically. I was the first out transpolitician to run strictly on the voters issues, and I often felt like the loneliest politician on Earth. A decade earlier a transwoman who was not out was elected to Arvada, Colorado, but lost after she was outed. I ran on the city and voters issues. There was huge pressure from LGBT groups to run on things like “marriage equality” and “GLBT rights”. Because I was “hard headed”, as it was put to me, and did not run on gay issues I was not endorsed. Tough. If anyone thought I would not push equality once elected they were crazy. I was vice-president of Equal Rights Colorado.
Right now the push is for state level and federal level elected office. We have transpeople in high government positions, but those are appointed. The toughest fight is to run for office and win. The money people will support anyone but trans. But, to break new ground and provide an equality solution for an area, I do not see anyone at this moment. Maybe if I decide to poke my head into politics again I might have better vision.

Boo sailing the Chesapeake Bay.
Boo is her sea cat. She loves sailing.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Pam: Oh, I do love, love. I have reached an age that I want to curl up and cuddle in front of the fire more than I want someone in the bed next to me. I keep thinking of the cartoon of a man who is adding a name to his boat. He has crossed out the last woman’s name and is painting on the new one.
There are about six other women’s names on the boat, all crossed out. I have a lot of loves, just not current and not here. I did try dating once I moved to Maryland, but none have bloomed.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Pam: This is the truth, you can always trust a politician for the truth, the current working titles of my autobiographies are: Autobiography Version #59 (all the others versions are scrapped), Starting Over (for the fourth time) at 60, One Hell of a Life, and a few more that I gave up on, the titles not the versions.
Many people have asked me to write about my life, they find it fantastic and inspiring. I try to explain that a lot of trans people have written theirs and we all have something similar. The body was not right and we did something about it. I enjoy writing, however, I think an autobiography too early means writing a new one if you keep living. Which may not be all that bad.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Pam: So many things. 1 important project for next year is to be involved in the United States Department of Agriculture presence at Out and Equal. A few political things are in the background, the main piece of those is to become better known in my district.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Pam: First and most important is to know, deep inside know, that you are not alone or the first. The second, and this is why it took me until I was in my 50’s before transitioning, is internet knowledge, along with the connections to TSRoadMap and the local gender center for support. Education, support, even if it has to be online, and friends.
Monika: Pam, thank you for the interview! 

All the photos: courtesy of Pam Benett.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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