Friday, 5 December 2014

Interview with Greta Martela

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Greta Martela, a software developer from San Francisco, transgender activist, and co-founder of Trans Lifeline - the first U.S. suicide hotline dedicated to transgender people. Hello Greta!
Greta: Hello!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Greta: I’m a trans woman living in San Francisco, CA and working in tech.
Monika: Trans Lifeline is the first U.S. suicide hotline providing support to transgender people. What is the suicide rate among transgender people in the USA?
Greta: We aren’t the first transgender crisis line, but we are the first national crisis line for transgender people staffed solely by transgender people. There isn’t a good rate statistic because so many trans people are misgendered after death. The self reported attempt rate is 41% but obviously this doesn’t include people who die from their suicide attempts.
Monika: Do you receive many calls? Who is the average caller?
Greta: We’ve been growing at an astounding rate. When we did our hard launch last Thursday we got six calls. Yesterday we has around sixty calls. We currently have twenty four trained operators and one hundred and eighty waiting to be trained.
Monika: The concept of Trans Lifeline is based on "by trans people, for trans people" approach…
Greta: When a transgender person is in crisis they need to talk to another transgender person. There is no reason to have them talking to a cis person. Peer support is an idea that has been well tested.

Monika: The hotline's concept was partly influenced by your own story…
Greta: Yes, I called a suicide hotline and the man who answered was transphobic. I don’t want that happening ever again.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Greta: At the moment we are barely tolerated by the dominant society. We are gaining rights rapidly at the moment but I’d imagine a backlash is inevitable.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Greta: I was a late transitioner at 44. It’s only been a couple of years. I’m aware that I’m a very privileged trans woman and for this reason it feels appropriate to use my privilege to serve others in my community. Coming out to myself happened at a time of great personal tragedy. My transition has been easy compared to that. My career has taken a serious beating.

Courtesy of Gabriela Hasbun.
Other photos available via Cosmo.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Greta: Laura Jane Grace came out about the time that I was coming out to myself. She was the first trans person who I looked at and saw myself. I’m a bit of a rock and roller so seeing someone who had interests similar to mine getting through a transition was a big help.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Greta: Coming out to myself was the hardest part. I’ve always been aware of my discomfort with my assigned gender role. Before I transitioned a lot of people assumed I was gay.
I grew up in the Mormon church so my feminine mannerisms meant that I was always on the outside. Coming out to my family was easy because I’ve never felt particularly accepted by them. Now that I accept myself that stings a lot less.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Greta: I think the push for gender equality for transgender people has the potential to free everyone from onerous and outdated gender roles that really hurt everyone.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Greta: Media representation of trans women has been horrible. I can’t remember ever seeing a trans woman on screen I identified with. If Laura Jane Grace or Fallon Fox had been on TV when I was growing up I would have come out a lot sooner.
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?
Greta: The trans community seems to be getting a lot of support lately from LGBT organizations, some of whom have pretty problematic histories. You can ask us to forgive but we will never forget. I’m in favor of LGB organizations being primarily involved in financially supportive roles. The trans rights movement needs to be led by trans people.
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?
Greta: We have Miss Major, Felicia Elizondo and Sylvia Rivera who are all contemporaries of Harvey Milk. Our heroes have largely been cis-washed from LGBT history.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Greta: I live in California where we have more than one legislator leading the way. We have trans inclusive health care, a law that protects us from being misgendered in death, work place protections etc. For this reason I leave the lobbying and political work to people who are in a place where there is work to be done. I prefer focusing on direct action anyhow. 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Greta: I’m a goth girl so I like black and purple. I prefer dresses and skirts (I never wear pants). I like lace.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Greta: I’m lucky to have an amazing trans woman for a partner. She is a software engineer as well. She did all of the technical bit involved with setting up Trans Lifeline. She’s my best friend and we have a lot of fun together.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Greta: I’ll write a memoir if I manage to have a sizable impact on the movement. Otherwise I’ll keep quiet and let someone else have the spotlight.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Greta: Trans Lifeline is consuming all of my efforts right now. I am considering a move to the EU.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Greta: Transition takes time and there is a difference between dysmorphia and dysphoria. I really wish I looked like Jane Russell but it’s not going to happen. I do look just like my big sister so that’s good enough for me. We don’t all get to be great beauties. Find a way to love yourself. It’s the only way out.
Monika: Greta, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Greta Martela.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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