Friday, 30 January 2015

Interview with Abby Louise Jensen

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Abby Louise Jensen, a transgender attorney and activist now living in Tucson, Arizona. She is Vice President of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, a member of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee of the Arizona State Bar Association and the City of Tucson’s GLBT Advisory Commission, the former President and member of the Board of Directors of QsquaredYouth, a co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of Prescott Area Shelter Services, and honoree on the inaugural Trans 100 list (2013). Hello Abby!
Abby: Hi, Monika! Thanks for giving me the chance to be interviewed for your blog. 
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Abby: Sure. I’ve been an attorney since 1982, but I didn’t decide to transition until 2007. So, I’ve been living full-time as Abby for just under 8 years.
Although I often thought about being a girl or woman when I was younger, I gave up that dream when I was in my late 20’s and resolved myself to living as a man for the rest of my life.
In 1995, my life blew apart and I separated from my wife and ended up in Arizona to deal with my addiction and other issues. During that process, I began a spiritual journey that led me to realize how important it was to me to be my authentic self. At the time, I didn’t realize that included transitioning, but that became very clear after a few years, and I began that process. Today, I am committed to living a life of integrity and authenticity. Living as my true self is a big part of that.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. How did you get started?
Abby: I grew up with a strong sense of justice and injustice and worked for the Idaho Human Rights Commission investigating mostly sex discrimination claims before going to law school. Then, I got married, started having children and building a career as a corporate lawyer, and intentionally pushed away my sense of injustice and desire to help people.
However, as I began to explore transitioning, I started researching the laws that would affect me personally and saw how little information and advice there was in the online transgender community about discrimination, name and gender changes, and other issues. 
And I realized that my skills as an attorney could be used to help my community. At the same time, I realized how much isolation and hardship there is in our community, so I resolved to never say “No” to a request for help if there was anything I could do, even if it was only sending a virtual hug and telling someone that they aren’t alone. That’s what launched me to where I am today, where I have the opportunity to use my voice and my skills to create a more just world for transgender people.
Hiking in Madera Canyon south
of Tucson.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on the work of the transgender rights organizations that you are a member of?
Abby: The mission of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA) is to provide education, advocacy, support, outreach, and other programs for transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, two-spirit, butch, femme, gender fluid, other gender nonconforming, and intersex people and their families, allies, service providers, employers, and others.
Last year, SAGA separated from Wingspan, Tucson’s LGBT center, which is no longer in operation, and incorporated as an independent nonprofit corporation. Our application for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status is pending and, once approved, will be retroactive to our date of incorporation (November 17, 2014). We operate monthly support groups for trans people and their allies, trans feminine people, trans masculine people, and those in a relationship with a trans person.
In addition, we provide speakers on a variety of trans-related topics from Transgender 101 programs to legal issues affecting the trans community. We also provide training for for-profit and nonprofit corporations to help them become culturally competent in dealing with trans employees and the public. Finally, we engage in political and social advocacy on issues that affect the trans community on both the federal, state, and local levels. 
Monika: What are the most pending issues on the transgender agenda?
Abby: I believe the most pressing issues at the moment are enacting and expanding transgender nondiscrimination laws at the federal, state, and local levels; empowering trans people to apply for and succeed at jobs in both the public and private sectors, and start their own businesses; enforcing the nondiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act to prohibit the exclusion of transgender health needs from both private and public insurance programs, and increasing the availability of culturally competent and well-trained medical providers to serve our needs.
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?
Abby: My Abby Anniversary, as I call it, is May 14, 2007. That’s the day I began living full-time as Abby. I was 53 years old. I lived in a relatively small town with only a couple other trans people that I knew of, and my family was a thousand miles away. I did have some friends who supported me, but mostly I figured out what I needed to do and how to do it on my own by searching for information and chatting with other trans people on the internet.
At the time, I was self-employed, so my employer (me) was very understanding about my transition. I also worked alone and at home. So, I didn’t have to deal with getting permission from supervisors or dealing with coworkers. I did, however, have to figure out a plan to come out to all the attorneys, judges, court staff, and other people I encountered in my work. I am fortunate that that process went very smoothly and I had no real challenges to my transition.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Abby: No, I didn’t. I knew of a lot of trans people via the Internet at that point. But I’ve always been pretty much of a loner who does things the way she feels is best, regardless of what others think. In addition, my journey to living as Abby was a spiritual journey toward authenticity and wholeness, not directly to live as a woman. That was simply a part of becoming my authentic self.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Abby: At the time I decided to transition, I had been part of a Native American sweat lodge for about two years. I was the only “guy” among the group of 6 or 7 people who maintained the lodge and made the monthly lodges happen, so it gave me a chance to be among other women on a spiritual journey.
Also, the decision to begin transition occurred in that lodge on Labor Day weekend of 2005. So that lodge was very important to me. However, when I told the water pourer (the woman who led the sweat lodge ceremonies) that I was going to live as a woman, she banned me from the lodge unless I continued to present as a man, with only a few minor concessions.
Given the reverence in which transgender people were traditionally held in many Native American tribes before the missionaries came, that decision surprised me. The loss of that lodge and that community was one of the most painful parts of my transition.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Abby: To be blunt, it’s very hard and very dangerous, especially for trans women of color. The intersection of poverty, misogyny, transphobia, and racism drives many of us into the underground economy, like sex work, to survive and finance our transitions. That creates a very complex problem that requires cooperation and collaboration with other organizations working on all those issues to ever solve it.
I acknowledge my privilege as a white, well-educated woman with a good, secure job where my being transgender is not an issue. So, I have managed to escape most of the hardship that our community must endure. While I identify issues that affect others, such as racism, as part of the problem, I never try to speak for those who are directly affected. Instead, I strive to push those voices forward.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Abby: I believe the concept that discrimination against trans people comes from our defiance of gender and sex stereotypes is important since that is also the source of much of the bias against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, rather than who they love or what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms. Thus, that principal can unite, rather than divide, us in working together against discrimination against any of us.
Monika: A few months 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? 
Abby: I didn’t see that movie because I knew it would upset me, and I was very upset at Leto’s remarks at the various awards ceremonies last year, especially his failure to acknowledge the transgender community that he was appropriating to make money. 
More recently, there has been much controversy about Jeffrey Tambor playing a newly-transitioning, elderly trans woman in the Amazon TV series “Transparent.” Many are upset at yet another cisgender person portraying a trans woman. That doesn’t bother me in this instance, since I think an elderly cisgender man is able to portray very well, both physically and emotionally, the awkwardness of a trans woman just beginning to present to the world as a woman.
In general, I am very happy about the growing number of positive portrayals of trans people, both young and old, in the media. Public figures like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Geena Rocero have been a big part of that increasing public awareness. Because they conform to mainstream standards of feminine beauty, they are invited to appear in the media and, then, they take advantage of that platform to advocate for the rest of us and to push other voices forward. It’s creating an upswell of education and support that is wonderful to see.

Lecturing on transgender discrimination at the
University of Arizona law school.

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?
Abby: In the last 2 or 3 years, there has been amazing growth in local transgender support and advocacy groups all over the country. I attribute that growth to so many of us realizing that the things our community needs weren’t being done by existing organizations; so if we wanted them done, we needed to do it ourselves. 
The idea of “nothing about us without us,” in other words, don’t speak for us or do for us, instead, empower us to do for ourselves, has also contributed to that growth.
At the same time, I don’t see those organizations ignoring the value of collaboration with LGB-focused organizations when we are working toward a common goal. So, I think it’s great that trans people are more and more making their own way, while also finding ways to work together with those with common goals and interests.
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?
Abby: No, I don’t think so. Part of the reason for that is that, because of the struggles we have had to overcome, trans people are often strong-willed and independent, so we insist that our voices be heard and respected. That requires a form of organizing that empowers and respects all voices and works by consensus, not through a hierarchy of decision-makers. So, instead of a single figure at the forefront, we have many, like the three trans women I just mentioned, and trans men like my friend Michael Woodward, as well as Kortney Zeigler and Tiq Milan. Together we are demanding our place in society and the rights that go with it.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Abby: I very much think trans people can make a difference in politics, whether it’s running for office ourselves, phone banking, or knocking on doors. If nothing else, that work means more and more people get to meet us and learn that we are much like themselves.
I personally value my role as an outsider too much to want to move inside as a legislator, council member, or mayor. I support candidates that support transgender people with my money when I can. Most of my free time, however, is focused on advocacy around the issues that directly affect our community.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Abby: One part of the spiritual journey that led to my transition was becoming a student and teacher of A Course in Miracles. The Course teaches that only love is real and every loving thought and action contributes to changing the world.
So, in everything I do, I try to be loving and accepting of everyone I encounter, never shaming or belittling, even when I disagree with them. I also value romantic love. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been much of a part of my life since my transition. You never know when that may change, however.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Abby: I have, but I doubt I ever will. My transition story is unique in some ways, so I enjoy sharing it whenever I get the chance. But I write for a living as an appeals lawyer and I am not very attracted to the idea of other types of writing, at least not at the moment.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Abby: I have a dream of creating a statewide transgender advocacy and legal assistance organization here in Arizona, something along the lines of the Transgender Law Center perhaps. Others share my dream and we are working toward that goal right now. However, there’s no telling how long it will take since money is the primary obstacle at this point.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Abby: Trust yourself. Trust your instincts and your desires. Don’t believe anyone who says you aren’t who you know you are. And follow your dreams.
Monika: Abby, thank you for the interview!
Abby: You’re welcome. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

All the photos: courtesy of Abby Louise Jensen.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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