Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Interview with Claire Russell

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Claire Russell, a transgender activist from San Diego, California, creator of the online San Diego Trans Resource Center, and co-organizer of the first annual Trans*Pride and March. Hello Claire!
Claire: Hey! Thanks for having me!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Claire: I’m a 25-year-old trans woman from Southern California. I live with my supportive family and work two jobs. I love archery, sailing, video games, nature, etiquette, technology, NPR, children, dogs, and piña coladas. I was Ms. Trans San Diego 2013 and 2014. I mostly volunteer around trans youth specifically.
I love art in all its forms whether it’s ballet, graffiti, music, comics, anything. I’m extremely empathetic and optimistic. I live by a creed of kindness and positivity. I have a bachelor’s degree in video game design but after discovering a lack of job opportunities in the field I discovered a whole world of opportunities in community organizing and volunteerism.
Monika: I have been really touched by your indiegogo campaign. You wish to go to school to bring free permanent hair removal to trans people in Southern California…
Claire: Yes! If I can just raise the funds for schooling and equipment I can give free permanent hair removal to trans people by partnering with LGBT non-profits across the SoCal region. It’s an invisible need for most trans women especially and it is prohibitively expensive. If I can help just one trans person change their appearance and avoid a violent attack, suicide from gender dysphoria, or even get a job it will all be worth it.

At San Diego’s Mission Beach standing on
the Northern jetty.

Monika: Have you ever tried contacting Ar’lene D. Lafferty? She is a well-known professional electrologist and transgender icon, maybe she could help you. I had the honor of interviewing her 2 years ago.
Claire: I have not had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Lafferty. It is so awesome that she’s been able to be a trans person that serves other trans people with electrology.
Seeing trans business owners and trans professionals in general (especially trans women!) is inspirational to me. They help remind me that even when the whole world doesn’t want you to exist you can still carve out a successful life for yourself.
Monika: Although you are very young, you have helped to build the transgender community in San Diego …
Claire: I feel compelled to give back to my community. I am not well off at all yet myself but every time I find spare time I volunteer or work on my website. Every time I get a second or third job I spend a little more on community-building social events or donating to organizations that help trans people.
Every time someone needs someone to simply care about what they have to say I always stop what I’m doing and give them my undivided attention. I can’t imagine not doing it and I highly recommend everyone getting involved in helping their community in whatever way that looks like and whatever community that may be. It not only helps make the world a better place for the world but it makes it a better place for you.
Monika: What is the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Claire: For every Laura Jane Grace and Janet Mock that rises to international fame there are a hundred that are murdered for just living authentically. It’s been amazing to see the rise of transgender visibility and be able to tell that the world around me is more informed of our struggle.
At the same time every week, every month, I see another article about a murdered trans woman. And they’re usually a trans woman of color, too. It never gets easier to read those stories. Every Day Of Remembrance is just as heart-wrenching as the last.
The violence we face is astronomical and I have been unbelievably privileged to live without having to face much of it so far. No matter how many movie stars, musicians, and best-selling authors we have we must not forget how most of the rest of us are struggling with poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and accessing medical care.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Claire: I began my transition around 19 or 20. I was able to grow my hair out early in high school and start wearing some girl clothes on the sly. That helped immensely with passing when I came out.
But I came out and started hormones in college. I was very lucky. My transition was pretty smooth. My family didn’t kick me out of the house and after a few years, they grew to love the real me more than they did the old me.

With her mother at an art show in Laguna Beach.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Claire: I didn’t. It wasn’t that long ago but it was just a few short years ago when we didn’t have any trans visibility in Hollywood or anywhere in the way that we do now.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Claire: Anyone who can find their place in this world; Anyone who can find love, find a purpose, and find a way to live authentically has my respect and admiration.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Claire: The hardest part of coming out was coming out to my parents. The fear of being abandoned, rendered homeless, and having to drop out of school prevented me from telling them for years before I finally came out. Had my parents been slightly different people that could have been my reality. Now it seems so far away these days. My parents are very proud of me and love me dearly.
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?
Claire: Yes, I think it can. The “LGB” is the “T”s biggest ally and while we are very different from them our communities have a long and tangled history. Hopefully, the “LGB” will not forget about us when they finish their race for marriage equality.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Claire: In general, I think the more visibility the better. Every story won’t be positive, every fictional character won’t be perfect, and every depiction won’t be perfectly accurate, but the more of us that appears in our books, sung about in our songs, and shown in our movies the more the world will sympathize, understand, and carry that new feeling of us into their communities.
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?
Claire: We had amazing activists way back then, too. People like Sylvia Rivera. But today we have some pretty amazing people, too. Mason Davis, Bamby Salcedo, and Brynn Tannehill come to mind.

A graphic she made of herself at Pacific Beach in San Diego.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Claire: I do not do any lobbying. I would say I am not involved with local politics in San Diego but I am adjacent to it. I avidly pay attention to politics but to participate in it myself is stress I am not quite yet prepared for, haha.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Claire: I love fashion! I love clothes! Earthy and dark jewel tones are my favorite and I love buying dresses at Nordstrom. While I tend to be a flowy-top-and-jean-shorts kinda girl in my day-to-day I absolutely die for shrugs and A-line dresses with the right accessories. They make me feel so beautiful and feminine! I may not be an artist by trade anymore but my sense of design, color theory, and taste has been put to good use in assembling mega cute outfits.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Claire: I am single. Some relationships have come and gone in my life. They are short-lived, for the most part. I tend not to talk a lot about my relationships but I long for them. It is hard to find a serious relationship when you’re trans but I won’t let that leave me feeling too lonely to keep looking.
A friend once told me “I can’t wait until you fall in love, Claire, because it’s going to be so passionate and beautiful.” I think she’s right. But I won’t hang my life on that hook. While love is important it is not important enough to keep me from building a life. My career comes first. Love will come when it will come.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Claire: I have. But I think I will wait until I have a few more years to write about under my belt, haha.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Claire: My fundraiser is my most recent project. I also have an idea or two on the drawing board but those are tippy-top secrets for now!
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Claire: LOVE. YOUR. SELF. When no one else will love you YOU can love YOU! And it is the most powerful thing you can do for yourself. It doesn’t matter what you look like, how far into transition you are, where you live, what kind of a job you have… So long as you can show yourself the love and tenderness and forgiveness you deserve then you will make it in this world.
Monika: Claire, thank you for the interview!
Claire: It was my pleasure, Monika!

All the photos: courtesy of Claire Russell.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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