Thursday, 12 February 2015

Interview with Simone Whitlow

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Simone Whitlow, a singer, guitar player, transgender activist, former member of the Ishtar hard rock group from New Zealand. Hello Simone!
Simone: Heya Monika lovely to meet you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Simone: Hmm let’s see, I work a day job I don’t like to define myself. Music runs through my veins though I don’t have the time at present to do much with it. I am passionate, creative, and intellectual and in fledgling steps towards entrepreneurship at the moment. I’m very happily post-transition and in the process of achieving my ideal life unencumbered, however, I have more pieces to the jigsaw than space to lay it down right now.
Monika: Where did you get your musical inspirations from? Could you elaborate more on your music and LPs?
Simone: Sure. My musical baby throughout the 2000s was a progressive hard rock band called Ishtar. We released a couple of EP’s in the mid- 2000s and fell apart just when we were starting to make some real headway. Rebooted the band in 2010 but it just wasn’t the right time for it and was wrought with all kinds of band politics. Inspiration wise for me Ishtar was meant in the vein of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, Van Halen – all those classic stadium bands with a touch of Muse, Rush, and Dream Theater.

Courtesy of Simone Whitlow.

Though for me music has always been primarily about painting scenes with sound. The last version of the band I was trying to find a way of bringing in a more folky, roots music influence and a bit more of a 60’s thing, writing for the jukebox like Phil Spector’s bands and Motown did I guess, just more colors on the palate I guess.
I also was doing a lot of co-vocalist stuff, lots of close harmonies kept up high in the mix. Inspirations beyond the band? Hmm is a pretty long list.
Monika: Are you working on any new artist projects now?
Simone: Nothing at the moment. I hope to soon but do have a lot on my plate at the moment with a day job, sideline selling electric guitars online, hopes to study via correspondence in 2015, and, umm, a few kgs of post-op weight to shake.
I have a new project mind mapped out, I would love to develop and launch though when I can free up the time. I do have around 20 unfinished songs I would love to come back to though and release in the near future though, should I be able to fit it all in.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Simone: I would have to say yes I think though god only knows what is down to transition and what is down to growing as a human being in general. Pre-transition I wrote mostly 3rd person narrative or when writing the first person it was in character; I found in transition I really was writing more like ‘myself’.
I think there was more of a sense of ‘honesty’ too in what I was willing to bring to the table. For one we did a heavied-up cover of The Exciters’ ‘Tell Him’, cause I thought it was a cool song. I don’t think pre-transition we would have done it. 
Monika: Contemporary music has produced a new wave of transgender female artists, just to name a few of them: Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Marissa Martinez of Cretin, Amber Taylor of The Sexual Side Effects, Namoli Brennet, Sissy Début, and Jennifer Leitham, and many others. Are we going to see more and more transgender artists?
Simone: OMG I hope so! I think a lot of us trans girls are artistic, articulate, talented folk whose voices should be heard. Of course the more of us out there the more we become understood, which is a win for all.

Monika: Is there a similar wave in New Zealand?
Simone: Unless the girls are all stealth, not that I’m aware of. I don’t believe I’m the only one though. I would love to see more trans musicians in NZ, from my experience they would be made to feel very welcome by most.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in New Zealand society?
Simone: I think a lot better than the various societies and support groups of New Zealand would give it credit for sometimes, New Zealand has a reputation for being welcoming and open-minded with good reason IMO. Not to say there aren’t battles to be fought, in terms of medical access and a number of points of law to specifically safeguard against discrimination, etc …. But my experience of New Zealand is it is a very accepting place for trans folk.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Simone: Truthfully I started quite late, at 31, after a few stumbling attempts earlier. There were some problems along the way; I did lose a few friends and for some time shut myself away from several other friends, while cocooned away. I had trouble with one particular mid-level manager at a former job, who in retrospect I should have taken to court for discrimination – though I was worried it would void good work references from other managers there.
My relationship with my parents is better now than it ever has been (they both even went over to Thailand with me for my GRS, to look after me) but, you know as much as you’re on a journey so is everyone you love and transition can be a rough journey for family sometimes.
Overall I’d have to say anyone I cared for and who cared about me is still on my side, those who mind really don’t matter, and those who matter ultimately don’t mind… and to finally be your true, authentic self the odd bit of discomfort is a small price to pay.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Simone: I guess no one that I was modeling myself after, as absolutely terrible as that sounds. I used to love going through Lynn Conway’s TS Women’s successes pages though, gives you a lot of confidence to know there are so many of us out there thriving in all aspects of life.

Courtesy of Simone Whitlow.

Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Simone: Totally! I have huge respect for anyone transgender in music or the arts, especially Marissa Martinez and Jordana LeSesne, who I have chatted with online a couple of times and do follow online. Laverne Cox is absolutely incredible, both as a spokesperson and in her role on Orange Is the New Black.
I greatly admire Janet Mock. On a local level Racheal McGonigal, Roxanne Henare, and Jacquie Grant are three ladies I greatly admire, respect, and look up to. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Simone: In retrospect the prequel; far too many years living an absolutely miserable existence. I have said to people before that I felt like a non-person till I began transitioning and that is something I could never go back to. You do fear losing everything though, your friends and family, your job, you name it; I was no different to a lot of people in that respect I guess.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Simone: I believe so. In NZ before my time a lot of the essential human rights stuff was already fought for but there are still wars to be won. For me, it is all about providing health care earlier and providing GRS for those for whom it is right free of charge.
In the past, I have commented that you don’t leave kids with cleft palettes or other deformities that preclude them from living an ordinary life, and over a life span, the Government subsidies on higher doses of hormones and androgen blockers than needed post-op accrue too much more than the one-off cost of GRS so economically it makes sense IMO. In terms of some of the stuff I see in my newsfeed from conservative American states, and around Transgender day of remembrance, etc., there is a much bigger frontier than that needs navigating.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Simone: OMG how we are depicted has come a very long way, in the most positive of ways IMO…. My early memories of transgender people in the media everything was in a Jerry Springer kind of vein. If anything I think we need more Trans actors portraying trans roles IMO.
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?
Simone: When needed I believe yes however I think the various factions under the ‘umbrella’ will always disagree over too much to get along and be friends.

Courtesy of Simone Whitlow.

Monika: Is there anyone in the New Zealand transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Simone: A name often mentioned in New Zealand is Carmen Rupe though she was one of several of that generation who made huge leaps and bounds for trans society in NZ.
Jacquie Grant IMO did a LOT for Trans people, for a lot of people in general in New Zealand. Of course, Georgina Beyer put New Zealand on the map in some ways, former mayor and MP and all.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Simone: I have spoken with the media on a few occasions about how ridiculous our super long waiting list for GRS is, though it is hard to get across to many New Zealanders you’re not asking for some frivolous plastic surgery something that literally saves lives sometimes and allows people often in limbo to get out there and thrive. Absolutely I think we can make a difference in politics, as much as any other sector in society anyway. 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Simone: I do and do try to regularly update my look, though more from a perspective of regularly hitting the mall, as opposed to fanatically following fashionistas and what have you.
This year has mostly been about prints, and earth tones, and a lot of sheer fabric I guess, oh and maxi dresses for casual wear. I am mad about jewelry, blue stones especially (Sapphires, Topaz, Amethyst, Lapis Lazuli…. Tanzanite have to be the most incredible stones ever to come out of the ground) and in spite of being 6.0” in bare feet do love a good 2 ½ inch high heel.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Simone: Currently I am single and would love to have a man in my life. Just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle I’ve yet to locate I guess.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Simone: Hmm, I don’t know so much about a book though there was a time when I was flatting with a group of very interesting people where we had a running joke our flat would make for a great sitcom.
A few years ago one of the flatmates, an actor who was quite famous over here in his 20s started working on developing something but it really didn’t reflect the reality of the flat terribly much, for one he was in talks with pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior to be part of the show, as a kind of online, skyping version of Home Improvement’s Wilson, and apparently was open to the concept but … well god knows, it never got past concept hehe… I think I’d love to work on that, Ultimate Warrior imparting wisdom or not.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Simone: OMG that is a Loooonng interview in itself! I guess to quote William Shakespeare; This above all: To thine own self be true. … umm, maintain your friendships and networks, be true to yourself but also be aware when you need to be careful.
Create a transition plan. Take transition photos so you can look back at how far you’ve come. Maintain a sense of perspective in all ways. Don’t expect just cause people love you that they will get it immediately, they now have a journey to go on too. Keep in mind you are in the process of embarking upon becoming the true, authentic you so strive to be the best you you can be in every way you can.
Monika: Simone, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Simone Whitlow.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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