Monday 9 March 2015

Interview with Andrea Zekis

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Andrea Zekis, a cartographer and transgender activist from Arkansas, USA. She’s executive director of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition and consultant to the Human Rights Campaign in Arkansas. Hello Andrea!
Andrea: Hello Monika! Thank you for the opportunity to explain myself! Ha! Ha! Seriously, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about the work I take part in and the community I serve.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Andrea: I’m 36, originally from the Chicago area, but have called Arkansas home since 2005. At the time, I was married, living as a man, and working as a journalist. Since age 3, I knew there was something different about myself, but didn’t learn the word transgender until I was 18 years old.
After several attempts to live my truth, I came out as a transgender woman at age 30 and proceeded to make a series of changes in my life. I became a much more open, fun-loving person, who got divorced and changed my faith, my career, and my outlook on life. I went from someone with a serious fear of heights to a stilt walker. I listened to the person inside and those times in my life when I was present and built my life around those moments. 
Now, I have a very satisfying life professionally and personally, and never expected it would happen in the American South. I’m an outlier, but from my experience, I see an incredible world of possibility for other transgender persons. To quote New York, New York, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. Could you name some of the initiatives that you took part in?
Andrea: When I started working on rights issues for transgender persons, there had been very few transgender persons at the time working on rights issues in Arkansas or even being included in the decision-making in the state’s few LGBT organizations.
The concept of a transgender-led statewide organization, Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, seemed like a far-fetched idea, and its founding is the most incredible effort I have ever taken part in. I started as a support group leader in Little Rock for the Center for Artistic Revolution, but as I kept on seeing folks experiencing discrimination and living in fear, there was a greater need to work on rights issues.
I played a key role in getting Senator Mark Pryor’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2013, the Keep Fayetteville Fair campaign in 2014 and I continue to support the Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America, which is a major initiative to advance equality in three Southern states.
Monika: What are the current challenges for the transgender community in Arkansas? 
Andrea: The Arkansas transgender community is a community in crisis. The state’s known transgender population has grown substantially due to the local and national advancements on transgender rights, but Arkansas does not have enough legal, medical, and other resources to meet their needs. There are transgender persons who live outside of Little Rock and Fayetteville who travel up to two hours to find medical services.
There is a need for more education and need for more transgender inclusiveness in the state’s businesses and organizations to make positive change happen. The political system in Arkansas is more aware of transgender persons than ever before, so progress to advance transgender rights on the state and local levels is being fought back by groups who are against equality and legislators who do not want to see LGBT rights in Arkansas.
At the same time, transgender persons still encounter a lack of acceptance at home mostly due to religious differences, high rates of suicide, and difficulties in getting employment due to a lack of anti-discrimination laws. There’s a need for healing and need for grassroots efforts, which include transgender persons in advancing rights for all.

Andrea shows how much she loves her  adopted Arkansas
as she prepares to meet with lawmakers in Washington, DC.

Monika: How do you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Andrea: President Obama said the word “transgender” and that’s more than I can say about any other acting president. I’ve seen greater advancement in transgender rights and inclusion under his presidency. I find his attitude a great step forward for our community.
Monika: 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?
Andrea: At the federal level, I see organizations, which serve the interests of transgender persons making significant progress in many areas. Much of the positive change at the state level in Arkansas, whether new policies for getting documents changed, employment protections, or changes to how we access health care, have come through implementation at the federal level.
The state level varies from state to state, so a state like California which has a much larger and heavily funded LGBT movement and often more supportive lawmakers can get more done for the transgender community than a state like Arkansas. Here, the transgender community has had mild success in coalition with other groups, only to see many of those wins wiped out by oppositional forces. Lawmakers want to limit our ability to get protections written into the law in this state.
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?
Andrea: I see the cause as the same. Whether I’m talking about sexual orientation or gender identity, we’re talking about mainly a shared discrimination based on gender stereotyping. Where marriage equality benefits everyone in the LGBT acronym, the transgender rights movement has been so key in establishing transgender discrimination as sex discrimination.
We’re now seeing discrimination based on sexual orientation starting to follow down that same path. The movement is stronger together. I saw that through the effort to pass ENDA through the U.S. Senate, where a transgender-inclusive bill passed in 2013 where past non-inclusive efforts failed. Right now is the time where transgender people don’t just have an opportunity to promote their cause, but an opportunity to lead. 
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?
Andrea: If we’re talking about Harvey Milk as the politician, I don’t know if we’ve had the face of the movement. Someone I have found inspiring is an attorney and former Oklahoma candidate for office Brittany Novotny, who ran her own campaign as an out transgender woman, then after losing her bid, ran the campaign of another transgender woman, Paula Sophia, in a heavily Democratic district in Oklahoma City. There’s word that there’s going to be another transgender candidate coming up in Oklahoma. I find Ms. Novotny’s courage to fight the battle in Oklahoma inspiring.
Now if we’re talking about someone who is able to captivate the imagination and hope of a people like Harvey Milk did, there are more people who fit that role. The best example is someone like Laverne Cox, who might have more of an Ellen Degeneres impact on American society than a Harvey Milk one.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Andrea: Improving, but troubling. There’s still incredible violence encountered by transgender women, especially transgender women of color, as well as public hostility towards transgender women when it comes to accessing gender-segregated spaces and sports activities.
While the extensive violence and discrimination facing transgender women is related often to their transgender status, I also recognize that American society still has a long way to go when it comes to ensuring equality for all women. It’s okay for a woman to dress as a man, but not often socially acceptable for men to be seen as women because there are still sections of American society that view being a woman as degrading. That’s paraphrasing Madonna.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Andrea: I transitioned at 30, but it really took a lot of preparation. I spent years before trying to figure out how I can make my life happier and better, making positive changes until the only one left was to be a woman. By the time I came out to my family and friends, many assumed something was up and wanted me to be happy. I had to end my marriage, and therefore lost my home and my dog, but I gained so much more. Keeping my job and scaling back my life to focus solely on my job and my transition allowed me to have a smoother transition.
Arkansas is a state where it helps to know people to navigate the process, so I connected with local organizations and met other transgender persons. It takes a village to raise a happy and healthy transgender woman.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Andrea: I wished I had more transgender role models at the time I transitioned. I had one friend, Alaina, who had transitioned a couple years before I did in Arkansas, and advised me along the way and over time became a trusted friend. I had a lot more non-transgender women, especially my mother, be there for me to lead me along the way.

One of Andrea’s favorite hobbies is stilt walking.
Here she is in front of the Clinton Presidential
Library in Little Rock.

Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Andrea: There are so many amazing transgender women who inspire me and many of them are people I know and trust. I’m in awe of the work Dr. Marci Bowers does on behalf of not just transgender people, but also women seeking surgery to recover from genital mutilation.
Mara Keisling at the National Center for Transgender Equality has incredible leadership, surrounding herself with immense talent to get positive results for transgender persons.
I see what Andrea Bowen at Garden State Equality, Harper Jean Tobin and Raffi Freedman-Gurspan at NCTE, Danni Askini and Tobi Hill-Mayer at Gender Justice League, Brynn Tannehill at Spart*a, Courtney Gray at the GLBT Center of Colorado, and Marisa Richmond at the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition can do, and I get inspired.
If I have had a mentor within the movement, it’s Andrea Bowen. I don’t think I’m doing what I’m doing today without her and her ability to coach others to step outside their comfort zones and get the job done. I admire and respect transgender women who can coach others to be who all they can be.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Andrea: Being away from my family. My parents live in Indiana. I live in Arkansas. I stayed in Arkansas because I had a secure job, but I could have left for Indiana at any time. Because I kept my job, I am able to do the activism I do today.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Andrea: It is. The next frontier though will be envisioning and establishing rights for non-binary persons within the transgender umbrella. The promise of non-binary rights would mean substantial freedom for all persons, including transgender women. I’d rather see no gender marker on a driver’s license than any at all.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Andrea: They’re getting better and becoming more fully realized characters. I loved movies about people who transformed themselves, so films like The Incredible Mr. Limpet with Don Knotts or Switch with Ellen Barkin, but compare those stories to ones with a transgender character years ago, and often the transgender person was a punchline.
I think TV shows like Orange Is the New Black, TransParent and Glee have brought forth more positive and relatable transgender characters. What an amazing time we live in today.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Andrea: Yes. Yes. Yes. Transgender persons need to be involved in the political process if can have any hope in improving the life circumstances we currently live in. In the US, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Trans Lobby Day is a wonderful entry point for those interested.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Andrea: I don’t think I could have loved another person without loving myself first. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, loving oneself is a relationship that lasts a lifetime. I’m a lot more open to love now because I find myself more loveable to myself than ever before. I surround myself with friends and families who give me significant love and support, but I’m still waiting for that special person in my life who will want to build something amazing with me.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Andrea: I would like to write a full memoir, but I am working on a creative angle for how to write it. In the meantime, I do have a work, actually, an interview, coming out this year within an anthology called “Scar Stories” for Et Alia Press.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Andrea: Within ArTEC, we have a few projects coming up, including our name and gender change clinic in Arkansas, which is the first time this legal service has ever been available within the state. I’m also newly on the board of RAD Remedy in Chicago, which seeks to make accessing and learning about transgender health care resources much more interactive and user-friendly.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Andrea: There’s no better time to live your true self. The climate in America, even in places like Arkansas, will continue to improve in the coming years with greater education and awareness.
I know there are a lot of great resources out there and many transgender women look for advice online from their peers, wanting to compare themselves and their progress, but there’s really no replacement for listening to yourself. Listen to your heart. I found a time in my life when I was truly happy and used it as the basis of a starting point to build my life from there.
Listen to yourself, use those things your heart is telling you to move forward, celebrate the small victories in your life, and don’t give the haters the time of day. Life is short. Relieving gender dysphoria in your life is so important. Get to a point when you’re okay with yourself. Don’t worry about what others think. If you’re like me, you’ve listened to what others have thought you should do for years, and what did that get me, nowhere. Move on to something more amazing, alive, and vibrant. Move on to you. 
Monika: Andrea, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Andrea Zekis.
The main photo credits: Arshia Khan.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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