Friday 15 May 2015

Interview with Tela La'Raine Love

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Tela La'Raine Love, an American transgender activist from New Orleans, Louisiana. Hello Tela!
Tela: Greetings Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Tela: Sure, let me start by saying I believe this is a truly awesome thing you are doing for the transgender folk who can identify with the experience. I am honored that you wanted me to take part. With that being said you know my name is Tela La'Raine Love and I self-identify as a trans-experienced woman.
I view myself as a woman with trans-experience and not of the trans-experience because being trans is not the totality of my being but merely a facet of who I am. I am a trailblazer in the sense that I am one of the few trans-woman of color from south New Orleans, Louisiana that has chosen not to fully assimilate into a life of stealth. Why? That choice is simply not an option for me.
When I began my transition in the 90's I saw no visible transgender role models outside of potentially high-risk and harmful arenas. This made my life very challenging, by the time I was 30 years old I was a drug addict, sex worker, diagnosed with HIV, and absolutely no education. Not quite "The American Dream", is it?

A trans-experienced woman.

This is what I refuse to see become another girl's narrative because of my own silence. So today I am an advocate, minister, peer counselor, mentor, artist, college student, HIV prevention specialist, facilitator, video blogger, and Co-Founder of New Legacy Ministries. 
I do all thing things with the hope of saving those who are coming behind me from having to share my same dreadful yet purposed experiences, educate outside communities, and provide hope for those who share many of my same experiences.
Monika: Your life is a perfect movie scenario …
Tela: I think my life would be like a jambalaya of different movies both real-life and animated. I believe my life to be in part animated because some parts of my story are just "too colorful to be real".
The movie of my life would be filled with angels, villains, and superheroes, all disguised as regular people who've helped, hurt, nurtured, and taught me along the way. I see my role as a messenger, sent through countless traumatic experiences to gain wisdom, insight, and strength so that I can be a blessing to others and ultimately become the heroine of my own narrative and those intermingled.
I'm sure it would definitely be a spiritual movie, and I hope there's an endless passion-filled romance, which seems to be a huge challenge at this phase of the journey. I don't know if my movie would ever be compared to Gandhi or Buddha's story but of one thing I'm certain, no one's falling asleep during the première.
Monika: The turning point was Hurricane Katrina…
Tela: I often look at Katrina as the distinguishing marker that separates my old life from my new life. I oftentimes think about if Katrina would have never happened where would I be and the visual images that began to run rampant in my thoughts are prison sales and graveyards.

I am not invisible and I don't want to be silent!

I was involuntary displaced during Katrina that started me down a path that would forever change my life. I relocated to Atlanta where I met powerful, positive, transgender people like me who refused to hide and be invisible. I met my most influential mentor Dee-Dee Chamble founder of LaGender an organization created to meet the unmet needs of trans-women in Atlanta Georgia. I also found a place of warmth, and support that affirmed me as a person living with HIV. That place gave me hope. It was called Common Ground.
I began to get serious about my transition again there taking it a step forward by having my orchiectomy in 5/2006 meanwhile growing in my spirituality and creativity for the first time I really felt like who I was meant to be. I truly believe Hurricane Katrina saved my life.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself?
Tela: I started to transition at 14 years of age. It was is 1991.
Monika: Was it a difficult process?
Tela: Yes, it was difficult there was not a word to describe how I felt. I knew I was never just a regular boy and even merely gay. Which really was the only way people knew to describe it at the time. I remember my grandmother said to me "you can be gay just don't be a woman." I understand now she was worried about my safety she just didn't want to see me hurt but that pain was unavoidable. But the more adversity I faced the more rebellious I became determined to prove that living my truth would not be my destruction. 
I began transitioning 14 after I was sent to a mental hospital because my Uncle outed me as gay at a family reunion. I then sadly tried to take my own life. Several attempts followed. So yes for me it was difficult with no family support. The church I grew up in was not pleased with me either. There was not a word to yet describe my feelings (although the doctor did diagnose me with gender disorder at 15) still for a long time afterwards I remained being called a drag-queen, punk, or gay boy.

Black trans lives matter.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Tela: Yes, Alex Magee a trans-person 6 years my senior who lived across the street was like a big sister to me. She would encourage me to be myself every time I would go over to get my hair cut as a child. She was the talk of the town shunned at church even I once down-talked her before I embraced my truth.
Later on, in my transition, there were what I like to refer to as real models versus roles who helped me to endure without girls like the Precious`Tiffany Fox, Kim, Koba, Bernice, and Mahogany who taught me to survive in the wilderness. I wouldn't be here today. I would have never survived to become the person I am right now at this moment. It was their willingness to guide, and impart all they knew into me that gave to the tools necessary to keep going.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Tela: So many, first and foremost my mentor and spiritual mother Dee Dee Chamblee, of Lagender in Atlanta Ga. Cecilia C. Chung Transgender Law Center founder of Positively Trans, and a host of others. But I draw so much strength from those two especially.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Tela: I believe we are moving into a space of tremendous opportunity, with endless possibilities. I see leadership in our midst, but on the other side of that, I have a fear that we will in fact further replicate the problems leaders now are calling us into spaces to insist on solving.
I find in many cases in our desperation to fit in and be excepted by society as a whole, we lose touch with the insight we have gained during those periods in which we were ostracised, alienated, rejected, and cast out.
Sometimes I believe it is our community's Achilles heel, that insatiable desire to belong; consequently, in many instances, we end up supporting those same systems that have allowed for us to be discriminated against in the first place.

Your gifts will make room.

Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Tela: More, More, More we need more of them I am so happy that our narratives are being shared with mainstream society. When I was growing up what I would have given to hear some of the powerful and truly inspiring stories I've been honored enough to hear in our community today. I don't care if the face of the trans-community is Black, White, Asian, Indian, or Latino.
All I care about is having our season to be uplifted and empowered also. I no longer worry about Hollywood passing over authentic trans-women for trans-roles in films because they're being giving to non-transgender people. The fact is that only makes society hungry for the "REAL DEAL". Thanks to the internet our stories will be heard whether it's on the silver screen a flat-screen or a Samsung Galaxy Phone. "His Truth is Marching on"! So I thank God for change no matter how it occurs as long as it's not counterproductive.
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?
Tela: Personally I hate labels I only used them because in the South you can't avoid them, and so that my narrative will not be erased like the thousands of transwomen who have been silenced in history before me through forced assimilation for their survival. I truly feel separation is the lie we are all one. We as people need to create a way to tell different shades of truth without labels but until then I'm team trans.
Monika: Are you active in politics?
Tela: No.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns?
Tela: I have been only on the HIV and AIDS side of lobbying so far but who knows what the future holds.
Monika: Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Tela: Absolutely! We were advisors in history, that is our role. That is why things are off-balance because everyone is not yet at the table.

Still standing.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Tela: Love is very important at one time it was the thing that kept me alive but now I've found a better reason for hope. Hope is the precursor to all things. I would rather lose love completely for a season than give up hope forever, without hope there is only emptiness and nothingness.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Yes, the obstacle is I'm struggling with having to unpack all of those emotions, it feels like I'm reliving the trauma felt from those experiences, unfortunately, some of the scars haven't healed just yet. I've also thought of writing a children's book.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Tela: I am finishing up my documentary "Disappear or Die A Southern Black Trans-Experience" and I'm also still building my ministry through my travels and serving on multiple national transgender-focused advisory boards around the country. That keeps me really busy.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Tela: Live one day at a time, never be afraid to live a different dream, learn your history for your self, most importantly seek empowering opportunities.
Monika: Tela, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Tela La'Raine Love.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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