Sunday, 18 October 2015

Interview with Reena Gibson

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Reena Gibson, a British writer and author of her new biographical book titled “The Long Road Ahead” (2015), as well as lead singer and guitarist of the Birmingham rock band Milestone Road. Hello Reena!
Reena: Monika, thank you so much for the interview, I’m overwhelmed that you’ve asked me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Reena: How long do you have? Seriously, I could chat for England! I’m just over three years into my second transition as a woman, I first came out when I was 24 which was 21 years ago, and a time which was still very unaccepting for people to come out to society as trans. This time around has still met with some rather difficult challenges, I have a family now which has added strain on all sides, there have been times of self-doubt and indeed there have been a few times where I’ve just wanted to give up on life altogether. But really though, I’d call myself just a “normal” woman, trying to find her way through life like anyone else.
Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Reena: Initially I felt that I needed it for myself, a book that was never going to be released to the world, but rather keep it as a complex and detailed diary for myself to look through and look back on later in life. But then, as I went along in my transition I realized had a story that needed telling, but I didn’t want it to be a typical trans-related story just about the transition.
My life is more than just about transition, I am more than just that part of my life. So I decided to include everything about my life in the first 27 years which takes me to the end of my first transition, the highs and the lows, and who I am as a person. I think I also needed closure on those early years too, writing the book offered me a way to come to terms with my past and who I am as a person.

"The Long Road Ahead" via Amazon.

Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Reena: I think what really sticks out to me right now is the message to never give up, but also to remember to be kind to yourself and those around you. When I detranstioned for the first time in 1997 at the age of 27.
I believed that I could, that all of this would eventually go away and I could pretend that it had never happened. The truth is though that it never goes away, it just resides within you, hidden away to haunt you once more when you least expect it to. There’s no cure for Gender Dysphoria nor will there ever be. 
In 1997 I ended up reinventing myself and my persona, much like Bowie did in the ’70s and Madonna in the ’80s. Creating a new aspect of myself, I wanted to be the alpha male, someone you could look at and never guess that I’d ever tried to transition as a woman. I suppose I was scared of my past, that it would come back and destroy the new life I’d tried to create for myself, and my new family.
What society needs to understand more importantly though is that we don’t just wake up one morning and decide to be trans, it’s who we are. Many of us, myself especially, will go through long agonizing moments, months and years even, where we try to deny ourselves. The reason? Because the world doesn’t readily accept those people who don’t fit into stereotypical pigeonholes, that’s always been my perception anyway. But as this current journey has proven to me, there are probably more people out there who accept you for being yourself than there are those who don’t.
Monika: You are also a successful musician. Where did you get your musical inspiration from? Could you elaborate more on your music and band?
Reena: WOW, successful musician? I only wish that I was, but then I guess how do you measure success? Now, this is going to sound silly to many people, and to our fans too who might be reading this. But I got my spark for writing and wanting to perform when I was 17 from the American singers: Tiffany and Debbie Gibson (no family connection, that I know of).
Tiffany had that youthful raw voice, much like Stevie Nicks that I loved, I was also pretty much into more of her album material too. Debbie came across as probably my biggest inspiration though, she wrote and performed everything she did but as a young girl, she was immensely talented too. They were both a year younger than I was but had already achieved much more in life than I had.
I always loved singing when I was a young child. I think the way I saw it was that if they could achieve so much at that age, then so could I. I think this was also a reemergence of my gender identity too from before my teens, but I wasn’t aware of it back then. I wanted to sing and perform just like them, in much the same way as I used to want to sing like Olivia Newton-John in the ’70s.
In terms of the band, that’s another story. My writing and the music I was creating at home continued until I was 27, the time I detransitioned. Like so many, I’d tried so hard to create something that would be a success but I felt I’d failed. I was finding it difficult to translate vocally how things sounded in my head.

Courtesy of Reena Gibson.

In 2008 though I found a new love for music and writing, I’d successfully written and recorded two new tracks from out of nowhere and realized my passion and indeed talent for writing was still there, I’d also found my voice too.
By the end of 2010, I felt this huge need to get a band together and get my music out there to the masses, a band was the only answer. I also felt that at 41 I was still young enough to be successful in music.
The band was finally formed in January 2011, many changes we made along the way but by the summer of 2011 the core of the band, as well as the current name were in place.
Monika: Are you working on any new artist projects now?
Reena: If I tell you, will you promise not to say anything? Gig wise things have slowed down a little as we prepare to go into the studio in the next month or so to record a few tracks. We’ve been writing, rehearsing, and performing so much over the last 4 years but losing and auditioning for new band members has meant that we’ve never had the opportunity to have any official recordings made of our music. Our music has matured so much over the last 4 years anyway that it’s probably been for the best that we’ve held back on the recording.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Reena: In all honesty, it’s probably made me a better performer and writer, I’m also more aware of what I do on stage. It’s also taken me back to my roots with respect to being a writer. Remember when I said before about not being able to fully translate what was in my head and the way I wanted it to sound? One of the tracks we perform, “I Want You”, which I wrote last year is the first track where I think I’ve musically connected with how I used to write songs, and myself. It’s not so much the heavier rock sound I was looking for but it’s more musically connected to how I felt at the time.
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?
Reena: Yes, I really think so and I recognize a few of those names too. I actually have Laura Jane Grace to thank for being the inspiration for me to continue in music. She came out a month before I did. I read her Rolling Stones interview in July 2012, just at that point, I was seriously considering walking away from music altogether. I thought at the time that my chance of ever continuing in music was now over, the band would reject me and so would any fans that we had at the time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My band has been behind me 100%, telling me that I am Milestone Road and that without me there would be no band. I was really humbled to hear that, we’ve all been best friends ever since. But to really answer the last part of your question, yes I believe so. The more awareness and acceptance there is for trans people then the fewer people like myself will be afraid to come out into the media spotlight.
We will pretty much be accepted as the gay artists of the time, Bowie, Elton John, Boy George, Andy Bell (Erasure), etc. There will be a time when we’re not regarded as having a cash value by the media and we’ll just blend in like the normal people that we all are. 
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Reena: It was 1994 when I first came out as trans, I was only 24 and the process of coming out had tormented me for the previous 8 months or so until I couldn’t hide who I was any longer. The biggest issue and most traumatic point of my life back then was losing my job through needing to transition. There were no laws to protect us and the world was a very different place, I was also pretty scared to come out back then too, always worried about what people might say or think about me.
I was 42 when I came out again for the second time, at the risk of losing everything I knew I had no other option but to be true to myself. The following year was a very difficult time, with depression and suicidal tendencies born out of the need to escape and be true to myself.

Courtesy of Reena Gibson.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Reena: When I was 24 I had Caroline Cossey, Julia Grant, and Fay Presto. Julia and Fay had their documentaries aired on TV in 1994 and it more or less cemented the idea in my head that it was OK to be trans.
This time around I still had those as role models but my main focus has been those in music such as Laura Jane Grace and Namoli Brennett. Seeing how they have made a success of being trans women in music.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Reena: WOW, there are so many. Musically I’d have to say, Laura Jane Grace, Namoli Brennet, and Isley Reust. In film and TV so far I’d have to say Michelle Hendley (Boy Meets Girl, Movie), Laverne Cox (OITNB).
For their hard work for the trans cause it would have to be Paris Lees for being so blunt and honest, local Birmingham hero Megan Key for coming out from the shadows and showing us all how it’s done. Also to my good friend Kate Hutchinson from Wales and all of the other unsung heroes who work in the background unnoticed.
I also have much admiration and respect for those who came before us, April Ashley, Caroline Cossey, Julia Grant, and many others who pathed the way for a better future for the whole trans community.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Reena: Family! I have so much to lose this time around, I guess I tried so hard to hide my trans past that I did it all too well, now I have to factor in my wife and kids and trying my best to keep them safe from all of the mess that I feel I’ve created for them.
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?
Reena: What can I say here without upsetting people? I personally hate the word “transgender”, call me old-fashioned if you like but I just hate it. When I first came out all those years ago I never wanted to be viewed by society as a fake. We had Ru Paul and all the other drag queens too but I genuinely knew that I didn’t fit into that category. From a societal point of view back then, if you dressed up in women’s clothes and makeup then you were a crossdresser or a transvestite and as a trans person, it really hurt me to ever think I would fall into the same pigeonhole that society wants us to fit into.
Getting back on point though, I see nothing wrong with being the last letter in the abbreviation, but I do feel that sometimes there are a lot of issues between the LGB and the T that should never exist in the first place. There’s already too much infighting and we should all just come together for the common cause, acceptance for everyone.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Reena: My biggest hang-up is when the media still get it wrong, but even more so when trans people themselves get it wrong too. All too often I see “Gender Reassignment Surgery” floating around in the trans community, even whilst writing this I’ve had an email through about a blog post from another trans person regarding the financing of “Gender Reassignment Surgery”. Well if you ever find a surgeon that can carry out such a surgery then let me know, I’ll be the first in the queue. I could save myself thousands in the financing of voice and facial feminization surgery.
On the upside, though there have been a lot of positive things in the media quite recently, media companies are slowly getting things right and indeed started to be more inclusive when it comes to trans actors playing that parts of trans people in TV and film. The tabloids on the other hand I feel will only be in it to sell more newspapers.

Milestone Road Band via

Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Reena: Not at this point no, although I am always more than happy to stand up and be counted for the trans cause, or any other minority group. I try not to get too involved in politics, I’ve always preferred center stage than ever trying to be left or right.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Reena: Fashion is still a pretty new thing for me right now so I’m still learning. I have my stage wear for the band which is usually black such as boots, jeans and a blouse or something. I love skirts and dresses too but I also wear jeans and T-shirts a lot, especially when I’m at home just trying to chill.
I like to make a special effort whenever I get the rare chance to go out and socialize with friends. Not sure if I’m a fashion freak or even into designer clothes. If it’s affordable, looks good, and feels good then I’m happy to wear it rather than pay over the odds for something that I might only wear a few times.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Reena: Love is very important, it holds all the threads and keeps us together.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Reena: I’m still working on things with my band but I’m also trying to give some of my time to work on a series of books which are short stories of the songs we perform as a band, so it should be quite an interesting read.
I’ve also started work on the second part of my first book “Becoming Reena”. It’s going to take another three years or so to complete though so please don’t expect anything soon. My new job (I’m a very lucky girl) is very enjoyable but also exhausting so I’m trying to fit everything in wherever I can.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls and boys struggling with gender dysphoria?
Reena: Always be true to yourself and never give up! You are not alone in your fight, we all have the right to exist and you should never forget that. But also, never let people get you down, most importantly you will need some sort of support system when it comes to transition, I can’t stress this enough. The NHS will always expect you to jump through impossible hoops in order to get the care that we all require as a basic need, never let the lack of competence by some parts of the NHS get you down or even drive you insane.
Monika: Reena, thank you for the interview! 
Reena: No, thank you, it’s been a pleasure!

All the photos: courtesy of Reena Gibson.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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