Sunday 3 January 2016

Interview with Tina Madison White

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview transwoman Tina Madison White. She has carved out a career as a commercial and investment banker, management consultant, business information manager, and organization strategist. She is the author of the memoir titled “Between Shadow and Sun: A Husband's Journey Through Gender - A Wife's Labor of Love” (2015). Hello Tina!
Tina: Hi, Monika! It is a pleasure to talk to you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Tina: Certainly. I have had a wonderful life so far. I have five children and five grandchildren. My wife, Mary, and I have been together for eighteen years. Last week another tourist remarked, “you two cannot possibly have been married so long: you are too happy!”
I have also been fortunate enough to attend some great universities and to work for some incredible companies.
Nonetheless, I was miserable for most of my life. On the outside, I was happy. But inside, I felt desperately confused and alone. I struggled constantly to be the man that everyone so admired. But I felt empty. I struggled to feel connected to my family, religion, and friends. Inside, I connected to the world as a woman. But I worked hard to hide this.
A few years ago, faced with growing thoughts of suicide, I finally decided to stop trying to become a man and instead to be the woman I had always felt inside. I am happy for the first time in my life.

"Between Shadow and Sun: A Husband's
Journey Through Gender - A Wife's
Labor of Love" via Amazon.

Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography? Is it true that your book began as a love letter to your children?
Tina: Yes. When I started, I wasn’t thinking about writing a book.
My children are the most precious thing in the world to me. I loved being their father. They loved and admired me. I hated the thought of taking that person away from them.
I lay awake nights wondering: how can I explain my actions to my children? Finally, I got up one night and just started to write. I wrote about all of my secrets: who I was and what I had struggled with. I wanted them to know how deeply I loved them.
People tell me that my book is really honest. I think that it is because I was writing it for my children.
Monika: You say that your book is honest, but I don’t see much about sex and sexual fantasy in it. Are you really telling me that these didn’t play a role in your transition?
Tina: No, I’m not saying that. But I don’t think that a woman has to take her clothes off in order to tell the world her story. That is the biggest thing I would like to change in the way the media portrays us. We would never ask Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Angela Merkel to share their sex lives in order to tell their life story. It might sell copies, but it wouldn’t contribute to any serious understanding of who they are. I was open about anything that helps to understand who I really am.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Tina: That is difficult to say. We are all so unique. One of the neatest parts about being a transwoman is that, when we get together in a room, it is like meeting the entire world at once. There are so many cultures, countries, lifestyles, and careers represented.
But, if I had to pick something I might have to offer, it would be my general success at reconnecting with my family and at connecting with people outside our community. I am proud of my identity as a transwoman. But I want to be connected to the whole world, not just to our community.
I try hard to understand the perspectives of people who are not transgender. I have learned that, if I want them to celebrate my life, I need to celebrate who they are, too. I think that we sometimes grow so defensive that we lose our sense of empathy with others.
Monika: You wrote the book with your wife. Why?
Tina: In truth, I wrote most of the book. Mary doesn’t care to write. But I tried to include as much of her voice as possible. I included many of her letters to me and our conversations together. Her input and voice are reflected throughout. She wrote a beautiful foreword.
Capturing Mary’s perspective and the experience were really important to the book. Transitioning is a family event. Everyone is involved.
Besides, if you want to understand us, you need to do so in the context of our relationships. Don’t focus on our clothing, surgeries, and sexual preferences. That’s shallow! Focus on our struggle to find our authentic self to reconnect with those we love.
Mary’s and my story is about the universal human struggle to find identity and love. I wanted to know what it felt like for the real me to feel touched by another soul. Mary wanted to know the constancy of life-long love. How could we write the book without each other? Neither of us can be understood without the other.
Monika: Wow! That’s a tough act to follow. Are you suggesting that all couples should stay together when one transitions?
Tina: Not at all. That is a very personal decision. If Mary and I had been in our twenties, we might have separated. If we hadn’t been so deeply in love, we might have followed separate futures.
What I would suggest is that couples dealing with transition support each other lovingly and give the process some time. Transition is very hard. But like any defining moment in life, it can also be profoundly beautiful. It’s up to you.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman? Was it a difficult process?
Tina: I never transitioned into a woman. I stopped trying to transition into a man. But I know what you mean. As society understands it, I transitioned into womanhood in my early fifties. It was a very difficult process.
At my age, the most difficult part was probably the emotional re-development. I needed to allow my inner child (the female I had repressed all those years) to emerge and grow. But I also had to continue to function as a mature adult for everyone else. My family and colleagues depended on me.
You don’t simply transition into a mature woman. You have to define what womanhood means to you. You can only do that by experience. As a result, I had to go through all of the trials that younger girls go through. “What kind of lipstick should I wear?” … “What’s it like to wear a short skirt?” … “Are gossip magazines fun to read?”
To everyone else, this seems laughably stupid. But what I was doing was very important. I was figuring out what it meant to me to be a woman and how to express myself. I often wished that I could have disappeared for a year or two while I worked through that stage of transition. I’m sure my family felt the same way!
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Tina: Yes. Since I was a middle-aged businessperson, I looked for other examples of transwomen who were successful in business and academia. I was pleasantly surprised to find examples across many industries and countries. I captured some of them on my website,
A few stood out for me: Margaret Stumpp, the Chief Investment Officer for Prudential’s investment management subsidiary, QMA; Lynn Conway, an executive at IBM, Memorex, and Xerox; Gina Duncan, a mortgage banker at Wells Fargo; Rachael Padman, an astrophysicist at Cambridge; Leandra Vicci, a research executive at the University of North Carolina; Dr. Rebecca Allison, Chief of Cardiology at CIGNA.
But I also found women who forged careers as airline pilots, police officers, ministers, therapists, lawyers, school teachers, small business owners, truck drivers … the list goes on and on. Our path is a difficult one. But I learned that we can strive to be anything we want.

With her wife Mary. Courtesy of Tina Madison White.

Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Tina: All of them – transmen, too. Anyone who can survive this is incredibly brave and talented. And they all have such interesting stories to share. They have had to examine the society in ways that few have.
I have recently been reading several memoirs by transmen of color. Once they transitioned into men, they suddenly found themselves having to navigate society by a whole new set of rules. Everyone regarded them with suspicion, not because they were trans, but because they were black men. Their struggles broke my heart.
One transwoman I particularly admire is Daniella Carter. She was recently recognized by the Human Rights Campaign. She is a young entrepreneur who had to survive life on the streets. She is a wonderful voice for the community. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Tina: The hardest part was learning to respect and accept how other people experienced my transition. I spent hours crafting my speeches. I figured that, if I chose exactly the right words, I could make it easy for everyone to accept the new me.
It was my therapist who finally helped me to understand that I was being incredibly naive. She pointed out that – no matter how skillful I was – everyone else had to work this out on their own terms. They had a lot of thoughts and experiences inside them that they now had to reinterpret. That can take a long time, especially for those who love you the most.
I stopped thinking of this as my transition. Everyone else had to transition, too. It can take a while to sort everything out – especially for those who love you the most.
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?
Tina: If we cannot promote our cause within the LGB community, how can we hope to promote it elsewhere? I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to the LGBT community, but I don’t see any value to be gained by separating ourselves.
I love my transgender brothers and sisters. But my goal is to join the human race, not to live apart from it. I don’t want to be perceived as separate but equal. I worry that political strategies that set transgender people apart will doom us to a future as society’s freaks. 
When I came out, I quickly learned that my allies were far more influential than I could ever be. They were speaking as insiders. When they defended me, people listened. What is more, I feel loved when others speak up for me. We need to ally ourselves outside our community.
Monika: You appeared on National Public Radio and the Dr. Oz Show. What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Tina: I am pleased by our increased media exposure. But I am concerned that media coverage tends to focus on what sets us apart and makes us different. I think that the more interesting story is how “normal” most of us want to be and how naturally we integrate into society when allowed to do so.
I wouldn’t try to learn about “real” women by studying the lives of porn stars, politicians, and celebrities. Right now, that’s how I feel people are learning about us. Our more flamboyant members are wonderful people. But they are hardly representative.
But I think that this is a normal phase. We will get past it. I look forward to the day when our gender is regarded as un-newsworthy.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Tina: I recently helped to produce a film about the difficulty transgender people have accessing health care in the U.S. (link) I am a staunch supporter of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and Out & Equal. I hope to do a lot more.
Transwomen can make a big difference in politics, though we have a long way to go. I am especially excited about former Navy SEAL Kristin Beck’s decision to run for Congress in Maryland. She has been a very effective voice against some of America’s more bigoted politicians.

Courtesy of Tina Madison White.

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Tina: I love fashion. It is a great way to express myself. It is also fascinating. I am constantly amazed at how little details can make a big difference in how I look. A one-inch change in the length of my dress, for example, can make my calves look a lot fatter. Given the size of my shoulders, I look better with v-necks than with crew necks.
But I am not a trendy customer. I tend to invest in classic styles that I can wear for a long time – A-line dresses, sheaths, boot-cut jeans, and oxford blouses.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Some activists criticize their values, pointing out that they lead to the obsession with youth and beauty.
Tina: Transgender beauty pageants celebrate the notion that transgender people can be just as beautiful and sensuous as anyone else. In that sense, I fully support them. Why shouldn't people who are into that be allowed to enjoy it?
But I object to the notion that beauty pageants define our womanhood - any more than they define womanhood for women who aren’t transgender. As non trans-women (“cis-women”) come closer to achieving equality, they seem to feel less threatened by beauty pageants. The same will be true for us.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Tina: It is central to my life. My mother still gets pronouns wrong, but when she says she loves me, she really means it. She finally knows who I am, and still, she loves me. What a wonderful feeling.
Mary and I have lost the sexual intimacy we once shared. But when we hug or hold hands, it means so much more to me than it ever did before. This is one area where I have chosen to make some compromises.
As a trans woman, I find men attractive in a way that I never had before. There is a part of me that wonders what it would be like to lie in the arms of a man. But I am very happily married and my family values are as conservative as anyone else’s. So I’ll allow the occasional man to creep into my dreams, but not into my life.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Tina: Yes. I recently appeared on a panel about the challenges of transitioning at work. I am currently designing two series of articles and seminars. “Identity, Diversity and Political Power” looks at an issue you raised earlier: Are we better off pursuing political gain as a distinct group or in alliance with other groups? How do we balance our need to finally stand out for who we are with our need to integrate into society?
The second series, “Between Identity and Stereotype: Turning Who We are to Our Advantage” draws on research conducted with other minority groups. As it turns out, minorities pay a heavy price, even when there is no explicit discrimination. Their awareness that they are somehow different eats away at them. It makes them tentative and fills their minds with fears. Their performance suffers. Their blood pressure increases. Their lives shorten.
These two sets of issues are within our control. I want to work with the community to think about how we address them. I also want to continue to focus on transitioning in the workplace and with the family.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Tina: That’s a big question. We are such a diverse group of people. I attempted an answer in an article, “Transgender Soup for the Soul” (link). But I can think of four that stand out.
• Take it slow. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Act now, but plan for a ten-year journey.
• Don’t assume that every sign of resistance is transphobia. People naturally fear the unfamiliar. Make them comfortable and yourself familiar.
• Don't try to go it alone. Build a community of allies. Draw on them for support. Let them stand up for you.
• Learn to love yourself. Get over your self-hatred. After a lifetime of hiding the real you, this can be the most difficult lesson to learn. Look at yourself in the mirror and smile.
Monika: Tina, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Tina Madison White
The main photo credit: Cassandra Storm
© 2016 - Monika Kowalska

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