Friday 8 April 2016

Interview with Rachael Evelyn Booth

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rachael Evelyn Booth, an American writer, poet, US Navy veteran, linguist, computer scientist, martial artist, entertainer, and the author of the biographical book titled “Wishing On A Star: My Journey Across the Gender Divide” (2016). Hello Rachael!
Rachael: Hi Monika! Thanks for talking with me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Rachael: I am a 64-year-old woman living with my wife in the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire. I grew up in rural northwestern Ohio where I first realized that there was something wrong inside of me. I would sit out in a little field behind our house waiting to wish on the first star so I could be a girl when I woke up the next morning. Thus the name of my first book.
As many other trans-people of my time did, I tried to find my way in society as a man by first joining the Navy, then getting married and having children all in an attempt to find something that would make me feel happy in my expected role in life. Nothing worked and all I ended up doing was bringing more and more people into my life that I hurt terribly when I finally had to move ahead and become the person I am today.
Monika: Your life is full of dramatic events: the Vietnam war, two marriages, three children, and nearly a third marriage. How did you find your strength to search for happiness afterwards?
Rachael: I never actually went to war. I was afraid I’d get drafted into the Army and end up as a soldier in the jungles having to shoot people. I also thought I might find my place in male society where I could be happy with who I was. Big mistake. So I joined the Navy where I was trained as a Chinese and Arabic linguist and was sent to different places because of that.
During the Navy, I also got married and had children, all as part of an attempt to find a happy place for myself. Marriage and children brought that happiness but only briefly. After the Navy, I worked for 30 years in computer programming and design for Naval shipboard weapons systems. During that time, I hit rock bottom and tried to commit suicide.
I finally realized that if I didn’t go ahead with my life to find my TRUE self, I was going to die. I had always thought that it took unimaginable courage to make this decision. It turned out it was the conviction that I was going to die if I didn’t. That realization took the weight of the world off my shoulders and I moved forward with my head held high.

Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Rachael: I had read many books by trans-people before and they were all either terribly flowery and difficult to read, terribly sad with a “poor me” mentality, or terribly boring with pages and pages of charts and data. I wanted to write a book that people would find informative, honest, and funny. I’ve used humor throughout my life as a tool to keep people interested in speeches, presentations, and everyday conversations. It works very well.
My main goal for writing this book was to show other transpeople who were living in that darkness that almost killed me that they’re not alone and if I could find a way to survive it and finally become a “full” person in both body and mind that they could, too. I also wrote it to help the transperson’s family and friends learn what their loved one is going through in human terms that they could understand.
People just don’t get what it means to live every day of your life wishing that you didn’t have to live as the biological gender your birth certificate claims you are; hoping that you can find the strength to live to see just one more day. Most people are born male or female and they take it for granted – it’s just who they are. Trying to get people to understand what being transgender is like is similar to trying to explain what colors look like to a person who’s been blind from birth. They just don’t have any frame of reference to really understand it fully.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Rachael: The thing I’m proudest of myself for in my road to transition is that I never let any outside influence be a crutch for me to lean on that could possibly become a hindrance to me later. I was convinced that I could do this simply using my own inner strength. I knew that alcohol and drugs would only mask my pain and could lead to horrible addictions which would be just one more awful thing I’d have to deal with. I also stayed away from religion because I didn’t believe that any god was going to help me. I prayed to god when I was a child and when I got no answer I turned to the first star.
I think that each of us has our own inner strength that is much more effective than we can imagine. I’m not saying that you can’t get help – we all have to. I’m just saying that we have to use our inner strength to stay away from the “quick fix” that just gives us more problems to solve.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Rachael: I first started my transition in earnest in 1991 at the age of 40. After my suicide attempt, it became the easiest thing in the world. Before that, I never thought I’d ever find the courage to move ahead knowing that I could lose my job, my friends, and my family. As it turned out I lost my family for about 20 years but they’re back in my life now.
The most difficult thing I had to endure transitioning at work was the use of the ladies’ rooms. We had three ladies’ rooms in our building, one on each floor, and when some objected to me using them, I offered to use only one certain bathroom. That wasn’t good enough for the few mostly older and religious women who were offended by my presence. So I had to carry a big red sign that said “DO NOT ENTER” with me when I went to the bathroom, knock on the door and announce myself, and, if anyone was inside, wait outside until they came out. Then I would hang my sign on the door, go in and do my business, and then leave and take my sign with me back to my desk.
The fears of these women were that 1) I was going to ogle them while they were going to the bathroom (How? By standing on the seat and peering over the divider?), sexually assault someone while I was in there (I’d been on female hormones for enough time that I couldn’t get an erection if I wanted to), and 3) I’d spread AIDS on the toilet seats (they must have thought that if I was making this change I must have been a gay man and ALL gay men have AIDS, don’t they? I wasn’t and they don’t). You can see the misinformation campaign that I had to put up with.
Keep in mind this is 1991 and people hadn’t really ever heard of a transgender person before. I put up with this for one full year until I went to Belgium to have my Gender Confirmation Surgery and then tore up my sign and sprinkled pieces of it in all three bathrooms at work daring anyone to say anything about me being in there now.
My company came to see me as the valuable asset that I had always been, though, and before long I was working with the New Business group traveling around the country as a representative of my company in charge of writing software specifications for new contracts between my company and others. It was all very rewarding and gratifying.

The guy who was living in Rachael's body
for 40 years.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rachael: I didn’t really have any role models at all. The only person I’d ever heard of who had done this before was Christine Jorgensen who had transitioned in the mid-50s. And the only transgender people I ever saw on TV were the ones who showed up on “The Jerry Springer Show”. They were always sensationalized and horrible role models for those of us regular people. But they were the impetus for me to start speaking publicly in nearby universities and colleges about the transgender experience.
I wanted people to know that transgender people were just normal people like everyone else with just a little different problem than most. I always enjoyed teaching others about the realities of being transgender and I always learned something more about myself with each lecture.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Rachael: Absolutely. Any transgender man or woman who has the courage to speak out loud and help our community by making the cis-gender crowd understand us more has my utmost respect and admiration. On Facebook right now is a veteran named Carla Lewis who posted a picture of herself wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m transgender and I served my country for your right to hate me”. How courageous is that? I’m proud to call her my friend. I also have two transgender female friends down in southern Vermont who are engaged to be married. I love them dearly and their courage in being out and proud is an inspiration to everyone where they live.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Rachael: The hardest thing for me was probably the same for everyone – breaking the news to the family. My parents did not want to even talk to me about it when all I wanted to do was to explain to them that none of this was their fault. I think they were embarrassed by me and what people would think. When I almost died in 2005 from a tick bite that gave me Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and left me with a stroke and brain damage, they decided enough was enough. They didn’t like that I could have died and they’d have never seen me again. We are now a complete family again and they refer to me as their daughter. My dad even calls me “Sweetie”. I couldn’t be happier.
Of course, there was also the problem with my children but they took it better than I could ever have hoped, even after the hate campaign that their mothers tried to drill into their heads against me their whole lives. Inside they knew better. They don’t call me Mom but they don’t call me Dad either. We’ve agreed that “Rachael” is just fine. My grandchildren refer to me as “Aunt Rachael” because of problems earlier with my kids trying to think of what was the right thing to do. My grandchildren are almost 18 now and after they’re adults I’ll insist that they drop the “Aunt” part and call me “Nana” which is another word in American English for grandmother.
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?
Rachael: That’s a difficult question. As you know sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity. But the two are usually tightly entwined. I know transwomen who are straight and have boyfriends or husbands but as males, they were straight and had girlfriends and wives. But I also know many transwomen who were straight as men and are now lesbians. It can be very confusing. Did the straight men who are now straight women change their sexual orientation or was their early sexual orientation a function of fear of being seen as a homosexual man? Can sexual orientation change? This is a question for psychologists who know a lot more about it than I do.
But I think it’s a good thing that the ‘T’ is in LGBT because we are a group that is looked upon as “different” and these groups historically band together for support against the dangers of those who see us as different. In numbers there is strength and that has worked well for us all for
However, there certainly is a rift in the gay/lesbian community where some believe we shouldn’t be under their umbrella. Keep in mind that just because a person is gay or lesbian, that doesn’t mean they automatically understand what it means to be gender dysphoric any more than any other cis-gender person.

Rachael's first company Christmas party.

Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters that have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Rachael: Recently we’ve been seeing better representations of transgender people in TV and the movies. “Orange Is the New Black” has the first openly transgender actress in it and the subject is actually talked about by the other inmates of the prison. “Transparent” shows an older man coming out to his family, painfully looking at his past life holding himself back for the sake of his children, and then watching his early steps into becoming Moira.
The recent movie “The Danish Girl” with Eddie Redmayne (nominated for best actor) as Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander (won best supporting actress) as Lili’s wife was a stellar portrayal of what it means to be transgender. However, I was disappointed that the movie had such a limited release to theaters. I’m not really sure why with all of the Oscar buzz that surrounded the movie even before it was released. The only thing that comes to mind for this snub is the distribution company didn’t think the subject matter would appeal to most moviegoers.


All the photos: courtesy of Rachael Evelyn Booth.
© 2016 - Monika Kowalska

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