Saturday 30 April 2016

Interview with Therese Wonnacott

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Therese Wonnacott, aka Aunty Anita, a Hawaiian Pioneer and former beauty pageant promoter, and transgender activist for Transwomen of Color. Hello Therese. I am so happy to interview such an icon!
Therese: Thank you, it is a pleasure, Monika!
Monika: You look fantastic, Therese. What is the secret of your beauty?
Therese: Well, I am lucky to get my beauty from the ethnic background of being a Hawaiian Asian mixture. All women in my family have beautiful skin. They also taught me not to try going in the sun, and if I do, only with sunblock or wearing a big hat to protect my skin. 
I drink lots of water. I eat a healthy meal, plus I apply a natural skin cream or virgin coconut oil on my face before going to bed each night. Being 63 I am lucky I do not look my age.
Monika: You were born in Wailuku, Hawaii. How do you recollect your childhood? 
Therese: My childhood was unhappy with lots of pain. My family was dysfunctional. My mother had me when she was 16, and my father was 19 years old. They were not ready for parenthood. My dad was in the coast guard, so we moved to Los Angeles. He was very mean, abusive to my mother and me. He feared I would be gay.  
My mother divorced him when I was 4 years old and sent me to live with my grandmother in Maui. She loved me unconditionally. Living with grandma were the happiest days of childhood. At age 7, my mother remarried. My stepdad was also mean and abusive to me. My mother never protected me. I could not wait to be 18, so I could leave living with them.

In her twenties.

Monika: By the way, you feel very patriotic about Hawaii. Are you happy that the islands are a part of the USA today?
Therese: No, our Kingdom of Hawaii was stolen by force in 1893. I have a saying of which is “HAWAIIAN BY BLOOD, AMERICAN BY FORCE“. When the USA took over, they made it illegal for my people (Hawaiian) to speak our language. If you did, you were arrested. Children were beaten by their teacher at school for speaking Hawaiian. Many of the Hawaiian lands were also taken illegally.
Monika: When did you decide that you would like to be a stage artist?
Therese: I did drag shows in the early years of my transition from male to female. After my SRS, I became a stripper. My agent was based in Las Vegas, he booked me to work throughout the USA and Canada. I worked in the business until I met my husband in 1989. We married in 1991 in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Monika: For many years your artistic life has been connected with the House of Lee Sei. How do you recall those years, Isadora Sei, and girls that appeared on stage?
Therese: I started dressing up in drag when I was 19. I worked as a male and dressed up at night. This was when I met Shelly Ho in downtown Honolulu. We both got along together, and I was impressed that she passed and sounded like a woman. One day, she picked me up and took me where she was living. At the home I met Isadora Sei, she was the mother figure of the household. She and members of the Household always made me feel welcome. They lived as a Family.
One day I mentioned to Isadora that I wished to be like them. I did break down crying that I didn’t know where to live. She then mentioned that I was welcome to live with them. Since all bedrooms were taken, I would have to sleep on the floor. I was so happy. Then I left my life as a male and departed from my bio family. I walked away from my job and became a member of the House of Sei.

In 1974.

Monika: When you were a member of the House of Lee Sei, did you take part in any shows/revues?
Therese: Yes, I did. Dora put together a drag review and was part of the line dancers. Uncle Rocky and Von Page sponsored the show. We had local gigs for parties.
Monika: Now I am looking at your photo from the Queen of Queens Pageant in Honolulu in 1974...
Therese: That was my 1st and only pageant. However, I have always been a fan of beauty pageants. I have loved them since my childhood and continued throughout my life. 
Monika: What did you like best about pageants? Glamour? Possibility of meeting other girls?
Therese: Of course, the Glamour of dressing up, wearing beautiful gowns and outfits. How they presented themselves on stage. How creative the contestants were. Of course, the Talent was a highlight.
Monika: Being beautiful always produces a lot of girl power and empowerment. Did you often use it?
Therese: Well I am lucky, that my journey in life has been easier than some of my sisters. I also believed in myself that I will make it from being male to female. Moving to somewhere that I knew no one. Choices I made with a career before I retired part-time 7 years ago.
Monika: Have you ever thought about acting?
Therese: LOL. I am lucky to live in 2 worlds. The Straight and LGBT world. I feel I am an actress by being one person in the business world … and another in LGBT Community. Yes, I am like an actress but in my personal life with my inner circle of family and close friends, I am myself.

At Christmas.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Therese: I started dressing up at age 19. I transitioned full-time living as a woman at age 21. It was easy for me to transition into the drag and straight world. Passing as a woman was easy for me. When I transitioned I already had a woman’s butt and hips. I never had to shave.
I had my gender reassignment surgery in 1977. My mother paid for it. My surgery was done in Trinidad, Co. It was the sex change capital of the world then. My surgery was done by Dr. Biber, he was also a pioneer in doing the surgery in the USA. Yes, the surgery was painful.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Therese: Lin Loo was the 1st sex change from Hawaii. I saw her once at a Christmas party. She looked beautiful. I was the 1st sex change from Maui.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Therese: There are many, especially the Pioneers who paved the way for the generation of today. I do admire Hina Wong. She was among the 1st generation of mahuwahines (Hawaiian Trans) that were educated at the University of Hawaii and gotten their degrees. She is such a role model for the Mahuwahines and as a leader in the Hawaiian Rights Movement. I just adore her.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Therese: The pain it caused my mother. She was the last in my family to accept me. When she did she advocated for me, when family or her community did not understand.
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?
Therese: OK, for many years the transgender were the stepchildren of their world. I remember when drag queens were not allowed in a gay bar (only on a slow night). Many add the T for being politically correct. It continues today, not as bad as these past 40 years. But it continues.

With Dan.

Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters that have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Therese: My feelings are mixed. The good thing is that people are being educated about who we are. They listen to our stories. This is good, they are talking now. The bad thing is that the right-wing Christians spread hate among my brothers and sisters 
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Therese: I have been living away from the Transgender community for 35 years, living as a biological woman. In 2002, I started to attend Asian and Pacific islanders transwomen support group in San Francisco. My weekly appearance made many mahuwahines start to attend the group. Many asked me for advice, that when I become Aunty Anita.
A few years later I did adopt 2 young transwomen as my daughters in the House of Lee Sei. I mentored them to become leaders in the trans world of color.
I have mentored many transwomen to get a higher education, now many of them have their masters or doctors degrees. I got involved with serving the trans sisters of color as a community health educator. I also started to speak at high schools, universities in the San Francisco Bay area.
I have also encouraged others to get involved with their rights as trans people. I have been fully retired since March 2015, so I have stopped being involved since then. I have left it to the younger generation. 
However, I am picky with my public appearance in the LGBT world of the bay area. If I am asked to speak or attend a support group of trans women of color, I will attend.

With her soul-mate.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Therese: For many years I was looking for love in the wrong places and with wrong men. I was attracted to bad boys because I found nice guys boring.
One day I took a chance on the nice geek guy. He worshiped the ground I walked on. One day he asked me to marry him. I said Yes, but I decided not to tell him that I was trans. I was ready to take the secret to the grave.
In 2004, I did come out to him. I am lucky he loves me unconditionally. Now we both are retired and it is so wonderful being together 24/7. He is my soul-mate and I am lucky to have found Love. This year we will celebrate our 25 years of marriage.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Therese: Yes, I have written a digital Hawaiian recipes cookbook. I will have a hard copy for sale before the year is over. I shall work on my 2nd cookbook and a book of my life. As a former pageant promoter, I have many crowns. Now I sponsor crowns for a pageant in American Samoa called Miss SOFIAS. The SOFIAS is a non-profit organization composed of Samoan transgender women. Many are teachers, business owners and work in government positions. Besides mentoring transwomen, they raise money for many community causes.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Therese: I would suggest joining a local transgender support group. There are many online resources. You are not alone!
Monika: Therese, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Therese Wonnacott.
© 2016 - Monika Kowalska

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