Monday, 13 February 2017

Interview with Alexus Sheppard

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Alexus Sheppard from the USA. Alexus recently published her memoir, From Both Sides Now, which is available from Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Nook. She is a published author, educator, transgender activist, blogger, and happily married woman with two beautiful grown daughters. Hello Alexus!
Alexus: Hello, Monika. And thank you for this interview.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alexus: My life has been a series of contradictions and expansions. Since I grew up on a farm in rural Kansas, I was raised much like any other conservative, Midwestern, Christian child. But even with this very structured childhood, I was aware at an early age that something was different about me. As a result, I never felt that I “fit” into any particular group of children. This inner angst was the early seed of my life as an “outsider” and decades later would lead to the start of my spiritual journey away from a conservative and traditional life.
Monika: I must say I remember your website very well. It was one of the first websites helping transgender ladies on their way to womanhood …
Alexus: My website started in 1997 as an ongoing blog of my early adventures into self-discovery. Since I came from such a conservative background, the uncovering of my authentic transgender self was certainly not without inner resistance. As a result of this turmoil, I tried desperately to be “just a crossdresser” and remain in my heterosexual marriage of twenty-two years. The act of writing on my website was an outlet for my feelings and helped clarify the direction of my journey.
Monika: How did you realize that you were not "just a crossdresser", that you were simply a woman?
Alexus: I actually realized I was transsexual at a “gut level” the very first time I was made over at the gender salon in Denver, way back in 1997. But I immediately pushed that realization away, trying desperately to continue as “just a crossdresser” until my cancer experience just a year later. So, in reality, it took fighting cancer, through nine months of chemotherapy and radiation, to give me the clarity of knowing my truth. Once that realization was clear, there was no turning back.
Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Alexus: As you know, I started out with an online website/blog over 20 years ago. (oh my goodness, where does the time go?) As I started my transgender journey, I began to write articles describing my adventures in my newly-discovered world. And because I posted lots of pictures along with the stories, the website became quite popular. I also attended several transgender conferences to learn more about myself and the community at large. Somehow, apparently due to the random combination of my conference attendance, my budding website, and the dramatic explosion of the Internet at the time, I became somewhat of a “celebrity” within the transgender community. I began to hear, over and over, from my friends and online acquaintances, “You need to write a book!”

Available via Amazon.

Even though I heard this request from people literally hundreds of times, I still resisted. But as the years went by, the amount of material I began to accumulate became substantial. I even started a book a few times, but because I had no publishing experience, I felt completely overwhelmed and really didn’t know how to begin.
Monika: Then how did you discover that you could publish a book?
Alexus: A few years ago, my oldest daughter, Nikki, took me to a multi-day motivational seminar given by a man named James Malinchak. His audience was filled with hundreds of people who had been successful in various careers but were still searching for that nebulous “something.” Many of them gave testimony to the fact that because the publishing industry has changed so dramatically over the past decade or so, almost anyone could now publish a book. A completely new self-publishing industry, along with print-on-demand printing, has made publishing a book achievable at an affordable to almost anyone.
So with this newly-found motivation and energy, I began to assemble and organize all my blogs, stories, and pictures. Pretty soon, I had an accumulation of things that would create about half of a reasonably-sized book. But I was still very much in the early stages of creating a timeline for my story and making an overall organizational outline.
Then the Universe created a serendipitously amazing event.
Monika: Did it start with oysters?
Alexus: Yes, one weekend my wife, Deb, suggested we take the train into the city to get some fresh oysters. Since we both love oysters, it didn’t take much convincing for me to agree, and off we went. When we arrived at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, our favorite seafood restaurant was closed for remodeling. We were disappointed, but as you can imagine, in a large city like SF, there are many water-side restaurants with oysters. So we walked to another nearby restaurant, but because it was a nice Saturday afternoon, the place was absolutely packed. We asked about reservations, but the maĆ®tre d’ said they were booked for the rest of the day but we could stand in the bar area and wait for a table to open up there. So we stood in there for about thirty minutes, trying to figure out who might finish first. Then we saw a couple sitting at the bar and he was reaching for his wallet to pay the check. We immediately moved into “nearby hover” position so we could grab their seats as soon as they stood up. Mission accomplished, we had a seat at the bar!
We ordered our oysters, along with some other appetizers, and then the people sitting next to us got up and left as well. The thirty-something couple that then sat down were quite friendly and we struck up a conversation about how busy the place was and how wonderful the food would be when it finally arrived.
Monika: You described the scene perfectly. 
Alexus: After exchanging names and very much in the early stages of our casual get-acquainted conversation, the lady looked over at me and asked, “So Alexus, are you a writer?” I was completely flabbergasted! I answered, “Well, apparently I’m supposed to be.”
I asked her why she would answer such a random question out of the blue, and she simply responded that I had the energy of a writer. (whatever that is) So I told her I was starting on a book, but was floundering a bit and lacked direction. She then said, “If you’re serious about this, and you’re actually ready to go, I can hook you up with people who can make it happen.” I almost fell off my barstool! Really???
She went on to say she had worked in the publishing industry for many years and that she still had friends who were editors, writing coaches, publishers, etc. So I told her I was definitely serious, gave her my contact information, and then we all had our oysters, champagne, and delicious appetizers. I was stunned!
A couple days later, she sent me an email with the name of a writing coach/editor who said she’d be happy to help me through the process. That was just a little over two years ago, and the rest is history…
Absolutely amazing, isn’t it?
Monika: Yes, indeed! Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Alexus: Essentially, we all have a very unique and individual path to self-discovery. No two lives are the same and no two journeys will be identical. We can all draw inspiration from the lives of others, but ultimately, we must find our own way. Your answers are always inside you, speaking as that very soft and persistent inner voice. My book goes into great detail regarding the ways in which I found my unique path.

Beautiful bride. More photos.

Monika: What I loved most was the account of your wedding ceremony with Deborah and your fantastic wedding dress!
Alexus: Ah yes, that beautiful wedding dress! It was a custom gown designed and sewn by Autumn Adamme of Dark Garden Corsetry and Couture in San Francisco. Autumn and her staff are unbelievably creative artisans and were, in a large part, responsible for turning my wedding day into an absolute fairy-tale.
Monika: What did you feel when dressed like a beautiful princess you could marry the woman you love?
Alexus: It was absolutely a fairy tale come true! Everything about it was surreal. The amazingly extravagant gown, the redwood forest setting, my beautiful wife-to-be, our wonderful family and friends in attendance, the food, the wine, the music, etc., etc., etc.… When I look back at those pictures today, I still almost have to pinch myself to realize it actually happened. By the way, many of those pictures are posted on my website.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alexus: Life is all about love. In fact, the subtitle of my book is “One Woman’s Journey to Love and Living Life to the Fullest.” But regardless of how important it is to have another person in your life, with whom you can share love, the most important type of love is SELF-love. Without the love of self, you cannot truly love another person. You simply cannot give away that which you do not possess within yourself. We have been taught that self-love is sinful and selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once we learn to love ourselves, it opens us up to the infinite possibilities of loving others in a way that can truly change the world. No matter what the question might be, the answer is always love.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Alexus: Until the recent presidential election, I would have said the situation for transgender women had improved substantially within the past few decades. Unfortunately, with the recent change in the White House, the governmental support for LGBT progress will most likely revert from progress to regression. Not only will we not continue to achieve more freedom of self-expression, but I am also afraid that we will be driven back into the shadows by the hateful rhetoric of the conservative right. We will resist and we will fight, but it will be an uphill battle until we once again have a rational and compassionate person in the White House.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Alexus: I began my transition at the age of forty-five. As I described on my website and in my book, I lived most of my adult life subconsciously repressing my authentic gender. That was both good and bad, because it protected me from living with active gender dysphoria, but at the same time, I lived with constant angst that “something” was wrong. I just didn’t know what the problem was. Once the gender conflict was uncovered, the process toward transition moved relatively quickly. Of course, there was that nasty detour year with the whole cancer thing (tongue-in-cheek wink), but after that, the transition was relatively quick and easy.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Alexus: My earliest role model was Christine Jorgensen. I didn’t understand why at the time, because I was very young when she transitioned. But I knew she fascinated me, I simply didn’t understand why. Later in adult life, and after confronting my newly-discovered gender dysphoria, I was inspired by Carolyn Cossey, Lynn Conway, and Becky Allison.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Alexus: I admire and respect any transgender woman who lives her life openly and proud. This would include Andrea James, Calpernia Addams, Jenny Boylan, Marci Bowers, Leslie Townsend, and many, many others. And while I do not agree with most of the political views expressed by Caitlyn Jenner, I will admit that she did bring transsexuality, and the necessarily related discussions, into the prime time living room of almost every living American. (And around the world as well) So for that, she deserves at least a modicum of respect.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alexus: Not wanting to hurt my children. And as it turned out, not only did I not hurt them with my transition, I indirectly gave them permission to live their lives authentically as well. As a result, they are both strong and successful women.

First glamour shoot. More photos.

Monika: Did your daughters accept you as a woman right away or it took them more time?
Alexus: My older daughter, Nikki, was in college at the time and was majoring in musical theater, so she accepted me right away. My younger daughter, Erika, was a little slower to accept the real me. It took her about six months to come around to the realization that I was actually a completely “normal” woman.
Monika: Could transgender rights be the new frontier for human rights?
Alexus: Absolutely! Unfortunately, transgender rights seem to lag behind LGB rights by about twenty years. We have made significant progress over the last few decades, but until humanity embraces the entire spectrum of human expression and sexuality, we will never be completely free as a species.
And with the recent right swing of the political pendulum in America and some other parts of the rest of the world, this last frontier of human rights might take a very long time to conquer.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters, which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Alexus: Most transgender characters are treated as “fringe” characters. They’re typically portrayed as mentally ill, sexually deviant, or otherwise deeply troubled people. With very few exceptions, they’re not treated just like any other character in the story with an “Oh, BTW, they’re transgender” twist. I guess that wouldn’t be sensational enough to sell, because, for the most part, most transgender lives are boringly normal.
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?
Alexus: Unfortunately, there are many transphobic people within the LGB part of our community. Therefore, those of us who are T must stick together and promote causes that are unique to our particular piece of the alphabet soup. We will always be more powerful within the larger group of LGBTQIA, but we cannot lose sight of the things that are uniquely T.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Alexus: The Transgender community has more public “celebrities” now than ever before. Trying to single out any one particular person who could be compared with Harvey Milk would be a monumental task. But when you combine the efforts of many public people like Janet Mock, Jenny Boylan, Andrea James, Lynn Conway, etc., you end up with the “it takes a village” kind of activism.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Alexus: Since I just published my first book, I am now being forced into the public spotlight. While I don’t expect this personal activism to be dramatic, I do believe it can change peoples’ perceptions one person at a time. And after all, isn’t that the most effective sort of change? 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Alexus: Oh, gosh. That is absolutely the wrong question for me. When I first began my transition, I was very much into fashion and makeup. Now that I’m almost twenty years post-transition, I’ve settled into a very mellow “senior citizen married lesbian” sort of fashion. Meaning, I seldom wear makeup and my clothes are chosen base on how comfortable they are. Comfortable shoes, comfortable jeans, comfortable t-shirts, etc. I think you get the point… LOL!
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to terrible tests as to whether they pass as a woman or not. Every imperfection is held against us. You don’t have such a problem yourself, but what would you recommend to other transgender ladies who have to struggle to pass?
Alexus: Yes, I have been blessed with the ability to initially pass in most social situations. But I also know, if I’m around someone for an extended period of time, they’ll almost certainly figure it out. When I was going through my cancer experience, during extended times of meditation, I would ask my spirit guides, why I was so blessed with that ability. The answer was quite simple, “You have been given that blessing so that you may move into more intimate relationships, in order to teach others about love and acceptance.”
For those in the community who don’t pass quite so easily, my advice is to be strong, considerate, and above all, try to be loving to those who don’t understand. Only by living our lives authentically, and in the open, do we get the opportunity to expand the minds of those around us. And if they don’t accept our true paths, then just know that their rejection is about them, not us.

Happy couple. More photos.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Alexus: After working on my book for nearly two years, I’m ready for a break… Whew! 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Alexus: Reach out!!! Spend the time researching the thousands who have gone before you. And most of all, absolutely KNOW there are people out there who are willing to help you. But you have to initiate that help. It will get better!
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Alexus: I absolutely agree! But in reality, the “final” surgery is ultimately a very private, and mostly invisible procedure. 99.999% of the people in our lives will never see the results of that surgery. But what it DOES do is give us the confidence to move forward with our authentic expression of who we are. It removes the final vestige of who we used to pretend to be. There is now, no longer a need for impersonation. No longer a need for living our lives according to the rules and expectations of others. Living an authentic life shouldn’t be just a dream, it should be the norm. But since most people do not live their dreams, it is up to us to teach others how that can be done. People learn by example, not by an explanation.
Monika: Alexus, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Alexus Sheppard.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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