Sunday, 5 February 2017

Interview with Katherine Reilly

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Katherine Reilly, an American-Greek writer, teacher, active contributor to humanitarian efforts and the author of “The Road to Femininity: A New Life for a New Woman” (2016). Hello Katherine!
Katherine: Hello Monika, it’s so nice to meet you!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Katherine: Of course, I was born in Chicago and raised by a traditional Greek-American family. During my teenage years, I suffered from depression; I never actually understood what was wrong, why I couldn’t fit in anywhere. However, I studied to become an English teacher and this is a decision I’ll never regret. My students are a huge part of my life and wouldn’t change this for the world.
As time moved forward, I slowly acknowledged who I was and what my goal in life should be – to become the person I always wanted to become.
Monika: Why did you decide to write “The Road to Femininity: A New Life for a New Woman”?
Katherine: Becoming the person I always wanted to be, took a lot of effort and the major problem many trans women have is that they can’t find, or are afraid to ask anyone to help them out. I made a lot of mistakes during my transition. “Blending in” is not easy. Learning how to speak, act or dress appropriately needs some getting used to. Finding help was never easy. Coming out to specialists (make-up artists, hair stylists etc.) and asking them for advice on how to be more feminine usually led to rejection, which in turn led to disappointment.
I also had to deal with mixed reactions both at work and home. Therefore, I decided to write my book to share my own experience and help other transgenders become who they were meant to be with less heartache.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen? 
Katherine: I’ve given a few lectures at schools based on my experience. What mostly intrigues me is when students ask me, “How can I tell my parents I’m gay? (or lesbian, or transgender). How did your parents react? Were you scolded?” So, as you can see, members of the LGBTQ society are mostly daunted by the notion of “coming out”. I try to share my own experience with them. How, when and if they should come out to specific members of their family or community.
Sometimes, coming out leads to domestic violence and in those cases, should be dealt with extreme caution and above all, seek the advice of professionals. I know I keep stressing this here and in my book, but when our judgment is clouded due to extreme emotional pressure, we tend to handle situations in a less proper manner.
The book available via Amazon.
Other issues I’ve tried to help them deal with is “blending in”. How to avoid becoming a target so to speak, especially in societies which don’t accept transgender individuals such as Greece.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Katherine: I started transitioning in my late 30s and yes, I must admit it was a difficult process due to the fact that I was under constant pressure to change my mind. Fortunately, I had the support of my father and a few friends and relatives which made it a lot easier as time progressed.
My body started changing and that is when I truly started to enjoy my “journey”, “my new life”, “the new me”. I felt whole – the person I was truly meant to be.
Monika: How did your students react to your transition? Did you have any problems with the school management?
Katherine: Katherine: Well to be honest, I first had the privilege of teaching as myself, as a volunteer at the Sunday Refugee School of Athens. I also had many private lessons when I wasn’t working at school. In both cases, I was both loved and accepted for who I am – no questions asked. Then at school, I spoke with three of my most beloved students who had known me for years. They left and never spoke to me again. It was too much of a shock for them to handle. I then realized, coming out to students who knew me “before” my transition was going to be a problem. I don’t really blame them since there are no classes in Greece concerning “Sexual Orientation” or “Gender Identification”. Ignorance leads to fear and that in turn, leads to denial and hate of anything “different”.
The same applies to my colleagues, two of whom actually quit and never spoke to me again. They thought keeping their distance from me would “keep them safe” from being associated with a transgender woman.
I had to accept the fact that my coming out created issues, especially with the students’ parents. I wouldn’t say there was a problem with management, but I didn’t want the school to be under constant scrutiny. I carefully started selecting classes I could teach. Mostly those of university students who are more open minded. I remember opening my heart to a class I used to teach as my formal self.
A new look.
I admit my students were a bit shocked, but almost immediately showed their support and we rearranged their schedule, so I would avoid bumping into potential problematic clients. One might say I’m hiding or avoiding confrontations; experience however has taught me that “change and acceptance” needs time for some people. I’m willing to give them the time they need to process this.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Katherine: For years, I had admired the beauty, strength and heart of Anna Kouroupou. A Greek trans woman who inspired me to be myself.
I’m honored to say that we are close friends and consider her my sister. I love her very much.
Monika: Oh I remember she wrote her biography "Γιατί δεν έχω σαν το δικό σου, μαμά" (2011). She is such an amazing woman! How did you get acquainted with her? 
Katherine: I completely agree. She’s truly an exceptional woman. After reading her book and a few of her interviews online, I made the decision of meeting her in person. I didn’t know how she would react to yet another fan.
So, I visited her on a Saturday night at the venue she worked at and I can say without a doubt it was one of the most heart-warming and pleasant experiences of my life. I had goosebumps and my voice was trembling. I had this beautiful woman with the most innocent smile in front of me, who hugged me and held my hands telling me I’m gorgeous and that I should be brave and she would be there for me if I needed anything. She has supported me and still does to this day.
Time for lesson!
Monika: I also recall the other prominent Greek transwomen and their books: Christina Christos Baltzi "Το ποτάμι γύρισε πίσω" (2011), Eva Koumarianou "Το ταξίδι της ζωής μου" (2012), Elizabeth Vakalidou "Μπέττυ" (2007), and Jenny Hiloudaki "Οι Άγγελοι δεν έχουν Φύλο" (2002), "Η μαύρη βίβλος" (2003), and "Η μαύρη βίβλος" (2013) ...
Katherine: It’s amazing that the community has come a long way. However, there are so many transgenders who are afraid of coming out. I don’t blame them. Many societies around the world make it almost impossible to live your life the way you want to.
Education is the key to lifting people’s fears and I’m proud to say that I have followed in my predecessors’ footsteps. Not only with the publication of my book, but by giving talks to the younger generation. Patiently answering their questions, helping them comprehend what it means to be transgender.
Monika: You are living in Greece now. How would you define the status of transgender women there?
Katherine: Unfortunately, the most serious concern transgender women have in Greece is employment. It’s nearly impossible to find a job so the majority resorts to prostitution as a means of survival.
Furthermore, police officers as well as public officials treat transgender women with little to no respect. Of course, there are exceptions although very few. Fortunately, this is slowly changing and hopefully in a few years, it will be safer to walk in the streets of Greece without being harassed or ridiculed.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Katherine: Coming out to my father. I slowly climbed the ladder by telling colleagues and friends who I really was. After being rejected on multiple accounts, my greatest fear was being rejected by the person who was always closest to me. Fortunately, he embraced me and told me he loved me no matter what. I remember after our first talk, I slowly walked away and told him, “I named myself after Grandma. Call me Katherine…”
Just "A walk in the park."
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Katherine: Unfortunately, not always. Part of it has to do with so few trans people coming out publicly. There have been so many significant transgender people throughout history but there has never been an actual leader to promote this cause, or a feeling of unity in the transgender community.
This of course is slowly changing, but another issue, if not the most serious one, is lack of education at schools. People are scared of the unknown and to be honest can’t – or are not willing to, comprehend what transgender individuals face on a daily basis. Hopefully, this will change one day.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Katherine: There have been great depictions of transgender characters in books, television series and films. However, as stated by the actors themselves who have portrayed them (Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” and Jeffrey Tambor in the hit series “Transparent”), it’s time transgender actors be given a shot at reprising these roles. It’s a generally accepted fact that their personal experience would be better represented in these roles.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Katherine: Presently, I do not participate in any lobbying campaigns due to my obligations towards my students and the support of refugee children which has become a priority in my life.
Her new book for children available
via Amazon.
However, based on my experience, transgender women have and will continue to make a difference in politics. The Greek Transgender Support Association has made remarkable steps towards legal recognition of gender identity based on self-identification, and will continue to do so in the forthcoming future.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Some activists criticize their value, pointing out that they lead to the obsession with youth and beauty.
Katherine: Hmm, I must admit that I myself am a bit obsessed with my own image. I strive to become prettier every day. I honestly think that we should love our bodies and do with them as we please. I would actually love to take part in a beauty pageant. I mean, is there a girl out there who wouldn’t?
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends? 
Katherine: Do I like fashion? Who doesn’t! I enjoy wearing skirts, long dresses and simply adore cardigans. I’m crazy about the colour purple. Of course, I also like anything in white, gray, dark blue or black. As for trends? I used to follow them, but now I have adopted my own style. The “finely dressed, nerdy teacher look”.
A night out in town.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Katherine: I had been rejected by coworkers, ridiculed by relatives and “friends”, but if it hadn’t been for the love of the few people who have supported me throughout the years, my life would have been completely unbearable. It’s thanks to love that I am standing on my feet right now.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Katherine: I’m actually writing a trilogy of English Books for children. The first volume will be available in the following months. I am planning on donating all profits to the refugee children in Greece. Believe me, they really need our help.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Katherine: My advice is to immediately seek the help of a professional. The emotions we are struggling with are too much for anyone to handle. There is no shame in asking for help. Fortunately, there are many specialists who have the experience to guide them on their own personal “road to femininity”. 
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?
Katherine: I couldn’t agree more. Each person is a unique individual. We shouldn’t force ourselves to “copy” others. I believe that we are all beautiful human beings in our own way. Personally, I think that dreams should start way before the table, and never end. As a close friend of mine once told me, “If we ever stop dreaming, we have no goals. If we have no goals what’s our purpose in life?”
Monika: Katherine, thank you for the interview!
Katherine: You’re Welcome! It’s been a pleasure meeting you!

All the photos: courtesy of Katherine Reilly.
Done on 5 February 2017
© 2017 - Monika 

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