Sunday 12 February 2017

Interview with Riki Wilchins

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Riki Wilchins, an American LGBTQ rights activist, one of six activists named by TIME Magazine among its "100 Civic Innovators for the 21st Century," founder of The Transsexual Menace, Camp Trans, GenderPAC, and author of "Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender" (1997). Hello Riki!
Riki: Hello Monika!
Monika: Do you still wear the Transsexual Menace logo? :)
Riki: Alas, no – I haven’t had an occasion to wear mine lately.
Monika: Here is my favorite quote of yours from Read My Lips: "Academics, shrinks, and feminist theorists have traveled through our lives and problems like tourists on a junket. Picnicking on our identities like flies at a free lunch, they have selected the tastiest tidbits with which to illustrate a theory or push a book." Is it still valid?
Riki: I think it’s finally improved. Folks realize we’re not just some gender-weird tribe for them to cut their professional teeth on.
Monika: It has been over 20 years since you and Denise Norris created the Transsexual Menace. How do you recall those days?
Riki: I think it’s interesting that it’s finally getting recognition. I do wish we saw trans-people picketing more. Especially in this time of resurgent street activism in the US.

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Monika: How would you define its legacy today?
Riki: I really don’t know – I think we’re still finding out.
Monika: The 1990s witnessed the first Southern Comfort Conference, and the creation of new organizations: Transgender Nation, Transsexual Menace, the first The Transgender Day of Remembrance, and many transgender marches and parades. What sparked such a robust development of the transgender movement then?
Riki: That’s a great question I ask myself sometimes. The community had been so determinedly non-political. I think there was just a critical mass of people at the right time. And once you did one political thing, doing the second or the third because easy and obvious.
Monika: You were one of the first transgender activists that noticed the importance of political action and lobbying. With the creation of Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) in 1995, the transgender community started to take part in politics. However, American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful was the transgender community in this respect?
Riki: Not very successful at first. Trans was considered so way-out, so on the fringe. No one even knew the issue. But now you see trans included in everything LGBTQ, and we have a (regrettably bad) Republican president who also says “LGBTQ.” Trans is deeply anchored in gay rights – so I think that’s a success.
Monika: How did you perceive the attitude of the administration of President Obama towards transgender Americans?
Riki: Seeing the Obama Attorney General hold a press conference to call out the needs of trans-Americans and say “We see you” was life-changing. I turned to my 10-year-old daughter and said, “Please watch this, honey, mommy has just become normal.”
Monika: Is there any difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats address the needs and rights of the transgender community?
Riki: Republicans would gladly throw the whole gay community under the bus, us included. You see that in all the bathroom bills launched by Republicans to satisfy their base. The Democrats are now fully committed to our rights.
Monika: Does it mean that the next 4 years will be a gloomy time for the US transgender community?
Riki: No one has ANY idea what this President is going to do on any issue, especially this one I’m afraid.

Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to the day when a transgender lady could become the President of the USA? Are you smiling? :)
Riki: I am smiling, but the answer is no. Although I just read we do have our first trans mayor in Texas.
Monika: GenderPAC was also instrumental in helping many corporations to expand their employment non-discrimination policies to include gender identity and gender expression. Is it a common standard now?
Riki: It’s completely standard among the Fortune 1000 corporations. And since HRC made it part of the Equality Index, you can’t get a good score without it.
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with an interest in politics and business become successful politicians and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in American society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening? 
Riki: Both – we are just barely scratching the surface, and change is really happening. That’s the way new issues always are, though.

Monika: If we are just barely scratching the surface, what would be a harbinger of a real change in your view?
Riki: It would be nice if the First Lady came out as a transwoman – I think that would be a real harbinger“-}
Monika: I have read somewhere that cis women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pills whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
Riki: I wrote a whole piece on early hormone treatment called Transgender Dinosaurs about the changes this will make in the community. I don’t think it’s surgery, it’s the spread of early treatment that will shift everything for future trans generations.
Monika: OK, transwomen will look like cisgender women but I am afraid that they will be still ostracized if they come out. Transphobia applies also to very feminine-looking transwomen. Maybe in the distant future, when they will be able to give birth, society will accept them as women?
Riki: I don’t think that giving birth will make much difference. And in my experience, transphobia is often less for more passable transwomen. In any case, I don’t think cisgender acceptance should be at the center of our analysis – our human rights should.
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?
Riki: In the US they’re doing a pretty good job of this. And there is a robust ecosystem of trans-specific organizations for just this purpose.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Riki: 26, and yes it was a bear.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed? Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now? 
Riki: There really wasn’t much of anyone back in 1978. I think the courage of some of the trans celebrities today is wonderful. I’m not sure any of them is really radical enough in their politics or their gender to please me. We need some transwomen who are openly, proudly genderqueer.
Monika: Does the coming-out of a TV celebrity contribute to the success of the transgender movement? What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which are featured in films, newspapers, or books these days?
Riki: Every celebrity who comes out helps, and makes us more palatable to mainstream society.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Riki: I have thought about it – but I find such books boring, and politics and theory so much more interesting!
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Riki: I have a new book coming out later this year on the early years of transgender activism from Riverdale Books.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Riki: Courage. It DOES 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?
Riki: Well said!
Monika: Riki, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Riki Wilchins.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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