Saturday 11 March 2017

Interview with Carla Combs

Monika: Carla, I am so delighted that I can interview you again! Let me briefly introduce you to those who have not read our first interview. Carla Lewis is a wife, father of two adult children, and grandmother of three. She is also a veteran of the United States Air Force Space Command serving in support of Operation Desert Storm and was discharged in 1991 when it was discovered she was transgender. Carla currently works as a software developer for a health care company in Nashville, TN.
In addition, she is a full-time student and part-time writer, speaker, activist, and advocate for the transgender community. Her activism was ignited in 2008, when she and her wife, Jaime Combs, witnessed a lone gunman enter their church sanctuary and kill innocent people, including a good friend, all because her church welcomed LGBT people. To that end, Carla has tried to use her voice to advocate for equality for transgender people and speak for those that cannot speak out because of fear or intimidation. Hello Carla!
Carla: Hey, Monika! I'm thrilled to be giving you an update since our last interview.
Monika: It has been 4 years since our first interview. A lot of things must have changed in your life… I have just noticed two changes. Firstly, you changed your surname!
Carla: OMG! It *has* been four years. Well, yes, there have been a few changes in my life. I don't even know where to begin.
In May of 2014, Jaime and I were in Las Vegas celebrating the wedding anniversary of her parents. They've been married *forever*. For those that aren't familiar with Jaime, we met at a support group meeting in 1999 and have been together ever since.

While in Vegas, I casually threw out the notion that perhaps we could get married before we left. On May 11, that's exactly what we did. Under the Las Vegas sign with a Dolly Parton impersonator at our side, we exchanged vows.
The story of how we obtained our marriage license, in a state that did not recognize same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court struck down such laws, can be found here. While I have the legal right to use the name "Combs" as a result of my marriage, I only use it on Facebook right now. I'm trying it out, as it were.
It was just a couple of months later that I was offered a position as the sole software developer for an accounting firm that was defending a national petroleum company in a federal investigation. Several months later, when the audit had been complete, my contract was terminated as there was no more work for me to do.
This opened up new possibilities for me. I was offered a position as a software engineer for a pathology laboratory in Nashville, Tennessee. This city was about a three-hour drive from my home in Maryville, Tennessee.
I moved to Nashville and left Jaime to stay in Maryville. She owned a hair salon there and could not leave. We continued our relationship by taking turns driving to see the other on weekends. It was really tough. Some other big things happened in 2015 and 2016, but you'll read about them in some of the other answers.
Of course, for me, personally, the two really important events have been my gender confirmation surgery in December of 2016, and my wife selling her business, retiring, and moving to Nashville to live with me. For the first time, in what seems like a very long time, we are a family once again.

Glamour photo.

Monika: And you have beautiful blond curls.
Carla: For almost all of my adult female life I have been straightening my hair every morning. My hair isn't really what I would consider "curly", but rather very, very "wavy". After my GCS, I had to stay in a hotel in Miami for a week so I could meet with the surgeon for a follow-up appointment. I tried to get out and enjoy Miami.
For my first outing, I got all fixed up as usual, which included straightening my hair. However, after been outside in the salty air for about 10 minutes, my hair was a complete wreck and started to curl. For the rest of my visit, I just decided to leave my hair alone. I kind of liked it and it has been my daily hairstyle, mostly, since then.
Monika: There have been also many changes in the political and social environment too. Before we discuss it, I would like to ask your opinion about what the Administration of President Barack Obama did to improve the rights of transgender folks in the US in the last 4 years...
Carla: More than any other public official within my adult lifetime, President Obama did more to uplift the transgender community than any other. From hate crimes legislation to directives for equal housing. Our new healthcare law included protections for transgender people. With the support of the EEOC, landmark court cases gave us employment protections. Most recently, before leaving office, Obama put the full weight of his administration's support behind equal access to accommodation.
Thinking about the words of the US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch still brings me to tears. I can never think about these words without getting emotional: "We see you. We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward."
It was the very first time in my life that I *knew*, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that my country really, truly cared about my people. 
Monika: One of his last decision was to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence, which means the reduction of her sentence from 35 years to just over seven years, the majority of which she has already served...
Carla: I do believe that her sentence was far too severe for her actions. There have been many cases that have caused far more damage to national security than hers and those people received far more lenient sentencing. I think he did the right thing. As you know, I am a former military. I was in a top-secret position. I was discharged because I was trans. I have an opinion on Chelsea Manning, but I will never share it with anyone.
Monika: Do you approve of this decision only from the point of view of a transgender woman or also as a veteran soldier?
Carla: I approve of his decision as a human that is opposed to inhumane treatment, which is what I believe she has endured since her arrest.
Monika: In 2015 you launched a campaign to raise awareness about the plight of transgender people in the U.S. military. Your t-shirt with “I fought for your right to hate me” became viral on Facebook immediately. What sparked this campaign?
Carla: In the fall of 2015, I was having health problems and visited a local emergency room. As I always do, I explained to the intake nurse that I was transgender. There was a high probability that I would have to be catheterized and I did not want any of the nurses to be surprised as has happened before.
After being shown to a room, I was intentionally ridiculed by another nurse and they attempted to humiliate me for being trans. I would not stand for such behavior. I had my daughter, who was with me and is a certified phlebotomist, remove the IV needle. I dressed myself and lodged a verbal complaint with the intake office.

The veteran awareness photo.

Incidentally, I suffered for a couple of more weeks until I had surgery, but that's another story. It is worth noting that I also contacted the Department of Human Services' Office of Civil Rights and lodged a complaint. That nurse is now no longer employed with the hospital and at my request, the hospital is now conducting training for all of its employees to ensure they are aware of the legal requirements for treating transgender people. It's a start.
The next day, I stayed home from work. Jaime came drove in from Maryville to tend to me. Going through some old mail, I noticed that the annual license renewal for my car was about to expire and I had Jaime drive me to the Davidson County Clerk's office so that I could renew my car license.
Tennessee offers a series of license plates for veterans of the United States armed services. They had recently introduced a new "Woman Veteran" license plate. I wanted this. However, the county clerk staffers and even the clerk herself gave me a hard time and declared I could not have this particular license because I was "not a woman".
That was the second time in 24 hours I had been told I was not a woman and I was livid. 
The following Friday, I wore a t-shirt to work that stated simply, "Transgender Veteran: I fought for your right to hate me". I took a selfie and posted it on Facebook.
People absolutely lost their minds. The photo went viral. A writer for Huffington Post interviewed me about the image. Local and regional news outlets interviewed me and before I knew it people were contacting me from all over the *world*. People in other countries, on other continents, were telling me that my story was being printed and broadcast in their native language.
I couldn't believe it.
Monika: Did you receive many expressions of support?
Carla: Yes. All of a sudden, transgender veterans were telling me that I was giving them a voice for the first time.
Because of all of the attention, other transgender people find out about me and began watching old interviews of me or reading old news stories, or reading my blog. Suddenly, I became a voice for them as well.
Over the coming months, I performed more on-camera interviews about other transgender-related topics and I really believe I made some measurable difference in attitudes towards transgender people in the Middle Tennessee area.
Surprisingly, in the spring of 2016, I was told I was to be named the 2016 INSPIRE Awards International Icon alongside Edie Windsor who sued the United States and caused the court to deem the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Maybe a month after the award ceremony in Toronto, the policy preventing transgender people from serving openly in the military was rescinded. I believe that my actions played a tiny part in changing the consciousness of this country toward transgender soldiers.
Of course, when this happened, I was interviewed again, having been discharged from the military 25 years earlier for being transgender.
Monika: A year later, in 2016, you vehemently opposed the controversial "Bathroom Bill" going through the legislature. Could you shed some light on your actions and the ramifications of such a law?
Carla: The bill would have required that students at all public schools and universities use the restrooms of the sex that is listed on the student's birth certificate. If you didn't know, Tennessee is one of a handful of states that will not allow the sex to be changed on a birth certificate. A Nashville news station spent a couple of hours with me one afternoon to speak about this bathroom bill that Tennessee was considering. Of course, only a couple of minutes of the interview was aired. However, since our legislative seat is located in Nashville, I suspect that many legislators, as well as the governor of the state, may have seen the interview and I'm hoping it convinced them to reconsider the passage of this bill. Of course, I rallied people on social media to contact the legislators by email or by phone and tell them to vote against the bill.  

Monika: What happened to that bill? Did it enter into force?
Carla: The bill was killed in committee. It just so happens that I was doing an interview in front of the committee room doors while the legislators were waiting to enter. I'm hoping many of them watched me speak and took my words to heart. I honestly believe it was the best interview I ever had. That interview never aired because an hour later the bill was killed when one of the sponsors pulled their support. While some equality-minded citizens hammered on their legislators to distance themselves from this bill, ultimately, I believe, it was the threat of losing federal school funding for violating Title IX law that deterred them the most.
Monika: You are a Board Member at the Tennessee Equality Project. How do you find the achievements of this organization over the last years?
Carla: TEP has grassroots chapters all over the state performing advocacy for the LGBT community. Wherever there is a need, local citizens organized by TEP are there. Every year a different handful of asshole legislators tries to make a name for themselves by picking on the most vulnerable people in the state: LGBT people. It gets them a lot of press and, no doubt, donations. Sometimes TEP is successful at rallying enough support to get a harmful bill killed and sometimes we aren't.
Monika: With the new US President in power, it seems that transgender rights might be at risk
Carla: That is the understatement of the year.
Monika: Is there any real difference in the way the Republicans and Democrats address the needs and rights of the transgender community in general?
Carla: Absolutely. The Republicans, along with evangelical groups, try and determine the best way to use us to increase their donations. They then pursue legislation to legitimize us as a threat to life in the United States.
The Democrats, on the other hand, do little other than run interference and try to block those Republican actions against us. Some communities and states that have a Democratic majority, on occasion, push for legislation that benefits our community, but it is rare.

Not bad for 45 years old.

Monika: American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect?
Carla: With the right administration, like the Obama Administration, it proved very fruitful. However, we didn't really want much... just the right to exist and an equal chance as everyone else.
Monika: Nevertheless, The transgender community is said to be thriving now. We have even the first transgender doll on the market, which is based on Jazz Jennings. Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Carla: The transgender community is absolutely not thriving. The one thing we are doing is becoming more visible. However, the threats to our survival, while greatly diminished under President Obama's term in office, are still very real. Our people, especially transgender women of color, are still being killed. Employers still feel empowered to terminate us if we come out or refuse to hire us. We still face discrimination in housing and public accommodation. We are far, far from thriving. What we are doing is surviving, which is a very different state of affairs. 
Monika: I know that you are a great fan of Power Girl. However, are you looking forward to watching Wonder Woman (2017), a new movie with Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman?
Carla: I was one of those people that was totally against Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. However, she really surprised me. I think she did great. I'm really looking forward to her new movie and I hope the writers show us a powerful, self-sufficient woman that embodies the feminist spirit of Wonder Woman.
As for Power Girl, she'll never be in a live-action movie. She's far too badass and would make the other heroes look like pushovers.
Monika: Carla, thank you for the interview!
Carla: The years keep passing by and I'm not getting any younger, but I know there is more left in me. It is my life's goal to ensure that today's generation of transgender youth will one day know a world where they are treated as equals. I feel like I have enough interesting stories in my life that I have a book in me somewhere that is yearning to be written. One day, maybe, I may like to hold public office. Until then, I'll keep trying to do what I can.

All the photos: courtesy of Carla Combs.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

Interview 2013

Passion (01)

Passion (02)

Passion (3)

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