Thursday, 2 March 2017

Interview with Erin Swenson

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Erin Swenson, an American licensed psychotherapist, transgender rights activist, the first-known mainstream Protestant minister to make a gender transition and retain ordained office. Since turning age 60, she has completed 34 triathlons, including two Half-Ironman events. Hello Erin!
Erin: Hi Monika. What an honor to be interviewed by you. Congratulations on your work as a transgender activist.
Monika: When I read about your triathlon experience I thought, wow such a tough lady! Could you say a few words about yourself?
Erin: I think being transgender requires a certain amount of toughness, so my interest in triathlon fits my temperament. I am not fast (although I tend to win/place in age group races) and my goal for every race is to have fun and cross the finish line vertically. I am 70 years old and find cross-training (swim/bike/run) very helpful to maintain my own health and wellness. But going through a gender transition is MUCH tougher than a Half-Ironman.

Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights in the USA. Could you name some of the most successful initiatives that you took part in? 
Erin: Like many of us, I never intended to be an activist. I wanted to transition and carry on with my very satisfying life. I had been ordained as a Presbyterian minister since 1973 and needed to maintain ordination for some very practical reasons. I had no idea that my request of Atlanta Presbytery to confirm my ordination after a gender transition was a “first.” I have spent much of my time helping people understand that a life of faith is not incompatible with being gender different.
Monika: You provide a lot of transgender counseling, training courses, and lectures to different institutions and organizations. What kind of questions do you usually have to answer then?
Erin: The most frequent question is how my family responded to my decision. It’s interesting how contemplating gender moves people to almost immediately think about family. This question always gives me an opportunity to discuss how an individual’s gender transition soon becomes a community gender transition, involving family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, faith communities, etc. 

Erin's website.

Monika: What is the attitude of Presbyterianism or Protestantism to the transgender phenomenon?
Erin: Like many other cultural institutions this is in a state of flux. My ordination was barely upheld in 1996, and it took a long time for other ministers and candidates for ministry to come forward. Today there are transgender clergy conferences all over the world.
I had an interesting experience yesterday. Another minister in my Presbytery (kind of like a diocese) called looking for resources for a parishioner. We got to have a friendly chat and started remembering the time 21 years ago when the Presbytery was deeply embroiled in the question of my transgender ordination. He thanked me for persevering and for helping the church and community begin to open its heart to gender-variant people. I have been given a few awards over the years by various organizations, but nothing made me feel more appreciated than those simple words. 
Monika: Your gender transition before the Presbyterian Church in 1996 became a precedent for many other ordained transwomen. At what age did you transition into a woman yourself?
Erin: I began my transition in 1994 and went full-time in 1995. In some ways, the church case in 1996 could be considered a terminus for my transition, but my experience is that transition is a lifetime project.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Erin: In the 1990s there were no active public figures, so I turned to Jan Morris (Conundrum) and Renee Richards (Second Serve) for guidance. As soon as I found the transgender community in Atlanta, of course, there were many more role models.

During an HRC Clergy Lobby Days in D.C.

For me, the most influential model has been Dallas Denny, founder of the American Education Gender Information Service. More than an apt model, Dallas has been a friend and colleague to me over the decades. So I would take this opportunity to honor Dallas. 
Monika: Are there any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Erin: Everyone! In my work, I get to meet many who are considering or are in a transition. Their stories of courage and love are a constant inspiration for me. I think I have the best job in the world.
Monika: What is your view on the general situation of transwomen in your country, especially when you compare it to your own transition years in the 90s?
Erin: The biggest difference is that knowledge about the transgender experience has spread and become normative. In 1994 people still talked about transsexuals and cross-dressers (transgender was just beginning to gain currency) as if they were rare and strange phenomena. Of course, there was a fair amount of fear and hatred back then, and thankfully this has decreased significantly.
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?
Erin: Being oppressed sexual minorities I believe that all the letters belong together, and that was are all stronger for it.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Erin: The portrayal of transgender persons in the media has improved remarkably over the past 20 years.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Erin: I do. I helped the Human Rights Campaign on their unsuccessful project to pass ENDA, and have served on their Religion Council.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Erin: I love them.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Erin: Nothing more important than love. I am fortunate to have family and friends as active and loving parts of my life.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Erin: Working on it (second rewrite!).
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Erin: Yes, I am performing in the Vagina Monologues tomorrow. I am also working on the restart of a transfeminine support group at the Phillip Rush Center in the Cander Park area of Atlanta.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Erin: The most important thing is to accept yourself, then respect yourself, and then learn to love yourself.
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?
Erin: Yeah. I am planning another Half-Ironman in September!
Monika: Erin, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Erin Swenson.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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