Monday, 20 March 2017

Interview with Margaux Ayn Schaffer

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Margaux Ayn Schaffer, an American multi-media artist, designer, and activist. Margaux has had a long history of activism, going back decades; in Atlanta, she was the editor and designer of INSIGHT, deputy director of AEGIS, and art director and associate editor of Chrysalis Quarterly. She participated both as a panelist and planning committee member for the Southern Comfort Conference.
When a series of murders of transgender women occurred in Atlanta, Margaux was appointed to the Mayor’s Gay and Lesbian Task Force. This led to an op-ed in The Advocate, “Do Transgender Issues Affect the Gay Community,” which she co-authored with Dallas Denny. She was also an invited guest on the Joan Rivers Show.
After moving from Atlanta to Phoenix, Margaux worked in Information Technology. She played a critical role in the first all transgender production of the Vagina Monologues, presented on V-Day 2004 in Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center. Margaux not only performed one of the monologues (“My Vagina Was My Village”), but she created the visual materials, including the posters, keepsake books, and postcards.
For seven years Margaux produced the Arizona Day of Remembrance at the Arizona State Capitol Building, creating a safe, inclusive, well-attended event with opportunities for education and outreach. Hello Margaux!
Margaux: Hi Monika! It’s good to talk to you. Thanks for this opportunity.

Promotional z-card and poster.

Monika: You have an unusual name; I understand your family has European and Native American roots. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Margaux: Yes. I was born on January 13, 1959 (also my father’s birthday) in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Pensacola, Florida. My father was a Navy flight engineer and my mother was a nurse. My father’s family settled in New England, with mostly Germanic roots. My mother’s family was Scottish and French, and my great grandmother was a Native American Cherokee.
I’d like to say I had a normal childhood, but that wasn’t the case. I grew up in the Deep South during the Cold War, on a military base with the Blue Angels roaring over my back yard. At age 4, I was taken to the Base Psychiatrist by my mother for inappropriate feminine behavior: I insisted on sitting down to urinate.
The psychiatrist recommended an adult chaperone accompanying me to the bathroom to make sure I would stand to urinate. My father was distant and stoic. I was artistic and creative, but effeminate in my mannerisms. I wanted to be a nurse like my mother; this behavior caused me a great deal of trouble when I entered school.
My younger brother was developmentally challenged, and my mother spent most of her time caring for him. Later my father left the Navy and returned to civilian life as a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch. In November 1967 he was transferred to Atlanta. I remember the company put us up in the Hyatt Regency downtown while we looked for a home. My father’s office was right across Peachtree Road from the hotel, in a suite in the Georgia Power Building. He would come to the window and wave at us in our hotel room. 
We found a lovely home, split level, with a large yard and nearby woods. Our neighbors had horses, goats, and other unusual pets. I was interested in art, science, and nature; I spent more time alone and with animals than with other children.

(Left) - Paleo Selfie, 2012.
(Right) - Early meme/poster art 2002. The artist formerly known as a meme can be found at: in the hacker art gallery. There are also podcasts where I discuss my
art and culture jamming.

I remember our first Christmas in Atlanta. It was a white Christmas and my father helped me build a snowman, but the neighborhood kids tore it down and teased me. That was my first bullying experience. At school, I found out it was not okay to play with girls. My father gave me a very short haircut to make me more masculine; but it only made me miserable. When I had an opportunity at home I would dress in my mother’s older clothes. I thought I was the only child in the world who felt this way! I was gobsmacked when I first saw a television show dealing with transsexualism.
Monika: So then you discovered that you were a transgender woman. 
Margaux: For some time it was very difficult to meet other kids. I stayed home with my microscope and my pets. I spent a lot of time with my mother. I did spend time with the girls in my neighborhood, but that led to bullying by their brothers.
On more than one occasion in my early teens, I was lured into the woods and sexually assaulted by boys in the neighborhood. The problems in school became so severe that I was taken away from my regular school and classmates and enrolled in a private adolescent middle school program.

The first newsletter I designed and edited.

My science teacher helped me find an experimental high school called the Downtown Learning Center, which was a non-structured open campus program that allowed me to, in effect, do my own thing. I pursued programs ranging from art to ceramics to photography, computer science, and developmental biology. I blossomed in a safe environment. At that point, I started reading scientific books on transsexualism by John Money and Richard Green, as well as biographies of Christine Jorgensen and Canary Conn. At that point, I came out to my teacher and mentioned my desire to transition.
Monika: Did you search for medical support?
Margaux: I found there was a gender clinic at the state hospital. I called and made an appointment. I had a rigorous evaluation with interviews by multiple specialists. When the doctors contacted my family, it became very awkward. I started counseling with my pediatrician, and after many interviews, he agreed to begin treatment on my eighteenth birthday.
I vividly recall getting a 20 mg injection of Squibb Delestrogen in a Becton-Dickinson syringe. I began electrolysis for the small amount of facial hair. I interviewed with the school administrators and they made arrangements for me to transition (and to use the restroom in the teachers’ lounge).
But I had no income, no hope of financing surgery. For a time I worked as a lab technician. My family pressured me to return to school at the Art Institute of Atlanta, in an androgynous mode. I had not met any other transsexual women. I began working in the design field, on a number of high-profile design projects. I felt as though my transition was stagnating. Through an advertisement in the local tabloid, I found a support group and was introduced, for the first time, to others who shared my experience.
Monika: Did your parents accept your transition?
Margaux: During this time I was isolated from my old circles of friends and family. When I heard from my parents, I was shocked to hear that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. I had to drop everything and go home to take care of my mother. Mom accepted me, although my father did not, and in those special times we bonded as mother and daughter. My mother helped me choose my name. I was so glad to have her blessing.

Caroline Cossey plus Moi (the early 1990s).

After she passed away, my father did not accept me, and I moved around, staying with friends and other transgender persons. Five of us rented a house where we treated it as our operations office for AEGIS. I threw everything into my work and my projects, doing graphic identity and environmental signage for MARTA, then did freelance work for my former employer doing ADA compliance for MARTA.
I worked as Deputy Director for AEGIS, and built up the branding, identity, and administrative structure. Unfortunately, our involvement with AEGIS ended when the director chose to incorporate without including us. I became the spokesperson for “Straight But Not Narrow,” founded by Emily Nussbaum, building alliances with the gay and straight communities.
One of the highlights of this time was learning that Caroline Cossey, the famous transsexual Playboy model, and James Bond girl, was coming to Atlanta. I had seen Caroline on the Phil Donahue Show and was very enamored with her confidence, intelligence, and wit. I saw her as a vibrant, worldly woman and I had to meet her. We met at the nightclub Petrus during her Atlanta visit and I was also lucky enough to get an interview with her. We became fast friends. I was present when she was given a Key to the City. She gave me a signed copy of her book and I gave her copies of the magazine I worked on. Caroline went back to England, but we stayed in touch as I worked towards raising money for my surgery.
Monika: Was it difficult to put aside enough money for the gender reassignment surgery?
Margaux: Fortuitously, I had met a man, a sort of agent provocateur, who had connections to the emerging Internet economy. This opened a number of doors, enabling me to finance my surgery. Once I had raised the money, I wrote to Dr. Michel Seghers in Brussels for a date and was surprised to get a date much earlier than I had anticipated. My surgery date was Halloween 1992. I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Seghers at the Southern Comfort Convention shortly before I went to Brussels.

On the eve of my SRS with Docteur Michel Seghers.

I flew to Brussels alone, managed to get to my hotel, where I roomed with another American who would be having surgery, an American Airlines pilot who was older and had transitioned more recently. My preoperative information consisted of a brochure from the Ingersoll Center called the Brussels Experience, plus my correspondence from my surgeon. I had a tight itinerary to make my doctor’s appointment, then go to the hospital to check in. I didn’t know much French, but my physician spoke fluent English.
The hospital was the Clinique Baron-Lambret. My preop day was very full, getting lab work, EKG, arrange payment, sign documents. That evening I met with my surgeon and anesthesiologist, drank that nasty fluid for bowel prep, and was given a razor to shave my genitals. I didn’t want to do that but realized that I wouldn’t ever have to do it again. This would be the last time I would have to confront my genitalia. So I got through the procedure. Dr. Seghers decided to do my surgery as the first case since my organs were small and atrophic from estrogen and surgery might take longer.
Monika: This is a quite common side-effect of hormone replacement therapy. 
Margaux: The next morning I was taken to surgery, it seemed almost surreal, having been given intravenous medication; being wheeled through the hospital corridors to the operating room while the sedation took effect. My doctor was there to greet me, surrounded by student nurses who were there to observe. “Good morning, Ms. Schaffer,” he smiled. “Have you changed your mind?” I assured him I had not. I remember the mask being applied, and the sweet smell of the nitrous oxide swirling into the mask as I inhaled; I was instructed to count backwards, then nothing.

(Left and Middle) - The Advocate op Ed was, to my knowledge; was the very first published
piece to address the issue of anti-transgender violence head-on.
(Right) - Chrysalis Quarterly cover featuring "Gendermatic" digitally composited art by moi.

My first memory of regaining consciousness was the faint cadence of an EKG monitor. BEEP… BEEP…BEEP… – I made it! I survived the surgery. But I felt cold. I had had previous surgery and remembered feeling cold, so I thought nothing of it. But then things started to go wrong: nurses began acting erratically, speaking excitedly in French. It became clear, between the alarms on the blood pressure meter and the anxious speech – something was wrong. I was bleeding profusely in the pelvic area and my blood pressure was dropping. Somehow, with my profuse shivering, I must have torn stitches. A nurse pulled the sheet down and screamed. Dr. Seghers’s wife, who assisted him in surgery, came to my bedside and squeezed my hand.


All the photos: courtesy of Margaux Ayn Schaffer.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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