Wednesday 1 March 2017

Interview with Paula Coffer

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Paula Coffer, a retired US Army Finance Officer with many years of military service in Vietnam, Germany, Korea, and the United States. She later served with the Department of Defense and Department of State in Afghanistan and is the author of the biographical book entitled “A Walk in Confidence” (2017). Hello Paula!
Paula: Hello Monika and thank you for taking the time for this interview. It is an honor to be a part of the illustrious group you have interviewed in the past.
Monika: You can boast a fantastic military career. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Paula: I enlisted in the US Navy at 17 years of age and during my 4-year enlistment I spent 3 years and 2 months on sea duty while making 3 WesPac (Western Pacific) tours of which 2 were to Vietnam. I joined Army ROTC while in college and accepted a commission as a Finance Officer. During these 24 years, I struggled with living the dual identity of satisfying my military responsibilities and family obligations and of accepting the gender identity that I held so close to within. Don’t ask, Don’t tell did not exist during my military career. If asked, I had to tell and I would have been released from the military as unfit and probably with an ‘other than honorable’.

Kabul, Afghanistan.

I retired from the US Army in 1994 to pursue Gender Reassignment Surgery. This decision also cost me my family relationship. Over the past 23 years, I have lived without a family relationship but I am at least at peace within and I have accomplished much by just being me and always pushing forward with an idea that I’m making a difference just by showing up for work or always striving to do the ‘right thing’.
Monika: Is “A Walk in Confidence” (2017) a re-edition of “Sandbox to Sandbox: A Walk in Confidence” (2016)? Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Paula: Monika, ‘A Walk in Confidence’ is a re-edition of ‘Sandbox to Sandbox’. I added a table of contents, larger pictures, and a new section at the end called ‘Letters to Joyce’. These letters are my candid answers to my dear friend Joyce concerning the current environment, as I see it, of the transgender community. Many within the community may find these letters offensive but they are how I feel and how I expressed them to Joyce.
I penned the autobiography to help others within the transgender community to understand the path that I’ve taken and perhaps help them to navigate their own path. While much of my journey is unique, my journey isn’t really very different than others who have accepted this ‘uninvited dilemma’ and tried to blend their life role in society with a hope of happiness in the end.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Paula: The stupid mistakes! Self-surgery and self-medication are not the way to go. Mostly though the most useful is the employment aspect. It does a transperson no good to transition and then not be able to support themselves and fulfill their obligations to their children/family. If I had near unlimited funds I would create a transition center where employment and life skills are taught to help the person transitioning better cope with their new life. Perhaps I’ll win the lottery one day.
Monika: The status of transgender persons in the US army is a hot topic, often covered by the media. Do you follow the discussion and actions in this regard?
Paula: I have not followed these discussions and actions closely at all. I retired 22 years ago and the military has changed. I was in Afghanistan when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed. It was a ‘non-event’ there. I do have serious reservations however for those who transition within the military versus those that have already transitioned and completed their surgery and then enter the military.

1973 – US Navy.

Monika: And your view on the case of Chelsea Manning?
Paula: A traitor that should remain in prison.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Paula: I transitioned at the age of 41. The first couple of years were a difficult challenge. The difficulty was in me accepting myself in my new role and learning to ignore what others were saying or doing. Family pressure to not transition was compounded by all that happens during the transition; electrolysis, hormone adjustments, clothing adaptation.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Paula: I didn’t have any role models. I had a sheltered existence as a military officer and my world was my family and the US Army. I’m not sure who I would choose in today’s world as a role model.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Paula: Love and passion are very important. I’ve not had the love of another person after the transition. I would have loved to have a companion/lover over the past couple of decades as what is life if but to share. I don’t think we as humans are designed to be total loners. 
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Paula: I am working on a series of travel novelettes with Ralf as my companion. Ralf is an imaginary, magical miniature wired-haired Dachshund. We travel all over the United States and meet people while taking photos of the natural wonders we encounter. Some of these are also being converted into children’s books.

1993 – US Army.

Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Paula: Take on an attitude of ‘Don’t Care’. Don’t care what other people say. Prior to the transition, I had to care what people thought of me. I was an Army Officer, father, and husband living a dual life.
After I transitioned and struggled through the physical and environmental changes I finally realized that it didn’t matter what others thought of me. The only thing that mattered was how I felt about myself and I adopted an attitude of ‘I don’t care’.
Don’t care that you are not where you want to be yet and you may be disappointed with your progress.
Don’t care also means that everything is not about you. When you notice that someone is laughing or pointing in your general direction this doesn’t mean it is about you. You truly are not that important to others and the joke told or item pointed out is probably not you, just your dysphoria or paranoia.
This is a journey and the destination is only a short-term goal because you will continue to set new goals and have new aspirations as you travel down this path. Life is a Journey!
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?
Paula: Absolutely! For me, the operating table was only a means to bring my body into congruence with my heart and mind. When I recovered from the operating table I was still the same ambitious, generous, caring, loving person I was before. The only difference was that now I could truly ‘Walk in Confidence’ in a new body to pursue even greater dreams.
Monika: Transgender issues are a hot topic today. How do you feel about the movement for transgender inclusion within schools, etc.?
Paula: Monika, I think an excerpt from the book “Walk in Confidence” is appropriate to answer this question as I answered Joyce with this letter:
In my last letter, I identified my definition of what Trans people are to me. I find though that I am not with the times. Even in 1998, I found myself at odds with the University students who identified as Trans. They were not accepting the definitions I would give so that I could have a common basis from which to discuss gender issues in the classroom. Today’s young persons are even further away from me as they identify as non-binary and don’t wish to be referred to as either male or female.
I have to say that male or female is a gender identity whereas man or woman is a physical identity. I can understand androgynous but I don’t understand non-binary. A set of definitions are still important so that an intelligent conversation can be had. I have great concerns for our Trans community. Many persons don’t transition until later in life. I belong to a couple of Facebook groups for those 40+ in age. Several of these transwomen are in their 60’s and just now accepting themselves and going through a transition to be the woman they identify as.
Monika: Yes, this is quite common.
Paula: The young people are pushing the societal envelopes so to speak. I guess my generation did too with the hippie movement and challenges to the government for the Vietnam War. We pushed for civil rights and I guess that could be said of the Trans movement today. When we pushed for Black and Women's acceptance in the workplace and in social areas such as housing we sometimes made it uncomfortable for all. Some people bent over backwards to not insult a black person or a woman or any minority for that matter. We ‘tiptoed’ around subjects because there were a few that were very vocal and could cause us (White, Caucasian, and non-Hispanic) to be fired/chastised/jailed, etc.

The book is available via createspace.

Many citizens today are afraid of Trans people for the same reason. If a trans person or a person identifying as trans feels offended they can have the offender reported to the school principal, the EEO officer in an organization, or if severe enough the local police. As you stated, your children are uncomfortable talking about gender to suspected Trans students in school for concern they may be offended and report them. The pendulum has swung too far. Now ‘Trans’ is the ‘flavor of the month’ and if a person today wakes up and feels that they want to wear a dress and enter the female bathroom or locker room at a school there is no measure the school can use to prevent it. Is this a momentary urge for a young teenager to fulfill a fantasy and be in the girls’ locker room or bathroom? Is this a case of gender identity where the young teenager is uncomfortable with being in the boys’ locker room and is being harassed?
Monika: A good question.
Paula: Sadly the real transsexual is in danger. The person who has accepted this uninvited dilemma and begun the process of changing their gender is now in danger. I realize that the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care have been relaxed as to the time constraints but a person still has to have a psychologist authorize hormone treatment, wait for surgery, and be approved by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a medical surgeon prior to surgery to correct this ‘birth defect’. During this time a transsexual person is vulnerable to the laws that govern bathroom usage, employment discrimination and really in essence has no rights as transsexual persons have never been a protected class.
My personal feelings on the bathroom issue are complicated. When I was transitioning in the mid-1990’s I was scared to death to enter the women’s room. In those days I would have been arrested as a pervert and jailed overnight. I couldn’t go into the men’s room dressed as a woman so I had to get in and get out of the women’s room as quickly as possible. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine spending any more time than was necessary there. It was all business! I even feel somewhat uncomfortable today when I go into a ladies' restroom. My only saving grace is that if I am subjected to a body search, I have the body of a woman.
Monika: What do you mean?
Paula: Here is where it is complicated for me. What if the person doesn’t have the body of a woman? A Trans woman presents as a woman but retains the sexual organs of a male. She is, by my definition, a transgender woman that lives her life as a woman but has not had surgery. Even on hormones, her male parts will function. What will happen if she is discovered in the ladies' restroom? Will she be subjected to arrest and/or humiliation? How does her circumstance differ from the weekend crossdresser? Both are physically men in a ladies' restroom. While these two classes of Trans people may be harmless to the women in the restroom what about the man that is dressed as a woman that has evil in his heart? A female child molester or a rapist or??
Unfortunately not all post-op transsexual women are 5’6” with petite bodies. Many of us are 6’ with wide shoulders, big hands, big feet, and facial features, and a voice that would never be described as feminine. But we changed our physical gender and presentation based on what our minds and hearts told us to do. When challenged in a bathroom we can pass the test! I read where a couple of women have been wrongfully accused of being a man sneaking into the bathroom. I doubt the veracity of those stories and feel sensationalism is at play but who knows what some bigoted individual might do?
Monika: Paula, thank you for the interview!

For more information about Paula J Coffer, visit her website.
Author Page on Amazon.

All the photos: courtesy of Paula Coffer.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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