Monday, 19 June 2017

Interview with Roxanne Edwards

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Roxanne Edwards, an American architect and activist for LGBTQ issues from Washington, DC. Hello Roxanne!
Roxanne: Hello, Monika! Greetings from the United States Capital city, Washington, DC! It has always been an interesting place to live, but now more than ever, it is a critical place to be involved in issues that affect all our citizens.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Roxanne: I am a professional architect who has done projects nationally and in the Middle East. My entire life has been lived in the Washington area except during my degree studies at my university, Virginia Tech, where I met my spouse. We have been married for 43+ years and we have seven grandchildren. My activism started in 2000 with the beginning of my transition to my authentic self.
Monika: I saw your short story in The New York Times series titled “Transgender Today.” Why did you decide to come out to the general public?
Roxanne: Keeping silent is no longer an option. I have been ‘out’, visible is a better term, for over 16 years, in the local sense and in social media since it erupted on the scene a decade ago.

Roxanne Edwards at work as an architect
and planner.

I have been speaking, lobbying my elected officials, and leading organizations dedicated to being visible for many years. Once I saw the power of the New York Times to reach the world of cis-gender people (those who identify with their birth-assigned gender) to show our true selves, it was a ‘no-brainer’.
Monika: You transitioned into a woman at 50. Have you ever regretted doing this so late in your life?
Roxanne: As Frank Sinatra so famously sang, “Regrets…I’ve had a few.” However, this really is a non-starter idea for humans. Whatever makes up our life experiences, those events form us into who we are…and who we know ourselves to be.
To say, “I should have…”, knowing all I know now, having the spouse and children I love, living the career that has been amazing…what would any of that have been had I done something ‘sooner’? Who knows? It could have been even more amazing or it could have been tragic.
I am who I am now. Would I have wanted to experience life as a female from the start? Yes. If starting from the beginning was the only option. The earlier transition might have afforded me some benefits I do not have now, but the idea of not having the family I have and know is too terrible to contemplate.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Roxanne: Not a one. At the time of my transition, I was not aware of the community. It was so hidden. The only ‘role’ models, (or Possibility Models, a term that Laverne Cox uses) were media-based actors. The three basic models for ‘people like me’ were the three ‘C’s: Clown, Crazy, and Criminal. None of those was someone I aspired to be. My role models were cis-women. Audrey and Katherine Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore, Jackie Kennedy, Geraldine Ferraro, Betty Ford… 
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now? 
Roxanne: So, I have some ideas on the term, ladies, which are complex and conflicted. I am old enough to be raised with the idea of ladies and gentlemen as being a character quality-driven idea. In that, I accept the idea of a lady. But it has been used to trivialize women and their power. It censures women’s ability to engage in the same level of influence and skill appreciation as men.

First Office Christmas party in 2004.

Being ‘ladylike’ is a parody of female submission in many contexts. I understand your use of the word, and in your culture, it may or may not be so loaded with negative baggage in the woman’s movement…so let’s say I have many transwomen who I admire and respect. The usual suspects like Jenny Boylan, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Alexandra Billings, Judge Phyllis Frye, Marissa Richmond, Monica Helms, Jillian Weiss, Brynn Tannenhill… plus dozens of ‘nobodies’ or non-celebrities in my local community who are incredible in their passion, courage, and wisdom.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many trans women lose their families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Roxanne: The disruption of the lives in those I love. The results were all over the map in the intensity of that disruption. Some were at first confused then came to understand and embrace me. Some are still resistant and hurtful. Some do the best they can.
But the pain of causing other’s pain is still very difficult for me. I think the pain of my taking my life would have been worse, so I accept this is the price I and they pay for me being me.
My spouse is my biggest ally and advocate…because our love was so strong before, she followed me through it. My daughter was next in support. My two sons struggled tremendously. My mother (I am an only child) has been the most difficult. That is an essay in itself…
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced, “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with an interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in contemporary society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Roxanne: Change is real and visible. You list a number of ways, so I will not re-list them…but so is the pushback and palpable hatred that has come to rise in so many ways.

The answer to the restroom war.

Monika: On the other hand, the restroom war is raging on and transgender women are killed on the streets…
Roxanne: I created this card to be left behind in public facilities. We had them out at events for everyone to use… The answers are in education.
However, finding objective people in non-threatening forums is becoming an issue. We cannot move forward without dialogue. Unless we come together to present what the issues really are…and they are not that transpeople are a threat to any woman or child in a restroom…we will be faced with this kind of hate and repressive legislation for a long time.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the penultimate letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Roxanne: It is no longer penultimate in our sphere as the acronym keeps growing like a law firm business name…LOL. Now the US groups are pushing LGBTQIA. If it keeps going, eventually it will be the entire alphabet. Seriously though, the issues around gender are really part and parcel of the entire acronym. Sex and gender are confused with each other all the time. Roles, bodies, relationships all are fraught with society’s anxiety over their place in our lives and our communities.
We have so much to do. Being kind to one another and accepting our differences is the bottom line. The problem is that many people see political advantage in demonizing the Other…in so many ways other than gender…but the universal nature of our gender makes everyone a participant and shareholder in the controversies.

Summer time on front porch of home.

Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Roxanne: A mixed bag…and this is good. It shows we are a part of the entire fabric of human experience-the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The biggest issue for US folks is the continued use of cis-gender actors to portray transgender parts. Or the refusal to allow transgender actors to portray parts that have nothing to do with being transgender.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Roxanne: We just finished a campaign for a primary (an election within a particular party candidate choice for running for office in the general election in November) for a seat in the Virginia Legislature.
Danica Rohm soundly defeated three other candidates and will be running against the most bigoted and anti-LGBT delegate in the State. She is an awesome person and very professional and educated on all the local political issues on taxes, transportation, jobs.
She will be great. But the attacks on her will be brutal. We will be campaigning for her. I have 16 years of lobbying experience at the local, county, state, and federal levels. It is empowering, frustrating, and critically important. Every transperson should be doing it. Our representatives need to know that we are their constituents and we VOTE!
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live to see the day when a transgender lady could become the President of the USA? Or the First Lady at least? :)
Roxanne: My lifetime? LOL no…I am on Social Security, dear. Although I see changes coming, that one is a bit like a needle in a haystack to see the ‘stars align’ for that one to occur.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion brands, colors, or trends?
Roxanne: I have a huge wardrobe. My problem is more pragmatic. Workwear for an aging and overweight body that can’t fit in my lovely clothes…and no money or desire to spend on a new set in my size. I lost from a size 22 to a size 8 at the beginning of my transition but it has crept back up on me.

Grandmothering six of seven grandchildren in 2013.

Clothes are more of a nightmare than joy right now. But I have been known as a ‘fashion plate’…always classy. I was never a clubbing gal or a fetish or fantasy dressing person. My goal has always been to be well dressed on every occasion. My only addiction is shoes. OMG, the shoes….
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender 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 …
Roxanne: Passing, which has a connotation from racial history (one could ‘pass oneself off as white’ instead of being ‘colored’) is becoming an archaic term. Also, passing has the unfortunate meaning of a “grade or score’ with the opposite value as ‘failing’. Blending in or fitting in is used more often in our community. The ability to make increasingly better and healthier body alterations is an amazing technological advance.
The problem is we can fool ourselves into believing our bodies define our selfhood. If it did not before we have a procedure, how does it once we do? This is a very touchy subject. For some, the body dysphoria is so severe that unless it is dealt with, the results can be lethal depressive episodes leading to thoughts of and acts of suicide. But for others, the ability to alter the body leads to an endless pursuit of perfection. Money becomes the issue for most.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Roxanne: I think they are as relevant as cis-gender beauty pageants…filled with mixed messages, difficult body issue discussions, objectification of women, and very real affirmation potential. No easy answers. I needed to see them early in the transition to understand the full range of possibilities. Reality sets in pretty quickly if you are over 50 when beginning this journey.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Roxanne: I have been writing a novel for some time and it does have autobiographical segments. It is currently half done and sitting there unfinished…
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Roxanne: Essential, critical, and fundamental to life. My spouse is my best friend forever. We have known each other for 48 years, married for 43, and came out 27 years into our marriage. I could not imagine being without her love.

At home after Kennedy Center show 2010.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Roxanne: As an architect, I am working on projects all the time, but I don’t think that is what you mean…LOL.
My activism has taken new intensity with the awful events of our past presidential election surging its destruction through our community.
We are co-facilitators to a large local support group. It is growing into many areas now, for adults in transition, for parents of transchildren from 11-18+, for spouses of transfolk, and playgroups for transchildren from 5-10.
We do advocacy, teaching seminars, and developing programs for public and private entities to help understand and support transfolk in all aspects of social interaction, workplace, and worship space issues.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Roxanne: GET A THERAPIST!!! Advise I did not take at the beginning and paid dearly for it.
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?
Roxanne: I’ve chatted with Gina online. She is a great person! I agree. Surgery is an optional train stop on the Transition Journey. Our life goal is not to be in a state of perpetual and never-ending transitions, but to live fully at every point in our life.
My favorite quote is from Simone De Beauvoir, “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.” The truth is we all are in transition as human beings. From infancy to death, we experience change all along the way. Ours is one of the daunting proportions because it is layered on top of every other change…the acts and transformations of aging, education, career, relationships, family. The specifics of these changes are ours to live within and to express with joy if we can.
Monika: Roxanne, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Roxanne Edwards.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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