Thursday, 6 July 2017

Interview with Ísabel Pirsic

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Ísabel Pirsic, an Austrian transgender rights activist, member of TransX, a Vienna-based organization that supports the transgender community in Austria. Hello Ísabel!
Ísabel: Hello Monika! Pleasure and honor is mine as well.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Ísabel: I started my public transition about 4 years ago and have been engaged in activism for 2 years. I work as a scientist at university, doing research in mathematics.
Monika: What are the goals of TransX?
Ísabel: We aim to give personal support for trans people in their individual processes and also do political activism for naming laws, depathologization, trans prisoners' rights, etc. The most visible part is our bi-monthly meetings, where we usually also have talks about dedicated topics; these are meeting places as well as a means of establishing what trans culture can be.
Monika: What are the current challenges for the Austrian trans community?
Ísabel: Apart from the themes I just mentioned I think a trend towards more open hostility in reaction to greater visibility could be emerging. On the other hand, this may also be a temporary phenomenon in the current, generally more charged atmosphere.

For more information about TransX, visit their page.

Monika: I interviewed Johanna Hackl and Monika Donner a couple of years ago but I must say that I do not know so well the Austrian trans community. Are there any other important trans women that promote the transgender cause in the media, culture, and art? 
Ísabel: I find that most trans artists (also media people, politicians) in Austria I can think of do not really want to emphasize or even discuss their trans status much – I think this is perfectly acceptable and to be respected.
As an example of a more public figure in art, I might mention Jakob Lena Knebl, who recently had a greater exhibition in the Vienna Museum of Modern Art, mumok.
Much of public perception is overshadowed by the not actually transgender but drag character “Conchita”.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Ísabel: There were several different stages – some of them were difficult. My actual transition happened when I was almost 40; by that time I had carried the knowledge of being transgender with me for about 20 years already – and looking back at my childhood, there were already some fairly clear indications as well.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Ísabel: I was not really aware of many trans women; but I was impressed by Waltraud Schiffels, a German trans woman who was quite active at that time, spreading knowledge and fighting against discrimination. I admired her energy and confidence.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Ísabel: I have great respect for Kate Bornstein; unfortunately I came upon her books too late in life, I think they would have helped me very much when I was younger. Generally, this generation of trans people initiated our community, specifically in Austria and all over the world.

The book via Amazon.

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?
Ísabel: For me, the hardest thing was breaking through the wall of self-doubt and learning to come to accept myself; despite all imperfections. Luckily I didn't really lose someone - so far.
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?
Ísabel: Certain is that there is much greater visibility; through that, more knowledge about transgender issues comes about and eventually more acceptance. In some areas of business stigmatization still occurs massively but in others, progress is being made.
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?
Ísabel: I think cooperation works fairly well in Austria, at least in Vienna. I feel the trans community is seen, respected, and on occasions also approached, but perhaps still more active networking from all sides might be needed as well.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in Austrian films, newspapers, or books so far?
Ísabel: It depends on the quality of the media – some newspapers do features on transgender issues from time to time, even sometimes employing trans authors; the tabloids are not as horrid in their portrayals as they used to be, but still sometimes miss the mark.

Ísabel in a train (where she spends much time).

Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Ísabel: Personally I don't participate in any campaign currently, but I'm interested politically. I certainly think that transgender people can have as much impact as any other.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion brands, colors, or trends?
Ísabel: I like fashion but I'm not too skilled at it… Often I wear fairly androgynous, comfortable outfits, style up only for occasions. I used to like Desigual for some time, but am also very fond of classical styles like pencil skirts, etc.
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 …
Ísabel: I'm not so sure about that – considering even only the question of access to surgery, which is either curtailed or non-existent, let alone widely funded by healthcare. – Freedom for not only trans but all women, even all people, in this respect would be not to be held to standards that entail such notions as passing and non-passing.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Ísabel: Mostly what I think about any beauty pageants – it would be good if they fulfilled their potential to be a source of support; I mean the scenario where this is a friendly, open, not too serious, nor much competitive event where people who are insecure about their appearance can receive good appreciation – but effectively the reality is a highly competitive showcasing of arbitrary and artificial beauty standards, which is definitively not helpful.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Ísabel: I wouldn't want to write Yet Another Trans Memoir. Perhaps if I could find a fundamentally different narrative and also could be confident to make it worthwhile reading not only for the subject matter. I don't think I can achieve that yet.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ísabel: A deep connection to a cherished person is a very valuable thing to have and I treasure it, whenever it appears. Through my experiences, I have learned not to rely on it too much for my well-being, though. – Perhaps I'm not completely honest to myself in this respect.

At work in the office.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Ísabel: Not really.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Ísabel: Don't go alone. Find support. That may be close friends or family members (this is not without risk, though); local support groups; perhaps even a therapist. 
Also, find a (really) safe space, where you can try yourself out, try different approaches (and different outfits, too), and can develop. Find out by what means you can become comfortable with yourself, for now, and at a future time.
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?
Ísabel: The “operating table” seems like the ultimate goal to strive for, but really the actual goal is acceptance of oneself – whether or not surgery is necessary to attain this is always an individual matter. - When it is attained, however, in whatever ways, so much confidence and strength is gained and thus great potential for future realization of our dreams created.
Monika: Ísabel, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Ísabel Pirsic.
© 2017 - Ísabel Pirsic and Monika Kowalska

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