Monday 4 September 2017

Interview with Fran Fried

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Fran Fried, an American editor, writer, blogger, DJ, music fiend, friend, daughter and, accidental civil rights activist from Prospect, Connecticut. Hello Fran!
Fran: Hi, Monika! Thanks for finding me and thanks for the interview. I’m honored and flattered to be in some pretty good company here! 
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Fran: Well, I’m a writer, an editor, a DJ, a daughter, a sister, a good friend – and, oh, yeah, by the way, I’m trans. I’m out and about in the everyday world, and if you don’t know me, chances are you won’t read me. As far as I can tell, with my friends, being trans is just incidental; first and foremost, to them, as well as myself, I’m Fran. The gender dysphoria is just one facet of an interesting life – a big, honking facet, but still, just one nonetheless.
At the time of this interview (summer 2017), I just turned 56 (spiritually 30). I was born in Brooklyn (Greenpoint, 40 years before it became hip and overpriced). We moved when I was 4 to Prospect, a town in southwest-central Connecticut, two hours northeast of NYC and about 25 minutes northwest of New Haven; it has nearly 10,000 people, four traffic lights, and four pizza joints – and, last year, a lot of Trump lawn signs. I grew up an A-student and a good Catholic boy to devout parents (altar boy for eight years at the church up the street, four years of Catholic high school in neighboring Waterbury). I also grew up hearing “You faggot!” and variations thereof – not because I was overtly femme (which I wasn’t), but because I was slight, blonde, sensitive, and one of the smartest kids in class. Needless to say, childhood and much of adolescence were torture.

The budding DJ Fran, taking requests.
Brooklyn, 1962.

I somehow managed to not fully give in to the depression that kicked in full-on not long after puberty. By the time I headed to college, I wanted to be a sportswriter, a music writer, and a DJ. And I got to be all three. I got a B.A. in Communications at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University; I hosted a late-night new wave show at the campus radio station and was a work-study intern in the school’s PR/sports information office. (And it was at that job my senior year, through a chain of events, that I became the catalyst behind Jackie Gleason releasing the “Lost Episodes” of "The Honeymooners.")
I worked nearly 10 years at my hometown paper, the Waterbury Republican-American. (And the publisher’s politics are every bit as vile as the name implies.) For six years, I was a sportswriter: high school sports and amateur golf tournaments, some occasional New York Giants, Jets, Yankees, and Mets games, and for 2 ½ seasons I was the Hartford Whalers beat writer. I was also freelancing album reviews and a music column for the paper, and the higher-ups created a full-time entertainment writer opening, so in early 1990 I moved over to features, where I could cheer in the press box.
In late summer 1992, I moved on to the New Haven Register as its entertainment editor/music writer. (I was living in New Haven and part of the alt-music scene there.) I put out the paper’s Weekend section on Fridays and I interviewed hundreds of artists, from legends to locals. (The shortlist includes Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson, Luciano Pavarotti, Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Little Richard, and Paul Giamatti, a New Haven native.) But it was 2 ½ full-time jobs, 55-60 hours a week, for one lousy paycheck, and the stress was killing me, and I needed something to happen.
In September 2003 I got an email from the then-features editor at The Fresno Bee, asking if I’d be interested in being an assistant features editor there. It was one of the largest papers in California, McClatchy was then one of the best companies in the business, people weren’t offering me great jobs every day, and I knew, as I entered middle age, that this was the one big chance I’d have to make a change my life. I just had no idea how my life would change. And six months later, I was on the plane to Fresno.
And here’s why you’re interviewing me …

January 9, 2008, was the night of my Epiphany. I came home from work, too tired to even turn on "Jeopardy!," as I usually did. I threw my coat on the bed, sat down at the foot of the bed, looked at the closet …
I have this weird voice of reason that comes to me at crucial points in my life – a creepy whisper, almost like HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Well, on this winter night in 2008, HAL came to visit, and the voice sounded as if were out-of-body – and I turned sharply to my left as it said, simply, “Can you do this?”
And I knew what it was asking me. Like most of us under the umbrella, I knew at a very young age that I was at least different somehow. But I never felt I was in the wrong body as much as I was spiritually one of the girls. (I’m pre-op – been on hormones since 2010, but not planning any surgery.) I did like “boy” things (baseball, Hot Wheels), but if I had my way, I’d have been taking ballet with the girls, going shopping with the girls, wearing cute outfits, and all that fun stuff. But I suppressed it for a number of reasons. My family and my religion and the town where I lived, for starters. Plus, I went into sportswriting, and it was hard enough being even androgynous in that atmosphere. Still, I would surreptitiously buy some clothes and tights and shoes (long before the Web) and dress up on my own at home – and I did manage to let on to all my girlfriends except one, after building much trust, and they were fine with me dressing up from time to time. I still didn’t know whether it was a fetish or something deeper. 
But I was totally caught off-guard by this inner voice. I turned around and yelled, “What are, fucking NUTS?!? You have a respectable job, you’re a newspaper editor and you work with high school kids, and all it’s gonna take is one parent equating gender, homosexuality, and pedophilia!” The best part of my job was editing and mentoring a group of extremely bright high-school students who had their own Sunday features page; Fresno is a very religious-right place, and it really wasn’t a stretch to think as I did.
But then the voice shot back, in a calmer tone: “Look – you’re 46, you’re more than halfway past your life expectancy, and you should be dead already.” (A brutal case of sleep apnea nearly killed me a few months before.) “So are you gonna find out for real or are you gonna be fat, miserable, and in the closet the rest of your life?” I sighed and said, “Okay, this is where I’m going. So how the hell do I do this?”
It’s easy to forget now that even with the explosion of info on the Web, there still wasn’t much info to go on for transpeople in 2008. I had no road map, no clue how I was gonna transition. It would be, and was, a near-totally instinctual process. And since I wasn’t on a deadline, I was moving very slowly and carefully – looking at Web pages and seeing what sorts of clothes would best fit my body and let me pass well; selling a couple of batches of rock T-shirts on eBay to bankroll my wardrobe and shoe closet, and starting the coming-out process with my bestie in Fresno. A week and a half later, on MLK Day, my bestie in Fresno, Heather, went with me to San Francisco and I had my first girls' day out and my first makeover, at a MAC store, where I learned how to do my face.

When I was a young & skinny sportswriter.
Mother's Day, Prospect, CT, 1985.

I spent the rest of the year progressing slowly, perfecting how to do my face and building a wardrobe. And the coming-out accelerated that August when I went home on vacation; I told about 10 of my closest friends, including four ex-girlfriends; all were wonderfully supportive. That gave me the confidence to start taking baby steps in public and going out late at night as Frannie 2.0. By Christmastime, I was out to all my friends in Fresno except my co-workers.
The economy took care of that. I was discarded in March 2009, in the teeth of the depression, in McClatchy’s first round of newsroom layoffs. I had to really make certain in a hurry that I would be interviewing for my next job as Fran instead of Fran. But as it turned out, I had a lot more time to prepare than I wanted – I was out of work for 2 ½ solid years. Talk about the Twin Towers of Anxiety – Transition and Unemployment. 
Thankfully, my circle of friends in Fresno exploded after I came out – lots of open arms literally and figuratively. It was the best surprise of the whole transition. And it probably kept me from walking into the ocean, between the uselessness and worthlessness that come with prolonged unemployment, and my coming-out process with my family 3,000 miles away. (I came out to them in September 2009, and we encountered about 14 months of weirdness, but by the end of 2010, all was well on that front.)
The Bee brought me back in September 2011 as a part-time copy editor, again to literal and figurative open arms. But the hours dried up after Christmas, and the company cut my position at the end of June 2012. I was able to scrape up enough money from family and friends and rent a big old Penske truck and drive the 3,009 miles from the Bee parking lot to my parents’ front door that August. The home where I grew up. 
Here in Prospect, I have friends from childhood who know, and the rest either don’t know or don’t care. I’ve even had a couple of childhood nemeses apologize to me. But despite living near enough to one of the largest cities on the planet, the job search went just as badly back here, and I wasn’t looking at just journalism. (I’m guessing a lot has to do with ageism – the form of discrimination that’s hardest to prove but seemingly most prevalent.) It took 11 months before I was hired part-time on the news copy desk at MSN in Midtown Manhattan. My first job as Frannie 2.0 where no one knew me going in. It was a huge boost for me; I thrived on the energy of the City, I got along well with my co-workers … and then Microsoft gutted the copy desk two months in.
There seemed to be something cosmic to the timing, personally – two days after my job ended, my mother spent nine weeks in the hospital and seven weeks in rehab for Hodgkin’s (she’s still here). The week before she came home, the Register hired me back as a paginator, someone who electronically lays out pages. I was part of a team that laid out pages for 10 daily papers and several weeklies in the Northeast. The pay was less than I made the first time around, but it was a job … until our whole department was dumped in December 2015. And once again, I’m guessing there was an element of timing, for me at least – I was around for my father’s final five months, with his second go-round with prostate cancer.
Two days after his funeral in May 2016 – and the week my unemployment ran out – I was hired by a French-owned company an hour from here. My title is listings editor. Our department inputs events from markets all over the States and Canada into a monster meta database that clients buy for their use – newspapers, TV news websites, travel agencies, and other businesses. I now make about $100 less a week than I did on unemployment – 29 ¾ hours a week (so they don’t have to consider me full-time), at $10.22 an hour. (And in a laughable twist, McClatchy is one of the company’s biggest clients – I’m now the de facto listings editor for the Fresno Bee, as well as their other three California dailies.)

Franorama World - Fran's blog.

Thank God I still have a place to sleep for now, as I navigate life with a mother widowed after 56 years. On the good side, the trans thing has never been a problem, here as well as any other place I’ve worked as 2.0 – I get on fine with my co-workers, and in fact, on my second day on the job, the H.R. director circulated a memo about trans in the workplace.
I’m still at home at the moment, though I’m constantly thinking something good is bound to happen soon. I continue to put out job applications, only to receive no response in return much of the time. My whole M.O. with everything in life has been to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. And something has to stick eventually!


All the photos: courtesy of Fran Fried.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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