Sunday 24 September 2017

Interview with Robin Diane Goldstein

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Robin Diane Goldstein, an American transgender rights activist, former talk-radio host and stand up comedian, blogger, former Senior Engineering Manager, former Principal Counsel, and currently Senior Manager of Health Special Projects at Apple Inc. in Cupertino, California. Hello Robin! 
Robin: Hi Monika. Greetings from the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Robin: When I started as a talk radio host I described myself as a “Straight, White, Buddhist, Vegetarian, Lesbian Fraternity Boy trapped in the body of a Recovering Transexual Woman Patent Attorney with a Bizarre Sense of Humor and a Master’s Degree in City Planning.” Add in the fact that I make a great New York Style Cheesecake, and I think you’ve got me pretty much figured out.
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?
Robin: I’ve been out from the beginning and as you kindly note in my introduction, was politically active early on. But as time went on I recognized that activism can take many forms, sometimes large and public, and sometimes smaller and more intimate.
I think every person who finds the courage to expresses their true self to the world is an activist, and sometimes that’s more effective on a small stage, changing hearts and minds one person at a time. And so that’s what I focused on doing for the last 20 years. Then suddenly transpeople were everywhere telling “our” stories, and I thought, “no one can tell my story but me”, so I wrote the short essay for the New York Times.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Robin: I knew I was a ‘boy’ but should have been born a ‘girl’ from around the age of 2. But in the late 1950’s/early 1960s there was no concept of ‘trans’. There were normal, regular people, there were ‘fags’, and occasionally you would hear about a ‘sex change/he-she’, and those folks were clearly circus freaks. So what I knew about myself at 2 remained a painful secret until my mid-30’s. It was extremely difficult at the time. First I had to convince myself it was okay to feel the way I did. That took a lot of time (even beyond my transition.)
Then I had to face family and friends who I assumed would not be supportive. There wasn’t really much of an internet, so it was hard to get information or find a community. The medical field saw themselves as gatekeepers for hormones and surgery. And the whole notion of gender non-binary/fluidity was seen as a pathology. Yes, the earliest days were often tough and lonely.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Robin: Nancy Nangeroni. Kate Bornstein. Riki Anne Wilchins. At the time of my transition, these three women were out, strong, funny, smart, and unwilling to accept somebody else’s definition of normal, including what the trans community deemed normal for a trans person.
I was present for the demonstration at the John Lotter trial (one of the two men convicted of murdering Brandon Teena) as part of the Transexual Menace and spent 3 days in the company of Nancy and Kate and Riki and Leslie Feinberg. It was very early in my transition and I was still very attached to the concept of ‘normative behavior” and these 4 amazing individuals gave me a Ph.D. in post-modern deconstructionist philosophy with respect to gender and identity and power as we ate fast food and drank warm beer and drove across Kansas and Nebraska. I love them all and owe them all a great debt.
I also greatly admire Judge Victoria Kolakowski, the first openly transgender person to serve as a trial judge in California. I met Vicki early in my legal career, long before I transitioned or was able to acknowledge who I was, and her courage was inspiring.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Robin: I work at Apple where we have a large LGBTQ community. Apple is an extraordinarily supportive place to work and embraces the idea that Diversity leads to Innovation. And so as I walk around the campus I see transwomen (and transmen) of every size and shape and color, some who meet gender normative standards and some who don’t, and yet they’re each embraced who they are and have turned their attention and energy to developing amazing products to enhance and enrich the lives of our customers and maybe change the world. I admire these people. They have found a way to be themselves at the beginning of their lives so they can focus their energy and creativity on doing wonderful things.

Meet and Greet with the band Cheap Trick
in early September 2017.

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?
Robin: Professionally I was very fortunate. I already had an excellent reputation and had a small private patent law practice during my transition. One day I had to tell a client I had transitioned and would appear differently the next time they saw me. I sent them an email to advise them and say it was OK if they didn’t want to work together anymore. The president of the company wrote back and said, “It took us a long time to find someone as good as you. Do what you have to, to take care of yourself and then get your ass back to work!” That was amazingly important.
To understand that people respected me for what I could do and did not care about what I looked like. I also had a dear friend from university who was like a brother and he was one of the last people I came out to. He wrote me a handwritten note that said, “We always knew you were strange and that was part of your charm. Now you’re just a lot more charming!” Of course, there were some friends and family who didn’t come along with my new life, and I know there are jobs I lost out on because of being trans but to quote the Buddha, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!”
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?
Robin: Change is always happening. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it’s hidden, sometimes welcome, sometimes not…but change is inevitable. I’m thrilled that the generation coming of age now has a much broader range of ‘acceptable’ gender expression. I work with young people in their 20’s and 30’s and they couldn’t care less that I’m trans. I'm just me. Goofy and loud and smart and silly. That’s awesome, and ultimately the way I think it should be.
Be who you are, love who you want, enjoy every sandwich. Prejudice and bigotry won’t disappear overnight, but there are these inflection points, I think, where a large enough section of society says, “we used to care about this – now we realize it doesn’t matter to our lives”, and I think transpeople are at the beginning of one of those inflection points. That’s not to say there won’t be a backlash (we’ve seen it) but I bet on smart, kind, and compassionate every 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?
Robin: This is a great question. On one hand, being a small part of a larger cohort is very powerful. Strength in numbers and all that. I’m a big fan of extended families, and the LGBTQ folks I know are and have been important cousins in my larger queer family. We may not all have the same experiences, but we understand where bigotry and oppression come from and can be there to support each other. That’s great.
On the other hand, my experience as a transwoman is different than being a gay man or bi-woman, and I wouldn’t want them to speak for me the same way they wouldn’t want me to speak for them. Ultimately it's great to have a community that will accept you for who you are, and the LGBTQ community has been that, for me, since I transitioned.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Robin: Meh. If the most interesting thing about a person is that they’re transgender then that’s probably not a very interesting story. Yes, people are still fascinated with folks who transgressively look to redefine gender, but at the end of the day if they make a movie about my life, I hope the part relating to my transgender identity is the part where people go to get more popcorn or use the bathroom, so they can make sure they’re back in their seats when they tell the story of how I tried to help beat the world record for most ukulele players playing at the same time, or how when I was 17 I was a toll collector and took a toll from Art Garfunkel or how did stand-up at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and was so hyper I started to improvise and began reciting the Torah portion from my Bar Mitzvah (which got a huge laugh). Those are stories that tell who we are.
Monika: Your name is mentioned in the special thanks sections of IMDB for the 2016 short film titled “Roxanne” directed by Paul Frankl …
Robin: To quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, or maybe it was Voltaire, “With great power comes great responsibility”. I have been fortunate to be free from hunger and want for a long time, and always look for ways to give back. The arts are a crucial part of what makes us human, and so when I can help support an artistic endeavor, I try to. I didn’t know much about the film or filmmaker, but crowdfunding caught my eye and I thought if I could help a bit, I should.

At a party this summer with her friend Doug
Sovern (reporter for KCBS Radio) doing our
version of Simon and Garfunkel.

Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Robin: I haven’t been as politically active in recent years as I was in the past, though I do believe in the old activist saying, “if you can’t show up, send cash!” 
I did participate in the Women’s March in January and brought together a group of women from various parts of my life to all stand together and laugh and tell stories and witness each other and give each other courage.
I think anyone can make a difference in politics. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me about when we might see a transgender President?
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? :)
Robin: Thank you for that terrific question. In our lifetime? Perhaps. I’m available, ♫born in the USA♫, and am over 35. I think we will certainly get to the point where seeing transpeople in public life won’t be considered unusual or surprising. We are, as a species, very invested in identity politics. Not just trans identity, but race and sex, and religion. I know our lizard brains are awash in fear-inducing hormones, but we have the opportunity (nee, obligation!) to evolve beyond.
When I did standup and a comedian was asked to comment on another comedian’s joke, the highest praise was “funny is funny”, meaning it doesn’t matter if I like it or would have written it… if it gets a laugh it's a good joke. I want us to get to the point where we don’t categorize people (Woman President, Black Lawyer, Jewish Baseball Player) but look to their character, kindness, and accomplishments. Funny is Funny. People are People.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion brands, colors, or trends?
Robin: I work in the Silicon Valley at the center of high tech, so fashion isn’t a big part of my day. I often joke that I dress like a wealthy toddler.
I was in Washington DC, recently, wearing a very nice blouse and skirt and went to a meeting where everyone was wearing a dark suit and I felt underdressed. I then got on a plane, flew back to California, drove to work (same day) and while waiting at a stoplight by the Apple campus saw what looked like a high school science assembly had just let out (my coworkers going to meetings) and felt very overdressed.
I’m kind of tall but chunkier than I’d like so I try to wear clothes that I think flatter my body and make me feel good about myself. Or I’ll rock a funky t-shirt, MST3K hoodie, jean skirt, and checkerboard Vans. Both work at Apple.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Robin: Same thing I think about all beauty pageants.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Robin: I have. I may. I think the most interesting stories I have to tell are less about my transgender experience and more about simply trying to be me as I stumble through life. Doing a series of autobiographical podcasts is another idea I’ve had. The performer in me will always be looking for an outlet.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Robin: Love is like oxygen. (It was either Voltaire or The Sweet that said that.) It’s all around me but I take it for granted. Hmmm. I was surprised to see that on my screen, even though I’m the one who typed it. That’s probably worth paying attention to.

Robin's Twiiter.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Robin: As I type this I’m a few days away from my 60th birthday. That feels strange because I don’t feel 60, don’t think I look 60, sure as shit don’t act 60, and am not sure how I got here. In many ways, I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
So for new projects, I’d say I’m spending a lot of time learning to play the guitar, looking for a new outlet to scratch my performance itch, and want to take everything I’ve learned about people and products and experience and transform how we think about health and medicine and technology.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Robin: Write this on a piece of paper, read it when you get up in the morning, read it before you go to bed at night, and keep it with you during the day: You are enough exactly as you are. Right here. Right now. There is nothing wrong with you. No permission is needed. No apologies necessary. All the universe asks is that you try to become the best you, you can be. You get to try anew every day.
Anyone tells you differently, they can answer me. If you want to change, do so not because you think it will make you better or happier, but simply because you want to experience change. And if you don’t like what you’ve become, change again.
People are not looking at you, thinking about you, or judging you as much or as often as you think they are. They’ve got their own shit to deal with. It took getting kidney cancer followed by a brain tumor to become enlightened and here’s what I learned: My friends love me for exactly who I am. Everyone else can go fuck themselves. You don’t need to get cancer to discover this truth. Be kind to yourself.
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?
Robin: Allow me to edit your wise friend, Gina. We should not limit our potential. Our dreams should not end. Enjoy every sandwich.
Monika: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Robin: I always wanted the opportunity to answer the 10 Bernard Pivot questions (the ones James Lipton asks on Inside the Actor’s Studio). Since I’m not likely to ever be on his show, maybe I could take a swing here?
Monika: Go for it!
Robin: Thanks… here goes:
1. What is your favorite word?
2. What is your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
4. What turns you off?
5. What is your favorite curse word?
6. What sound or noise do you love?
7. What sound or noise do you hate?
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Monika: Robin, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Robin Diane Goldstein.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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