Friday, 10 November 2017

Interview with Lisa O'Connor

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Lisa O'Connor, an American physician, health care provider, and therapist to the transgender/gender variant community from Stirling, New Jersey, the owner of Healthy Transitions. Hello Lisa!
Lisa: Hiya, Monika! Thanks for having me. Poland is lovely this time of year. It’s only the second time I’ve ever visited.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Lisa: Hmm, well, the usual opening line is that I was born and raised in New York City. Thankfully, your readers will not have to suffer through my Metropolitan New York English accent. By the way, you are very kind for not mocking me.
Monika: The name of your company highlights the word “healthy? What does a healthy transition espouse?
Lisa: This is one of those €64,000 questions. We could talk for hours on this topic. It is huge. As a matter of fact, it is one of my guiding principles for Healthy Transitions, LLC: healthy and happy.
To get us out of here at a reasonable hour, let’s shoot for the more manageable €1.37 answer. Back in the day, when I first explored transitioning, the concept of, “healthy” was not an issue. I, like many like me, didn’t overly worry too much about “healthy.” All I wanted was assistance with the process. I knew it was new ground for the medical community. Nevertheless, I was both shocked and chagrined when the endocrinologist, to whom I was referred, asked me, “OK, what do I do?”
By happy chance, all family physicians are well versed in endocrinology, and being known as the local go-to family doc for the university gay and lesbian community, I had a lot of experience dealing with the LGB community and their medical needs. I felt comfortable guiding any healthcare provider who was willing to help me, and if needed, listen to my guidance. 
Monika: What kind of services do you provide to the transgender community?
Lisa: As a direct consequence of the experiences of my own transition, I opted to make Healthy Transitions, LLC a two-fold practice. Today, half my clients are seeking help with hormone therapy. The other half are seeking guidance, counseling, and for some outright psychotherapy. Fortunately, I am also a certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. So, on one hand half my practice is endocrinology limited to helping people achieve their gender goals. The other half is counseling. However, another guiding principle of Healthy Transitions, LLC, is, “whatever it takes.”
Monika: Whatever it takes?
Lisa: Yes. When Healthy Transitions first opened, many clients were asking me for help with some very basic and, for the transgender community, some universal issues. Where and how to buy clothes? How best to bind? What about packing and STPs. Oh, sorry, "STP" is packing that allows someone to Stand To Pee. How to come out to family? Work? Identification. Sexual intimacy. And the like. I didn’t know who specialized in these areas, so I used my own experience and that of my clients, to help answer these questions. Since I don’t feel comfortable prescribing hormones in a five-minute appointment, how could I not take the extra time to help someone who earnestly had no clue how New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, or whatever state in which they lived, dealt with identification? That’s why today, a simple follow-up appointment is scheduled to last as long as 45 minutes.
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pill whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of this horrible passing or non-passing syndrome …
Lisa: I’m not too sure about that. This is another biggie. OK, let’s see where this goes. 
Some of my happiest, highest functioning transfeminine clients are the ones most comfortable in their skins. Some are over six feet tall, that’s two meters for the civilized world, and built like ultra-masculine rugby players. As one said to me, “With a body like this, you think a nose job will help me ‘pass?’”
Then there are the clients who, to my eye, look beautiful on day 1. Naturally feminine with lithe bodies. You know, great genetics. I often wonder how anyone could ever see that client as anything other than female. Yet, they feel the need for all kinds of cosmetic surgery. And repeat surgeries. Sure, some have issues with body dysmorphism, but many do not. To be fair, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I may feel, for them, it’s like gilding a lily. But if they are healthy and happy, who am I to judge?
But to your question, are they free? More liberated than the two-meter tall rugby player? Is “passing” or my new preferred term, "blending" really that important? Hmm, OK, well, here’s where I play my own devil’s advocate. Wow, we really could have a three-day seminar on this topic! OK, here’s one potential example of the importance of passing. Anyone familiar with the United States and all the alt-right lunacy reference bathroom laws knows just how dangerous it is to be transgender or genderqueer and not “pass” or "blend." The murder rate is so high in our community. Life is a lot easier when you have to go the bathroom and no one stops you for not looking enough like a woman.
Monika: Yes, indeed.
Lisa: I guess what I’m saying, I hope the day will come where gender distinctions are not important. The singular issue of gender is so complex, let alone the complexities of introducing gender-expansive people in a society where homophobes and transphobes require bathroom laws, I figure our emancipation, our freedom, our liberation is so much more complex than cosmetic surgery.
I’m guessing you and/or I may get some mail on that answer.
To whomever reads this interview, please know I was just musing out loud on this very important and complex issue. we’re all friends here, right? (laughs)

Lisa in the army.

Monika: Yes, Lisa, our readers are all friends. How about your personal history. At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Lisa: Great question. That used to be the most commonly asked question when I began publicly speaking on the topic. I guess the easiest and shortest answer would be when I told the world. You know, changed my name, my attire, told the people at work. That was in 2005. But when I hear that question, I like to think I am still transitioning. My appearance, behaviors, sexuality, you name it, are in a constant state of flux. Maybe evolving? Maybe I am simply gender-fluid?
Another way I get that question is, “When did you begin your transition?” I tell them I’m not entirely sure. Was it when I was five-years old and wondering why God made such a mistake? At puberty when I first questioned my sexuality yet felt I was not gay? The first time I took estrogen? The first time I told someone? My first therapist? The first time I ventured out into public as a woman? The list goes on and on!
Monika: At that time of your transition, using whatever definition of transition best suits you, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Lisa: None. I was aware some people had somehow done what I only prayed to God for: Christine Jorgensen, Jan Morris, Tula, Renee Richards, But none were role models. They were more like beacons of hope, of what could be.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Lisa: Too many to list. Hundreds. If I can’t name them all, I won’t name one.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfilment 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?
Lisa: Yeah, I paid a similar price. Lost my family, my job, my sanity. You name it, I lost it. The hardest thing? Telling my Mom. I was so scared I would disappoint her. I feared going from the golden haired son who could do no wrong to a social deviant who needed to be locked up. Long story short, she was great. She could have written a book on how a parent can best respond to their child coming out as transgender. It was seamless. We immediately became each other's best friend and confidant. When I first opened Healthy Transitions, LLC, she was happy to volunteer to be my office manager. Clients loved her. More than one brought their own mothers in, simply to meet my Mom. She was great.
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 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 the contemporary society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Lisa: As it is said, “A thousand mile journey begins with a single step.” I feel the movement is akin to those large marathon races. The starting pistol goes off, but it takes like five minutes before the last runner has crossed the starting line. It’s like that. The starting pistol has been fired, but I feel the last runner is nowhere near crossing the starting line. At least the race has begun. It feels good knowing that.
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?
Lisa: Absolutely. Many times, that acronym has an “A” in it for advocate. I feel every letter in whatever your preferred acronym is, is for two distinct letters. The first is the obvious, as the first letter of the group, be it lesbian, gay, bi-, trans, queer, etc. The second is as “A” for advocate. We are all advocates for each other. And today, I can see as far as I do, because I am standing on the shoulders of those who came before me.
You know, as a New Yorker, I am particularly proud of The Stonewall Riot of 1969. We may be the penultimate letter in the abbreviation, but we were first to be arrested at Stonewall.
Yeah, we’ve always been there. And we continue to be there, helping marginalized communities, be they LGBTQ+, the homeless, refugees, you name it. As a species, humanity ultimately sinks or swims together. Everyone’s cause is both individual and collective.
Monika: Speaking of causes, do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion brands, colours or trends?
Lisa: Monika, as you can tell by my ripped T-shirt and cut-off jeans, I have set a high fashion standard for myself. (Laughs) Seriously, when I first transitioned, at the office I wore nice women’s business suits, dresses to dinner, black leather and lace on Saturday nights. You know, hubba, hubba (laughs)!
Then I opened Healthy Transitions, LLC, and I had a lot of trans-feminine clients ask my advice re blending or passing. So many had such different ideas on how best to dress, I learned a lot - about them, the trans community, myself. I started dressing down. Going more for comfort than any gender specific goal.
Today, I may be in sweats, or scrubs, or some other uber-casual attire; it may be masculine clothing, feminine clothing, or gender neutral. I make it a point to put feeling comfortable in my clothes over looking fashionable.

Pretty and happy.

Monika: Have you been misgendered?
Lisa: Not counting my late father? Rarely, in person but about 10% of the time on the phone. Today, when I am misgendered, I smile and try not to chuckle. I really appreciate peoples' attempts to correct themselves or apologize, and each person does it differently.
It's an interesting social phenomenon, both being misgendered and how people react when they realize their faux pas. I kind of feel bad for them. As long as there is no detectable malice behind the misgendering, I cannot judge them. Sometimes we, members of the trans community, unintentionally test people; we catch them by surprise. As my "transition" is still evolving, how can I expect someone else, anyone else, to get the pronouns right every time starting at day one?
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Lisa: They’re fine. As fine as any beauty pageant.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. As a West Pointer, retired US Army veteran, explorer, life-long student of the martial arts, pilot, engineer, physician, therapist, consultant, and who knows what else, have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Lisa: I hear, “You should write a book!” quite often. I think about it from time to time, but at the end of the day, I wouldn't know where to begin. Besides, I think we all could write a book. Each and every one of us has a wonderfully spellbinding and educational story to tell. Mine would be just another one of those stories. I simply much prefer to read and learn about others rather than write about me.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Lisa: Anyone, struggling with anything, get help. It does not need to be a licensed professional. Ask a friend, parent, sibling, teacher, anyone in your life, whom you trust, just to listen to you. Maybe, MAYBE give you some advice. Do not wait. It may be difficult to approach that first person, whomever they are. But in the long run, if you’ve survived long enough to realize you are struggling, you have it within you to take the next step - talk to someone. Be it about gender issues, work, love, pretty much anything in life. It’s kind of cliche, but is often true: it gets better. How? By you taking the next step. You can do it. Have faith in 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?
Lisa: I like that. May I say it back to you with a tiny modification?
Monika: Of course!
Lisa: We should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other people doing. Our dreams should not end anywhere at anytime for they begin anew everywhere and everyday.
Monika: Lisa, thank you for the interview!
Lisa: My pleasure. For dinner, can we try that place with the awesome beetroot soup?

All the photos: courtesy of Lisa O'Connor.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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