Sunday 24 December 2017

Interview with Shauna Marie O'Toole

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Shauna Marie O'Toole, an American transgender rights activist, presently living in Geneva, New York. In her past, she has been a technician, engineer, scientist, and educator, and the author of You Can't Shave In a Minimart Bathroom (2009). She volunteers with the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley and is the Director of the We Exist Coalition of the Finger Lakes. She has also recently announced that she is running for the 54th New York State Senate on the Democratic Ticket. Hello Shauna!
Shauna: Hi, Monika! Thank you for the invitation to talk with you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Shauna: What I can say is that this has been a very full life! I have done everything from (legally) digging holes in cemeteries for a living to helping with a project that few on shuttle Atlantis during STS-34. My students used to ask if there is anything I haven't done. My typical answer is that I wasn't sure...
While I have had a myriad of adventures back in my Before Days (pre-transition), my best adventures are the ones right ahead. That is fighting for the same rights and privileges that every other American has. Nothing extra! Just the same. 
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights in the USA. Could you name some of the most successful initiatives that you took part in? 
Shauna: New York's Marriage Equality Act is the most successful initiative – even though the law does not include the Transgender Community. The law talks about same-sex marriages, not the same gender.

Available via Amazon.

(Sex is your role in reproduction. Gender is your self-perception. That is why we are not protected under SONDA – the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.)
Still fighting for the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act here in NYS. Working with several organizations to help promote that, including my own nonprofit organization.
Monika: Why did you decide to write your autobiography You Can't Shave In a Minimart Bathroom (2009)?
Shauna: Minimart is my transition diary. A few stories were added here and there. A few things were edited and wordsmithed. However, this is where I was able to talk freely during this incredible journey towards Authenticity. I knew there would be things I would want to remember and share. If I didn't write them down, they would have been lost.
I started writing this book on November 1, 2003. This is the day after I accidentally came out to the world.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Shauna: Understanding that it's not just you, but everyone in your family that is transitioning. Some will accept. Some will reject. Regardless, we all need to be who we are. Change can be painful, but we get to the other side and we are happier than we have ever been in our previous life. We find more self-confidence. Plus, we find a new family that welcomes us with open arms.
Monika: You transitioned into a woman at 50. Have you ever regretted doing this so late in your life?
Shauna: I am asked this a lot. No, I don't. The reason is simple: my son.
If I had done anything differently, I would not have this incredible young man for a son! I would walk through the flames of Hell itself if my love as a mother called for it. My son (21) is everything to me. I hope someday that my daughter (27) may return, but that is not how the smart money bets.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Shauna: Not really. It's hard to believe, but there was even less positive representation of us in the early 2000s than there is now. I remember a very short-run show called TRANSform Me. One of the stars was Laverne Cox. Of the three transwomen on the show, I thought she was the most eloquent and thoughtful. Her words were always well-considered to make a specific statement.
There was a bulletin-board site I used to be a frequent visitor on. This was back before
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites even existed. There were several transwomen on the site who just seemed to have it all together. I don't know if they were my role models, but they did teach me that we need to have each other's backs. If we don't, no one else will.

A portrait taken for Trillium Health.

Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Shauna: Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. Danica Roem is high on that list! She just won an election to the Virginia legislature! I plan to be the next in 2018.
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?
Shauna: I could talk for hours on this! If you talk with any Vet, they will readily say that the price of Freedom is not free.
Within a few years of coming out, my relationship with my brother was strained. Not so much my sister and mother. Dad passed away about 14 years before this adventure began in earnest. My kids were trying to wrap their heads around their female father. I was no longer teaching. Couch-surfing homeless for two years. Most of my paycheck from a large local food mart went to child support. Some weeks, I had $10 for the week's food.
I lost damn near everything save for the clothes on my back and a couple laundry baskets of stuff. Talk about getting back to basics and fundamentals!
What it did was strip away all the fluff we fill our lives with. Those two years honed me in ways nothing else could have. It tempered my backbone into steel and gave me a firm resolve to do whatever I can so that no one else would ever have to go through this – and worse. And, given all the difficulties, I had it was compared to my trans Sisters of Color. No more! Not on my watch!
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?
Shauna: We are in the midst of a cultural revolution – similar in scale to that of the sexual revolution of the '70s.
Thriving?! Not even close! Look at the actions of the present Administration and state governments across the land! Title VII protections have been removed. Attempted bans on trans people serving in the military or trans vets receiving care.

At The Good, the Bad, and the Funny - an open mic for the
Transgender/Gender Expansive Community.

At the state level, multiple bogus bathroom bills. Harassment reports, verbal and physical are up. There were a record number of known hate crimes murders of transgender people, both here and abroad.
Thriving? No. We are not close to thriving. We are facing a massive backlash, and we are fighting for our right to exist.
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?
Shauna: The T was lumped in with the LGB decades ago by the cisgender/heterosexual (CisHet) world. The Q was added only recently.
There are still Gays who think that we are simply afraid to come out as gay. They are confusing gender identity with sexual orientation because, to their mind, we must be dating men now! (Not even close! I am a Lesbian!)
There are still Lesbians who think we are men in skirts. We dress like this to attack women and take away their private spaces.
We worked damned hard to get Marriage Equality passed in NYS. The understanding was that the Lesbian and Gay Communities would work to get the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) passed.
There were 2,500 of us in the Capitol Convention Center. Thousands more waiting for empty seats to help lobby for marriage equality.
The year after Marriage passed, we gathered again in the Capitol Convention Center. There were less than 300 of us.
The Gay/Lesbian Community, in general, abandoned us. We have kept up the fight for Equality. The Bi and Queer Communities have joined forces with us. There are many in the Gay/Lesbian/CisHet Communities that have always stood with us, and we have welcomed them with open arms.
Strength in numbers is important. We will not be drowned out again.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Shauna: I am an active member of the Geneva Women's Assembly. I have been invited to speak at the January 20th Women's Day March in Seneca Falls. Last year, the march drew 20,000.

In Transgender Lives at

A difference in politics? Damn, right we do! A number of transpeople were elected to office across the country in November 2017. School boards up to the Virginia state legislature.
I am making my own impact by running for the 54th NY State Senate.
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? :)
Shauna: In yours, I hope. I doubt in mine.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Shauna: The same thing I feel about all beauty pageants. They objectify women. I think we've had enough of that.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Shauna: Love and intimacy are so terribly important. So very many of us feel very isolated from the world. If we are married when we transition, the odds are that our spouses will divorce us. It is easy to slip into a depressed state thinking that we are not worthy of love or to be loved because we are trans.
Having been abandoned by so many, there is a longing for even the basic simplicity of touch.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Shauna: I have several books out. Da Rules – the first hundred-plus things I learned when I transitioned. Recycled is a dystopia that takes place in the near future. Exodus is a sci-fi novel about a mission to Mars that went very wrong. This is the first of what will be a four or five-book series. The next book, New Frontiers, will be out in early 2018.
We Exist Coalition of the Finger Lakes is my nonprofit organization. We are dedicated to doing visibility and outreach for the Transgender and Gender Expansive Community throughout the Greater Finger Lakes Area.
As I have mentioned, I am running for the NY State Senate. This will be captured in a book. The working title is A Line Of One.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Shauna: Regardless of what the mirror says, look closer. See the woman within just trying to get out! You are beautiful!


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 transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Shauna: I agree with the first part, and I have issues with the second.
If we try to measure our accomplishments by what others are doing, we will never be happy or feel fulfilled. This is what advertisers do – especially in women's magazines! Buy a copy of Cosmo or Elle and rip out every advertisement. Look at how few real articles there are!
Advertisers want us to feel less-than. It makes us vulnerable to buying products we don't need or want. Plus, it weakens our self-confidence and inner resolve. Makes us more prone to be subjugated by all types of abusers.
The only person we should compare ourselves to is ourselves. Are we a better person today than yesterday is the only question we should ask?
This is true if you are a transwoman or a ciswoman.
Hell, it's true if you are simply Human!
Dreams begin the moment you accept yourself and start striving to be truly Authentic.
In regards to surgery...
The statement assumes that you need vaginoplasty to be a transwoman. Absolutely incorrect! I know many transwomen who are either preop or nonoperative.
These procedures are frightfully expensive, out-of-pocket, major surgical operations! Not everyone can afford it. Not everyone's health allows them to have it.
Monika: Shauna, thank you for the interview!
Shauna: My pleasure!

All the photos: courtesy of Shauna Marie O'Toole. 
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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