Friday 5 February 2021

Interview with Alexandra Chandler

Monika: Today I am hosting a very special woman. Alexandra Chandler is an American politician, lawyer, and former senior analyst at the Office of the Naval Intelligence. She is also an advocate for equality for LGBT people, especially transgender youth, immigrants, and people of color.
Currently, she holds the position of Policy Advocate at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization with an urgent mission: to prevent democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.
In 2018, she took part in the Democratic Party primary, running for election to the U.S. House to represent Massachusetts' 3rd Congressional District. Alexandra is married to Catherine, her high school sweetheart, and they have two children. Hello Alexandra!
Alexandra: Hello Monika! So glad to virtually meet you and those reading, wherever they are and whenever they do! 
Monika: How are you holding up in the pandemic times?
Alexandra: Relatively well, thank you. The truth is, we (speaking of our family) are very fortunate. My wife and I both have flexible (if intense this year!) and secure jobs that allow us to work from home and with some ability to reshuffle our hours around. We are both in good health with no major risk factors for COVID, as are our kids.
Yet that said, it is hard, as it is for all of us. There are so many moments where I feel I cannot be fully present as a mom or as a professional, because even with an amazing employer, there are times when I have to do both, with the addition of trying to be a halfway decent part-time elementary school teacher and IT support for my son doing remote school. I am also such an extroverted person, and I miss the in-person interaction with friends, I miss seeing bands in concert and dancing, I miss eating in restaurants.
Whereas my wife suffers in a different way, in that she is more of an introverted person, who misses those experiences but also is a bit overwhelmed with both me and our two boys — who are all as talkative as me — in our fairly small apartment. That said, we’ve been together for 25 years, a gender transition, a run for Congress, and more besides-- we are lucky to have a strong foundation of a relationship to help us both through this time.

Monika: When I read about your intelligence career a couple of years ago, I do not know why but for me, the most intriguing thing was your resemblance to Carrie Mathison from Homeland, played by Claire Danes. Has anyone ever told you the same before?
Alexandra: Ha! I’m flattered. I have heard that once or twice, though while I was in the intelligence world the more usual comparison I got was the character of Abby Sciuto from the TV show NCIS, played by Pauly Perrette, because I have always worn a lot of black, have sported some artificial hair color here and there, and I like goth-industrial music. Though my sartorial choices definitely evolved over time, particularly when I got into management in the intel world.
Monika: When you graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2002, you could have chosen many career paths but somehow you ended up in intelligence. Was it your first choice?
Alexandra: It was not what I planned, but it wound up being my first choice. I had gone to law school planning to be a practicing attorney, probably in the field of international corporate law.
But the big thing that happened was that I lived through the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, was on a subway train under Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers came down. I spent hours pacing around our tiny Brooklyn studio apartment not knowing if she had made it. And in those hours, I told myself that if she would just be OK, I would do anything on Earth I could to serve the country, to help, to give my life to something bigger. It was a combination of bargaining with God and my purpose just crystallizing. When she called me from a payphone and then walked home across the Manhattan Bridge, my different path was set.
Soon after, I started applying to intelligence agencies and the State Department Foreign Service. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I didn’t want vengeance, I just wanted to protect the country or do a small part in enabling a better world where future terrorism and mass killing would happen less frequently. Since so much of my work was in counterproliferation (combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction technologies and the flow of weapons into conflict zones) I did succeed in fulfilling that purpose.

"I had always had some interest in politics, from the time
I was a child. My family’s interest fostered my own interest in it."
Photo by Russ Remelt.

Monika: Somehow I cannot resist the following question. How far from reality are Hollywood productions when they portray intelligence people and their work?
Alexandra: In terms of intelligence people-- it’s funny, I was just talking about this with a friend. Most intelligence analysts are not particularly social, very detail-oriented, skeptical, cautious, and highly deliberate. That’s not exactly the image in Hollywood, which is more like a caricature of what intelligence collectors (the ones who actually collect the information that he analysts analyze-- aka, the “spies”) are like. Collectors can vary widely from the incredibly charming life of the party types (better to elicit the secrets of everyone at the party) to the utterly forgettable people that just seem to blend in with their environment-- those are often the best collectors.
As to the work, usually, the movies condense what would be days, months, or even years of collection and analysis into minutes or hours. The one thing that is accurate -- in some places -- is what many of the watch floors look like. Big screens, lots of maps zooming in and out, monitors with news from around the world, all in the dark. The faint smell of nuclear-strength coffee. Even years into my career when I would come into work in the morning and would go down to the watch floor, by the time so much had become familiar, I would still look around at the watch floor and think — wow, I live and work in a movie.
Monika: You started your career as an intelligence analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in 2004. Two years later, you were the first employee ever to complete a gender transition while working. Given the fact that you were the first transgender woman to do so, did you have to work out a special plan on how to come out at the organization that had neither experience nor history for such cases?
Alexandra: Indeed, I did have to work out a special plan. As far as we knew, I wasn’t only the first transgender person to transition on the job at my intelligence agency, but I was also the first analyst to do so in our entire Intelligence Community of agencies (we knew that there had been some scientists, engineers, and contract personnel to do so in other agencies-- but not analysts briefing policymakers or senior military officials).
It was because of this that I nearly didn’t even transition on the job. When I told my boss I was transgender and would be transitioning, I told him with the expectation that I would be winding up my work over the coming weeks and months, and they could hopefully help me ease into a think tank role or somewhere else where a trans woman might be more accepted. Instead, he told me there had to be a first time for everything, and that he knew ONI would have my back. I didn’t fully believe him at the time, because the organizational culture was so conservative. 
Yet he was so right-- ONI not only had my back, including in some dramatic moments where employees from other offices in the agency called for me to be fired for who I was, but they had the humility to allow me to simply write out the plan for what I needed of them. And that is what I did, I drew up a plan of when I wanted to tell the office staff and how when we were going to tell the policymakers that I worked with (this was during the Bush Administration and they were surprisingly supportive), and how they were to treat me like any other woman working for our agency. They followed my plan, they treated me extremely well, and they earned my hard work and loyalty for 11 years after my transition-- I had a wonderfully successful and enjoyable career. And I’m still good friends with some of those ONI leaders (some now retired) to this day.

Monika: What was the main driver behind your decision to enter politics?
Alexandra: Short answer: it was Donald Trump, the rise of Trumpism, and an opportunity to run where I felt I had something unique to offer and an obligation to try to serve.
My longer answer is that I had always had some interest in politics, from the time I was a child. My family’s interest fostered my own interest in it. My grandmother often volunteered as a poll worker on Election Day, my uncle was a city political party chairman, and my parents often talked about politics. However, as an adult, I like many developed a great deal of cynicism about politics, because of all the money that dominates so much of American politics, the polarized political climate, and its inability to deliver results. I used to tell people — things would have to get much better or much worse for me to get involved.
Monika: So in 2016 you reached the climax of your political activism, didn’t you?
Alexandra: Yes, during the 2016 political campaign, the “things had gotten a lot worse” had arrived. Even before Trump’s election, an acquaintance journalist had anti-Semitic hate mail sent to their home, and a high school in the city where I grew up had been vandalized with swastikas. Soon after the election, a friend sent me a message through the “She Should Run” website to encourage me to run for office. Others followed. I started to give it some thought. By then, my wife and I had already decided to leave Washington, DC and for me to leave the Intelligence Community, so I was thinking about ways I could continue to serve the country once we moved to Massachusetts. I was thinking maybe I could run for our local city school committee, or maybe State Representative one day. When Trump tweeted the transgender military ban while I was still at work in the Pentagon, my determination only grew to get involved in politics after I left the apolitical intelligence world.
But then, out of the sky, our home district member of the U.S. Congress decided to retire. Here I was, someone with experience in national security, in healthcare, and had a personal family history with some of the biggest problems of my district— underemployment, and addiction, which took my father’s life. I was asked and encouraged and asked and encouraged again and again— including by multiple sitting members of Congress, which was just unreal. So I took a leap I never expected and ran.

"Our societal transgender visibility is still mostly about
the entertainment industry and celebrity culture. I’m
so grateful for that visibility, but we need more
visibility of a different kind..."

Monika: In the end, you did not manage to become a Congresswoman. In retrospect, what would you have done differently to attract more voters?
Alexandra: I would have been more successful at raising money. It’s really that simple— and the buck and the blame stop with me. Our campaign was made up of a small staff and amazing volunteers in the district and even across the country. I just didn’t give them the resources to get my name and my message to enough voters.
The numbers we had from knocking on doors and other voter contact showed we could generate a winning margin— we just couldn’t afford any TV commercials or multiple rounds of mailers to reach enough voters. In the two times, there were polls of attendees of candidate debates, I won each time.
The way that Congressional candidates generally raise money is to spend 3-5 hours a day calling people known to give to candidates for office as well as wealthy friends or connections, and ask for money— preferably the maximum donation of $2700. I spent months trying to do that, but because I was a political newcomer running against several candidates with established wealthy political networks, that method just didn’t work.
But failing that, I would have actually given up earlier on the standard call time approach and instead spent those hours of the day out and about, knocking on doors months earlier than any competitors, live-streaming conversations with voters and my plans for the district, and asking for money in that format or trying to create more buzz than I was viable to the $2700 check givers. It still probably would not have worked, but such approaches sometimes do.
Monika: The most divisive US presidential election in decades is over. What kind of changes can we expect for the US transgender community?
Alexandra: Positive changes, but our world will not change overnight or in this four-year term.
Our legal protections are already improving. President Biden has already issued executive orders telling the federal government to interpret existing legal protections for the trans and broader LGBTQ community broadly. He’s reversed or is reversing cruel policies that would legalize keeping trans people out of homeless shelters, or preventing trans kids from playing sports at school. Because a Democratic Senate was also elected, it is likely we will soon have comprehensive civil rights protections for LGBTQ people at the federal level, so no matter what state you live in or how a Supreme Court case is interpreted, you will not be able to be kicked out of your housing or lose your job for being LGBTQ.
I am also hopeful for progress in the lived equity for our community. The new Administration has plans to spend more money on cutting poverty and expanding access to affordable housing than we have seen in generations— arguably since President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Transgender Americans, especially trans people of color, are among the poorest and the most housing insecure Americans. Even when these plans are sadly watered down by Congress, they will benefit our community more than any.

"We’ve been very successful in terms of pursuing legal equality,
though there is still much to be done and we have lagged
behind the rest of the LGBTQ community."

Monika: American politics is based on the interaction with different interest groups that wish to pursue their specific goals. How successful is the transgender community in this respect?
Alexandra: Our community has been extremely successful in some ways and not very successful in others.
We’ve been very successful in terms of pursuing legal equality, though there is still much to be done and we have lagged behind the rest of the LGBTQ community. When I transitioned fifteen years ago, I lived in a country where I could be fired from the government on the spot with no recourse, where in most states I couldn’t change my birth certificate or have equal access to healthcare under the law. However, partially because of our federal system, progress is uneven. Though federal laws and favorable Court rulings have changed some things, much still depends on where you live and what color your skin is, or what income you have. We’ve been unsuccessful in changing that.
We’ve also had some incredible strides in our societal progress. On one hand, in just the arc of my life, so much has changed. When I grew up, views of transgender people were stuck in the 1950s. We were a joke, or pathetic, disgusting, or a danger. Or all the above. I don’t live in that country anymore. Much of that has been because of the courage of everyday trans people in coming out, living their lives, and expanding the circle of first tolerance, then acceptance, and eventually to inclusion and belonging. Visibility changes everything. And where in my childhood, trans people were set up as a joke on TV, over time, trans people like my friend Rachel Crowl and her amazing wife Helen Boyd were on TV. Then in the last decade, Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and other trans celebrities have started conversations in popular culture.
However, where we have so far struggled are two things. One, the backlash against our progress has been vicious, and we have not always had the support we need when the backlash hits. We are now a go-to political punching bag whenever certain politicians wish to stir up fear and hate against our community to increase political support among religious fundamentalists. Our progress is still too recent and too fragile, and some of our allies can be complacent about that.


All the photos: courtesy of Alexandra Chandler.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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