Saturday 13 March 2021

Interview with Katherine Reilly

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Katherine Reilly, a Greek-American author, teacher, educational blogger, and active contributor to humanitarian efforts. She works at a private school in Athens Greece, teaching English to learners of all ages. As an author, she works for an international publisher and can boast multiple children’s books and novels. Katherine is known for her children's book trilogy “The Adventures of Ben & Friday”, her guidebook “The Road to Femininity: A New Life for a New Woman” (2016), and novel “I Can’t Love You” (2018). She is also a TEDx speaker and trainer, organizing Ted-Ed clubs and using her experience to motivate, inspire and assist students in reaching their true potential. Hello Katherine!
Katherine: Hello Monika, it’s so nice to see you again!
Monika: We have not heard from each other since 2017 when we did our first interview and suddenly you told me that you would like to go stealth and remove any links with your transgender past. It must have been a very dramatic moment in your life.
Katherine: Imagine establishing a career only to be threatened with being fired due to trans identity. At the time, I was employed as a teacher at a private school. My employer told me that if word came out that I was a transgender woman; I would be out of a job. I had grown extremely attached to my students who loved me dearly. I was faced with the dilemma of losing my kids, my job, and of course the income to support myself. For a while, I went off the radar, contemplating what my life had become.

It Gets Better Greece - a documentary about Katherine Reilly
Executive Producer: Giorgos Karalias, Source: YouTube.

However, it was thanks to the encouragement of my students that I finally started respecting myself and quit my job. I owe everything to them and before long; I found not one but two jobs within a short period of time. I am presently working as an author for an International Publisher, having written a total of nineteen books concerning English Language Teaching. In the afternoons, I work as a teacher for a Private School. I have also continued modeling and focused my writing endeavors as a scriptwriter for short videos and films.
Monika: Now I can see a beautiful woman that has been flourishing as an author, teacher, and woman. What a change!
Katherine: Thank you! It’s amazing how much one’s life can change if you believe in yourself; something that took me a while to do.
Monika: Could we introduce you again to our readers?
Katherine: Of course. I was born in Chicago and raised by a traditional Greek-American family. During my teenage years, I suffered from depression; I never actually understood what was wrong, why I couldn’t fit in anywhere. However, I studied to become an English teacher and this is a decision I’ll never regret. My students are a huge part of my life and wouldn’t change this for the world. As time moved forward, I slowly acknowledged who I was and what my goal in life should be – to become the person I always wanted to become. 
Monika: By the way, I guess I have never asked you about your name. Why did you choose Katherine?
Katherine: My grandmother meant the world to me. She was deprived of the opportunity to educate herself as she was forced into marriage at a young age. She loved reading and, in many ways, inspired me to be the person I am today. It’s only fitting I honor her memory by adopting her name.

Katherine Reilly's books on Amazon.

Monika: We have so much to talk about! Let’s start with your writing career, which started with your transition memoirs “The Road to Femininity: A New Life for a New Woman”. What inspired you to write it?
Katherine: Becoming the person I always wanted to be, took a lot of effort, and the major problem many trans women have is that they can’t find, or are afraid to ask anyone to help them out. I made a lot of mistakes during my transition. “Blending in” is not easy. Learning how to speak, act or dress appropriately needs some getting used to. Finding help was never easy. Coming out to specialists (makeup artists, hairstylists, etc.) and asking them for advice on how to be more feminine usually led to rejection, which in turn led to disappointment.
I also had to deal with mixed reactions both at work and home. Therefore, I decided to write my book to share my own experience and help other transgenders become who they were meant to be with less heartache.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience could be useful for other transwomen? 
Katherine: I’ve given a few lectures at schools based on my experience. What mostly intrigues me is when students ask me, “How can I tell my parents I’m gay? (or lesbian, or transgender). How did your parents react? Were you scolded?” So, as you can see, members of the LGBTQ society are mostly daunted by the notion of “coming out”. I try to share my own experience with them. How, when, and if they should come out to specific members of their family or community.
Sometimes, coming out leads to domestic violence and in those cases, should be dealt with extreme caution and above all, seek the advice of professionals. I know I keep stressing this here and, in my book, but when our judgment is clouded due to extreme emotional pressure, we tend to handle situations in a less proper manner.
Another issue I’ve tried to help them deal with is “blending in”. How to avoid becoming a target so to speak, especially in societies that don’t accept transgender individuals such as Greece.

"My employer told me that if word came out that I was a
transgender woman; I would be out of a job."
Photo by @anstmich.photodiary.

Monika: Two years later, you published your novel “I Can’t Love You”. The main character is Nadia, a girl that walked a long and difficult road to womanhood. She finds herself haunted by her past, as she tries to balance her roles as a teacher and the daughter of an ailing father but her life changes when she meets Sara, a young refugee girl who has lost both family and home. I am wondering why you decided to write it as a novel when both the cover of the book, as well as the story indicate that the book is about you.
Katherine: The book is loosely based on my experiences as a transgender woman, which are represented through the character of Nadia. As for the girl named Sara? Her character is an amalgamation of refugee children’s stories that I witnessed during my time as a volunteer teacher. There were many refugee children, orphaned due to war. Adoption and offering them a safe home was something common at the time.
It is unfortunately forbidden for a transgender woman to adopt a child in this country; legislation I consider illogical and unfair. I thought to myself, how could I raise awareness concerning this issue? The idea of ‘I Can’t Love You’ came to mind, as I wanted my readers to experience how two individuals, a transgender mother and her refugee daughter, who belonged to different marginalized communities, would have been treated by society.
Monika: However, the majority of your publications are dedicated to children. Is it more difficult to write for adults or for children?
Katherine: It depends on the nature of the books. Most of my books have to do with teaching the English Language which is a bit tricky. It requires a lot of attention to detail, to be informed of what kids like nowadays and make the books entertaining for young learners. On the other hand, when it comes to stories, I admit I love writing them, so that’s where I let loose and feel more comfortable, regardless of age.
Monika: How do you come up with ideas for your books?
Katherine: I think this always depends on my mood. An idea might pop into my head and after taking note of it, I examine its potential, and how it can be transferred to paper. Other times, I commit myself to an idea after being emotionally invested in it. For example, I recently lost a student to cancer which literally devastated me. She was a young adult and it happened shortly after she graduated. I immediately wrote a book about a child with cancer which will soon be published. The profits of this book will be donated to support this cause. 

Katherine Reilly's educational blog.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Katherine: I started transitioning in my late 30s and yes, I must admit it was a difficult process due to the fact that I was under constant pressure to change my mind. Fortunately, I had the support of my father and a few friends which made it a lot easier as time progressed. My body started changing and that is when I truly started to enjoy my “journey”, “my new life”, “the new me”. I felt whole – the person I was truly meant to be. 
Monika: How did your students react to your transition? Did you have any problems with the school management?
Katherine: When I decided to transition, I quit my teaching job at the time and started fresh at a new school. It hurt me dearly to leave my students but I feared their reactions as I was most loved by them all. I must admit though that after a few years, and thanks to social media, we’ve reconnected and they love me just the same as they did before.
Monika: You have been living in Greece for a long time. How would you define the status of transgender women there?
Katherine: Unfortunately, the most serious concern transgender women have in Greece is employment. It’s nearly impossible to find a job if you’re an undereducated transgender woman, so the majority resorts to prostitution as a means of survival. Furthermore, police officers, as well as public officials, treat transgender women with little to no respect. Of course, there are exceptions although very few. Fortunately, this is slowly changing and hopefully, in a few years, it will be safer to walk in the streets of Greece without being harassed or ridiculed.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Katherine: Coming out to my father. I slowly climbed the ladder by telling colleagues and friends who I really was. After being rejected on multiple accounts, my greatest fear was being rejected by the person who was always closest to me. Fortunately, he embraced me and told me he loved me no matter what. I remember after our first talk, I slowly walked away and told him, “I named myself after Grandma. Call me Katherine…”
"The only advice I can give
is to love yourself."
Photo: @gigourtsisphotography
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Katherine: The only advice I can give is to love yourself. We can’t and mustn’t allow social stereotypes to dictate what it means to be feminine. It’s not a matter of appearance but a matter of being yourself. Yes, it is hard at times when being judged by others who have no right to do so, but we must be strong and focus on what truly matters, which is our mental well-being.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Katherine: Unfortunately, not always. Part of it has to do with so few trans people coming out publicly. There have been so many significant transgender people throughout history but there has never been an actual leader to promote this cause or a feeling of unity in the transgender community.
This of course is slowly changing, but another issue, if not the most serious one, is the lack of education at schools. People are scared of the unknown and to be honest, can’t – or are not willing to; comprehend what transgender individuals face on a daily basis. Hopefully, this will change one day.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Katherine: There have been great depictions of transgender characters in books, television series, and films. However, as stated by the actors themselves who have portrayed them: Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” and Jeffrey Tambor in the hit series “Transparent”, it’s time transgender actors be given a shot at reprising these roles. It’s a generally accepted fact that their personal experience would be better represented in these roles.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Katherine: Presently, I do not participate in any lobbying campaigns due to my work obligations. However, based on my experience, transgender women have and always will continue to make a difference in politics. We see steady changes, small ones mind you, but essential in the long run.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Katherine: Do I like fashion? Of course, I do! At the beginning of my transition, I remember I wanted to experiment with different styles but I guess you could say that I have finally settled on casual dresswear. As for trends? I used to follow them, but now I have adopted my own style. The “finely dressed, nerdy teacher look”.
Monika: Do you often experiment with your makeup?
Katherine: Not really. I do very basic makeup. There are even times I would go out without any. I guess I finally started feeling comfortable being myself.
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Katherine: I used to a lot. Not that much anymore. Maybe my way of thinking has changed. perhaps my self-confidence too.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Katherine: I had been rejected by coworkers, ridiculed by relatives and “friends”, but if it hadn’t been for the love of the few people who have supported me throughout the years, my life would have been completely unbearable. It’s thanks to love that I am standing on my feet right now.

The finely dressed, nerdy teacher look.
Photo: @giannis_gigourtsis

Monika: You are a TEDx speaker and trainer now. Do you like to motivate people? How did you start participating in this program?
Katherine: I had been asked to become a TEDx speaker a total of three times! The first two I had to decline due to the fact that I’d lose my job if I publicly spoke. After quitting it though, a former student of mine, who had become a TEDx Experience Manager, surprised me with her invitation to speak for TEDx. It was the most touching moment of my life as she helped me fulfil my dream. I admit I was convinced I’d never get a third opportunity to become a TEDX speaker.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Katherine: I am constantly working on different projects at all times. I’m always working on new books, writing scripts for short films, and teaching classes. Of particular note is that I am also a Teacher Trainer and speak at International Conferences during the weekends, as I train graduate teachers who are about to enter the job market as English Teachers.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Katherine: My advice is to immediately seek the help of a professional. The emotions we are struggling with are too much for anyone to handle. There is no shame in asking for help. Fortunately, there are many specialists who have the experience to guide them on their own personal “road to femininity”.
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?
Katherine: I couldn’t agree more. Each person is a unique individual. We shouldn’t force ourselves to “copy” others. I believe that we are all beautiful human beings in our own way. Personally, I think that dreams should start way before the table, and never end. As a close friend of mine once told me, “If we ever stop dreaming, we have no goals. If we have no goals what’s our purpose in life?”
Monika: Katherine, thank you for the interview!
Katherine: You’re welcome! It’s been a pleasure meeting you!

All the photos: courtesy of Katherine Reilly.
Main photo credits: @gigourtsisphotography.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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