Wednesday 16 June 2021

Interview with Kym

Monika: Today I am going to chat with Kym, an American software engineer and transgender woman that shares her transition story on social media. Hello Kym!
Kym: Hi Monika! It is a pleasure to chat with you. Your blog was an inspiration for me many years ago, when I thought it would be impossible for me to transition.
Monika: I am always happy when my blog can help or inspire others! Could you say a few words about yourself?
Kym: Well, although I’ve had some understanding that I’m trans since I was a child, it wasn’t until my early 50s that I actually started to transition. I did a lot of stuff in the meantime, including military, construction work, getting a PhD and starting a couple of companies. Now, I have a somewhat normal job as a software engineer, and do what I can to support my local trans community.
Monika: How did you choose Kym for your name?
Kym: In a way, it chose me. When I was around 10, I had an overnight at a friend's house. That friend had a sister named Kim who was at a friend's house. At some point their mother shouted up the stairs, “Kim, are you home?” “Kim” was similar to my dead name and I misheard her and thought she was talking to me. I yelled back, “yes!” and we ended up having a whole conversation with her thinking I was her daughter, and me confused, but agreeable.
When my friend stopped laughing long enough to explain it to me (and then to his embarrassed mom), a chill came over me, and I had a feeling that this could have been my life. I guess it’s kind of weird, but from then on, I felt my name was Kim. I changed the spelling to Kym, because it looked more feminine to me.

"I remember how impossible transition seemed to
me several years ago."

Monika: What inspired you to share your intimate life moments on social media?
Kym: I remember how impossible transition seemed to me several years ago. I was inspired by the people who shared the stories of their transition, both online and in person. In the end, these helped me find the strength to actually transition.
I guess I want to pay it forward and show people who may think transition is impossible that it is actually very possible. I guess I also want to publicly celebrate how far I’ve come.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your followers? What do they ask for?
Kym: From followers, it’s usually nothing that deep, and usually about appearance. I’ve had questions about my hair and whether I’ve had surgery. A few have accused me of using FaceApp. Closer acquaintances have asked about transition logistics, e.g. how to come out at work, how to get support, etc. 
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Kym: I have had some costs, but not as much as others. Except for my ex and one uncle, my family has been incredibly supportive. My ex stuck around for a few years after transition, and then left me because she didn’t want to be married to a woman. I have a daughter who initially had a very difficult time with my transition. But now she is one of my best supporters.
I did find that some people at work started taking me less seriously, and one person started to question everything I said. A couple tried to undermine me, but there were others who were way more supportive than I ever expected them to be. Unfortunately, the leadership eventually decided that they could not deal with me and started forcing me out. Fortunately, I found an even better job.
"Passing is very complex, and not
just a binary passing or not."
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Kym: To a degree. Since I was in my 50s when I started to transition, there were some limits to how far HRT could go. I did end up getting surgery to help overcome the damage caused by long exposure to testosterone.
I am surprised sometimes at the continued fat redistribution. I occasionally end up ramming my hip into something because they are still growing faster than I can develop body memory for them.
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?
Kym: My thinking on this is still evolving. Passing is very complex, and not just a binary passing or not. It comes down to: what are you passing as?
When I first started to come out, I passed quite well as a cis-male, and I did not think I could pass as trans. Now, I usually pass as a trans woman, and sometimes pass as a cis woman.
The way I look at it is that there is nothing superior about being cis, so passing as cis isn’t philosophically better than being visible as trans. Because there are so many cis supremacists, though, passing as cis is usually safer. Some places are very respectful and kind to people who are visible as trans. I am fortunate to live in one of those places.
I have had cosmetic surgeries, but I’m not sure they are so much about passing as cis. Maybe my first one was, but now I think they are more about wanting to see myself in the mirror. And “myself” is more feminine than the bone structure I ended up with after my first puberty.
Sometimes passing as cis is in conflict with self-expression. One of the things that sometimes outs me is that I dress differently than is typical for a woman of my height, age, and in my area. I wear dresses instead of jeans, for example. I have no interest in changing that. I generally don’t try to hide the fact that I’m trans. But I don’t think it’s the most important thing about me, either. 
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Kym: Carolyn Cossey was definitely someone I followed through the 90s. She seemed so strong and beautiful and she was unashamed of being trans. Her life story seemed so different from mine, though. It did not help me see how transition was possible for me.
I guess Lynn Conway was more of a life changer. I was very familiar with Conway and Mead as the people who had invented VLSI, and had taken classes in grad school based on their approach. I had just gotten my PhD when Lynn came out, and it made me start to see the possibilities.
I had been agonizing about being trans while I was in grad school, and it felt like my career choices were very incompatible with me ever getting to present as myself. I knew that unemployment was very high in our community and I had heard the stories about the losses trans people suffered. I had no idea that one of the visionaries in my field was trans.
After Lynn came out, she set up a website about successful transpeople and there were many people on those pages that I could identify with. I would check back frequently for new additions and to try and bolster my courage to come out myself.

"I have a daughter who initially had a very difficult time with
my transition. But now she is one of my best supporters."

Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Kym: Not exactly, but it was probably some exploitative talk show in the 80s or 90s such as Maury Povitch, Geraldo Rivera or something. They would put those poor women through so much crap, and the audience was horrible to them. It really scared me.
On one hand, it helped to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did, but on the other, it made me feel like the world was incredibly hostile to people like me. I could not even imagine having the strength and courage that seemed necessary to be out as myself.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Kym: It is getting better in many ways, but it also depends a lot on where you live. Towards the end of the Obama administration, we seemed to be on a very positive trajectory, but then Trump and his followers took that all away.
Biden is very public with his support for our community, but in some states, that makes us even bigger targets. There are so many anti-trans laws being considered and even passing at state levels these days. Luckily, I live in a state where those haven’t gotten any traction, but I have friends in states where they have. I worry about them.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Kym: To be honest, I don’t really understand fashion. There seems to be a complex mix of intuition and taste that I just haven’t developed yet. I usually just wear dresses. They are easy to put on, and save me from having to coordinate tops and bottoms.
I am really minimal in accessorizing. I usually wear earrings and a necklace and sometimes a belt. I try to choose dresses that minimize my shoulders and maximize my hips. For example, dresses with wide necklines, narrow waists, and some flair out below the waist. 
For a long time, I was wearing mostly wrap dresses, but in the past year I’ve been trying more styles. My natural coloring is a “winter”, so I try to choose colors that go well with that. I also find that I have been wearing a lot of floral designs.
"I am really minimal in accessorizing."
Monika: Do you often experiment with your makeup?
Kym: Not so much. About 6 years ago, when I started thinking about coming out, I spent as much time as I could over two months practicing makeup. I stumbled on an approach that is still basically what I use today. I sometimes make small changes, for example, finer brushes, darker lipstick, less eyeshadow, etc.
The biggest change is how long it takes to apply. When I first came out, it took over an hour. Now it takes about 15 minutes. I know people who spend lots of time developing different looks for different moods, and it is really amazing. I wish I could do that, but it takes a different kind of focus than I can usually muster.
I suppose if I wanted to master anything new, it would be contouring. I used to try really hard to contour, and it always came out blotchy and weird. Now I don’t bother. 
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Kym: Yes I do, especially if it is genuine and without qualification. I sometimes feel kind of superficial about this, but I do find it validating.
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Kym: Yes. It was with someone who contacted me through LinkedIn. The hiring manager was visibly shocked when he saw me. It made me very self-conscious. Maybe I was taller than he expected from my profile? Maybe he didn’t expect me to be trans?
It started to become obvious that he had not looked past my name, title and profile picture. I asked him why he reached out to me, and he said, “we spent our first two years hiring the best, now we need to think about diversity”. It was my turn to be shocked. 
At the time, I was already at one of the top companies in the industry, and they considered me one of the best. Some companies think they need to lower their standards to improve diversity, and that is absolutely not the case. They just need to change how they identify top talent and get rid of artificial standards like “cultural fit”. Especially if they have a “bro culture”. They should look at how non-traditional top candidates can expand the culture instead of fitting the narrow culture already in place.


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

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