Monday 28 March 2022

Interview with Stephanie Bruning

Monika: Today I have the honor and pleasure of talking to Stephanie Bruning, an American academic historian, LGBTQ+ activist, and transgender woman that documents her transition on social media. Hello Stephanie!
Stephanie: Hello Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Stephanie: I'm a historian and educator. I've spent most of my career developing instructional content in history for primary and secondary school students. I also sometimes present on topics related to education or on topics connected to LGBTQ+ history (my next presentation will be a workshop on LGBTQ+ history at the Keystone Conference). I started my transition in 2018 but didn't go full-time until 2020 - although I spent the better portion of my life going back and forth on the idea. Day to day, I can usually be found reading, binge-watching TV with my partner, or playing music.
Monika: What inspired you to share your intimate life moments on social media?
Stephanie: Before I fully transitioned, or even accepted that I needed to, I posted to social media sites as an outlet for my femininity. Once I finally started the journey towards becoming my full self, I actually didn't post anything anywhere for a full year. From there, I sort of took pictures to track my progress. I think as the changes became more noticeable, I found more satisfaction in posting pictures. Some of the more popular pictures are timelines that track my progress over the years. Some also feature my puppy.
Monika: Why did you choose Stephanie for your name?
Stephanie: With my own name, I took the path of least resistance and chose something close to my deadname. I wanted to maintain a connection to the name I was given and the identity I established.
Monika: Do you get many questions from your social media followers? What do they ask for?
Stephanie: I have a few accounts - each with different priorities. Depending on the context, I get questions about history and politics - but on accounts where I share pictures, I often get questions about my journey. People ask me how long I've been transitioning or the types of changes hormone replacement therapy has brought. The most interesting questions along those lines often come from people who are trans themselves and in the process of deciding if they want to transition. In those cases, I try to answer as informatively as I can, and encourage people to do what is best for them and their situation.
Monika: When we look at the current moment in the history of the transgender movement, where are we exactly?
Stephanie: It's an incredible moment from a historical perspective - but also a scary one. Trans people have never been more visible, medical and institutional barriers are being chipped away at. In many places, it's never been more possible to live as your authentic self. But trans identities have been politicized and weaponized by reactionaries, and as a community, we have to face this backlash.
In the long view, I'm hopeful that we can continue to make progress. It's comforting to think that history always moves forward on issues around human rights, but there are plenty of examples where regressive policies DO win out - where fear and ignorance lead to bigotry. We live in a moment where powerful government leaders are working to criminalize gender-affirming care, where the world's most famous author has dedicated her platform to transphobia, and where so many people are indifferent or even hostile toward understanding the struggles of the trans community.
Monika: Is it possible to name some breakthroughs achieved by our trans sisters in the past that shaped the world that we are living in now?
Stephanie: This is a hard question for me to answer, mostly because the conception of a modern transgender identity doesn't neatly translate in history. That said, trans people have always existed in human society - and it's striking to note that they are often at the forefront of fights for civil rights. Obvious and famous examples are Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera in the United States. Their work helped to launch the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
"The decision to transition and come
out was the hardest one I ever made."
But there are some fascinating examples of trans women - and trans men - shattering barriers and creating opportunities for themselves to transcend gender conventions in earlier eras.
The Chevalier d’Éon was a trans woman who served as a French soldier and spy before being exiled in London. Eventually, she negotiated a return to France and was publicly recognized as a woman by the French monarchy in 1777.
Mary Jones, a trans woman and sex worker in New York City in the 1830s, appeared in court to defend herself against charges of grand larceny in a fully feminine attire - and faced intense hatred as a result.
Albert Cashier, a trans man and Irish immigrant to the United States, fought in the U.S. Civil War through 40 battles, before living the remaining decades of his life in his chosen identity. I think these and countless other historical examples show that gender-nonconforming people have always been a part of the flow of history.
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?
Stephanie: The decision to transition and come out was the hardest one I ever made. I worried about my career, my family, my relationships, and my friends. I wrestled with the decision for years, starting and stopping, and trying to convince myself that I could live fully in male identity. At one point, I'd even attained a prescription for hormones and blockers from a trans health clinic - only to lose my nerve and throw them away. But ultimately, I had to go through with it. And it did cost a lot. I faced backlash from my family and from some of my friends - and even though my partner was supportive, my entire future seemed at risk.
I was lucky enough to complete most of my transition during the COVID-19 Pandemic, where social distancing and avoiding in-person events became the norm. Having that space and time to get through my more awkward stages really helped. But adjusting to my new life also came with a risk to my safety. I've been harassed and assaulted several times - and in the worst case, I was terrified to even speak up in defense of myself over the fear that the sound of my voice could out me as trans and put me at an even greater risk.
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition?
Stephanie: My family was very mixed on the news of my transition. My younger sister is also trans, and she beat me in coming out by a few years. Her journey and experiences with our family paved the way for me - although my decision to come out certainly caught most of them by surprise. My father took the news amazingly well, with simple acceptance and support. My mother, and that side of my family, was much more complicated. The jury's still out on my mother, so to speak, but I am happy that in time my grandparents have come around, and I've resumed a relationship with them.
Monika: Isn't it ironic that the most vocal critics of our existence are trans-exclusionary radical feminists?
Stephanie: It's incredibly ironic and it's also frustrating that these voices keep getting platformed as if trans existence is some kind of debate. Another staggering irony is that TERFs have allied with conservative and regressive political elements to fight against trans rights - or even trans acceptance. These efforts have gone hand in hand with assaulting women's rights on a broader level, especially around issues connected to healthcare. It shows that this isn't an issue about feminism, it's about transphobia.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Stephanie: I think the most satisfying part of my experience with hormone replacement therapy are the mental effects. While I am happy for the physical effects it's had, I could never have imagined that HRT would bring me such a sense of inner peace. I wouldn't say that it brings happiness, but for me, it's been easier to live joyfully since I began with treatment.
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?
Stephanie: I know exactly what you mean. I am incredibly guilty of fixating on my appearance or agonizing over fears around how others might perceive me. Getting over that feeling is something I'm trying to work towards. Hopefully, I can arrive at a place of self-acceptance, if not self-love. I often joke with my partner that our bedroom mirror is a real bitch, and in some ways, I use humor to cope with pressures that I feel to look a certain way. I also have worked to take stock in the things I like about my appearance rather than fixating on negatives.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Stephanie: I grew up in the 90s and didn't really have any idea about what it meant to be transgender. One of the first memories I have around my gender identity actually came from the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. 2. My grandfather bought a copy of the game for me at a yard sale and it came with an instruction manual. Those old manuals explained the game and the characters, and one of the game's bosses - Birdo, had this description, "He thinks he's a girl and spits eggs from his mouth." I remember connecting with that line - well, not the eggs part, but the thinking I was a girl.

"I am incredibly guilty of fixating on my
appearance or agonizing over fears around
how others might perceive me."

One of the most notable examples I remember was in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I watched it at a friend's house when I was a kid, and I remember the movie's main villain was a portrayal of a trans woman. Jim Carey has a sexual interaction with her, finds out she's trans, and then vomits in an over-the-top fashion for an insufferably long scene. I remember feeling so torn by this - on one hand, it was theoretically possible to change your gender presentation - but on the other, this was a shameful, disgusting thing that people would hate you for. Especially at that time, there was a lot of mainstream hate and misrepresentation - and I definitely internalized some of that.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Stephanie: As far as a role model, I really have to look to my own sister. She had the courage to come out, face our family, and forge her own path years before I did. She was a real inspiration for me. For people I follow, I've really loved Susan Stryker, a historian whose work has really helped shape my own views on how to examine trans people in history. I also follow a lot of trans YouTubers. I've admired Natalie Wynn, ContraPoints, and always enjoy her work. She's voiced some thoughts and experiences connected to being transgender that I've deeply related to.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Stephanie: I LOVE fashion. I spent so many years of my life feeling detached from my day-to-day clothes - once I transitioned, I poured a lot of energy into building a wardrobe that made me happy. My partner and I frequent thrift stores and I'm always on the lookout for new clothes. I tend to like patterns and bright prints, and if the weather permits, I'm usually wearing a dress.
Monika: Do you often experiment with your makeup?
Stephanie: I try to keep my makeup pretty subtle, but I'm branching out more and more, mostly with different eyeshadow looks or contouring. Especially early in my transition, I wore a lot of makeup daily. Now, I wear it if I feel like it, and typically much less of it on a day-to-day basis.
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Stephanie: That depends entirely on the context. If I know the person, it always feels nice to get a compliment. If I'm passing by a stranger while walking my dog, I'd prefer they stay quiet. I especially like it if people compliment my fashion. I was at a work conference recently, and on the last day, one of my colleagues pulled me aside and told me they love my outfit and that every day of the conference, they'd loved my fashion choices. That felt amazing to hear! Also, I guess if I'm posting a picture to social media, it's typically nice to hear that I look good!
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Stephanie: I sure do! I was interviewing for a position at a university. It was by the camera in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and I was super nervous. In those situations especially, I fixate on how I think others must see me. I worried about my hair, my facial features, my voice, everything. I had a glass of water nearby to keep my mouth from getting dry and it took a few minutes into the interview for me to get out of my own head.
The interview ended up going OK and I was put at ease a bit when I saw pronouns in their profiles. Toward the end, in the section where interviewers say "do you have any questions for us?" I asked if the university fostered a good environment for LGBTQ+ employees. They gave me the honest answer that it was mixed. One interviewer even shared that they were a member of the LGBTQ+ community and they understood my concerns. Ultimately it was a fine experience, although I didn't end up working there.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Stephanie: I know it can be very difficult. Finding a worthwhile job is so much harder when you have to overcome bigotry and misogyny. Even in situations that end up being supportive - like my first interview after I transitioned - I still felt a lot of pressure and a sense of fear about going into a situation where I didn't know what to expect. I definitely never felt that sense of fear before my transition.
I also worry about the realities of seeking employment while trans. I had a friend tell me a story that haunts me to this day - she is around my age and also trans and worked a corporate job prior to coming out. While she was transitioning, she lost her job during a round of layoffs and struggled to find anything else. She told me she would get lots of interviews and had a good resume, but would never get a callback. To make ends meet, she had to cobble together several part-time jobs and turned to sex work when other options weren't available.
"I've read a lot of memoirs and
have thought a lot about writing
Unemployment and underemployment are real fears that trans people especially face. If I have any advice - and this is coming from someone who is incredibly lucky to be working her dream job as a historian - it would be to stay positive, use your connections, and keep trying.
Also, look for organizations that include trans people in their nondiscrimination language, or look for companies that advertise employee resource groups. Chances are, one of those groups will be for the LGBTQ+ community. In my own experience, things are improving for trans people in the corporate world, but I know there's a lot of progress still to make.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Stephanie: I'm a pretty political person, so I've been involved in volunteering with political organizations over the years - and there's certainly overlap with the LGBTQ+ community. I've also been involved with some local support groups and have made some connections there.
In my career, I've focused heavily on trying to make a difference. As an educator, I've worked to overcome misconceptions around Queer history. At my previous company, I worked to develop and run a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, and in my current position, I co-lead our company's LGBTQ+ employee resource group. In that work, I've organized meetings, planned company-wide educational efforts, and communicated directly with executive leaders in an effort to improve company culture and policies.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Stephanie: Love is everything, haha. It's funny because I've always thought of myself as an emotional person, but before my transition I sort of went through life actively limiting my emotions. I remember avoiding saying things like"I love you" to family members or friends and could only express myself fully with romantic partners.
One amazing part of transitioning is that I've been able to drop that attitude totally, and I can express my love more freely. I also think I feel my emotions more fully. In talking about love, I have to acknowledge my partner - who is the absolute love of my life and the most incredible person I've ever known.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Stephanie: I've read a lot of memoirs and have thought a lot about writing SOMETHING. I'm not sure it would be a memoir, but I am very interested in leveraging the historical research I've done into written work. The main barrier I have is just time. I've been so busy recording music, doing my day job, and living my life, it's hard to find the time to devote to authoring a book.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Stephanie: In the short term, I'm hoping to continue my outreach and educational work connected to LGBTQ+ history. We're in a critical time and pushing back against the current moral panic around trans issues is one of the most important things I feel I can do. In the long term, my partner and I are planning for a family. Maybe in 5 to 7 years, I'll be a mom - or if things don't go that way, maybe I'll have time to write that book!
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Stephanie: I can only really speak for myself here - and I want to emphasize that transitioning isn't right for everyone in every situation. But my advice to anyone struggling with their gender identity is that you owe it to yourself to consider your options. I don't have too many regrets, but one of my biggest is that I put off truly thinking about my gender identity for years. I fooled myself into thinking that I could get through my days in a masculine persona and still be whole. And even though transitioning was incredibly challenging, I wish with all my heart that I'd had the courage to embark on my journey sooner. You deserve a chance to live as your authentic self, so please explore your options.
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?
Stephanie: That sentiment resonates with me for sure. Ultimately, each individual should shape their own dreams and there is no one path that's right for everyone. Transgender people are especially unique and occupy identities along so many crossroads. We should be empowered to have dreams that go beyond any surgery and transcend any social conventions connected to the gender binary.
Monika: Stephanie, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Stephanie: Thank you, I love your blog and it's been an honor. Thanks for all you do!

All the photos: courtesy of Stephanie Bruning.
© 2022 - Monika Kowalska

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