Friday 3 March 2023

Interview with Nathalie Rettenbacher

Monika: Vienna, the beautiful capital of Austria, is the venue of today’s meeting with Nathalie Rettenbacher, an inspirational Austrian woman, comedian, and performer. Nathalie is a member of "Politically Correct Comedy Club" (PCCC*), Vienna's first queer comedy club, where she addresses her experiences as a trans woman in Austria. Hello Nathalie!
Nathalie: Hi Monika, what an honour to be part of your project and your blog. I think it is vitally important to gather and share positive stories about trans women. Thank you for doing that.
Monika: By the way, I love your orange hair. Is it your favourite colour?
Nathalie: Thank you so much! Orange has been my favourite colour for a long time I guess. I started dyeing my hair in that colour a few years ago and never looked back.
Monika: You grew up on a farm in Innergebirg, in the province of Salzburg, where as you described it is difficult to get direct sunlight for weeks in winter. Did you become a comedian to get more sunlight into your life?
Nathalie: I love that question! Innergebirg is not the name of the province, but a colloquial term for the mountainous districts of Salzburg. I left because I felt it was too small and too conservative to be able to live my life as a queer person. I lived in the city of Salzburg for a few years before coming to Vienna.
Only in Vienna I felt comfortable enough to come out as a trans woman. Somebody whom I unfortunately can’t remember once said transition didn’t solve any of my problems, but it made my problems worth solving. Doing comedy was always a dream of mine and it only became truly possible with transitioning. So maybe one could say transitioning brought enough sunlight into my life to do comedy.
"Doing comedy was always a
dream of mine and it only became
truly possible with transitioning."
Photo by Stefano Aliffi.
Monika: How did you end up being a performer at "Politically Correct Comedy Club" (PCCC*)?
Nathalie: I went to an open mic organised by PCCC*. My partner Em convinced me to go there. I had a lot of fun performing my comedy the first time and apparently it was well received. So Denice Bourbon, the founder of PCCC* asked me if I wanted to be part of the regular shows. I said yes and now I am part of it.
Monika: Do you think a great sense of humour is a valuable asset for transition? Do you often tell transgender jokes?
Nathalie: It helps, definitely. Also, it can be the other way around. Transitioning does a lot to develop one’s sense of humour, at least mine. I think being transgender is inherently funny. What could be more funny than being trans? To have experienced being both perceived as a man and a woman? To be in puberty while being an adult? To have experiences with different sets of genitalia? I often tell transgender jokes, frankly because being trans and transition is a big part of my life.
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?
Nathalie: I was really lucky. My parents were very accepting of me being trans. In terms of friends, I think I built the support system of my very supportive friends I had at the time a few years before coming out. Still, some bonds broke away unfortunately. I don’t think I know a single trans woman who didn’t lose contact with family members or friends because of her transition in one form or another.
The hardest thing about my coming out? Accepting who I was and who I am and not being ashamed about it. I knew from a relatively young age that I was trans but I was hiding it from everybody. I’m sure this behaviour was helpful, especially growing up in the countryside with no visible trans person I had access to. I am not sure I would have survived if I came out as trans in my childhood in this environment. But at some point, I had to begin to unpack all of this shame and self-hatred and come to terms that coming out was a thing I needed to do.
Monika: Nathalie is a beautiful name. What inspired you to choose it? 
Nathalie: Thank you. It’s actually a weird story. I really could not think of a name. Many of my trans friends and trans people in general have a close relationship with their name even before transition in the sense that they “just knew”. No, for me it was very different. I could not think of a name. So I needed some overly complicated process to determine my name. I modelled a “name tournament” after the football world cup happening at the time.
So my best friends at the time and I got together with some wine and played this “tournament”. So there were 32 (I think) names and they would face off against each other, with seeds, group stage, knockout stage, everything. When two names are pitted against each other my friends would speak in favour or disfavour of a name and of course, ultimately I would decide because it is my name after all. In the “final” Nathalie beat Amelie. I don’t remember the exact argument which decided it but a decision was made. I’m happy I chose Nathalie.
"My parents were very accepting
of me being trans."
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?
Nathalie: It’s hard. When I first started transitioning people would just stare at me the whole day long. I remember distinctly when I was going to voice therapy and after one session I was buying something at a shop and I felt really good about my voice and my presentation. The cashier was really nice to me and I for sure thought I passed to him at this moment.
I went back to the shop a few minutes later because I left something there. The guy said: “You forgot something, young man.” It haunts me to this day and however rare this has gotten, however well I pass, I second guess every encounter with people. So much of this was and is in my head anyway.
I try to just be very upfront about being transgender, so I don’t have to worry as much about presenting myself in a certain way. I have t-shirts in trans colours or one with “nobody knows I’m a transsexual”. Hiding being trans is not an option for me.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Nathalie: I was the first out transgender person I met in person, at least knowingly. On TV, I distinctly remember Kim Petras. She is a big star in the US now. She was even awarded a Grammy recently. It’s truly amazing what she achieved. I saw her on german speaking TV when I was maybe 11 or 12. She was 13 at the time and she was called “the world’s youngest transsexual” on the program. It left a lasting impression. I thought I can’t possibly be “really” trans, or whatever that means, nobody would believe me, and everybody would ridicule me. I was younger than her, she was in a big city in Germany whilst I was there in a small village in the Alps. This is why diverse representation matters.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Nathalie: I’m not sure I can name specific role models. I think so many trans people are role models. After all, we all overcame so much, even if it is totally different for each and every one of us. I admire someone being unashamedly trans. For me, overcoming the shame that was instilled in me by this cissexist, transphobic society was the hardest part of my transition. So I try to be a role model to all of those who are still fighting with that shame, myself included. I try to be as unashamedly trans as I can and be the trans woman that my closeted me at 6, 12, 20 years old would have needed to see.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Nathalie: Compared to a lot of places Austria is heaven for trans women, with emphasis on the comparison. It is relatively safe to live proudly trans in Austria. There are ways to get your legal gender recognized here as a binary trans woman.
There are many problems though. Gender recognition is often tied to degrading mental health evaluations. Quality and access to healthcare are partially abysmal. Getting a stable living wage-paying job or adequate housing can be very hard for a trans woman. Black trans women, trans women of colour, trans women refugees, disabled trans women, and trans girl minors are disproportionately affected by the things I mentioned.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours, or trends?
Nathalie: I’m not sure how to answer that question. I mostly just wear what I think I look good in. Orange and Red are my colours I think and I like to mix in blue as well.

"I wanna make my comedy bigger. I wanna be on stage. I wanna be seen. I want to
live solely from doing comedy and I wanna quit my day job."
Photo by Franziska Liehl.

Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Nathalie: I was nervous as hell. Being trans didn’t even come up in the interview. I got the job. It was more my nerves than actual bad things that would happen. Society teaches trans women that bad things will happen if we act in a feminine manner, that we get sanctioned immediately for it. I internalized that a lot so I was really surprised that it went well and that my womanhood wasn't questioned. 
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Nathalie: Know what you are worth. Being trans doesn't mean you are any less capable of the job than a cis person. Of course, in a transphobic society like ours it is sometimes necessary to compromise. We pay the price for being trans, unfortunately. Do what you have to do to survive and thrive. Be careful with more precarious jobs like sex work. Still, despite all the hardships, a bad job as a woman is way better than a good one where you are forced to play a male character.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Nathalie: Yes, I am. Most of the comedy shows I participate in are in gay or queer spaces. I do what I can to inform newly out trans people about navigating bureaucratic hurdles to transition or access to hormones. There are several groups I take part in, online and offline There are various meetups, events, and places. Vienna has a lot to offer for queer people, even more so in the pride month of June. The pride march is also really big.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Nathalie: Thank you for the question. Love is very important. My partner Em and I are together for more than 10 years. We actually found each other before our transitions in the same countryside district. I am so thankful that I have them in my life. We supported each other a lot through the years.
"I'm polyamorous and I am also very
thankful for my other partners."
Photo by Isabella Hewlett.
I'm polyamorous and I am also very thankful for my other partners. Love and compassion are also very important for me in a broader sense: love for my friends, for the queer community, for people with shared but also very different struggles.
A lot of Christians invoke the saying of love thy neighbor but many of them don't actually try to live by it. It's so often conditional on having the right religion, race, or gender. There is too little love and compassion in this world, especially for people who are and were raised as boys for instance.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Nathalie: Maybe I will, but not in the near future. I have a lot of life to live before sitting down and writing my memoir.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Nathalie: I wanna make my comedy bigger. I wanna be on stage. I wanna be seen. I want to live solely from doing comedy and I wanna quit my day job. I'm honestly amazed that I actually can imagine myself in 5-7 years. For a long time I for sure thought I wouldn't live to 30 and now I'm almost there.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Nathalie: I would recommend one step at a time, as cheesy as it may sound. Break every step you are afraid of down into smaller parts. Try to reach out to the community in some form. If you are too nervous to do it in person, do it in the anonymity of the internet. Get tips from other trans women for your specific concerns and worries. People are glad to help you. It’s gonna be ok.
Monika: Nathalie, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Nathalie: Thank you. I appreciate you reaching out to me and including me in this array of wonderful women.

All the photos: courtesy of Nathalie Rettenbacher.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

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