Thursday, 11 May 2023

Interview with Lea Aymard

Monika: My today’s guest is a Slovenian transgender rights activist. Lea Aymard is a Program Coordinator at Transfeminist Initiative TransAkcija Institute, an organization that provides support, empowerment, and alliance of transgender and gender non-conforming persons in Slovenia. It is the first and only non-governmental organization devoted specifically to the human rights of transgender persons in Slovenia. Hello Lea! Thank you for accepting my invitation.
Lea: Thank you very much for the invitation! It’s an honor to have piqued your curiosity!
Monika: I am always eager to learn about how my sisters are doing in other countries. Is it challenging to be a transgender woman in Slovenia?
Lea: Yes, of course! Like anywhere else, trans people are heavily discriminated against in Slovenia. Slovenia is quite unique because of its very small size as a country, a very traditional and homogeneous society, but with a rich queer heritage.
The small size of Slovenia, both in terms of surface area (20,271 square kilometers) and population (2 million), means that trans people cannot remain anonymous. Slovenia is very rural and has only a few towns. Slovenian society is very homogeneous; everyone knows everybody, and everyone is a potential neighbor, colleague, schoolmate, or distant family member. It’s a beautiful and human-sized country. However, beneath the charming exterior lies a very conservative, patriarchal, Christian culture. As a French expatriate, when I came here 20 years ago, I discovered a xenophobic and sexist society where people strongly rely on a binary and bio-essentialistic vision of sex and gender. The relationship between Slovenian people and transness (especially in the countryside) is very archaic: you’re supposed to be what you were born as, to want to be "normal" and binary. In some extreme cases, I have seen trans youngsters forced by their families to undergo an exorcist ritual.
What complicates the lives of trans people here is also the language, which is very binary. It’s almost impossible to express yourself without referring to your sex assigned at birth. Transitioning here is made very hard by psychiatrists in charge of trans people. It’s difficult to find them, and it takes a long time to get through their gatekeeping. They subjectively exclude or slow down people who have transphobic environments, other mental health diagnoses, or nonbinary people (they declared to us in a meeting that nonbinary isn't a real identity).
"When I came out five years ago, there
was no public trans woman activist."
Trans women are especially targeted by TERFs or extreme right-wing movements. When I came out five years ago, there was no public trans woman activist. Lately, though, this has been changing with many trans people coming out in the national media. Since COVID, we have observed at TransAkcija Institute a rising number of trans people looking for information and/or support, especially youngsters. They come to us at younger ages, and it seems that the new generations of trans people are encountering more understanding conditions among their peers. As a trans activist, mother, and sex worker, I am not very happy living here, but I’m staying for my children.
Monika: Are you happy about the legal status of transgender people in your country?
Lea: Slovenia has legal and administrative measures in place that make legal gender recognition available to trans people. At the time of speaking, the medical aspect of transition is still problematic but in comparison to some other countries with better medical procedures, Slovenia offers a shorter waiting list to get the first psychiatric appointment. The legal gender recognition framework has existed for a long time and could be corrected soon with the depathologization of transness. Altogether, the legal status of transgender people currently scores 17/30 on the TGEU map, which is average but could be evolving soon.
Monika: How about health care for the transgender community? Is the Slovenian health system ready to provide medical services?
Lea: While the Slovenian health system does provide some medical services to trans people, it is far from sufficient. For instance, it doesn't cover hair removal on the face, which is a crucial need for many trans women. While hormones and some surgeries are available in Slovenia, trans people often have to seek treatment abroad for more specialized services. Unfortunately, medical personnel in Slovenia often lack knowledge and understanding about the existence of trans people and nonconforming bodies, which can make seeking medical care a traumatic experience for trans individuals. Even specialists who work with trans people often hold a binary and bio-essentialistic view of their work and patients. 
Monika: When preparing myself for this interview, I tried to find some information about the Slovenian transgender community but I was not too successful. I came across the TransAkcija website and the memoir of Salome Ćuća Žentil, probably one of the most well-known transgender women in your country. Are there any other individuals and initiatives that contribute to the visibility of transgender folks in your country?
Lea: Yes, Salome is considered a pioneer in the Slovenian trans community and played a significant role in raising awareness about trans people in the country. However, since the establishment of the first trans project by Legebitra, called TransAkcija, in 2016, the trans community in Slovenia has grown significantly. Another group called Kvartir also began meeting around the same time. The initial goal of TransAkcija was to organize support groups and build a community, which has now led to a rise in trans visibility in the media. Today, there are many trans individuals who are publicly out and contributing to the visibility of the community in Slovenia.
Monika: I read EVERYDAY LIFE OF TRANS PERSONS IN SLOVENIA, an interesting research paper produced by TransAkcija. According to the research, one of the lowest levels of support for trans persons come from teachers (8%) and professional workers in school (2%), which I find quite common for Central and Eastern Europe. Is there any way how we could change it?
Lea: The low levels of support for trans individuals in schools are concerning, and I believe that one of the crucial steps to addressing this issue is to fight cisnormativity and include trans people in school books. However, in my opinion, medical personnel must be updated about the reality of gender and sex being non-binary, which is now a proven fact by biology. Until this understanding is prevalent in the medical field, it will be challenging to include it in school books. It seems logical in that context that educational institutions, mostly traditional, are perceived by trans people as unsafe spaces.

"The low levels of support for trans individuals in schools
are concerning."

Monika: TransAkcija seems to put a lot of emphasis on the transfeminist cause. I always have a challenge with how to address it myself. According to the TERF ideology, I am not a woman, though I feel like a woman, legally I am a woman, and I underwent gender reassignment surgery. Do you have the same debate within the feminist movement in Slovenia?
Lea: Yes, TransAkcija places great importance on promoting trans-feminist values, and we strive to embody these values in our work. Unfortunately, we do have some TERFs in Slovenia.
Two years ago, we worked on a project focused on the rise of anti-gender movements and hate speech, during which we visited women-only organizations such as shelters and safe houses. Some of the workers at these organizations define womanhood solely by birthing and often exclude trans men from manhood and trans women from womanhood. These individuals are typically second-wave feminists, intellectuals, politicians, or artists who publicly proclaim that trans women are not women and that trans men are really women. Bio-essentialism is a fundamental tenet of their ideology, which asserts that genitals come in only two forms and determine one's identity.
According to this belief, regardless of one's thoughts or feelings, identity is always determined by the genitals with which one is born. They fail to acknowledge how sex is determined by chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics, and how the sex assigned at birth takes into account only the length of the genitals. This focus on genitalia reduces sex to a solely reproductive aspect, which is only one aspect of biological sex. In my opinion, the rhetoric of TERFs is incoherent, but it is effective in sowing doubt about trans people in society.
Monika: Many of us live the lives of wives, mothers, and daughters, trying to forget about our past. You have decided to be an advocate of transgender rights and be vocal about our positive image in society. Have you ever felt the temptation of being in the closet, being a woman rather than a transgender woman?
Lea: Like many trans women, I used to be very transphobic towards myself. I wanted to be a woman, not a transgender woman. I saw it as an inferior level of existence. However, my trans counselor opened my eyes to cisnormativity and systemic transphobia, and I came to admire those who stood up against the whole of society. I decided to be that person in the name of freedom and respect for all people, and it inspired me to give back to the community. Today, I would feel constrained by the label of a "stealth" woman.
"Like many trans women, I used to be
very transphobic towards myself."
Instead, I see myself as a non-binary trans woman. I enjoy presenting in a binary, stereotypical way as a female, but I reject cisnormativity as part of my identity. The idea that I'm "passing" makes me uncomfortable because I don't believe that "women" exist in the way cis people see them. At the time of my transition, I was also working for national television, which gave me access to media and communication knowledge.
Additionally, I was not living in my country of birth, which gave me greater freedom of speech than Slovenian citizens have. Finally, I was disgusted by my transition experience, and I did not want anyone else to go through the same thing. Knowing that others may not have access to the same resources that I did pushed me to support others. I feel that my urge to help others comes from my desire for someone to have helped me with my trans identity before I turned 36.
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?
Lea: I did lose my job, my wife, and many people I knew. I was afraid of losing them, and when it happened, it was really terrible for me. However, with hindsight, I believe it was a good thing that I'm not doing the work I used to do and that I am divorced. It gave me better opportunities, and I don't regret it. What I lost then and regret is a certain innocence and naivety I used to have. I used to feel like a part of society, even if I didn't like it. I used to be a person with the privilege of thinking that one day it will be better. However, I'm not so sure anymore, and I'm disillusioned.
Monika: Why did you choose Lea for your name? Are you a STAR WARS fan?
Lea: You got me! Actually, I had another name first, but my ex-wife hated it. So she chose 10 names and asked me to pick. I really liked the 3-letter name, and yes, Princess Leia is probably one of my first role models!
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition?
Lea: Yes, they were. My mother is a psychologist, so she was skeptical at first: how could she fail to notice this? My parents declared vehemently that they support me whoever I am, but they didn't want to listen to who I was. With time, I felt more and more uncomfortable in their company. We had a lot of discussions and some fights. This was really heavy on me. They were willing to accept me at their own condition: they can do as many mistakes with my pronouns and name as they wanted to, and they would talk and think about me as a boy until my transition. For them, I was the father of my children, and I would always be their little son. I needed to cut all contact with them for a few years before they managed to understand that I have been a woman since my birth.
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?
Lea: I was really afraid of not passing before the transition. I thought that I couldn't cope if I failed to pass. I have no real insight into how to cope with the urge of passing because I have trouble resisting it. I have the privilege of passing in most situations, and I am lucky enough to have good genes. It makes me worried that I'm not inclusive or representative of a part of the community that has a harder situation than me.

"I was really afraid of not passing before
the transition."

I regularly recall my experiences during the first year of transition when I wasn't passing to not forget. Anyway, I'm so publicly out there that only the people on the street don't know I'm trans. It feels horrible when people treat you as another sex. It feels like a little part of yourself dies. To be exposed to the constant reminder that you are not what people expect is heavy on mental health. On the opposite, when you pass, it feels incredibly good. It's better than sex, better than drugs. It's not fair.


All photos: courtesy of Lea Aymard.
Main photo: MUD Studio Slovenija, makeup: Nina Kozul.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog