Interview with Gabrielle Claiborne - Part 2

Monika: I guess that one aspect is to have a set of rules developed by the management but maybe more important, is how these rules are observed, so for example, I would not have to fight against my female co-workers over my right to use the same restroom.
Gabrielle: Absolutely Monika! While creating inclusive facilities is one critical organizational best practice step, it’s not the end-all-be-all solution. Organizations are also recognizing the importance of developing inclusive policies around these facilities, thus creating the expectation of how they are to be used by everyone in the workplace. Further, these policies, in addition to employee personal cultural competency training, are critical in informing everyone in the workplace on why it’s acceptable for a TGNC individual to use a restroom that coincides with their gender identity (an internal knowing of our gender) rather than their sex assigned at 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?
Gabrielle: Unfortunately, I feel the media (as a result of their lack of understanding of the TGNC experience) has perpetuated the myth that we are to look like and fit into our binary culture (the belief that there are only two genders, male and female). So much so, that anything unlike the strict culturally acceptable masculine and feminine gender expressions are frowned upon. When in fact, when you look at our community we are as diverse as the different species of butterflies. Too bad humanity hasn’t yet evolved to the point of admiring human diversity the same way we revel in the diversity of the plant and animal kingdoms!
I feel it is these narrow cultural norms that make “passing” an issue for us. In response, many of us pursue various aspects of physical transitions to create that internal/external alignment that resonates with us...many times to fit into our binary culture. And while these steps are affirming for many, not all TGNC individuals have the resources to pursue such luxuries. This is why I push back on questions related to surgeries. Being trans is not about the surgeries that we may or may not elect to pursue, it’s all about - and only about - our gender identity...who we know ourselves to be.
So how do we respond to cultures that try to dictate how we show up? I believe the best way is to own our uniquenesses through our visibility. We are seeing this manifest with the growing emergence of non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. They are pushing cultures' understanding of the expansiveness of gender by proudly owning and displaying their cutting-edge gender expressions. They are emphatically stating, “gender does not look like just one thing!” Their courageous acts of visibility are demanding respect for all our differences. So, owning our differences isn’t about one being right and the other being wrong. Rather, it’s about being seen for who we are in all of our beautiful uniquenesses!

"I feel the media has perpetuated the myth that we
are to look like and fit into our binary culture."

Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Gabrielle: Yes!! As is the case with many of us, if it weren’t for those who went before us, giving us permission to own our own truths, who knows where we’d be today. That role model for me was Laverne Cox. I talk about what I learned from her when it came to really accepting myself in Chapter 3 - “Learn to Love Yourself.”
Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Gabrielle: I certainly do! Debbie Lynn was another client of Ramona’s, the woman who provided a dressing service here in Atlanta. Ramona introduced us. There were a lot of similarities in Debbie Lynn’s and my journeys.... we both worked in the construction industry, we were similar in age, she too was married and had children and we both were doing the best that we could with the knowledge that we had in balancing a dual life. It was so refreshing and liberating to know that I was “not the only one” who was navigating this scary terrain. We became good friends and ended up being advocates for each other’s cause. 
Confident in knowing that I had someone who understood the barriers and fears that confronted me, Debbie Lynn inspired me to lean into my journey with greater intention and fervor and take those first frightening steps. I’ll never forget when she shared with me a letter she had written to her wife, coming out to her. At that fragile, early stage in my journey, I thought to myself, “Wow! How courageous! I could never do anything like that!” But I got there! This dear friend has since passed, yet I think of her often and am grateful for the impact she had on my life. This was a lesson to me that we never know whose life we’re touching.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Gabrielle: I find the timing of your question ironic. Because, for the last 4 years, the US TGNC community has been the target for an onslaught of discriminatory actions perpetrated by our nation’s administration. According to the NCTE, there have been over 70 acts of discrimination committed toward TGNC Americans. As well, 2020 has been the deadliest year for the US TGNC community with at least 32 TGNC individuals being brutally murdered, with the majority of those victims being our trans sisters of color. And we know that number is likely even higher since many trans people killed by violence are misgendered by police and can be misreported in the media.
Yet, despite these statistics, more and more trans people are coming out. But we’re not just coming out, we’re showing up in key places! In 2020, there were at least 5 transgender women elected to public office.
And even more promising news is, this past November, we elected a pro-equality President and Vice President in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. There were record voter turnouts and statistics show that the LGBTQ community turnout was one of the deciding factors in the election.
So while our existence has and continues to be threatened, we are a resilient community. And as we forge ahead in our visibility, we will make it possible for those following in our footsteps to have a greater stake in the matters that affect us.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Gabrielle: I don’t JUST like fashion...I LOVE fashion! Among my friends, I have a reputation for being a fashionista!! Because of my tall, thin frame, I prefer form-fitting styles that accentuate my figure. And while I can sport a ponytail, skinny jeans, a casual blouse, and flats (which has been my pandemic go-to attire), I will never turn down an opportunity to dress to the nines for an evening out on the town with a tall, handsome man. I’ve found that White House Black Market works well for me clothing-wise while Shoedazzle and JustFab are my go-to online shoe boutiques. As far as preferred colors go, I resonate with a winter palette.
"I don’t JUST like fashion. I
LOVE fashion! Among my
friends, I have a reputation for
being a fashionista!"
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Gabrielle: Who doesn’t like to be complimented on their looks, right? The only types of visual compliments that don’t resonate with me are those that are related to me being trans. For example, if someone makes the comment, “You’re so beautiful! I would have never guessed that you were trans!” Or the comment, “Wow! You’re so tall!” I consider these statements microaggressions because they imply that trans women can’t be beautiful or cisgender women can’t be tall.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Gabrielle: This is a great question and one that I get asked a lot. And unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. I do, however, offer some recommendations in my book. But if I could say one thing to support an individual afraid of transitioning, it would be, don’t allow the weight of the journey to overwhelm or deter you from taking those courageous first steps, thus keeping you stuck in a place of inauthenticity.
Rome was not built in a day. So in much the same way, your magnificence will not emerge overnight. A good friend once told me, “Gabrielle, don’t lose sight of the steps that you have to take every day as they will ultimately lead you to your transition goal. You can not bypass those steps, so embrace the moment and live in it fully. The steps that you take today will determine your tomorrow. So embrace the journey, not the destination.” This wise counsel has served me well and allowed me to step into my own authenticity.
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?
Gabrielle: Monika, I would go so far as to say, “our dreams are not relegated to the operating table.” While pursuing certain aspects of physical transitions are meaningful for many transgender people, surgeries do not define trans people, nor do they define our capacity as human do great things. If we, as a community, buy into this cultural misconception, that being trans is about undergoing physical transitions, then we perpetuate the very thing we’re trying to free ourselves from. First and foremost, we are human beings - and being transgender is only one aspect of the multifaceted dimensions of our beautiful existence.
Monika: Gabrielle, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thank you so much!
Gabrielle: Thank you Monika for “doing what is yours do,” elevating the voices of transgender people, and advancing equity and equality for our community.


Main photo credit: Kris Janovitz Photography and Jack Kinley.
All the photos: courtesy of Gabrielle Claiborne.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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