Interview with Liza Salazar - Part 2


Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Lisa: Let’s face it, I was so well repressed, I had little contact with other transgender persons. Thanks to the Internet and sites like Lynn Conway’s website “Transsexual Women Successes,” I was encouraged to see others who had “made it.” I read their stories and wondered if I would be able to succeed.
Honestly, I seriously doubted it and this depressed me horribly. I learned a lot from Lynn’s website and as time went by, there was more information available on the Internet that helped me understand more about myself. Let’s also remember that the word “transgender” itself was only coined less than twenty-five years ago. Therefore, I was gleaning relatively new information. Compared to the vacuum I grew up in, now there were mountains of resources. Unfortunately, as I will explain later, I refused to give myself permission to act on any of it.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Lisa: I came out to family and friends nine months before I transitioned. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best periods of my life.
With the exception of my wife, who had known about my ‘problem’ since about 1980, my coming out was a total shock and surprise to everyone else. I had done such a good job at hiding my secret by living as the model husband and father and respected member of society, nobody ever suspected anything. I found the process of disclosing equivalent to undressing in front of people — I felt terribly vulnerable.
I always feared I would be judged and thrown away and that my life would be over; that I would lose everything if and when people learned my secret. Like many others trans persons before me, I wrote a letter to help me explain things as clearly as possible. 
To my delight and surprise, I experience universal acceptance from all I came out to. I felt as if a huge load had been taken off my shoulders and I have never felt as loved and affirmed as I did going through the process. But it was an emotionally exhausting thing to go through.

Lisa in 2012.

Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life? What was the reaction of your spouse to your transition decision? What role does religion play in your life?
Lisa: My marriage lasted 37 years. My wife and I divorced one year after my surgery; she was my best friend for forty years. We met in California at a Bible study in 1971. We developed a very platonic relationship. At the time I knew I was moving to Canada to work with my older brother in a little over a year. A few months before I met her, I had a religious conversion experience that filled me with the hope I was going to be “normal” and that somehow Jesus was going to heal my gender problem — that was my sincere belief.
Imagine how grateful I was when I fell in love with her; to me, it was the answer to my prayers and I interpreted this as God beginning to correct the flaw in my brain. We were married in the Fall of 1974 and we settled in Vancouver. We had our first of three sons in 1976.
After the birth of our second son in 1979, and not seeing my gender struggle go away, I came out to my wife. It was a confession—that I felt inadequate as a man, that I had always been attracted to female things, etc. Since the word transgender and its accompanying definition was not available to me, this was the best I could do. Because of my Christian faith, I had compartmentalized this issue and categorized it as a spiritual struggle. That is how I tried to deal with it and for the next ten years, I tried as hard as I could to be the best man I could be with the love, help, and prayer support from my wife.

Lisa in 2012.

Monika: But you could not copy any longer...
Lisa: Disappointingly, no amount of prayer and self-discipline seemed to make any difference; I still had the same thoughts I always had. I felt defeated and like a hypocrite and this produced a depressing amount of guilt.
In view of my ongoing need to cope, my wife made some allowances and I purchased a few women’s undergarments, I only wore them in the privacy of our bedroom. I slept in them and the following morning, when I would revert back to male mode, I felt as if I was ripping my skin off. This was not a solution, any more than applying a small bandage strip to a gaping wound. 
Though my faith was the source of much guilt, I do credit it with keeping me sober of mind - I never engaged in any risky, addictive, or self-destructive behaviors.
Today I am both grateful for the life I had together with my ex-wife, and sad about the fact our marriage did not survive my complete transition. In the end, my wife was unable to live with me in a same-sex marriage. We still share three wonderful, loving, adult sons and two little granddaughters. It could be worse.
Monika: What is the attitude of the Christian religion to the transgender phenomenon? Is there any reference in the Bible in this respect?
Lisa: This, perhaps is what motivates me the most as an advocate — I want to help raise awareness among Christians that being transgender is not a sin. Truthfully, this was the issue that kept me from acting on my diagnosis twenty one years ago.
When they told me at the Vancouver Gender Clinic I had a serious case of gender dysphoria and the recommended course of action was for me to transition socially, medically, and surgically, I laughed. There was no way I could begin to contemplate making any of the changes on the list of things that according to them I needed to do. I opined that I was going to take my struggle to the grave and walked away resigned to my fate. Not only was I not prepared mentally, socially, or financially, I was not able to reconcile my diagnosis spiritually.
What did God have to say about this? All I could find in the Bible to help me deal with my problem left me convinced I would be sinning if I gave in to my gender struggle. I was not sure how to deal with what the doctors offered me as a solution. Until I solved this dilemma, I was not going to proceed with the transition.
Monika: And what happened?
Lisa: Fast-forward to 2006; I was in dire straights. I had come to the point where I started to fear having a total mental collapse — a serious breakdown of some kind. I didn’t want to lose control, but the alternative to transition still seemed untenable. I knew I was in trouble because I was thinking about death all the time... I wanted God to end my misery. Ironically, as I read and re-read the passage in Matthew chapter 19, which deals with marriage and divorce, I came to a new understanding of human sexuality.
The key to my spiritual impasse was Jesus’ comments about eunuchs. It was poignant to me that his brief mention on eunuchs in this conversation about God’s perspective on marriage was encapsulated with the caveat that not everyone would be able to understand what he was going to say.
Why was I drawn to that particular passage? It was in this passage from which I had extracted one verse out of context to use as the sledge hammer to pound myself into spiritual submission...“God created us male and female.” I used that phrase over the years in my vain attempt to “retrain my mind.” For your readers who are interested in this theological discussion, I invite them to my blog. Search for “eunuch” and you will find several blog posts on the subject at lisainbc.blogspot.com.

Lisa in 2013.

Monika: What inspired you to write "Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life"? 
Lisa: Writing a book was the farthest thing from my mind when I transitioned. The inspiration was an innocent exchange of emails with a very curious friend who wanted to know all the juicy details of my life.
It all started with a shortlist of questions in an email, which then turned into a string of follow-up emails with a never-ending list of questions. I protested that if she kept it up, I would have a book written before we knew it.
She found my story “riveting” and “inspirational” and pushed me to continue telling her my story. She suggested I copy the answers I had already sent her and paste them in chronological order and use this as a starting point. 
This exchange took place a couple of months before my surgery in Montreal. It was perhaps the best thing I could have done to prepare myself for surgery; it put me in a very tranquil state of mind. I found the process of writing about my life both cathartic and therapeutic.
Monika: Had you written anything about your transition before?
Lisa: I had never written anything down about my gender confusion for fear of it being discovered. There I was, and committing things to paper and ink was at times embarrassing, at times sad, and at times humorous. I did a lot of laughing and crying during the writing process. I finished the book in 45 days.
To decision to publish the book was another matter. When word got out that I had written my story, friends wanted to read it. I made a deal with every person I shared the manuscript with, that they tell me if they found any spelling errors or grammatical problems. In this way, the book got edited.
The feedback was consistently the same, that I should publish the book because it was going to help a lot of people, especially people who want to understand how one can be a transsexual Christian. My spiritual journey, which is one of the treads in the book, is what makes my book slightly different from other transgender stories.
Monika: Having transitioned yourself, what would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Lisa: More than anything, I am cognizant that not all transgender persons have the same level of access to medical and surgical transition as I have been blessed with.
Additionally, there are many other barriers to transition which prevent many from ever achieving the congruence they so desperately need. Speaking from a position of privilege is something I am reluctant to do, especially since I have received heartbreaking letters and emails from trans women who tell me they envy me for one reason or another; It is all very humbling.
There is another painful reality that also tempers my answer to your question... even if one has access to all the care to transition medically and surgically, there will always be some whose bodies will always be impossible to retrofit.
I know two trans women who began their transition but changed their minds after they realized how impossible it was going to be for them to never draw attention to themselves. Both of these women were over 6 feet three inches tall and were large persons. They have had to pay a huge emotional and psychological price.

Lisa's blog: lisainbc.blogspot.

For me, one of the most important things I felt I needed to do was lose weight and have my beard removed. The total cost for 300 hours of painful electrolysis was over twenty thousand dollars. This cost was more than what my medical plan paid for my bottom surgery. I know this cost is a deal-breaker for many. I also had facial feminization chin reduction. This also had a substantial price tag.
Again, for me, these costs were necessary; I needed to have the confidence to present as authentically as possible. I wish I could wave a wand whenever I meet a trans person who has had to forego those things that could improve how they present and have accepted their fate with courage and grace; I wish for them what I have been able to do. Do you see why it is so difficult for me to answer this question and to offer advice?
Monika: Yes, I do!
Lisa: However, there is one word of encouragement I want to give, make an effort to stay healthy. This by far is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It doesn't cost you anything and it will make an incredible difference if you should decide to transition. I have been physically active for 20 years — I jog, walk and do bodyweight exercises four times a week. With all my interactions with doctors over the last five years, one thing I have been congratulated for is my level of fitness. You can do it too.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Lisa: Yes, I am a very happy person. I know this is a cliché, but it is true to say that I have never been as comfortable in my own skin as I am today. The only regret I have is not that I wish I could have transitioned sooner, but that I lost my best friend. I miss my wife very much and at times I feel very lonely without her.
My consolation is that I am still alive and life is good and I am passionate about helping make the path wider and smoother for trans persons (and their families) who are following behind. Peace.
Monika: Lisa, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: Courtesy of Lisa Salazar.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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