Joni Weiss interview 2 I've got some of the threads that we wanted to follow up on last time, do you have any
that you want to follow up on, specifically? I've got feminism, gender issues coming and going, the significance of the internet? Ok! Well, feminism was kind of the only thing I really took notes on, but I mean, I've got one other thing. One thing that I wanted to talk about just a little bit was the… what I see as the interaction between sexual orientation and gender identity and the closet, being in the closet and coming out and the whole self discovery thing, because it was really kind of mind boggling for me. Ok. We also wanted to talk about emotional reactions, and if you're comfortable with that being caught, we love to catch stuff like that, because it adds that human element to it. I'm fine. If you want we can stop still, but that is kind of stuff that we'd love to get. Are you recording yet? Yup! Oh we are? Ok. So we're good to go. (arranging the space, muttering) ok, I'm ready! Well thanks for joining us again Joni, it's great to see you again! So we had some threads we didn't get to finish up on in your last interview, and one of those threads was feminism, and you have some thoughts on the significance of that in your experience. Do you want to talk on that a little bit? Sure. I have been aware, I think, since before I started the transition that a lot of, especially, well, primarily, Male to Female transexuals like myself, are not seen as capable of being of value in feminism, of embracing the values of feminism. And I just want to talk about that because to me feminism is really, really close to my heart. My mom was a feminist, my grandmother was a feminist, and I was raised to… my mom instilled the values of feminism in me especially, particularly the equality of the sexes
and that a woman can be the householder, that the roles, the male and female roles don't have to be the way they were traditionally, the way society when I was growing up believed them to be. So my mother was a tomboy, and it's just… so anyway, back to transgender people being feminist, I recently was accused of - via a lesbian friend of mine - of not being, of being anti-feminist because of the way I present myself sometimes. And it just made me, it took me back, and I was like… how could you think that I'm not a feminist just because I present the way I do? It doesn't mean I'm not capable of being feminist. So what is it about your presentation that she thought was anti-feminist? It's basically when those of us who are Male to Female transexuals start to transition, we start to embrace more color, more… you know we put more emphasis on our clothes, what we wear, we like to wear very feminine clothes, some people, not all, but some of us wear high heels, beautiful heels of different kinds, and dresses, and things like that, and it's not just the clothes, but as we transition we embrace the female role, the more traditional female roles in society. Not all of us, I mean I'm generalizing. And I have an answer to that, and that is that, well, one of my friends in the adult transgender group had explained it to me recently and I thought her explanation was really pretty good. She said, "We live our whole life being told that we can't wear lace, we can't wear satin, we can't wear heels, we can't wear make-up, we can't be feminine in any way, shape or form. And once we get the green light, once we are free, we just totally run for it. We embrace it, we enjoy it, we love it, we play in the female sandbox." You know? And some people stay there their whole lives. And I think most of us at some point after our transition kind of normalize more. You know? And we take what we like about… just like you take what you like about being male, like masculine, and discard what you don't want, what you don't feel fits you. And I think as time goes on during on during our transition, I think most of us, we find that which works for us, and we find what doesn't work for us, just like any woman growing up would. And the other thing is that being a feminist has nothing really to do with how I present myself. And it has nothing to do with occasionally appreciating when somebody opens the door for me. It has nothing to do with that. It has more to do with, to me, in my mind, feminism has to do with valuing the feminine, and the feminine spirit, valuing the feminine nature of human beings, and regardless of gender, and regardless of genitalia, and it has to do with not judging people and putting people in boxes on the basis of their genitalia, on the basis of their gender, on the basis of what they have on their driver's license, or the basis of how they present themselves. So to me, I am a feminist, because I believe strongly in the fact that we are all inherently equal. And so there is no… all the divisions that we have, divisions of labor, and divisions of roles in society, are all man-made. That's my whole thing about feminism. And that's what I wanted to talk about. It sounds like it's a question of who gets to define what feminism means?
Yes! And I think it's an elusive concept. I think that different people have different ideas of what feminism is. It's just that I have a reaction when I hear people saying that we in the transgender community, that we are not capable of understanding feminism. And it gets back to the other thing that we don't see as much today that people who transition before I did, ran into issues with women who make the distinction between transgender women and women-born-women, and to the extent that we're not one of them - that doesn't happen as much anymore, but it used to happen a lot. Apparently. From what I hear. I think it might be sort of a leftover thing… I think it's really based on misunderstandings about who we are. People see us start to transition, and they see us… you know, when we go on hormones, medically, physically, we're going through puberty again. So when we're female to male, or male to female, once we start the hormones, we're going through puberty again, with all the emotions, and all the things that occupy the attention of somebody who's going through changes like that. Our bodies are changing, and we have new opportunities that we didn't have before. So do you think that that opinion that was shared by your friend is something that has undergone some evolution in the past few years, ten years? Well, I think probably just in the last… I'm not sure. Because my transition, I started transitioning two and a half years ago, and I wasn't really aware of the community before then. So from what I understand, and from my experience, things are changing now, so it's something that's still… there is a difference between people like me who transition later in life, so I transitioned, started to transition when I was 51, and I'm 53 now. A lot of the people in the adult transgender group are between late 30s and 60s, you know. So we went through a whole period where many of the people in this group married, went in through the military, maybe went on missions, had children, and tried all that time - all that time we tried our best to be the good male person, or female as the case may be, and we lived quite a bit of our lives (break) So many people in my age range, in the adult transgender group, went through quite a few life experiences, very invested in the role of being, of presenting as male, or their birth gender, and you know, we come into our transitions with a lot of baggage from our current life. So by contrast, many of the younger people, and I'm talking about the youngest people who are aware of their gender that we see on TV, you know, like 5, 6, 7 years old that we've seen on TV, to people in our youth group here, who are in their teens, early 20s, you know, up to maybe 30, and I don't know really what the cut-off is. But the thing about them that's really so cool is that to them, they never bought into the gender binary, and I'm generalizing, of course, but they rejected the gender binary. And many of the kids today are starting to come out earlier and earlier in their lives, they're more comfortable, some of them, are comfortable still kind of few in the state of Utah,
probably, coming out in middle school or high school, and just starting to express themselves the way they feel. What do you think it is that happened that enabled people to come out much younger? I think the biggest thing that happened was the internet, in that there's such an explosion of information on everything you can imagine, including gender studies and transgender issues, and sexual orientation issues. There are online communities now that people can go to, people are aware of, and they can talk to other communities where people have the same feelings they have, and they can read stories about people who they can identify with and say, that's me! And all the people who are buying hormones on the internet too which is the other thing… but the Internet is the biggest thing. There's so much information on there, and while researching, well… let me go back to the adult group. When we were younger, when I was younger, there was no Internet. And there were articles in the paper and there were discussions of people like Christine Jorgensen, who was ex-military and went to Amsterdam or something… I can't remember. Someplace in Europe and got her surgery and came back. And there was, I remember, in middle school there was what we called Junior High School, there was a woman who was either a cross dresser or a transwoman who walked by my house, like every weekend, and she'd go up to, what was that bar on Main Street, on like 200 South or something like that…? Can't remember the name of the bar. Radio City or something like that. And she would go up there and my best friend and I would follow her, like from a couple blocks back, we didn't want to alarm her, but we were curious. And so that was all I knew. That was it. There was no Internet, there were no books that I knew of, and there was no information. So all the sexologists and researchers on sex and sexuality and everything, none of them even talked about that at all. So it wasn't even in the book, you know? Like the books that my mom had on sexuality. We didn't have that. So we hid most of our lives, we kind of internalized it rather than researching and understanding that it's another normal. That we're not freaks. We internalized it, we made it something in ourselves, and we, I felt that I would never be able to be that. You know? To live openly as female. I knew that I would take it to my grave. And I just had to do the best I could with what I had, with the life I had. But then the internet came along, and I started researching it. When do you remember your first time using the internet as a tool of connection, or a vehicle of self expression, of whatever? It was probably back in… I was living in Denver, probably about 2004, so it wasn't all that long ago. It wasn't that long before I came out. And the first information I found was really porn, of course. Actually I saw these, what they called she-males, and some of them looked pretty, but it wasn't me. I couldn't identify with them. But I kept researching and I finally found, I'm going to try to remember names, website… She's a scientist actually who worked at IBM, was fired from IBM for being transgender, went on
to work at the really famous lab, and I can't remember the name of the lab… and she developed some of the technology that's used in computers today, the VLSI, Very Large Scale Integrated circuits, and she invented some of that technology, after she transitioned. So that was really cool. And I read her story, and I read other people's story. And because she was kind of a techie, I was in computers, and I really kind of identified with her. And her story was much like mine, you know, living much of my life, much of her life one way, in the closet, and then figuring out a way to transition. And then I read about other people. Reading about Marcy Bowers, who ended up being my surgeon, I read about other people. Reading those stories that really kind of resonated. What do you think is the effect that… this is the effect of the internet on your personal development, and coming out, and coming into… How do you think the internet has affected the direction of our community building, of our equal rights movements? Wow, yeah. There has been this… it's been wonderful, I mean ok, when I first came out, there was a site called "You are Not Alone." And there were some other sites there, but I had this little community on You are Not Alone, of transgender people, and cross dressers, and transgender, transexuals, and other people, but none of them were in Salt Lake. At least none of the people in Salt Lake would ever message me back. So the people that I did get to know were all like living on the East Coast and other places. I had a friend in India. Now, we have Facebook, and Myspace, and those alone have, especially Facebook, has become such a wonderful tool for organizing. Remember last year, in the aftermath of Prop 8, here in Salt Lake, within 2 days, they organized over 3,000 people here in Salt Lake. And it was amazing - it was amazing to go down there and be part of that and realize that most of those people, all of those people got there either by word of mouth, or Facebook, or direct e-mail. So that is probably the prime example, I think. And in the past year since then, because I've only been on Facebook since just before my surgery until now, so my observation has been that since then, we've been using it to organize events, so it's like we have an event like, oh, the election, some of the primaries, you know, going and walking in people's districts, you know, organizing the walks door to door, walking in people's districts, talking about candidates' support of GLBT issues - was done on Facebook! And so it's really cool. It's really - there's nothing like it. I mean it really blows e-mail out of the water. You have online communities that you're talking about developing, ones that you had with people who were not in Salt Lake City, and then it was only later that you found offline communities of face to face interactions. How do you think, having participated in both, how they interact with each other, having an off-line and an on-line persona… Well, for me, I felt that personal interaction - I needed that. I mean, you need to have that personal interaction with somebody else who's going through the same thing, or with a mentor. I can say that when I first came to the Pride Center before I came out, and started going to one of the adult transgender groups, I was scared to death! It was
totally unlike being online, and only people you wanted to know knew. And in contrast, I walked into a room full of people, none of whom I knew, and sitting in that - it was the first time I sat in a group of people who were going through transition who some of them were dressed rather badly, and had really awful make-up on, and I went as my male persona, and first off I got the idea that I was going to be ok. You know, because there were people going through the same thing I was here in my city. And there was a place I could go, the Utah Pride Center, and to me, the word that comes to my mind is it was a sanctuary. It was a safe haven for me. Because I'd go there, as I drove up, I would really be careful to see what other cars were on the road, because I have a friend who lives two blocks away, and I didn't want him to know. And so, once I got onto the property, I'd park way in the back, and then go to my meeting, but it was a safe haven. The online community can't give me that. And the other thing is that I met people, and I met my friend Blair, who became, she kind of took me under her wing, and became my mentor. She and her wife welcomed me into their home. I spent about a year going up to their home in Layton once every Sunday for dinner. And then we'd have long discussions afterwards. So there's really no substitute for that personal interaction. Can you talk about what that means, to have a mentor? It's like anything - we can read a whole bunch of stuff on the internet, and we can look at pictures of other people, and we can watch other people in our community and see what they're going through, but when we interpret what we read, and we interpret what we see, we put our own spin on it and everything. And I think the value of having a mentor is that they can give insight into our own transition, and they can be a listening person Blaire was really good at listening to me, and other people were really good at listening to me, and then coming back with reassurances that I was going to be ok. And that I learned a lot of things, I don't know if they really would have sunk in otherwise, the most important thing being that everyone's transition is unique, and that just because, like, A B and C people go on hormones and go full time, and go have their surgery, and go have different feminization surgeries or whatever, that I don't have to do that. That every step that I take is mine to take the time to be aware of myself, be self aware, and to realize, to come to the realization, of what my next step is, rather than, well, everybody's doing it, why shouldn't I? So she taught me not to follow the herd. And I think mentors are really good for that. The other thing that they can really be helpful with, and I've mentored quite a few people, all unofficial mentoring, just kind of after adult groups we kind of gather together and talk, and it's like when we're transitioning, we miss some things, so there are a lot of things that are subtle things, some not so subtle. It's really hard to tell somebody that they need to actually go do their make-up differently. And so to become close enough to them to become a friend and do that… or they might want to start at least waxing their arms, because they're really hairy, and everything else looks really wonderful, but they have these big burly arms. So there's things like that. Marcy Bowers sometimes when she's on I've heard her say, and this really makes sense, you can't really tell somebody, when people are transitioning they don't, we don't, really
realize, all the things that women do that they learn early in life, and those of us who are transitioning later in life are like, sometimes not getting it. Like you know, when you're wearing a skirt, you don't sit down the same way as you did when you were wearing jeans. And things like that. I think it's mostly that personal touch, like I can ask questions, people can ask me questions, and I think nowadays what seems to happen in our adult group is that the people coming in have a lot of mentors. Recently we had a new person, well, she wasn't new, but it was the first time she had come dressed. And she had a lot of questions, and she was really scared about what's next. And everything at that point in her transition, like mine, was really scary, there was nothing good that was ever going to happen, and that it was just really scary. So we kind of went around the room and just talked about how we identified with her, we had been there, each one of us had been there. She got a better idea that all our life circumstances were different, and our life circumstances impact how and when we can transition. So there are people who have children, they are married and have children, and they make decisions of what they're going to do based on their relationship and based on their children. How do you think mentors and mentees go about selecting each other? It's really, I think, being comfortable with somebody. I know in my experience it's all been about being comfortable with somebody else, identifying with somebody else who's in the room, and just talking to different people and then there's kind of a friendship, a bond that forms. There's that trust. There are people I wouldn't mentor, frankly, and there are people who I wouldn't seek as a mentor. It's nothing personal about them, it's just that I don't… there's no connection like that. What does the trans community look like now? Trans community… In Salt Lake City… Right now… to me there are almost like 2 or 3 communities, because there's the adult group that I came up into that is fairly… I think most people in that group are just living our lives. They're living their lives, they have kids, and they're dealing with spouses, or exes, their families, in some way or another and just their jobs. So I think quite a few of them are in survival mode a little more. It's more of a struggle for a lot of people in the adult community, and there are a few of us, a small handful who feel like we want to get out there and help change things. There are a small handful of activists in that group. There's a much larger group that once they transition, disappear. There's quite a number of people in the transgender community who either don't feel comfortable, or don't identify with the Utah Pride Center and so don't come there. So I think the challenge that we have, one of the challenges that we have is to find a way to reach out to them. And reach out not to make them be a part of the Pride Center or anything, but if there's anything we can do to help, or there's anyway that they would want to help that we have provided an opportunity for them to do so. So there are people who don't come to the Center. There are people who wouldn't, and I'm going to use air quotes, they wouldn't "self" and are just living their lives as women or
men. And the transgender stuff is just part of their history, which I think is just wonderful. And it may happen to me. But the youth are, there's a different thing going on there. There's the new group within the Pride Center called TransAction that is a program of the Utah Pride Center, it's under the direction of the adult and youth transgender program coordinators, I think, I'm not quite sure who over sees it - I mean, Jude, and Rose Ellen run it now. And most of the members of the group are from the youth group. It's because of the funding that it gets, it has to be youth led. So most of the leadership has to be. So there's a lot of activity going on there, there's a lot of excitement. I see that a lot of the transgender people in that community and the gender queer people in that community are totally empowered, not only to be who they are, but to come up with ways to raise awareness in the community. So it's like, for the first time in probably the history of transgender history in Utah, we're going to have several events in the month of November for Transgender Awareness Month. In the past we've had two. We've had the Day of Remembrance, which I think is the 20th of November, and then TEA organization has brought in a speaker from outside, a transgender speaker to speak. Well, this year we have - Bonnie is putting together a mini-conference, which my hope is that mini-conference grows to become something maybe not as big as some of the big ones around the country, but that it's a bigger one and I want to see it wellattended, I want to see speakers come from outside of Utah to do presentations, and workshops, so I think we're having the mini-conference, on the fourth we're having a wine and cheese gender 101 thing, and inviting board members from other organizations like Equality Utah and HRC and I think the Utah AIDS Foundation and some others to come kind of get our perspective on transgender awareness in just a friendly environment. This is all done by the youth group! So they're totally empowered, and it's wonderful, and a lot of good stuff is going to happen from this group. I am working with Jude and Rose Ellen to try to bring in people from the adult transgender group. Because, frankly, a lot of us when TransAction first started felt like we were not welcome because we were adults. And that's fine. It was just kind of the first time the adults and the youth were put together, and it was uncomfortable, I think, for the youth to be able to get going and assume that leadership than have these adults offering our opinions as much as we did. Now it's time to start bringing some of those people in who want to be active and start doing great things. That sounds really exciting! Our time is just about up - do you have any last minute things you want to bring up? There was one last thing. One of the common misconceptions of transgender people, and I don't know if I brought this up before, was that there's a connection between gender identity and sexual orientation. And all the research that I've seen or heard of points to the fact that it's totally unrelated, but there is an interaction, I think. In my experience, I just wanted to relate that when I came out of the closet, I thought I would be a lesbian for the rest of my life. And was just very happy to be a lesbian. And I didn't really think anything of it. What I realized was that as my gender role changed, I started
presenting as female, and men treated me differently. Whereas before I was kind of on a competing level with men, and after transition, that changed to where it was like, people were opening doors for me, they were interested in me, they were… just that competitive stuff was no longer there. It allowed me to realize that I was attracted to some men. And I explored that, my therapist helped me explore my sexuality, and I realized that i was bi, that I am bisexual. I'm actually pansexual, which means that gender has nothing to do with my attraction to somebody. It's really interesting to me to see that being in the closet for something as large as our gender identity, which is so close to our core identity, and being so deep in the closet, I didn't realize what else was in the closet with me. So I often joke when I talk to classrooms, and I joke sometimes that I don't know what else was in the closet with me, and who knows, I could have been a Republican, you know? Not that there's anything wrong with being a Republican. We don't know what else is in there. And there's so many subtle influences of identity that are in the closet with us that I think it's really important that as we come out of the closet to be really open to who we are. So I'm pansexual. Right now I have a boyfriend, and I think things are wonderful, things are going wonderfully. To me that's really interesting. There's no connection between the two, but there's an interaction between the two based on that transition, you know. That our relationship with both genders changes when we switch genders, gender presentations, and so there's that interaction with people that they're not even aware of themselves, I don't think, that just totally changes that relationship with that gender. It just blows me away, to think about that, to think about how in my journey that I went from being totally heterosexual in the closet, to coming out and being a lesbian, and then realizing that I wasn't a lesbian, that I might be bisexual, and then finding out, well, yes, I certainly am bisexual, and then suddenly realize that wow, there are some transmen that I'm attracted to, oh my goodness! And there are some gender queer people that I find attractive. It's like the whole thing just got… parts of my identity that I wasn't expecting to change, changed. And I think it's really beautiful. And I have to thank my therapist for a lot of that, for helping me see that. It's almost as if it's a third factor of coming out in the very very deepest sense - like when you said you don't know what else is in the closet. There's the big obvious things, but as you're processing that more and more is coming out, and you don't know where it's going to go because you don't know what else is in there. Yeah, who knows, I could have come out loving paisley or something like that. You know I grew up in the 60s, I like paisley. It was just an example. Sorry.