Thursday, February 03, 2011

TransGriot Ten Questions Interview-Antonia D'orsay

Native Arizona resident Antonia E. D'orsay is the thoughtful and loquacious creative force behind the Dyssonance blog and the head of a Phoenix based organization called This Is H.O.W.

She is also one smart lady not shy about sharing her thoughts and opinions about a wide range of subjects, which is one reason why I love her so much and am proud to call her a friend. 

It's time for Toni to answer the TransGriot Ten Questions.

1. Why do you think it's so tough for a transperson who is based on the West Coast or in the Rocky Mountain States to gain traction as a national leader?

AD-The US is driven by old economic engines around which settled the major populations and therefore the most powerful media arms.

The mountain states are among the lowest population per capita in the US. They are areas that have extremes of geography and climate.

They are places where folks vacation or pass through on their way to somewhere where things are physically as hard on a person. The Phoenix Metro area adds a quarter of its population during the winter months.

We are states that people move to, not from, overall. And to want to move here you have to have a bit of git it done yer damn self in you.

And yet...

Phoenix is where Donna Rose transitioned and what moved her up. Phoenix is where Dr. Becky and Margeaux live. Phoenix is where Dr. Meltzer is. Monica Helms hails from here.

The West is still very much the West -- even Arizona, where it seems more like Texas at times and for good reason, making it a Southern State as well.

We don't gain a lot of traction because we don't do things the way 'them thar city folk' do them. We kick ass, take names, and keep moving.

They seem to get bogged down in the kick ass part.

Or, more accurately, media still relies on those around it to give it grounding. This is why CNN is so deeply affected by Atlanta, why the Big Three are all clustered in NYC and reflect it, why Hollywood rings from coast to coast.

There is money, there is power, and there is history there.

We're just simple country folk. With Guns. Lots and lots and lots of guns... 

2. What's it like to be a biracial transwoman, and does having a multicultural background help in dealing with the various issues that crop up in our community?

It sucks, and while it helps in seeing things, it can make it more difficult to do when you are as light as I am.

Strictly speaking, I'm triracial. I am Red, White, and Black all over. Like a newspaper or a book -- hence the joke.

I have relatives by blood that are Japanese, Hispanic, Persian, and Hindi, as well.

Which makes it really hard to say something racial or ethnic that doesn't piss me off for insulting my family.

There is a benefit, though. People tend to see in me what they seek. It lets me see racism fast, for example. It means that I can move a bit easier from one group to another, but it also means I'm never really allowed in all the way.

I'm welcome in the periphery, but not in the inner circle. It creates a sense of being always an outsider, no matter where I go, so I always feel like I'm both outside the normal rules of things and yet able to use those rules, as well.

It means dealing, every day, with internalized racism and colorism. With having to take a little extra work each morning to say "hey, you, watch out for that passing privilege".

It means being asked "what are you?" once a week at the minimum my entire life and then having to explain it over and over and over again.

It means being told I have to choose one. I can be black or I can be white or I can be NDN. I'm told I can't be all of them.

It sucks. But then, it also gives me strength. Because I can walk around people's preconceptions. I make them think, I challenge them, and to do that I have to be very, very strong.

It means that in one day and simply by changing my hair, I can move seamlessly among different groups and act as a bridge, without them even knowing who I am.

It means power, as a result -- subversive, of course, but I'm trying to do tings that require subverting people's habits by building those bridges and breaking through the static that often comes when one does put them together.

It allowed me to move easily through crowded cities in Syria and northern Africa, it allowed me move from the street level culture to the boardroom.

Like much of my life experience, it creates around me a space that is liminal -- I am none of these things and yet I am all of these things. A singularity, if you will.

It means I get pretty lonely at times.

It means I have to take a lot more time to explain things because classes and races have different ways of explaining the same things, and when you blend them, you have to avoid the short hand and do it the long way.

It means that when I crush, race doesn't make a difference. And I crush *badly*, omg, lol.

It means that buying makeup is really expensive. I have to buy two of everything and blend them together myself or else deal with a shade too dark or a shade too light.

Mutter mutter.

It means that I lose out on a lot of colors, too -- some bring out a lot of red, others being out too much pale, still others make me too dark.

On the other hand, people do stare at me a lot trying to figure out what the hell I am, so I tend to be memorable, lol.

And then you add in the trans part... 

3. Who are your trans role models and the leaders that inspire you?

 This has long been a hard question for me. I've asked myself many times this question, and I'm sad to say that I have a really hard time answering it.

Marsha P is a big one, I suppose. She died doing what she loved, which was caring for trans people.

She inspires me every day, and we don't speak enough about her daily life, about her passions and her flaws. We talk about he standing beside Sylvia.

I am a huge fan of Susan Stryker, though I don't know if the feeling is mutual or not, lol. She has been incredibly important to revealing a lot fo the hstory and the community that we often take for granted, and her work is phenomenal. I'd say if someone asked me who was more important overall to the trans movement, Kate or Susan, I'd have to say Susan.

(sorry Kate)

The reason, though, is that she reaches both within and without. Susan's work is going to change the way Cis people see us. Kate's work is what is going to make the difference in the way we see ourselves -- she's giving a voice to those who have only had a voice in the last 15 years or so. They are still forming their culture, and drawing from the larger one to do so.

Not much comes to mind immediately after that. 'Nessa, Moni, they've taught me a lot. Little light, Lisa Harney, they've given me long sleepless nights of intense thought. Regina, who pushed me to see things I never saw before.

But inspiration and role models for me are hard. I lived a large chunk of my life trying to be an amalgam of role models. I think I've chosen instead to make my own way, and see what happens.

I think about film, for example. Television. And there is no role model that I know of in American cinema or television for trans people. None. I can't even stand most of the shows or films dealing in trans people -- the tropes are so familiar, so overdone, so blah.

So I have to look outside us for role models.

It's easy to say Harvey Milk. He was roughly my age when he went to SF. He got political. I'd like to beat his three or four tried to get elected and do it in two or three, lol.

But that's competition. And I am very, very competitive.

Sir Charles Barkley springs to mind. Unafraid to say what he thinks, damn good at what he does. If only it wasn't basketball, lol.

Simone De Beauvoir.

In the end, I think the one overriding role model and inspiration for me is still my mother. She was an amazing woman, who saw in me amazing things.

 4. I know you're contemplating a run for public office in 2012.   Why is it important that transpeople around the country begin taking steps to run for office at all levels of government?

AD-Uh oh, lol. You are asking me to talk politics now, lol. Sure that's wise?

I'm doing more than contemplating it. I've committed to it, and even started raising funds to do so, very quietly. I don't have to file reports until I hit the 5,000 dollar mark, but I have the paperwork filled out. The only reason I'm not out pounding the streets right now is the issue of redistricting. Hard to run for office when you don't know what district you are running in.

I want to say something here, though, that needs to be stressed: the stuff I am about to say regarding trans people running applies most strongly to those of us in the Southern and Western states. These states experienced general growth in population over the last decade, and there has been a long and constant effort by many who are our opponents to marshal their strength there. Redistricting will make them even stronger.

Of all the things I believe in, the one that I believe in most strongly when it comes to trans people making a difference, it is that we need to stop *asking* to be at the table, stop begging others to do stuff for us, and do it ourselves.

We have forgotten, somehow, that the major "LGBT" organizations are run for and by Cis people. So when we tell them they should support this, we are telling people who are basically oppressing us to stop doing so.

That really doesn't work very well. You need to show them that they cannot be the bosses any more. And the only way they will see that is if you beat them at their own game.

We need to run for office. That way, we aren't asking cis people to give us a handout, we are telling them, as equals, they had damn well better stop being jerks.

There was a large panel of trans people who paraded before a congressional committee a short while ago. Every activist I know watched those hearings.

And here we are, today, with no ENDA because we couldn't gain enough support. With no additions to the repeal of DADT to enable trans people to serve. With a push by many of the orgs towards DOMA as the new fighting point, when ENDA would have far, far more impact.

What are the chances that those congresspeople passed the word on to other people in congress about how important it was to make this happen?

I'm willing to say not a damn one.

There are rules in Congress. Rules that no one breaks without suffering some pretty serious loss of power, and let's face it, Congress is all about power.

When debating, you cannot say rude stuff like bathroom bill when another person on that floor is directly affected by that statement. It creates a breach of decorum that is intolerable.

Would Barney Frank have stood on the floor of congress and talked about showers if there was a sitting trans person also in congress? Hell no. He'd never have gotten the committee chair he recently lost if he had.

We talk often about how simply knowing a trans person changes people minds about us. How it shows them that we are just like everyone else.

Yet these are people who are insulated. We can say a lot of things about Frank, but the truth is since Diego (a person of color) began working for him, he has backed way off that sort of stance. He's learning.

A trans person's mere presence -- even token -- changes the rules. We use the restroom. Ends that problem pretty quick. Heck, might even need to toss Nancy Pelosi a roll under the divider.

It would allow trans women the ability to be seen advocating for women's issues as well as LGBT ones. It would force the conversation to be different when it comes to us.

And the best part is, it doesn't matter how long it takes to happen, so long as we run, and we keep running. We want a seat at that table, we have to be prepared to pay the price for that seat, and we don't have anything to lose.

Privacy? We don't have any as it is -- our very bodies seem to be everyone else's property, what with TSA body pat downs and x-ray peeping toms and people asking us out of the blue what our genitals or surgical status is.

Security? Most of us would be running for jobs that on average pay nearly twice the national median income for trans people, as per the recent NGLTF/NCTE study.

I'm running for congress. That's a 174,000 dollars a year, plus perks. I just have to deal with a panel interview where the panel is 700,000 people in size. And the first 6 week break, you will see the headlines screaming "sex change congressman" as I spend some of that money on me.

The rest goes to trans charities. Publicly. Loudly.

We are the everyone. The wackos and tea partiers got into office saying what a lot of people wanted to hear. Remember, Michelle Bachmann went through that interview process and won.

You going to tell me that she's better than we are?

It doesn't matter what party you run under -- and most folks would be amazed at how easy it is to run for office. And media exposure? We're trans people! We get it just for walking down the street.

Running for office gives us a chance to use the very system against itself - to use the media as our tool instead of being used by it. It doesn't matter if we win or lose -- we still get seen, Still get to be heard. Still get to show people that we exist, and that we are more than just a bunch of comics on SNL playing really poorly at being us.

We have to run because all our allies are Cis people. Let's shift the lens a bit. How many Black Representatives were there in the 1890's in Congress?

In the 1930's?

In 1964, how many?

Look up the answers. You'll find an interesting thing.

We cannot ask the man for his respect. We have to take it. This is how we do that.

If we run for office, we change the rules when we win, and we change the stereotypes when we lose. That SNL skit would be really unfunny if it ran during election season and a campaign ad ran during the show featuring a real trans person talking about real issues.

I want to see a hundred trans people run for congress in 2012. We have two years. There are resources out there that will teach you how to do it. They will give you tips and tricks and resources and real world experience to draw from.

Or you can always let the HRC do the talking for you. 

5. You have the opportunity to jump into a time machine and get a do over on any point in your transition.   What part of it would you like to have a second crack at and why? 

AD-Oh, ouchies.

That's a hard one.

There are a lot of things I would love to do over, but as a die hard SF geekette, I have to point out that changing the past changes the future, and so anything I changed in my past would lead to me doing something different now, most likely.

And I'm not sure I would want to do something different. My job might not pay money, but I absolutely love it. It is hard, exhausting work and it requires me to use a lot of different skills and be a lot of different ways, but it is so wonderfully rewarding.

And I fell into it, coming out of a hardship that nearly destroyed me.

But, if everything would still have me doing this, lol, then the one thing I would change is that I'd have preferred not to have been homeless, evicted for being trans, and gotten divorced from my ex.

She's straight, I'm bi, and we are in a legal marriage between two women in a state that says such can't exist and both of us have things we'd like to do that the marriage gets in the way of.

Who knows, might happen this year... 

6. What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

AD-Oh dear Lord, that's a killer.

I am an LGBT Activist and a Trans Advocate. I say that because I recognize that activism requires community building, but advocacy is all about the group that you seek to help. It works well since there are a lot of trans LGB folks out there.

Which is why my list of activities is so extensive, but also why I can only do pieces of them at a time.

Most recently, I described on my blog a way to create a national bottom up organization that seeks to represent trans needs using the same methodology that our opponents are using and that has driven national movements since the fights for civil and political rights began in this country (that is, since before there was a US).

I made a standing offer to help organize such an effort across the entire US, without expectation of my being a part of it beyond basically acting as a clearing house. It is here:

Some folks laugh at me and say that things can't be done that way, and yet, every major movement in US history has happened following that pattern. It allows for stealth involvement and it bridges the divides within a community, forcing compromise and aiding in crafting a strong, widely supported basis by which to move forward.

Plus, it teaches some basic skills that are generally missing when it comes to organizing a community.

There is my day job, as well: This Is H.O.W. Which consumes a seemingly ever increasing part of my life to the point that I'm amazed I can sit here and write these answers out. Currently, I am over capacity in the Residence program, and seeking facilitators for many for the various groups that we are hosting.

There is also the fundraiser we are engaging in -- 1000 5 dollar donations every three months. This quarter, we are at 498 left to go as I write this, and the support from within the trans community internationally has been breathtaking.

Through TIH, I am engaging in what I believe will be the largest trans needs assessment ever conducted in a single metropolitan area -- our target is 500 completed questionnaires, and these are multipage, face to face forms filled out by direct contact. To fund this, I am working at raising 10,000 dollars, as the outreach is across all class and ethnic lines within the greater Phoenix Metro area. This will be only the second one of its sort done in the area, and having done the last one nearly 3 years ago, I'm looking forward to it.

I am also trying to raise funding for a second Residence -- Phoenix was especially hard hit during the recent recession, and as a result, the home prices here are amazingly cheap. With volunteer labor, we're hoping to acquire a property in the 50,000 to 75,000 dollar range that can house another 6 to 9 trans people working to escape the sometimes devastating combination of poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, and multiple other intersections.

I'm very slowly building a team of both cis folk and trans folk to begin the process of creating PSA's that we will then begin seeking funding to run during primetime dealing with trans lives that seek to show that we are just like anyone else and carry messages similar to the one that was done by a bank in Latin America.

It's been extremely heartening on that one, as several people have expressed wanting to do the same thing, and knowing that I have experienced and capable friends who can do some of the technical work is important.

I also work with a local agency to facilitate All Gender Health Seminars for the Trans community, which focus on issues of HIV and STD prevention, and seek to pass on some of the more incredible information that's been learned in the last decade direct from some of the top researchers in the country to discuss trans lives outside of sex. These have given me an opportunity to act as an educator within the community, to complement my advocacy efforts outside the community.

I'm currently working on developing a local list of basic, everyday services and shops, primarily small business, that are willing to serve the trans community and willing to treat them properly. This goes beyond the usual lists of doctors and therapists to include "Approved" spas, beauticians, retail stores, and the like. This is giving me an opportunity to reach out to the small business community and create a strong infrastructure for trans people to be able to go into the world with less concern for how they are treated.

I do small class education for city and state agencies, almost all of this entirely for free. There are some days I will get a call on a Wednesday for a Thursday class, and I have to drop what I'm doing, as outreach is a critical part of what needs to be done to make people more aware of the needs for trans people, and to pave the way for long term efforts to pass city and county legislation regarding non discrimination.

Earlier I mentioned Erica, who becomes active and involved in other organizations, and by herself becomes a trans involved member, who is well spoken and out there, and works very complementary to the work that I do.

Oh, also through TIH, I am trying to raise funds to provide the seed capitol which will then be applied to efforts to secure funding to create a simple business that will employ trans people and, with a lot of hard work and some success, ultimately be able to provide benefits.

I know I'm missing two or three other things in that list. Needless to say, it all keeps me extremely busy and when it comes to a head, it is often all I can do to keep my own head on straight.

This is made more difficult when things like a really sharp edged wave of dysphoria hits me, or I push myself to the point of having something medically bothersome stop me. So I take vacations roughly every three months.

It is the one benefit to not getting paid for any of this -- I get to run away from it all once in a while and relax and take care of me.

7.  Who are the emerging up and coming transleaders you see in Arizona, in the West Coast/Rocky Mountain states and elsewhere that those of us around the country should be paying attention to? 

AD-The first name that comes to mind is Erica Keppler, also known as azerica. But that's bias on my part -- she's a close friend who has that habit of living what she believes in.

Ryan Blackhawke and Breanna Anderson come to mind from the Seattle area.

Trudie Jackson, a Native American advocate who works tirelessly both within the tribes and without them.

I think more needs to be noted about the contributions of Dr. Becky Allison beyond her website, as well...

Michael Brown and Abby Jensen of TransMentors International

One sad problem I have is that some of the best voices I can think of I can't identify -- we still have what I personally consider a problem of stealth in the community. I recognize the importance and value of such a thing, but at the same time I echo someone from the cis world in saying "come out come out wherever you are" because it is only through visibility that we can truly make a difference in the lives of people on a lasting and long term level. Visibility is what allows us to stare concepts like passing and disclosure in the face and reveal them for the internalized stigma they represent.

And in the West, we have a lot of it still. Not always willingly, either -- these are the states that went dark red this last election, often, and while people tend towards a libertarian point of view, it is also conservative and resistant to change unless there is a tangible benefit to them.

Not much benefit in being out if it will cost you your job or have a powerful church lean hard on you (Catholic, Baptist, and Mormon faiths are the strongest out here) through your neighbors.

The mountain states are a hard sell, here the idea of bootstrapping isn't a bad one, it's damn near all that's left at times. But as those of us who do this work can attest, the pioneer spirit that led people here is still very much in force, and if you have the strength of will to fight for what you believe in, you earn a hard respect that our opponents fear a lot more than us.

8.  Do you think that the trans community puts too much of the burden on dealing with race and class issues inside our little subset of society on transpeople of color? 


This is a special area of interest for me, personally, since my background is inherently diverse. Then there is the work I do on a daily basis, which places me in a position to see the real and tangible impact on the lives of trans people of color and class that are not the mainstreamed ones.

In my own locality, I have people roll their eyes because I pound a drum about inclusion, about how the separation must end, and how the area that is most separated from the rest is also the one that does the least amount of work to cross it.

We have an opportunity to learn from the cis allies in the LGB as we build our trans community's strength to make damn sure that people of color and race are brought into the heart and soul of everything we do. We need to change the media depiction of us from one that in incredibly pale to one that has a bit more variety to it.

Trans people are part of the national society -- they are not separate from it, and so we tend to magnify the failings of society in a way that is often alarming, but the same force that magnifies that also gives us a greater ability to move forward in unison.

The overwhelming majority of the faces we see each November are not pale. We hear teeth gnashing about these tragedies, but that's it -- there's no outreach because to do so, in the trans community, requires crossing lines not merely of color but of class, and those are deep and abiding lines. If a trans person doesn't personally know, very well, and have as very close friends with whom they share intimate secrets trans people from every background, then they do not know the trans community.

At all. If they did, they'd know the enormous number of us who work in the sex trades, they'd see the huge damage caused to our community by substance abuse and addictions that are far more subtle. They would know that if you walk into a support group or visit a forum, and the faces are all pale, then you don't have the community there, you only have a small part of it and that part doesn't represent the whole.

It is an illusion, a self created deception to think otherwise.

I'm often asked why I get so worked up about all these things, and the reason is simple: I see it. Personally, Every day. I've been challenged on my often seeming to be the be all and end all of trans knowledge, that there is no way someone as "early" in my own life as I could possibly know as much as I do. Well, I do because I spend it among a tremendous variety of trans people. More so than just about anyone else I have frequent personal contact with.

And we absolutely suck at crossing the lines -- men stay with men, women with women. Black with black. Latin@ with latin@. API with API. White with white. Money with money, poor with poor, the list of separations is endless and it reduces our collective strength and furthers apathy which is why so many of the major orgs out there feel they can get away with ignoring trans issues.

But all of that is nothing compared to the divide we have between the Cis and the Trans.

White trans people, you are the ones that must do the outreach. And I can tell you as a person of mixed race, you will not feel comfortable when you start that outreach -- but that's because you've been doing the same thing for a long time. 

9. What's the one misconception about Antonia that you feel is overwhelmingly false? 

AD. The one misconception that I've encountered time and time again is that I am just as long winded, boring, dry, and wickedly sharp in person. I'm not. I'm an airhead in person that has all the same problems anyone else has. At least until you get me talking about trans stuff.

Other than that, it is the tendency of many to place me in a category with other activists and advocates who are predominantly white, middle class, anti-intellectual, and less inclined to be harsh with allies.

Really annoys me. Then again, a lot of stuff really annoys me. 

10. Where do you see the trans community at the end of this decade and beyond? 

AD-We just started a new decade. There is a lot of cultural buzz about it being the last decade, and not even one that has a lot of length to it. Although no one believes it, the idea sits in the back of people's heads and makes them wonder, and it creates a sense of unease that's actually pretty useful to a movement that has discovered int he last ten years that it has a culture and a community and that has developed a language and trade all its own.

I suspect that online, in ten years, we'll be seeing a huge reduction in the amount of negative trans experience, as the internet tends to shift a lot faster than the society as a whole. Continued efforts to bridge the gap between haves and have nots in terms of the internet, the generational issues that are burgeoning, and so forth will lead to a situation where the internet is a safe zone of sorts -- and not merely in the blogs and forums we own and run, but in the wider 'net world as a whole.

The media is going to shift towards truly positive portrayals -- I'd say within the next five years, as we've currently reached either a bubble that will burst or a critical mass of attention as people try to figure us out.

In-community, I think we'll see a division that becomes stronger as the various gender variant groups fund their own language outside the binary that many transsexual people feel is best for them. I'd like to say that I also see many of the APA estimated 2-3% of the population that is CD but not transsexual emerge and step up, which will have an effect on the transsexual dominated forms of discourse surrounding political efforts. However, I fear that the intense degree of internalized stigma in that community will continue to limit them, especially when combined with a high degree of stigma within the overall "full time" trans community. Reminds me of the "weekend warriors" in fighting between the regular Army and the NG/AR units before the Gulf War pointed out they all bleed red just as easily.

I am very certain that we will have a member of congress who is openly trans, and that we will see a large number of trans people in city, county, and state level politics in the next decade.

I am also certain we will see non-discrimination in housing, employment, education, and similar reaching across the nation. Which I don't say lightly -- it won't happen in the next two years, but I do believe that following the next election we will make this happen so long as we work to make sure that equality and equity supportive candidates are sent to the halls in 2012.

Since Trans folk have nothing to lose, a crapload of us running in that election cycle -- win or lose -- will have an incredible effect and impact on the overall discourse affecting that.

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