1. How did you get involved with TBP?
I was (virtually) introduced to Bil, Jerame and Bilerico when I was blogging at Shakesville. They would cover stories I wanted to follow, so I read the Project often and much to my delight, discovered that Bil and Jerame were regularly reading my Shakesville posts. I cut myself lose from Shakesville, took a break from blogging for a bit, then when I wanted to come back, Bil was nice enough to respond favorably to my overtures.
2. What was your coming out experience like?
Which time?! ;-) I feel like I came out first as a lesbian in 1982 at age 30, as a bisexual woman in the late 80's, as a "straight-identified" FtM in 1992, and (finally!) as a queer-identified FtM in 1995.
Each time, it was challenging and exciting, and I must say, I agree with those who believe that "coming out" never ends, for there are always new people in your life who--no matter how OUT you are!--don't seem to pick up on it.
There are many reasons it took me such a long time to figure myself out. First, being bisexual and transgender means that the cultural signposts everyone takes for granted on the road of life point in confusing directions. Sure, I had a crush on my best (boy) friend growing up, but did that make me straight? Not when in my head, I related to him as a guy and putting on a dress and accompanying him to his prom--as I did--turned out to be a disaster! Then much later, while trying to live as a lesbian, I found myself guiltily fixated on dicks and dildos, walking around the house wearing one under my trousers before people openly traded tips on packing, did that make me a butch top? Anyone who knew me would roll on the floor laughing, I am so not butch! (Nor, I guess, a top!) Was I "simply bi" then? Alas, not.
Such incidents were plentiful. Complicating matters more, however, were the time and place into which I was born. To anyone who didn't survive the 1950's in rural or suburban America, it is almost impossible to grasp how dark was the silence and deep the denial, especially from the perspective of our time when therapy is widespread, people talk about depression as easily as the weather, erectile dysfunction and condoms are marketed on the sides of buses, and we have gay marriage in Spain, of all places! Everyone now knows somebody who's openly gay, if not trans, and married to boot.
When I was a kid, no one talked about sex or gender--there wasn't even basic sex-ed in schools. Library books on sex and gender--if they existed--were kept behind the counter, demanding one request them out loud. The existence of lesbians and gay men was hinted at through coded language only, in conversation, movies and jokes, where without fail we were portrayed as sick, twisted, dangerous and corrupting. In these exchanges, transsexuals were inextricably confused with lesbians and gay men--as we are to this day in the minds of many "average" people.
As far as we still have to go, our progress has been phenomenal. I was born before the modern Women's Movement, Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and Stonewall. The internet was not even imagined yet. Christine Jorgensen's story hit the pages of the nation's papers when I was a year old, and I don't remember hearing anything else other than vague references to transsexuals until I was an adult.
As a result, I had no language to talk about myself or what I was feeling. I'm a boy, but I have no penis? I knew better than to tell anyone that! Add to this, Catholicism--which made me intensely guilty for even thinking about sex--and the fact my mother committed suicide when I was 17, which sent me spiraling into a depression that lasted for more than a decade, and you have the recipe for a very long, slow process of figuring out who I was.
Which is a long way of saying, "You youngins don't know how good you have it, what with the Internet, Wikipedia, Act-Up, Ellen, and Will and Grace!"
3. Why did you decide to move to Ireland? Did you experience any sort of culture shock when you moved overseas?
Ever since discovering some 25 years ago that I qualified for Irish citizenship through my grandparents, I'd found myself wanting to live in Ireland. I lived briefly in Israel, England, and France when I was in my early 20's, and the perspective I gained as an expatriate left me always feeling a bit the outsider in America. I was adamantly opposed to the US invasion of Iraq both times but didn't demonstrate in 1991, so when it became clear that GW Bush was intent on going there again, I did everything I could, along with millions of other demonstrators worldwide, to stop him. I marched in DC twice, numerous times in San Diego, and in Manhattan on February 15th, 2003, one of the10 million people worldwide who demonstrated that day to stop the invasion. When we failed, I felt crushed and disillusioned. I considered upping my involvement, engaging in non-violent civil disobedience and possibly going to jail. But as an FtM, I'm inordinately afraid of what might happen to me under police custody.
My ex-girlfriend and I discussed leaving the States together, but we amicably broke up instead. NYC is a small town when you don't want to cross paths with your ex and her new SO, so I saw the breakup as my chance to try Ireland. I flew to Dublin sight unseen, with what I could carry, around $1500 in cash, and several credit cards, thinking, "If I don't like it, I can always return to California."
I was lucky to find the economy booming, zero unemployment, a vibrant culture composed of emigrants from all over the world, and a progressive, pro-LGBT political climate. The culture shock was subtle, but definite. Irish people have had such a profound impact on American society, that at times I felt like I'd come home, but then someone would say something or act in a way I found completely perplexing and I'd realize with a shock, "This is a foreign culture!" At times like that, I felt very lonely.
4. Who has had the biggest influence on your life, and why?
Without a doubt, my dad. Born in 1920, the youngest child of a large, working-class Irish Catholic family in Roxbury, MA, my dad has stood by me through so many changes. He has generously helped me financially throughout my life, but much more important has been his emotional support and moral inspiration. My dad is one of the most consistently decent men I know. It's not that he hasn't done disappointing or even hurtful things in his life, especially to my brother and my mom. In the 1950's and 60's, as a result of his upbringing, he was a typical emotionally-distant, even unwittingly cruel man. But he saw the pain he inadvertently caused and after my mother's death, he put a huge effort into changing.
It took long years, but his progress was steady and he has evolved so far from the man he was then, reaching a point where he can now acknowledge and apologize for mistakes, identify and talk about his feelings, and backtrack and try again when he falls into old patterns. Politically, he has moved from an uninformed, pro-Vietnam War, working-class conservative to an anti-war, radically left, Obama-supporting Democrat, who recently called out a conservative neighbor on his racist stance toward Obama.
Whenever his Catholic or cultural upbringing came into conflict with supporting me, my dad never wavered but always took my side. He was there for me when I had an abortion in 1975, accompanying me to the clinic. When in 1982, I announced I was leaving my husband and coming out as a lesbian, he ignored the Vatican's condemnation. In 1994, when I told him I was going to start living as a man--and with a man!--he said, "If you wanted to live with a man, why did you have a sex-change?" But he stood by me, giving my then-boyfriend and me a place to stay when we first moved together to San Diego.
Overall, he has served as a unparalleled inspiration for me of what it is to be a man. Quiet, but unquestionably strong and brave. His idea of manhood is innate. It does not depend on bluster, sexual-conquest, a particular way of walking, dressing, or talking--nor even having a functioning dick. He may not be perfect--secure as he seems in his sexual orientation, he can still be a bit uncomfortable around my gay male friends, especially my ex-boyfriend. But maybe that's a carry-over from when I was his "little girl," and none of my boyfriends were good enough for him.
The most important thing is, he keeps trying. At 88, my dad remains fully engaged with life, still growing, and emotionally evolving. How many people can you say that about? I am extremely lucky.
5. What do you feel the greatest challenges for the FTM members of our community are?
Wow, that's a tough one...If I had to pick one, I'd say
dating invisibility. So often, when people say "transsexual," they mean MtF. Many people, even in the LGBT community, don't even know FtM's exist--so much so, that when I come out, I have to clarify that I'm not transitioning from male to female.
I believe sexism is the culprit, both in the way MtF's are seen to represent the "visible transsexual," and males the "default human." Our culture is so steeped in patriarchy that even when males transition to live as women, they garner more attention (including negative) than females who transition to live as men. In some cases, depending on class, race, and age, they continue to wield more influence and power.
FtM invisibility can mask other problems, too, such as a failure to thrive emotionally, financially and socially after transition, which stem from the way gender acts in consort with other oppressions, including race, class and age. For example, of the four African-American FtM friends I transitioned with, one tragically committed suicide, and two have become closeted, homophobic evangelical Christians. I don't think those outcomes are independent of how hard it is to go from living as a black woman to living as a black man in our racist culture. Add to that the fact that once you're a man, you're expected to suck up your feelings, compete in cutthroat competition with other men in the workplace and for sexual conquests, and be the emotional defender of women and children--not the one looking for emotional support. The mix can be overwhelming.
For instance, it took me years to understand that my female friends were distancing when I tried to tell them I was emotionally having a hard time. Their reaction was so unexpected I didn't recognize it for what it was, so accustomed had I been to sharing feelings as a woman--in which case, I'd received open support and understanding. Now, female friends are as likely to uncomfortably change the subject.
May I say, I notice a striking generational difference in these matters. Generally speaking, I find people below the age of 35 or 40 much more progressive and aware when it comes to race, gender, class and other issues. For that reason, I feel much more at home with them.
6. What is your favorite weekend indulgence?
Riding my bike up the coast to a favorite café, where I'll sit for hours, watching and listening to people, reading a new Robert Crais or T. Jefferson Parker novel, drinking coffee, and eating pastries.
Check out previous interviews with TBP Contributors
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Rev. Irene Monroe