Interview RE: Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life

Interview with Author

1. Is this your first book?
This is my first book. The longest document I had ever produced prior to this book was a universtity term paper!

2. What compelled you to write Transparently?
Just after Christmas in 2009, the sister of one of my late brother's friend posted about her own brother's untimely death in 2007 on our high school's Facebook. I wrote her a short message expressing my condolences and she replied a few days later. She was equally saddened to learn about my brother's death in 1985, and over the next few weeks we engaged in an intense correspondence—she remembered my brother well. In her first reply, she wanted to clarify if I had attended the same high school, because she said, she had looked up all the Salazars in the yearbooks and didn't find a "Lisa Salazar." I wrote back explaining I was not Lisa at the time and told her about my gender change. This threw the doors open to all kinds of questions—she wanted to know more and more about me and my family and was completely intrigued by it all. Every time I received an email from her, it contained yet another set of questions—all of which required long answers. After about the sixth email, I quipped that if she kept this interrogation up, I would have a book written before I knew it. Her response was immediate, she said the more I shared, the more she wanted to know and encouraged me to keep going. This was about the middle of February 2010 and my gender reassignment surgery (GRS) was coming up at the end of March. I gave myself the self-imposed deadline to finish the night before my flight to Montreal, where I had GRS performed. What was compelling about writing was how cathartic and therapeutic I found the process to be. Writing down things had never shared with anyone before was really the process of becoming transparent and talking about what went on behind the scenes of my life that drove me on.

3. What are the challenges of writing such a memoir?
The biggest challenge in writing this book was how incredibly naked I felt. At times I embarrassed myself with some of the admissions I was making about my naiveté and immaturity. It was this sense of embarrassment that had always kept me from keeping a journal or diary of any kind; what would people think if they found out how screwed up I was. Becoming transparent is not an easy thing to do, yet I felt this huge sense of release by laying it all out for all to see. Keep in mind, when I was writing this memoir, publishing it was the farthest thing from my mind. This had simply become a personal and private thing I was sharing with my new pen pal, Jan.

4. Were parts of it more difficult to write than others? Why?
Anytime I came to a place where I needed to explain clearly what was going through my mind with respect to my gender confusion, I had to relive some very painful moments. I did a lot of crying during the writing process, but I also had some gut-splitting moments of laughter as I recalled some of these events and just how unbelievably stupid I felt looking at them through the filter of time. So much of the stuff that was difficult to write about had been wrapped and sealed for years in a shroud of shame and guilt. Uncovering these things brought back many of these feelings. I thought I had processed some of the more painful events, such as my rape at the age of fifteen, long ago and were therefore no longer big issues. Not so. Writing about some of these things proved to be painful and they felt raw, as if they had happened only yesterday. Then there was the spiritual struggle I experienced as an adult, the compounded tension caused by my Christian faith. The process I went through in reconciling my beliefs to my medical condition needed to be recorded and you could say the last third of the book chronicles this part of the journey. It took me almost ten years to finally accept the diagnosis I received in 1999 at the Vancouver General Hospital's gender clinic. My fundamentalist Christian view of sexuality was at odds with what the doctors were telling me. Was I going to listen to God’s or man's view on this? I believe the church has had the same narrow and binary view of sexuality and though I do not claim to be a theologian or a Bible expert, the new understanding I came to scripturally is what allowed me to proceed with the change. Explaining this understanding in a clear and forthright manner was also challenging, but I hope it helps many Christians see things in a new, less judgmental way.

5. In the book, you don't discuss your own sexual orientation: whether you're gay, straight, bi, etc. Did you feel such a revelation would have distracted from the larger story you wanted to tell?
Actaully, I did. In a couple of places I discussed that part of my confusion about my gender had to do with my binary way of thinking about sexuality and when I considered if I was a woman, why was I not attracted to men? This didn't make sense. If I was really a woman, then it would be logical for me to have an attraction to men, but I didn't. I understand now that sex, gender and orientation are three very different aspects of human sexuality. Each of these needs to be discussed and understood separately before one can really try to make sense of the whole picture. Technically, then, I am a lesbian since, as a woman, I am only attracted to women.

6. What has been the response to the book of your family and friends?
As I mentioned above, this memoir was a private undertaking and I was not thinking of making it public. I had this notion that after I had my surgery, I would finally be able to live out the rest of my life in quiet anonymity and no one would need to know anything about my past. Of course, this was not a realistic picture since I would have had to pretend I never was a man, a husband, a father, a brother, a son and a male friend to many. To attempt to reconstruct my past and to hide my history was not ever going to be possible, especially with family and friends. More importantly, what would that say to my wife and my sons, that I saw them as a mistake or a liability? How the story got out happened in the most innocent of ways. Many, many people were naturally concerned for my well-being before and after the surgery. One question that was often asked was whether I was scared, nervous, excited or happy about my surgery. My answer was I was none of these, I was simply at peace and I credited this sense of calmness to the process I had gone through in writing the story of my life down. This often led to people asking if they could read it and at first I was reluctant to share the manuscript, but then word got out and more friends asked if they too could read it. I made a deal with each person to whom I sent the file to. I asked them to write down any typos, grammatical errors and things that were either unclear or needed reworking. In all, about twenty four persons read the manuscript and thanks to them, the book got edited. The response has been universally consistent from both friends and family. They are touched by my honesty and willingness to expose myself the way I did and told me my story could help save lives. It does not escape me that in a recent study published in January of 2011, it was found that up to forty percent of transgender persons surveyed have attempted suicide and we will never know how many have acctually succeeded. Many have done so because they have been judged and condemned by friends and family. If my story can change even one family's view of their transgender child and help them to affirm and embrace some one who might otherwise become a statistic, then it will have been worth everything.

7. How did your wife of almost 37 years feel about the book? Has she read it?
My wife found out about the book through one of my sisters. In much the same way I explained others worried about me, my sister was concerned about my mental state after the surgery and when I shared with her that I had this incredible peace and mentioned the book, she was horrified to learn I had written about her and every family member without their explicit permission. I countered I had written the story of my life and my life's context was in large part family. How could I talk abut myself outside of this context? I assured her this was not a tell-all kind of story and any family member mentioned or talked about was not maligned, libeled or defamed in any way. I told her I could change the names and use fake names, if it was so important to her. The following day she called my wife and asked her if she knew I had written a book and that all the family member names had been used. You can imagine how well that sat with my wife, especially since I had not told her about the book. I had done all the writing at night, in bed, on my laptop. She never saw me do this since she had a separate bedroom. My wife is still not happy about the book, she has not read it and I hope that someday she might. For now, this is how it is. Our marriage of thirty seven years is over and this book is not going to change that. Yet, I am confident I have not portrayed her in the book in anything but a positive light. She is, after all, my best friend and the person who knows me best, second only to God. I still love her and I have a deep respect for her as a person. She is also a very private person and I respected this fact in the book.

8. In the book you don't talk too much about anyone in your life having any real difficulty with you transforming into a woman (though it's clear enough your wife wasn't especially thrilled about it.) Everybody seems utterly accepting and even happy about the change. Did it surprise you, to get such a uniformly positive response?
I wrote a lot about the fears I had and how paralyzing they were. All my life I imagined the worst and feared if I ever came out to anyone, or if I was discovered, my life would be over. When I finally decided to come out, it was after I realized I had no option. I had reached the end of the line and I had to choose between life as a woman or death. I know that sounds dramatic, but that was the reality. I was not suicidal, but I thought about death all the time; it would solve so many problems. For starters, no one outside of my wife and doctors would ever have known about my gender struggle if I could have taken it to the grave. My wife would have gotten a whack of cash from my insurance policies and she would have been spared the pain of losing me for being a transsexual. Disclosing and coming out to family and friends was one of the hardest and most difficult periods in my life. It was exhausting, both emotionally and physically. But the words of my psychiatrist at the gender clinic proved to be true. During one of my sessions with him, I was talking about death in the same way I was above and he let me finish. He said that though he didn't know any of my family, or any of my friends, if it was possible for him to survey each and everyone of them and simply ask them if they would rather have me live the rest of my life as a woman, or for me not to be around any more, he guaranteed one hundred percent would say the former. He told me to not even go there, that death was not going to solve any problems and would instead be more hurtful and painful for all left behind. Yes, it has been surprising to me how universal the support and affirmation I have received from all those who matter most to me has been. I am most fortunate and grateful for this.

9. Do you plan on writing a follow-up to Transparently ?
I cannot say with any certainty if I will write a follow-up to Transparently. It is too soon to tell. I will covet any feedback I receive from readers and as I think about it, if I do get responses telling me how my story has helped others in any way, these might make for an interesting follow-up. In terms of what has transpired in my life since I finished the book and had the surgery, if the last year is any indication of what I might expect for the future, then I don't think one more book will be enough. The alternative is to simply respond to comments on my blog or to accept invitations to speak to groups, which has already started to happen.

10. How's your life today?
I know this sounds trite, but I have never felt as comfortable in my own skin as I do right now. The doctor who supervised my transition asked me when I was approved for surgery if I had any regrets. My answer was "Yes." This troubled him, so I explained I had no regrets with respect to my decision to transition and to have the surgery, however, I did regret that this decision had hurt the most important person in my life, my wife. As I look to the future without her by my side, I am still hurting and I don't think I will ever be able to fill the void I know will be there. I am hopeful we will remain friends for life. We have sons and grandchildren who will allow us to share time together and I will cherish those moments.

One very surprising thing that has happened int he last year is how I have found myself in an advocacy role. Three months after my surgery, a friend asked if I would be willing to share my story at the 2010 Interesting Vancouver. This is an event that can only be described as a non event. The concept is that a dozen or so people are asked to speak for fifteen minutes on whatever topic or issue they are involved with so as to give the audience small vignettes of the interesting things and people in the city. I really struggled with this, should I or shouldn't I? I decided to do it after it occurred to me at least this way I would be controlling the information instead people learning about me through the grapevine. It also gave me an opportunity to engage an audience with what I went through as I and, by extension, many transgender persons deal with when making the choices we have to make. But the advocacy that is most important for me right now has to do with the anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender environment in Uganda.

I must confess, it was not until January of this year (2011) that I invested any think time on the situation in Uganda. Yes, I had heard of the crazy "Kill the Gays Bill," but I was focusing on personal stuff and I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, "I'm glad I don't live in Uganda."

To say I did a 180 degree turn out of my own convictions and outstanding character is not what happened. The truth is I was surfing the web on Dec. 30th and went to a friend's blog post titled, "Genocide Brewing in Uganda," in which she summarized what was taking place and how imminent was the passing of this insane piece of legislation. She provided links to CNN, Amnesty International, BBC, Time and a few other news organizations. I spent the next two hours going from one link to another and I was horrified.

I emailed my friend and asked if she had any links to where I could send an email to; I needed to scream at someone. She replied saying it may be a lost cause since the Ugandans seemed to be completely defiant in face of the international outcry. I concluded I had to act. I found the Ugandan Parliament's website, which profiled all 327 Members of Parliament and I spent the next three hours extracting all of their email addresses. I wrote a letter and sent it to all of them. I sent the list to my friend so she could post it on her blog. But the reality was I couldn't see too many people taking the time to compose a letter, copy all the email addresses, and not to mention, spend more than a couple of minutes doing so.

That is when the idea hit me to create a website that simplified the process, albeit, not too automated since anti-spam filters would quickly reject hundreds of emails if they were coming from the same server.

That is how http://www.ugandaurgentaction.com/ was born. The domain was registered the following day and the site went live within six hours. I sent a New Year's greeting message to all 120 of my email contacts and begged them to send emails immediately. But it was New Year's weekend and not many people saw the email until the early part of the week. Soon, I started getting replies back as friends let me know they had sent letters and were sharing the link with their friends. It was a slow start, but it got the ball rolling. Three days after I sent my letter to Parliament and the site had gone live, I started getting responses from some of the MPs. Those who favored the bill were, for the most part, nasty and rude and suggested I mind my own business. Those who opposed the bill were, on the other hand, grateful for the letter and my advocacy. I was stunned. What had I gotten myself into? I also started receiving emails from LGBT Ugandans who had come across the website and they too were grateful for the effort.

How could I not get sucked into this vortex of human rights activism? The stories I have heard, their hardships and the struggle to exist is beyond anything I could imagine. The struggle will not be over until all laws that criminalize and stigmatize the LGBT minority are repealed and new laws enshrining basic human rights and equality for all are passed.

And finally, in a more recent development, the person who wrote the Uganda blog post that got me all fired up, Kathy Baldock, invited me to be on her board of directors for Canyonwalker Connections, whose mission is: "Repair the Breach between the Christian church and the Christian glbt community." I am the transgender representative in a group of pastors, men, women, straight and GLBT Christians seeking to educate, host and invite dialogue surrounding the homosexuality and gender identity issues and Christianity. This will be a new role for me and will no doubt help me in my recent appoinment as the co-ordinator of the Transgender Ministry at Lighthouse of Hope Christian Fellowship, a church for all in Vancouver, BC.

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