Wednesday, June 25, 2008
TONY & ASHLEY WEEKS:
Transgender Couple Relate Their Experiences
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
When the Bisexual Forum of San Diego held its first in a series of conferences on sexuality May 27 at the Rubber Rose gallery and boutique in North Park, a wide variety of people spoke on the panel, including Bisexual Forum co-founder Dr. Regina Reinhardt; self-styled “bliss coach and author” Kamala Devi, who described her evolution from an exclusive Lesbian identification to bisexuality and polyamory; Gay student activist Victor Olivares; and young Lesbian Kelly Frizell, who talked about surprising sources of support as well as opposition in the small town in which she grew up. But the “stars” of the evening were a Transgender couple, Tony and Ashley Weeks, whose unusual relationship — Tony’s a female-to-male and Ashley’s a male-to-female — and “star” quality galvanized the audience.
Tony and Ashley got asked most of the audience questions, and by their own example they created a safe space for the other Transgender people in the room to come out and discuss their lives and experiences as well. It was a remarkable evening, and then and there I decided I wanted to interview them for the annual Zenger’s Queer pride feature. When we finally got together — in between the operations for the final stages of Tony’s transition — they lovingly and provocatively discussed their coming-out stories, relationships with their families and former partners, and how whatever they’ve gone through in their lives, they’ve just been two people living as who they are.
Zenger’s: I’d like to start with you each just talking about yourselves, how you grew up, how you discovered being Transgender and what your struggle was out of that.
Ashley Weeks: Discovering I was Transgender is sort of like when do you realize that you’re a human being, or when do you realize that you’re straight, or a woman, or a man. It’s just always been. I wasn’t able to put a finger on what it was, but I’ve always felt the same way. As I got older, I found that where I grew up, it wasn’t allowed, or it wasn’t condoned. So I tried to hide that part of myself and go along with what society’s construct was for me. I tried to be a masculine man, and it just did not work. I’m not sure what you mean about the growing-up thing.
Zenger’s: I mean how you got from trying to hide it to finally realizing that that wasn’t an option — you needed to be out in the open — and how you set about doing that.
Ashley: I would allow that part of me to come out at times, but not out in public, not openly. It got to the point where I just felt so incredibly depressed that I had the feeling of just not wanting to be here on the planet any longer. The fear of that outweighed the fear that I had of coming out. If you can imagine growing up as a masculine man, to come out to everybody that you know — to your family, to your friends, to everybody that you come in contact with — it’s just not an easy process at all. So, accordingly, I had a lot of fear about that.
Also, growing up during the 1960’s and 1970’s, we didn’t really know about any of this stuff. HBO didn’t start until I was in high school. There wasn’t any cable TV. It wasn’t written about in the paper. We didn’t have anybody to talk with about it. So I didn’t know anything. There was no Internet, no information. So I just thought that I was the only person that felt like I did.
Zenger’s: You said that you grew up in a conservative environment. Where?
Ashley: Well, my father was in the Navy for 30 years, so we moved around a bit and ended up in San Diego in 1971.
Zenger’s: Tony, how did you become aware of being Transgender?
Tony Weeks: I always knew, and I always acted very masculine — even from an early age, according to what my parents told me. I never saw myself as female. When puberty hit and the female body started developing, so did an enormous amount of self-hate and self-loathing. I started on a downhill spiral from there.
I was born and raised in a little Gulf Coast town in Texas. My parents were of German descent, very much the Old South, very conservative Lutherans. Like Ashley was saying, back in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was no Internet. HBO didn’t come around until I was in high school. That’s when I actually did see a documentary about a Transgender male, and I knew that that had to be me. I had told my parents that I was Gay, but I never really felt Gay because I didn’t feel like a woman. But there was no other category to put myself in. So, since I didn’t even feel that, I didn’t feel part of the human race.
I came to San Diego when I was 18, and over time, with different therapists, I talked about my feelings. They talked to me about being Transsexual. But I was too scared to look at it, because I still thought I was crazy. I thought I was nuts. What got me to the point of doing the physical transition was I just couldn’t live another day in this skin, in this body. Something had to change, and so I ended up seeing a therapist. They hooked me up with the Trans community here, and slowly but surely I started the physical transition.
There’s a lot in between all the highlights I was just telling you, as far as the self-destruction. But the hardest thing about coming out, as far as being Transsexual, was that I had it confused with my sexual orientation. That’s why I just thought I was crazy. It wasn’t until I met other Transsexuals that were identifying as Gay that I realized that being Transsexual had nothing to do with my sexual orientation. That’s what makes it a little tricky for everyone to understand, including Transsexuals early on. It’s apples and oranges, as far as that goes.
Zenger’s: How did your parents respond when you came out to them?
Tony: By the time I came out to them as Transsexual, my mom was in the later stages of Parkinson’s. She couldn’t even talk, and I’m not even aware that she knew who I was, regardless. My dad said that he accepted it, but when he died he had disowned me, just left me out of the will and everything. I didn’t really care about the material stuff, but it kind of hurt — not kind of, it did. But I wasn’t able to go back to either of their funerals, because they were fairly prominent in this little town, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea. My brother knows, and we e-mail each other and stay in contact, but I think he accepts it the best he can with what he’s got to work with.
Zenger’s: How did you two meet?
Tony: We met at a 12-step meeting for Transgenders.
Zenger’s: Was it love at first sight?
Ashley: No, no, it wasn’t. It was the anniversary of my first lover’s death, and Tony could see that I was physically shaken. He asked me if we wanted to spend a little time together, just talking. We went to shoot some pool and we talked some more, and it was just very nice of him to do. We continued to see each other here and there, and just got closer and closer as time went on.
Zenger’s: Was the fact that you were both Transgender one of the things that brought you together?
Ashley: I think it was, in that we wouldn’t have been at that meeting, we wouldn’t have met each other in that context. It’s also helpful in that we understand each other on a deeper level. However, I really don’t think that’s the main thing. It’s just that our spirits are both attracted to each other. We just are very close.
Tony: I don’t think it hurt anything, as far as it goes. I know it’s not the only reason I was attracted to her, but one of the benefits of being with her is that, by me being able to accept her as a woman, it made it easier for me to accept myself as a man before we had our surgeries. On an emotional level, it would have been a lot more challenging with a genetic female.
Tony: I think that this has made us closer, too. I’ve had quite a few relationships in my time, and when there is not this type of closeness, when it’s all about a sexual relationship, it doesn’t tend to last as long or be as sincere and committed.
Ashley: We both feel the same way about this.
Zenger’s: I was going to ask, before you got together, what your experience had been dating people who aren’t Transgender, and how did each of you experience that.
Tony: I only dated women, and they were usually what I guess in the community would have been considered the “lipstick Lesbians,” the really feminine women. There were only a few that knew, that I came out to and straightforwardly said that I wanted to transition. Usually, they would say, “Well, if you do that I’m going to leave.” That was one of the things that helped me realize that I couldn’t continue to try to live as a man without actually transitioning to one, because it wasn’t fair to them and it wasn’t fair to me.
Zenger’s: That seems to be one of the quirkier aspects of this whole thing, what you talked about earlier about the mix-up between gender identity and sexual orientation. You’re dealing with someone and you’re thinking, “She’s attracted to me because she thinks I’m a woman. But I’m really not a Gay woman; I’m a straight man.”
Tony: Uh-huh. You see where it could make you feel like you’re just nuts!
Zenger’s: I remember going to Gay meetings in the early 1990’s, when the subject of Trans inclusion was just starting to come up, and there were a number of people in the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual communities who said that Transgender people are not really part of “our” struggle because most of them are straight in their self-perceived gender, if not their biological one. How would you answer that?
Tony: In some ways I agree. I can’t speak for the whole Trans community, and I won’t even try to, but for myself, you can be straight, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, and that’s orientation. Within the Transsexual community, you can also be straight, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. I know some Transgender people who were straight before they started the transition and now identify as Gay. I think the reason we’re lumped under that umbrella is because, before we transition, there are no other labels for us to go by.
Ashley: I knew that I wasn’t straight, so I thought the only alternative was that I was Gay. I lived in that lifestyle for some time, and I knew that it really wasn’t me, but it fit me better than “straight.” Later I started to get involved with the Bisexual community, and I found that a lot of Bisexual feelings are similar to Transsexual feelings. I met [The Bisexual Option author and Bisexual Forum of San Diego co-founder] Dr. Fritz Klein and we became friends. We had a lot of talks about the struggles of both communities. As part of his orientation grid [the late Dr. Klein’s expansion of the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation], it fits with Transgender or Transsexual people as well, only more on gender orientation than sexual orientation.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is that historically the Gay and Lesbian communities have based their demands for equality on the idea that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic, and despite the progress we’ve made towards inclusion, it’s a very uneasy fit with the existence of Bisexual and Transgender people. It’s hard to imagine a more immutable characteristic a person can have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female, and yet I’m sitting in front of two people for whom that was, if anything, an impediment to you getting where you needed to go; that your bodies had to be mutable because your minds, your souls, were in the other gender.
Ashley: The way I look at it is it’s like finding a man who identifies in their body and is, say, straight, and having the entire world tell him that he’s a woman, and that he’s somehow Queer. He knows what he is, but society tells him he’s something else. I’m not trying to be anything, and in fact I found that as I accepted myself as who I am, and let go of direction of going towards this body or that body or whatever, that a natural progression just happened. And it happened a lot more quickly than I could have imagined.
Zenger’s: The very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people seems to me to say these things are not as immutable as Gays and Lesbians like to claim; that there’s a whole range of possibilities, and as I see it, your struggles and those of other Transgender people I’ve known and talked to seemed just to be finding where you fit.
Ashley: It’s funny, because “finding where you fit” is a societal construct for me. It’s sort of like having one box over here, and another box over there, and telling someone that they “fit” either in one box or the other box. The truth of the matter is that we don’t all neatly fit into boxes. It makes it easier for us to characterize people, or come to an understanding of the world. However, I just don’t believe that that’s at all the case.
Tony: When any group of people, whether it’s Transgender, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Black, Asian, whatever — whenever any group is oppressed, everybody’s oppressed. I think the less people understand that difference, the more oppressed that group is and the more time it’s going to take before people accept them.
I used to work in a very conservative place, and one of the people I worked with was a retired policeman from St. Louis. He used to make all kinds of homophobic jokes, and I had to come out at this job. He got to know me as a person, though, and one time we were talking and I was trying to explain to him what it was like to be Transsexual. I had him think about how he felt, how he looked, everything he could see himself and could feel, but then when he looked in the mirror he would see his wife instead of seeing himself.
He sat there for a minute and he did that, and then he opened his eyes and he apologized and said, “You know, I don’t know how you’ve done it all these years.” As people have got to know me as a person, and see that we’re more similar than we’re different, and they don’t have to be scared of those differences, then their minds change. They question their own values —
Ashley: — their own values —
Tony: — and why they are scared, and they come to their own conclusions. I think that we’re the least understood group, because I know for myself that for a long time I didn’t even understand it. I can’t really expect other people who don’t have to deal with it to understand it automatically, because I didn’t understand it. It’s taken me a while just to accept it. The truth is, I still don’t understand it. It could be because of testosterone washes or whatever stuff that could have happened in the womb, but it’s so complex that scientists still can’t pinpoint one particular reason why.
Ashley: Why doesn’t seem to be as important to me any longer. I feel that people want to make a case for one thing or another, so they want to find evidence of why and how and all of these things. As I’ve grown I’ve found that that seems more of a separatist view. I believe that it’s hard for me to ask for love and respect while at the same time not giving it to others. It’s easier for me to point the finger at an oppressor, and say it’s us against them.
Mother Teresa was asked to march against the Viet Nam war, and she said it’s something that she would not do. When she was asked why, she said that if the march was for peace, she would march. I know a lot of people that in fact are straight, Republican, conservative, liberal, Democrat, independent, Green Party, etc., and I just consider them all friends and people. It’s funny how much acceptance I have found with that outlook, whereas when it was an us-against-them, it was me trying to find an outside acceptance instead of an inner peace.
Zenger’s: I’ve often been told, about one thing or another, “I don’t understand that,” and I’ve told people, “Have you asked?” “I don’t understand why people would be Gay, why people would be Transgender, why people would be into S/M.” “Have you ever asked them? Isn’t that the way you find out?” Because very often that phrase, “I don’t understand [blank],” actually means, “I don’t want to understand [blank].”
Ashley: I think it’s also a matter of whether it really affects a person or not. If someone doesn’t know anyone who’s Transsexual or Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual, and they don’t really have to deal with the issue, then it becomes more of a non-issue. But when people get to know someone first, and then find out that they’re Bisexual, Gay, Trans, Lesbian, GLBT, they have a reason for questioning their own values, and why they hold those values. I feel that’s where change occurs the most.
I had a conservative roommate who was a Rush Limbaugh “dittohead.” He was sharing with a friend of mine and I how he agreed with Rush’s take on how everyone with HIV and AIDS should be put on a desert island. At the time, I was HIV-positive and my lover was dying, and later died, of AIDS. I didn’t attack his position, but asked him why he held it. He just said that he thought that that was the way it was. When I accepted him, continued to accept him, and later told him what was going on, but didn’t bring up any of the stuff about Rush, he questioned his own values, and later told me that I was instrumental in opening new doors for him.
Zenger’s: What would you want to say to people both in the Gay community and in the U.S. Congress who were willing to pass a nondiscrimination bill to protect people based on sexual orientation, but not on gender identity?
Tony: I guess, what are they scared of?
Ashley: I think I would thank them for going that far, but ask why they held the view that Transsexuals or Transgenders did not somehow deserve the same rights as everyone else. It’s too bad that laws like these have to be part of our legislation at all.
Tony: I think it goes back again to the whole thing of knowledge, because if people are under the belief that it’s a choice, or just people going to the extremes of the Gay scales, then those are false and mistaken beliefs. For myself, if I make decisions based on false beliefs, then the outcome usually doesn’t come out very good.
Ashley: And fair.
Tony: I felt angry, initially, but getting past the anger, I understand that most people don’t understand the whole thing of Transsexuals. I can’t totally explain it. I can just tell you this much: it’s not easy. It’s not like you transition and everything is great in your life. Yeah, I pass, and no one knows unless I tell them, but it’s like the world sees your secret, and they don’t know that they’re seeing your secret.
There are so many emotional and psychological things I’ve experienced, fully transitioned. It’s not easy. It’s not the easy way out. If anything, it’s a really rough road. I consider the other Transgender people I know, my brothers and sisters, and they’re really struggling. I just was in contact with one who finally got accepted in L.A. to a recovery home, but was in Louisiana and was struggling just to stay alive.
Ashley: It’s really amazing that the man Tony was speaking of came to our attention because of a conservative Republican straight woman who contacted us for help with this person. She may have helped save his life. She’s fair-minded.
Tony: Some of my Trans sisters here in San Diego are out there having to work the streets just to try to keep a roof over their heads, and they don’t necessarily want to do that. They’re not looking for self-pity, and I’m not trying to make people feel sorry for them. But people just won’t hire them for legitimate jobs. So it’s not the easy way out. No one would choose to have those types of problems in their life.