"I still want to keep educating people, I have to continue. I think that’s the definition of being brave: you’re not fearless, right? In spite of the fear I’m out there. And I am going to continue doing that."
Photography by: Sonya Reynolds
Shoshana Pellman: I still want to keep educating people, I have to continue. I think that’s the definition of being brave: you’re not fearless, right? In spite of the fear, I’m out there. And I am going to continue doing that. Below is an edited interview with Shoshana Pellman, by Heather Bain on January 30, 2016. Heather Bain: Can tell me about yourself and where you grew up? Shoshana Pellman: I was born in Belgium, right after the war in 1946, which makes me 69 years old now. I came to Canada when I was about 3 or four years old and grew up in Toronto. I went to University of Toronto and graduated as an engineer in ’72. Then I got married about a year and a half later and had two kids. We moved to Israel, got divorced in Israel, and I remarried in Israel; from my second marriage, I have five kids. I have seven kids all together. We moved back to Canada and split in 2004, got divorced in 2008. In the meantime, I started transitioning, which is another part of my journey. Do you want to tell us what your journey to being a trans woman was like for you? Over the years I’ve been cross-dressing. I knew I was cross-dressing, but did I identify as a transvestite or a cross-dresser? No, because I didn’t know anybody who was lesbian, gay, bi or trans, or even a cross-dresser or transvestite. All I knew was I felt very comfortable wearing women’s clothing and it started at a very young age. It started before my bar mitzvah, and so I must have been 11 years old. We moved into a house and there was a woman’s sweater on the back of the door; I put it on. That was my first experience and I thought wow, it felt right. But I would never keep the stuff, I had to purge. Even when I was buying stuff I couldn’t keep it anywhere because where would I keep it? Coming from an orthodox Jewish background, I didn’t have anywhere to hide it and I couldn’t talk about it. In 2005 I self-tested using the Combined Gender Identity And Transsexuality Inventory (CGITI) and the first time I cheated. I wasn’t honest with myself and it didn’t really answer my issues. So I did the test again and at the time, the term they used was gender outlaw. It’s not appropriate nowadays, I don’t think people like using the term gender outlaw, but at that time, going back 10 years, it was the term that they used in that test. So bottom line, it said find yourself a therapist because you don’t fit society’s standard or norm for what is a male persona. So I said, “ok, fine.” I was really blessed because I was able to get into Sherbourne Health Centre. I was told to get on hormones I would have to wait a year but my therapist told me that Sherbourne was taking on trans patients and the wait time is three months. So by November, I was on hormones. And I wasn’t going to play games. And the reason I remember it was November was because the first time I walked in there I was wearing pants and the Dr said “What do you mean? You’re not serious, you’re wearing pants!” And I said, “Wait a minute, these are women’s pants. What’s the problem?” He said, “No, no, no. I don’t believe you’re ready for hormones.” The next time I was wearing a dress and make-up so that he would give me a letter. At that time, that was his attitude, which was wrong. But that’s what happened. Most women don’t wear dresses, they’re wearing pants, but for some reason in his mind, I have to come across as being a very effeminate looking woman if I’m going to be serious about who I am. But I look on the streets and I don’t know who is lesbian, who’s gay, who’s bi. I see a lot of women with short hair; I see a lot of women wearing pants, right? And so what? But that was then. Nowadays I go to the Doctor without make-up on, with pants on, and he doesn’t say a word. As it should be. So around 2005, you met Rupert Raj and you were also going out to Church and Wellesley, out to Toronto’s queer and trans spaces? Basically what happened with Rupert Raj is he suggested that I volunteer at The 519 even though I had just started taking hormones, because it takes a while for the hormones to take effect, right? I didn’t have breasts for about a year or so. I don’t remember, but it took a long time for the hormones to take effect. He wanted me to get involved in the community. He wanted me to volunteer with Meal Trans. That’s where I actually met people. I had one of two encounters with some gay folks, but that basically opened up my eyes because I had certain preconceptions about what a gay person looks like, what a gay man looks like or a lesbian or even a trans person. I had no clue. I was really ignorant in that regards. But it was really important for me to meet people and I did that. And that was my first real ongoing contact with anybody from our communities. Since then I know that you’ve done a lot of work in LGBT communities in Toronto, do you want to tell me about communities you’ve plugged into? Well, when I start transitioning it was 2005 and because of my connection to Meal Trans, I started Speaking Out. I also started writing a lot of poetry. Through my journey, I was actually writing stuff and expressing my emotions, which was really, really great. I did the Speakers Bureau with Dick Moore and since then I’ve been invited to speak at a lot of different venues with regards to being a trans person, being a senior, and being Jewish. I’ve lost count, but I’ve spoken at a lot of places in and outside of Toronto. One of the first things I did, and it sounds kind of freaky, is I joined Singing Out Choir back in 2007. The choir’s always been a great place for me, to be with and sing with people. It’s amazing. On top of that, I’m a member of the Senior Pride Network, I’ve helped plan conferences and events and have attended conferences. I’ve presented at conferences. Why am I doing it? Oh my gosh, because I’m trying to reach other people’s hearts, to educate them. So I’m out there being aggressive, I’m flaunting the flag, I’m being who I am, I’m pushing barriers because I want it to be safer for other people. And you’ve been a real agitator at Baycrest. I’m still pushing barriers because it’s the largest Jewish institution that has seniors in Toronto and it’s private, but the issue is there are LGBT staff who aren’t out and LGBT volunteers who aren’t out. I’m the only one who’s actually visible as a volunteer. There is no polity that is supportive of LGBT folks at Baycrest. It’s not safe and it’s not supportive. So that’s what you’re fighting for, the creation of policies? Yeah, because there are LGBT clients who are there, not necessarily Jewish, but there are LGBT clients at Baycrest but it’s not safe and it’s not supportive so they can’t share their experiences. They can’t feel respected because they’re fearful. They’re basically back in the closet, which is horrible. And you were part of a documentary with CBC radio, right? Yes, I was, back in 2011. That was really powerful. I did Back in the Closet back in 2011. It was amazing and they played it twice on Sirius radio to a million people. How many people can say that? How many people in our community can say that a million people heard them, twice? Not many! How have you seen communities change over the past ten years? There are still issues. It’s still communities; it’s not a community. And there is still pushback from and lack of respect from the gay community. As a trans woman who self-identifies as being lesbian, I find there’s a lot of pushback from feminists in the lesbian community. I’ve tried joining lesbian dating sites in the States and they say “No. If you’re trans you can’t join us.” There’s other sites I’ve gone on, like Pink Sofa and Plenty of Fish, that don’t really care. And being 69 now, I find it’s really hard to connect with women romantically who are anywhere close to my age. Most of my friends are younger. So it’s very challenging, romantically, to find someone. So then what’s next for you? I still want to keep educating people, I have to continue. I think that’s the definition of being brave: you’re not fearless, right? In spite of the fear, I’m out there. And I am going to continue doing that.
MEDIA COVERAGE FEATURING SHOSHANA
Coming out all over again: Why the first gay-rights generation faces familiar challenges in old age, Globe and Mail, 2014. Long-term care unprepared for LGBT seniors, Xtra, 2013. A moment with Shoshana Pellman, transactivist, at the LGBTQ Aging Conference- The Next Chapter in Guelph, Ontario, July 22 - 2011.