(oil on linen, 40 ins. x 30 ins.) (Interview 5/2015)
Artist’s Note (2015)
Dina Nina Martinez is a transgender woman. Her journey to accepting her true gender identity took many years although she will say she always knew she was female even when she could not verbalize how she felt, or what her feelings even meant. Not feeling right in one’s skin haunted Dina for most of her life.
This portrait in Art As Social Inquiry’s How We Die series is about a shedding or death of a false persona put forth by a person whose gender identity did not align with her body. Dina is female who was assigned male at birth.
This is the story of Dina’s journey back to herself.
A small voice in her head said, “If you don’t do this, you’ll be miserable. And there’s somebody in the middle of the country who is going to make it because of you. Admitting my real gender identity to myself was one of the best days of my life. “
Dina Nina Martinez, Social Change Agent, Comedian, Writer & Social Activist, Age: Experienced but Youthful
In junior high school Dina felt conflicted. She was assigned male gender at birth but she identified as female. She did not have the terms sorted out as a child.
She was not able to stop liking boys, and she did not know why. She cried herself to sleep while praying. “Please God, make me different, or make me a girl.”
As an adolescent, Dina did not understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.
Dina explains transgender. “ ‘Trans’ is gender identity. It’s who you go to bed AS.
"‘Gay’ is sexuality. It’s who you go to bed WITH.
“The ‘L,’ ‘G,’ ‘B,’ of LGBT refer to sexual orientation – lesbian, bisexual, and gay.
"The ‘T’ refers to gender identity – transgender, the gender one identifies as.”
Dina is a heterosexual woman. She is transgender because she is female-born who was assigned male gender at birth.
In her small Texas town growing up, Dina was the artsy one. She liked to choreograph, and wanted to be a hair stylist. She remembers feeling shamed into believing that she shouldn’t like girly things. Dina told her father she wanted to be a hair stylist. He said, “Only girls and gays do that.” The message was clear. Everything she wanted to do was not OK.
Dina’s parents were very strict. They belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in the South. Dina went to church on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays in addition to attending choir practice. Dina was discouraged from asking questions about religion.
Being interested in other spiritual practices was strictly forbidden. During her youth, Dina was allowed to listen to Christian or country music only. When she wanted to buy other music, she lied about where she was going. She was lying about everything to function – trying to avoid parental wrath. She was feeling unacceptable feelings. She was having an identity crisis.
Dina described herself as a good kid. “I liked Church well enough.” But even as a child she felt inhibited by the anti-gay proselytizing from the pulpit. Dina remembers some bullying as a child, but her memories do not live up to the level of parents’ concern at the time. Her parents considered packing up and moving the family. Dina’s mother said the teachers were mean to her. “I was chubby and played with the girls on the playground.”
By the end of junior high school, Dina ended up relating more to adult women and less to her male peers. One of her neighbors from the big city owned a horse farm where Dina worked. “She got me.”
Dina got very close to sharing her innermost feelings with her neighbor, but was too afraid. A school counselor, also from a city, talked to Dina about being artsy. “This was code for ‘gay’ and not fitting in.” Dina felt accepted by this counselor.
Dina’s struggles continued into her high school years. She considered suicide to get relief from her inner turmoil. Her strict religious upbringing and fear of going to hell stopped her from killing herself. She felt comfortable talking to a high school friend from a neighboring town about sexuality. But they didn’t talk about it too much. “I did not have the emotional language.” Clearly, however, there was an understanding. On graduation night, Dina was hanging out with this friend and the friend’s friend, an older guy. Dina ended up having sexual contact with the older guy. “I felt guilty and gross because of what christians and the Church taught about being gay. I never saw him again.”
Acknowledging her sexuality became a start/stop struggle. In college, “I let myself like guys a little.” She explored other spiritual practices. It soon became clear, “I could not have both – my religion and honest sexuality.” Dina chose the Church.
Dina found a new church. She loved it. “It was modern.” They had a band. She became a worship leader, a musical director. Dina played guitar and led the singing. She taught Sunday school and stayed with the church for 5 years. All the while she was trying to pray away her sexuality. She shared her sexual feelings with her accountability partner, a person who supported and helped her keep commitments. She thought, “I’m sexually attracted to men, praying to God, and He is fixing it.” Music saved her throughout this time. She enjoyed making music, and she associated that joy with God.
The inner battle between religion and sexuality lasted 5 years until Dina finally left the Church. In the beginning she told herself that she was going out with co-workers after work to do friendship evangelism, a way of “bringing friends to Jesus.” But she says she “ended up making out with a gay guy.” Dina finally acknowledged to herself, “I like guys.”
With this personal admission, Dina let herself wear women’s clothing. She became fascinated with drag queens. She got shopping and dressing tips from her new friends. She started to feel pretty, comfortable, and confident. She competed in drag queen amateur hours and pageants. And she accidentally came out to her parents.
Dina never told her parents that she stopped going to church. She was 25. “My sister was a super-butch lesbian. She was getting to know her sexual orientation.” Dina and her sister were talking to their mother. Dina attempted to explain her sister to their mother. “But you don’t know how WE feel.” Oops. Dina outed her sister and herself.
“No! God said NO!” Dina’s family kept telling her she was going to hell. After Dina came out, her mother wailed for almost 3 weeks as if her child had died. “The same kind of wailing my mother did when my father died at 52.” Dina tried to keep a low profile. “I tried hard not to flaunt anything.”
Her father called her and her sister into the kitchen and handed them a knife. “Kill me. That’s what you’re doing to me.” Dina and her sister looked at each other and said, “This is crazy.” Dina does not remember anything that happened after the incident. There was no violence. But she remembers feeling relieved. “I was out. I felt relief everywhere but home.” She did not have to censor herself anymore.
Dina was shocked by her mom’s strong and dramatic reaction to her coming out. “What did I do wrong? I don’t want to go to hell,” she thought. Her mother gave her books to read about getting “healed.” On the flip side, Dina's mother never read the books her sister gave her about the legitimacy of one’s sexual identity. Dina thought that if her mother wasn’t going to be open-minded enough to read her sister’s book suggestions, she was not going to read the books her mother gave her. “My relationship with my mom became a facade of lies. I felt like I was trying to protect my mom but later I realized that I did us both a great disservice.”
The initial relief at coming out gave way to depression. During the 1 1⁄2 - 2 years she was out in her mid-twenties, she had occasional sexual partners. Her medicine of choice to treat her loneliness was alcohol. “I am a Southern woman. I wanted to be wooed and treated right.” She was not finding meaningful relationships.
Dina made her way back into the closet and started presenting herself as a heterosexual man once again. She also went back to the Church. She wanted meaning in her life, and she thought she could find it in the Church. Dina sought out yet another church. She immediately became a leader, guiding groups. She was on the path to becoming a pastor.
She prayed about everything. After praying, Dina felt it was OK to dye her hair. The Church leaders believed otherwise. They saw the dyed hair as a throwback to the gay lifestyle. The Church instructed her to multiply her group, which she did. Then she was told to learn all the books in the Bible, which she did.
But it seemed she was never good enough. There was always one more thing she had to do to prove herself. Dina became very disillusioned with the Church.
Perhaps courting a girl and proposing marriage was Dina’s last attempt at fitting into the heterosexual Church mold. The couple “prayed on it” for 2 weeks. Both agreed a marriage would not work. Still in her twenties, Dina stopped going to church altogether. She got an office job, and an apartment with her sister. “I was miserable.”
Dina quoted the Bible to herself. “Jesus said, ‘I came to give you life, and life more abundantly.’ I’m not getting that life.” She considered getting hormone treatments to help her transition to her true identity as a woman. “I was scared.” Looking back Dina said, “I was unconsciously afraid I wouldn’t like myself. I was also afraid I WOULD like it. I couldn’t go back from that.”
Life moved on. Dina started telling everyone (except her family) that she was agnostic. She was reading books like “Celestine Prophecy,” a book about spiritual awakening, and feeling guilty about it. She was meditating and learning about different spiritual practices.
Dina had a moment in deep meditation. She felt she was falling but not afraid. She was falling to an amazing place. But Dina still could not reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. In Dina’s mind it had to be one or the other. She started flight attendant training while still living as male.
Dina’s family celebrated her birthday by going out to dinner. Dina’s mother said her sister’s pierced tongue was “trashy and disgusting.” But her dad said there was a gay kid at work. He worked hard. He was a good kid. “Did we just hear that?” The sisters looked at each other. This was very high praise coming from their father, and possibly his way of saying he loved his lesbian daughter, and gay son – a son who would soon discover she was actually transgender.
Flight attendant training became a start/stop affair. Dina left training and returned home when her father died. She was taken aback by how many attended his funeral, and how many lives he touched. Dina never knew that her father knew so many people. She felt she missed that piece of her father that touched so many. She returned to flight attendant training the week after her father’s funeral. Four short months after returning to work, her paternal grandfather died.
This time Dina left the airlines for good and stayed home to take care of her mother. Dina stayed with her mother for 1 1⁄2 years. She was self-medicating, driving drunk. She finally decided to come out as a gay man to everybody – family, neighbors, etc. With coming out came the freedom to explore different spiritual paths. Dina decided to get out of town. She had no relationship. She was drinking all the time. Home was a reminder of being “fucked up” she said. She also felt like a religious traitor. “But I was starting to be OK with that.”
In Los Angeles, Dina was seeing transgender people and asking herself, “Maybe that’s me?” She was scared. “Am I that?” Finally a good friend said, “Decide if you are a woman or a ‘bear.’" (A husky, hairy gay man.) "Just make up your mind,” the friend said. Dina admitted to other friends. “Greg thinks I’m a bear. I’m really a woman.”
Dina was on anti-depressants. She says she was confused and wishy-washy. But admitting to being a woman felt very freeing. “I was freaked out. Scared. Is this the right thing?”
The small voice in her head said, “If you don’t do this, you’ll be miserable. And there’s somebody in the middle of the country who is going to make it because of you. Admitting my true gender identity to myself was one of the best days of my life.“
Dina was afraid. But she made the appointment to get hormone treatments anyway. When the estrogen kicked in, “I never felt more of who I was. I hated the aggression that testosterone produced.” The changes caused by my hormone treatments made sense. “I never second-guessed my decision. I developed empathy and an indomitable spirit.”
When Dina began to transition she had a hyper-sexualized idea of femininity, and expected to become a big-boobed showgirl. She didn’t expect to be just a normal looking woman which is what she became.
In Los Angeles, Dina lost her job partially because of transitioning, she believes. She was unemployed for 7 months. She tried to make ends meet by performing as a showgirl, and doing freelance graphic design work. But she was still not making enough money to cover rent, food and phone. “Trans people are not very hire-able. A lot of us resort to sex work to make money. I tried sex work a couple of times but it was not for me. I did not enjoy it. But I felt like that was all I had to make money.”
In what what seemed like proof of a spiritual homecoming, Dina legally changed her gender to “female.” She appeared in an LA courtroom with notes from her doctor. She wore a pencil skirt and looked very professional. She was petitioning for a name change to Dina Nina Martinez. The judge said, “ ‘Dina’ suits you better.”
Dina left the courtroom and went straight to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get her gender marker changed on her driver’s license. “It’s me.” There is an “F” on her driver’s license now. “Best ‘F’ I ever got.” Dina confides that the new license helped her get employment.
Dina’s sundry thoughts:
~Dina wants people to know that she’s a normal girl – loving and lovable like any other woman. “Extraordinarily normal.”
~Her mother occasionally calls her “Dina.” She sees her mother every 1-2 years. Dina knows her mother loves her child, but she doesn’t know her. Dina’s mother’s religion prevents her from having a bond with her own child. Dina says her mother believes Jesus is coming back to send people to hell including her own child.
~”I guess I understand it. It (Christian fundamentalism) just doesn’t connect with who Jesus was, and that’s the part I don’t understand.” Dina says she learned who Jesus REALLY is. “Amazing, loving, kind, teacher, compassionate, accepting. Many fundamentalists do NOT know who Jesus is.”
~Dina is grateful she tried a gay church in LA. The experience helped her bridge the gap between organized religion and less organized spiritual practices. Her experiences at the LA church helped her make peace with Christianity.
~Dina does not think politics should be preached from the pulpit as had happened at the fundamentalist churches she attended. “It’s not OK to put one’s religious beliefs into law.”
~Bathrooms elicit a major eye roll. “I DO want to talk about restrooms, and I want people to know that we just want to pee.” She adds, “Things that most people take for granted become a major hurdle for trans people. Take, for instance, just going to the restroom. I have been fortunate and do not have many issues when I use public facilities. Trans people are often harassed and even threatened when simply attempting to relieve themselves.”
Here is an excerpt from Dina’s blog about bathrooms at Advocate.com “I highly doubt that you would report someone of color for using the restroom. So unless someone who is being sexually inappropriate, which we learned is called a sexual predator and not a transgender, is in your restroom terrorizing you and your children, hold your discomfort at bay and, like an adult, do your business and leave. Plain and simple!”
~ Here’s what Dina has to say on the omnipresent question of genitals. “In order to avoid offense and sensationalizing of trans bodies, I prefer not to discuss trans-related surgeries. I did, however, wish to say that a medical and surgical history is private and should only be discussed when the person is comfortable sharing that information. Asking trans people if they've had or wish to have surgery is frowned upon. If you wish to find out more about the medical processes that trans people go through, there is access to a wealth of information on the internet by doing a simple search.”
~Dina has had long stretches of being uninsured. Now she has a bare bones policy. Dina adds, “The disparities that trans people face are astounding. From economic and housing to education and access to public accommodations, the discrimination can be crippling. Lack of affordable healthcare options plays a huge part in this. It’s tough because if you’re in a city or town that doesn’t have centers that specialize in trans health then you’re forced to resort to purchasing questionable meds from overseas.”
(This interview took place before the Affordable Care Act made access to health insurance easier and more affordable for some.)