Drummer Lisa Cameron talks about her transition into self
If you live in Austin and go to clubs to see bands, you've probably seen Lisa Cameron playing onstage. But unless you have seen the Devil Bat or ST 37 lately, you probably saw her before her transition, when she was Dave Cameron, a pleasant, long-haired, counterculture dude.
Dave Cameron began playing drums professionally with the band Brave Combo in Denton. He played with them from 1977 until he moved to Austin in 1981. He went on to play with Roky Erickson, the Lotions, Glass Eye (with me), Squat Thrust, Three Day Stubble, Daniel Johnston, Moist Fist, JSAS (Jherri Siggenfeld's Atrophied Sac), ST 37, and numerous others throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Happily married for 28 years, father to a son, and sought after as a skilled musician, unassuming Dave Cameron was the poster boy for the sweeter side of underground Austin. News that he was undertaking a male-to-female transition was universally greeted, at least initially, with disbelief.
Lisa Cameron: It's not like I got up one day and decided to say "Fuck You!" to society and just become a woman. ... It's not like that at all. This is all real. But people said, "Oh, you're just doing another one of your put-ons," or, "Is this a joke?" Or they thought it was performance art [laughs].
Austin Chronicle: Well, you know, you made quite a name for yourself as a really, really hilarious bullshit artist long before any of this.LC: Yeah, I know. AC: And that must haunt you, because the first couple of times I heard you were transitioning, I just thought it was typical Dave bullshit. Then I realized it was true. Maybe this is kind of stupid, but I think it's fascinating, because I knew you, and I knew your wife, and I thought, "This is the last person in the world I would have thought this would be happening to." LC: When you are like me, you have to become the world's best actor; you have to be really good at hiding this stuff. So naturally it's unexpected; it's a shock to everyone. I would never wish this on anyone; it's such a struggle. Imagine what it is like to get up in the morning and be paralyzed by not knowing which sex you are. People cannot conceive of what goes into this.
You know, all the best comedians, like Andy Kaufman and Bill Hicks, they all had very turbulent lives a lot of problems. Creative people in general, they find it hard to live in the world. Transitioning is my way of being able to live in the world.
AC: Did this start when you were a kid?
LC: Until I was about 8 years old, I thought I was a girl. I was told I was a boy, but I felt like a girl.
AC: Was your name Dave?
LC: Oh yeah. But I identified as a girl, and I gravitated more toward girl things. I don't know if it was my environment or what, but I genuinely thought I was a girl. Then when I was 8 years old, my parents decided I needed surgery to correct a minor birth defect. With my limited understanding, you know, because I was a child, I thought I was undergoing treatment to turn me into a boy. I had no idea how this would end up affecting me; my parents assured me it would be okay. Looking back, I really wasn't given a choice.
After the surgery, the world continued to socialize me as a male, but it didn't really "take." When I was in high school, I was afraid people would notice I wasn't growing hair on my legs. ... I could never grow a full beard. I felt like an imposter.
At one point, my mom thought I was acting a little too feminine. So she took me to a psychologist. It was ... not helpful.
AC: How old were you then?
LC: High school senior year. I was taking a lot of acid and looking really androgynous around that time. But I was socialized as a male, and I believed it, until 15 years ago or so. At that time I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
AC: Really? Was that right around the time that you and I were playing in Glass Eye together, or was it after? Did you see a psychiatrist?
LC: Right around that time, when the band ended, I was having real problems with my anger. To this day I don't know why it all happened, but I do know it happened, and I ended up being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I was 42, and I thought, maybe I should go into therapy because I was having all this anger, and at that time I also started cross-dressing. Well, I can't say I started, because I had been cross-dressing all my life, even when I was a little kid I did and all through high school, every once in a while. It's almost like it was a schizophrenic thing.
AC: So you were trying to be a guy, it wasn't working out, and you were ending up being really angry and self-medicating. ... It is really enlightening to hear you talk about this, because when we were in Glass Eye together, I remember that you really were confused and angry. It was really difficult for you to concentrate and get things accomplished. It was frustrating for everyone.
LC: It wasn't working out. And then I discovered estrogen. Estrogen really cooled me out, and made it so I could function. I was very confused and really angry. For me, estrogen is so important that I plan on taking it for the rest of my life, because it helps me function. Without it, I don't. When I stop taking it, I start getting angry and really confused, and I will spend hours and hours trying to figure out simple things like what I am going to do that day.
You know, transsexualism or gender dysphoria or whatever you want to call it is the only diagnosable condition that is in the DSM-IV [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] that has a social stigma on treatment. It's really true! Transsexuals, when it comes to treating their condition, are constantly met with a brick wall by institutions. So they have to do it all on their own. No insurance covers hormones or gender-reassignment surgery. I have friends who have flown to Thailand to have it done. It costs like $15,000 there. Even at that discount, it's just out of reach for most people.
Fortunately for me, I don't feel like I need to change my body surgically to satisfy somebody else's idea, whether it is the LGBT community or the government.
AC: That makes sense to me. I think a lot of people who experience gender dysphoria are increasingly deciding against surgery, and it's starting to be seen as a valid choice.
LC: That's where I'm at, but a lot of people in the transgender community don't see that as a valid choice. The older you are, the more likely transsexual means "male" or "female" to you. I am more like the younger people, who are more comfortable being situated on a gender-queer spectrum. Finally I just said, "Okay, just call me Lisa." I feel more like Lisa than I do Dave, even though Dave was a part of me.
AC: Do you have strong feelings about being called "she" or "he"?
LC: Well, more and more, since my name is Lisa [ahem], I am more comfortable being called "she," and I am trying to claim that. That's difficult. Like for instance, my driver's license says "male." The state is becoming more and more narrow, especially with this upcoming national ID card. Which may completely erase everything that transsexuals have done to change their birth certificates, their driver's license, their Social Security ... all that may be out the window with this national ID card.
AC: Well, I'm against a national ID card. It is just too much like Nazi Germany, having to show your papers at every checkpoint on the railroad, constantly having to prove who you are.LC:
It's complete BS. All they want to do is put us in little boxes and turn us into little consumer idiot robots. Unfortunately for them, I deprogrammed a long time ago [laughs].
AC: One thing you told me is that you haven't experienced a whole lot of discrimination here in Austin, because you do live a bohemian life, and you live in the creative community.
LC: It is kind of insular.
AC: Are you afraid to leave town or take car trips into rural areas?
LC: I was for a while, but actually, no. I have done that a lot, mostly touring with bands. The big battleground for a transsexual is the bathroom. It's all about where you go to the bathroom. That was a real eye-opener. Some places I can go into the women's bathroom and have no problem. Other places, no way am I going in there! I just go on my instincts as to what will be safe. So far I have never been in a violent situation; I think that has to do with the way that I view it. I just try to be as casual about it as I can.
AC: Don't you think it is kind of ironic that this whole "battleground of the transsexual" being the bathroom would have been totally eradicated if Congress had just passed the
AC: Do you find that you have to be hypervigilant, as women often have to be about rapists, you know, constantly checking to see whether you are in danger of being jumped or beaten up?
LC: My transgenderism has helped with that, actually. Whereas before, I used to look around and be constantly checking the people around me, thinking, "Is anyone looking at me? Can they tell I have earrings on?" It was ridiculous. That's why I had to transition, because I was so fucking freaked out every time I went somewhere, 'cause I would have done something subtle, like pluck my eyebrows or have on some fingernail polish, the most ridiculous little things. Finally I said, "I just can't deal with this anymore; I just gotta do it."
AC: So, in a way, you became less fearful when you made the change.
LC: Well, it was very empowering. That's when I realized I had power from within a very important spiritual concept that has really transformed my life.
It has also transformed my music. Because, when I started transitioning, I thought I would have to leave town. I thought I wouldn't be able to explain it to anybody, and it would be better if I could just start over somewhere else. But then when I actually started transitioning, it was like 500 pounds was off my shoulders all that confusion. That was a complete release for my music. My music is back more than ever.
Now I have a solo project called Venison Whirled. What it means is venison gets whirled back into the deer; it's kind of a mystical thing. And I have a really great band with my partner, Lee Ann, called the Devil Bat. Laura Creedle is in it, David Escamilla, and Virginia Meza. Mostly we are doing Lee Ann's songs, and they are great Sixties pop with some spaghetti Western thrown in. We just did some great recording with Gretchen Phillips and Brian Nelson. ... I'll burn you a copy.
AC: Totally do; I'd love to hear it! I bet Gretchen loved it. And what a great lineup!
LC: One thing I would really like to stress is that people need to look at this transgender phenomenon and see that it is making society better. It is helping society evolve into a more just society. Whether people like it or not, it is creating this huge upheaval. It's causing people to look at gender and see that it's made up; it's a societal construct.
AC: I want to ask you about your family. When I found out this was happening, it never occurred to me that this would threaten your marriage to Lee Ann in any way. What has that been like?
LC: Well, it's been really up and down. When she first found out about it was when we first were dating. Everybody was cross-dressing in Denton; it was no big deal. ... That was around the time that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was really popular.
More recently, here in Austin, sometimes she felt really uncomfortable about it, especially when we would be going out places, and I would be [cross-]dressed up and stuff. Lee Ann would ask me, "What's going on with you?" And I would say, "Well, I don't know. I wish I knew."
When I started actually thinking about transitioning, and I brought that up to her, she got real freaked out. Lee Ann used to say, "Why can't you just be a feminine man? I could deal with that!" We struggled with it and tried to figure it out, but then we realized that, basically, we're people. The bottom line is that we are two people who love each other. And we're still married. We've been together for 28 years, and somehow, we work it out.
AC: That is the impression that I got, and also in my imagination: If I were with someone for 25 years and had a son and this came up, how would I feel about it? And I hope I would just feel this is someone I have been loving for a long time. If they are discovering new dimensions to themselves and trying to become who they really are, I think it would be difficult to be against that and still maintain that you love them. But this has probably been really hard for Lee Ann.
LC: It has been really hard for her to navigate all this. But ultimately Lee Ann decided that, no matter what, she wanted to support me in becoming my authentic self. And you know, I feel the same way about her; I want her to be her authentic self, too, and she's exploring that. So far we've stuck together, and we love each other a lot.
AC: That's really good to hear. In some ways, I guess it mirrors any kind of personal growth that happens with partners in a marriage.
LC: Yeah, because frequently, well, in almost every case, it doesn't work out. One person in a marriage transitioning ... I mean, that's usually a deal breaker.
AC: How did you become a transgender activist?
LC: One of the things that helped me through my transition is I came across this Buddhist saying. I am not a Buddhist, but it really stuck with me. "If you aren't serving, you are suffering." And I thought, "How can I serve? Because I am definitely suffering!" [Laughs] And then when I started to serve the transgender community, I quit suffering. I don't know exactly how it works, but it does work.
I'm in a group called the Transgender Advocates of Central Texas, and we did actually get a city charter passed here in Austin that covers use of bathrooms, employment, and medical care.
I also have worked with the Cultural Confidence Committee. It is kind of like Transgender 101. We go out to Brackenridge and EMS and stuff, so that if a transgender person comes in, they will know how to react. Because there have been a lot of problems with that, with emergency-care people not knowing how to react or being too freaked out to help. We want to make sure that people understand that they may get a transgender person in there, and they need to stay calm and treat them. Bad things have happened, and people have died because they were denied treatment. That's one of the reasons I decided to become a transgender activist; I have a friend who died in a situation like that.
Also, I find that, more and more, I want to work with NARAL [National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League] or some group like that. Because I believe in a woman's right to choose, and I believe that the right to choose is totally tied in with my struggle, as in, the state trying to control my body. I feel like that is a valid struggle. Eternal struggle, that is what it is going to be: There is no gain without a struggle.
Transgender Advocates of Central Texas, 448-6354. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tactx.org, www.myspace.com/TACTx.
Gender & Sexuality Center UT, 232-1831. deanofstudents.utexas.edu/gsc/index.php.
Transformation Psychotherapy Services, Katy Koonce, 329-6699.
Susan's Place Transgender Resources www.susans.org.
Many Thanks to Pink Hair Salon & Gallery, 1204 S. Congress, 447-2888, and to Deborah Carter, co-owner and hairstylist; Karen Carmichael, eyelash extension technician; and Chelle Simoneaux, make-up artist, for their generosity throughout this photo shoot.