Monique Costa: Leaping into the trans world with children's book
by Suzi Nash
Dec 20, 2012 | 1741 views | 1 1 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>MONIQUE COSTA</b>  <i>Photo: Barry Cox Photography</i>
MONIQUE COSTA Photo: Barry Cox Photography
This week we interview a real housewife of New Jersey — not from the TV show, but the real deal. Monique Costa is a wife and mother of two boys and the author of “How Leonard Lost his Spots,” a children’s book about a transgender leopard. Hint: It makes a great Christmas present for that trans person in your life.

PGN: Born in Jersey? MC: No, I was born in South Philly and moved in third grade. We moved to Exton, so I grew up in the suburbs, but the minute I graduated high school, I moved back to Philly. I got a journalism degree, then moved to the shore for 15 years and now live in Mullica Hill, N.J.

PGN: Fifteen years at the shore, you must be a water baby.

MC: I love the beach. I’d move back there in a heartbeat.

PGN: Favorite beach memory?

MC: We grew up at Ventnor beach and my favorite memory was staying late at the beach with all my friends and extended family. When the sky starting turning blue and everyone had left, we’d put sweatshirts on and order dinner and have the beach to ourselves. I still love that, being the last one left.

PGN: Only child?

MC: I was, and then I gained three step


PGN: What were you like as a child?

MC: I started out as a tomboy and then got into the creative arts. I especially loved to write. I would write stories from the time I learned how to spell. I think my parents always thought that I would be a lawyer because I was always arguing my points. [Laughs.] If I got punished for something and was sent to my room, I’d write a five-page brief about why they were wrong for taking action against me.

PGN: Tell me about your parents.

MC: My mom was a hairdresser and my dad was a businessman. My mom’s hair studio was in the basement, so we always had lots of people around. We lived across the street from a country club so people would always stop in after going to the club. They’d bring friends along with them, so between the clients, my friends, my parents’ friends, relatives, there was never an empty house. It was a great way to grow up, a lot of fun. I try to implement the same atmosphere in my house: There are always people over for dinner or to hang out.

PGN: I think I may have gone the opposite and looked for solitude.

MC: No, not me. In fact, if the house is empty, I get crazy. I love to cook. That’s my thing. I cook for my kids and all their friends and then we meet the kids’ parents and make more friends. It’s great.

PGN: When do you write?

MC: Well, now that my kids are in school all day, it gives me a chance to have quiet time. I’ll go to the beach alone, early in the morning or later in the afternoon, and use that quiet moment to think and to write. The ocean calms and inspires me.

PGN: What other activities did you participate in as a young person?

MC: I played field hockey, lacrosse and softball. I played the clarinet and I was in the chorus. I can’t sing a lick, but it was fun.

PGN: Favorite sports moment?

MC: Probably playing lacrosse. The position I played was closed to the goal so I got to score a lot even though I didn’t have anything to do with getting the ball down the field. With each goal you scored you got a colored piece of tape to put on your stick. It looked so cool to have your whole stick covered. I still remember the last goal I scored that got my stripes all the way to the top of my stick.

PGN: What was a fun thing about being in Philly?

MC: I just love it, love it, love it. I hated when we moved to the suburbs. As soon as school was over on a Friday I’d go straight back to South Philly to my grandmother’s house. I just always felt alive in the city [laughs], so I don’t know how I ended up in the suburbs of New Jersey now! My husband is from Philly and we’re both beach people, so it doesn’t make sense that we now live surrounded by cornfields and farms. My favorite thing to do in the city is just sit by the window in a restaurant and watch people go by or to just walk around. I love being among people. I love a crowd.

PGN: Tell me about your poetry business.

MC: I have a company called Le Poème Shoppe. I write personalized poems for people for Valentine’s Day or engagements or other occasions.

PGN: And how did you come to write the book?

MC: Well, Cheril N. Clarke and Monica Bey-Clarke from My Family put out a call for submissions. I was a creative copy writer for many years, doing advertisements and billboards and radio spots, then I got married and had kids but I always wanted to get into writing children’s books. So when My Family put out a call, it was perfect. I wanted to write something that was different, that addressed a different need. The world didn’t need another children’s book about sharing.

PGN: Give me a quick synopsis.

MC: It’s a story written from the point of view of a leopard cub. His dad Leonard realizes he was born into the wrong body, and that he’s really a beautiful lioness. He wants to transition and he tells the family what he’s planning to do. It’s about the cub coming to terms with it in a positive way.

PGN: How did you learn about the trans community?

MC: I read everything I could get my hands on and combed the Internet. I’m certainly not an expert, I don’t pretend to be, but I’m a mom and I feel the story has a universal message for parents. Open communication, no matter how hard the subject might be, is key. When Leonard tells his son, “Let’s talk about your feelings about what’s going on,” I think that’s a lesson for all parents. No matter what the subject — divorce, relocation, any big change — you need to talk with them and respect their feelings. Children are very resilient and as long as a child knows that he or she is loved, they can thrive in any situation.

PGN: You recently did a book reading at Giovanni’s Room. How did it go?

MC: It was awesome. I was really nervous since this was my first book, but we had a great turnout and it was really fun. One of the best nights of my life.

PGN: What was something that surprised you in your research?

MC: I was surprised to learn how young kids were coming out as trans, that toddlers were looking at themselves in the mirror and using opposite-gender pronouns. I was a little shocked at that. I’d assumed it was something that came more with adolescence. I didn’t realize kids seem to know who they are from birth.

PGN: Has it made you a better mother?

MC: As a mother in today’s world you really, really need to preach to your kids that you don’t judge people by their color, their religion, their sexuality or gender identity — you judge people by how they treat you and you make your decisions from your interactions with them. My kids are 5 and 8 and I might not have thought it necessary to start teaching those lessons until they were a little older, but now I realize that it starts now.

PGN: Where did you get your open-minded nature?

MC: It’s funny, if you looked at me from the outside, you might think, OK, she’s a typical housewife from Mullica Hill with two kids and a picket fence, but I don’t think in reality anyone’s really typical. I’m certainly not. I get bored with people who are, if there is such a thing. I’ve always had a yen for people and friends who were unique and different. We should be celebrating people’s differences, it’s what makes the world fun. Who would want to be around people who are just like you all the time? I think it’s because we enjoy life so much, I like to be happy and as long as you’re not hurting anybody, I think everyone should have the right to enjoy their lives as they see fit and with whomever they choose. There’s so much horrible stuff going on in the world, why do people worry themselves with trying to stop other people’s happiness?

PGN: Did your mother’s hair salon expose you to gay culture?

MC: Probably; there were always a lot of gay people around and they were always the most fun. My husband, Frank, was a quarterback at the University of Miami, so he’s a real tough guy, but he has gay friends, I have gay friends. It’s never been an issue.

PGN: Any pets?

MC:I do, I have an obnoxious English bulldog named Bruno Vincent.

PGN: If Bruno could talk, what would you ask him?

MC: I’d ask him what was up with him lately. He’s going through an emotional time right now where when he’s up on the couch — even though he’s not supposed to be on the couch — and when my sons climb up he gets upset. He doesn’t want them around me. I don’t know if he’s jealous or if he thinks they’re hurting me because they’ll jump over and hug me like kids do. I’d also ask him if he wants a companion. I’m dying to get a female. I had one, Sophie, who was my baby for 10 years and when she passed away I wanted to get a female, but my boys saw Bruno first and fell in love. I was outvoted.

PGN: What winter sport would you compete in?

MC: Skiing. I don’t do it now but when I was in school, I was in the ski club. And I was pretty good! They’d run a bus every week from Exton to the Poconos. It’s amazing how fearless you are as a kid. I’d go down Black Diamond and over the jumps. I went skiing again a few years ago for the first time in ages and it was a different story, I was much more nervous; it was like, “I could break a leg doing this!” But it was fun, anything that gets me outside.

PGN: Best Christmas gift?

MC: Well, one year right after Thanksgiving, we were at a restaurant. I should have known something was up because Frank invited a bunch of my friends and family. They had a person going around to tables asking people what they were thankful for (I didn’t notice until later that it was our video camera and everyone was in on it). When they got to Frank, he got down on one knee and said, “I’m thankful for my beautiful girlfriend and would be very thankful if she agreed to marry me.” Everybody clapped and it was a lot of fun. And we have it all on tape!

PGN: You said you spent a lot of time with your grandparents. Tell me about them.

MC: My grandmother — mom’s mom — just passed away this October. She was 94 and one of my favorite people in the world. She was a typical Italian-American little old lady. Never learned how to drive and didn’t need to because at that time everything she wanted was in her neighborhood — your corner store, your butcher and baker. I was the youngest of the grandchildren at that time and I was her baby. She’d talk Italian to me and I loved it. It was a time when South Philly was great to live in, a place where the families stayed in one place for generations and everyone looked after each other. I hate it that I can’t let my kids just go out and play by themselves. I wish they could have had that part of my childhood that was so free.

PGN: As a tomboy, did you ever want to be a boy?

MC: Yeah, there were a lot of years that I did. Being a hair dresser, my mom was very feminine. My older sister was a girly girl too and very much like my mom. I remember going Christmas shopping and my sister wanted a pink coat with a lot of frou-frou on it and I wanted a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. My mom was so upset, they were trying to talk me out of it but I wasn’t having it. I didn’t want anything to do with makeup or hair, and now I love all that but for a time I didn’t want anything to do with girly stuff.

PGN: Are you prepared if one of your kids came out to you?

MC: I don’t know about prepared, they’re young so it’s not something I’ve prepared for yet, but would I be open and accepting? Yes. As long as my kids are happy and healthy, I’m happy.

PGN: What’s next for your book?

MC: Outside of everyone buying a copy for Christmas, I have a friend who runs the Lucky Nickel Children’s Theater Company in New Jersey and we’re meeting to talk about making “When Leonard Lost His Spots” into a play.

PGN: And what legacy do you want to leave?

MC: I love that this is the first book of its kind and I hope that it will help kids take a complex issue and make it into a simple tale about love.

“When Leonard Lost His Spots: A Trans Parent Tail” is available at Giovanni’s Room or through

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January 02, 2013
Another great portrait by Suzi Nash! Thanks for highlighting Monique and Leonard!