Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Interview with Jemma


Monika: Today’s interview will be with Jemma, a transgender woman that documents her transition on Reddit.com as SuddenlyJemma. Hello Jemma!
Jemma: Hi! Thanks for the opportunity!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Jemma: Sure! I'm in my early 30's, started transitioning at 30 years old. I currently work in a tire manufacturing factory that makes the tires for the giant off road mining equipment. Our smallest tire is 9.5 feet tall and weighs almost 2 tons! Definitely not the easiest job; but it pays the bills. I have 2 rescue dogs and a handful of guinea pigs at the moment.
Monika: Why did you decide to share your transition details on Reddit
Jemma: The trans communities on Reddit really helped me to come to grips with my gender issues and help to give me a little bit of hope that transition might be a big help to me. At first, I was terrified that transition and hormones wouldn't have much an effect on me. The Q&A posts, timelines, and information there were so helpful and inspiring that I'd like to be able to contribute something back for people at that same early stage and needing a little hope.
The doggos.
Monika: I am sure you get many questions from your Reddit audience. What do they ask for?
Jemma: I guess the question I got asked the most was about my weight loss when I first started hormone replacement therapy. It was a pretty dramatic change for me, something like 60-70 lbs in the first 4 or 5 months on hormones! It was mostly a combination of muscle loss and cutting back on sugars in my diet.
Unfortunately, that rapid weight loss may have factored into some health issues late last year. I had to have emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder after it apparently started to split in half at work one night. The doctor treating me thinks that the weight loss may have triggered it. Of course, it was just speculation; but it was still a pretty rough couple of weeks to recover from.
Monika: What was the strangest question that you answered?
Jemma: Thankfully, nothing too strange! A few non transition related questions about where my favorite places to kayak are and other questions about outdoor activities. Or maybe asking the names of my pets. I guess I've gotten lucky to keep a low enough profile to not have a whole lot of strange, random questions.
Monika: At which stage of the transition are you right now?
Jemma: I just hit my 18th month of hormone therapy and currently am in the process of scheduling bottom surgery. I'm hoping that I'll have most of the medical side of transition finished by the end of this year. It's such a long process! As much as I'm ready for it to be over, I'm trying really hard not to rush it too much.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the results of the hormone therapy?
Jemma: I would say that I am. It's pretty weird. I'll got a few months not seeing any changes no matter how hard I look and then it's like a flurry of changes in a couple of months. It seems like everything comes in fits and spurts. I don't think anything I had ever read or anyone I had ever talked to about transition came close to preparing me for how strange it would be to see yourself in the mirror and literally not be able to recognize yourself.
Heading out for a paddle.
For me, starting at 31 years old and coming from a pretty masculine starting point, it's amazing to me to see comparison pictures now. The difference is stark! I grabbed an old T-shirt the other day to wear while I was doing laundry and was practically swimming in it; but in my mind I still have these crazy wide shoulders from years of swimming and weight training.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow?
Jemma: Is it too cheesy to say the wonderful users on Reddit that came before me? To me, anyone that made their transition public, through the ups and downs of it, are amazing role models, simply for showing the rest of us that it can be done. The ones that take the time to reach down and help the rest of us up. That show us that the worst parts of transition are worth the price for the best parts.
I guess if I were to choose a more widely known role model, it would be Michelle Hendley. Boy Meets Girl was a huge film for me right before I started transition. It's inspiring to me to see someone be successful in such a public role after going through transition.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many of us lose their families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jemma: I had most of my dad's side of my family disown me. They're a pretty religious group and so of course transition would make me the outcast there. It hurt a lot because I was always really close to that side of my family growing up, so many strong memories from childhood. I have some younger cousins on that side that I would babysit from time to time and were really close with. It hurts a lot knowing that I'll probably never have any sort of meaningful interaction with them anymore. My close group of friends before transition also kind of disappeared.
So, yeah, it was a lot like starting out from the beginning again. Having to build new social connections, replacing blood family with people who I am so close to that I consider them family. I am so fortunate to have had a few people in my life that not only stuck with me during transition; but really gave me an incredible amount of support to start with.
The guinea pigs.
My work was probably the biggest surprise that I had. A very blue collar, male dominated job in a conservative and religious section of the country has been totally fine with me transitioning on the job. There are some that are not OK with what I'm going through; but they at least have the respect to act professionally around me.
By and large, everyone there is really cool with the idea of a trans person. Really took me for surprise when HR called me in one morning to ask about it and what I needed from them in order to make things easy and comfortable with me. I think a lot of it has to do with the manufacturing mindset of show up to your shifts, get your work done, and don't make things harder on anyone else…and if you do that, no one has a problem with you.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Jemma: Gah, that's such a hard question to really answer. We're such a large and diverse country that my experience might not be even remotely similar to another transwoman's experience just a few towns away. I will say that I'm in a pretty good area. It wouldn't seem like it, though.
I'm fairly close to Atlanta, GA which is a surprisingly progressive city in the south, so I spent a LOT of time in the city when I first started transition. My endocrinologist's office is there. I'm in a city that is a lot more suburban/rural, not too far away, and the prevailing attitude here is that most people aren't going out of their way to pay attention to you unless you're working hard to draw attention to yourself. I was always so scared starting out that I would get harassed or made fun of when I went somewhere; but it really was more a case of just blending in to the background.
The biggest thing I guess I've noticed is that so many people have these preconceived notions of what a trans person is and they say whatever negative things on social media or in private, and then when they realize they've been working with someone in transition, or that someone in their social group is trans, it kind of hits them that we're just people. Just like them. Just trying to get through the day and make a successful life. That's the optimist in me speaking anyway. I've met way too many transpeople that have a wildly different story about transition than I do. It breaks my heart that it feels like we're so close sometimes to just being accepted and at other times it feels like everyone is scheming to just send us to Mars. 
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Jemma: I think trans characters in media is following a kind of interesting, if not always positive arc. It started off that trans people were just a joke. Think of the first Ace Ventura movie, for example. Or the campiness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Camping in the Smoky Mountains.
People that crossed the gender line were a novelty, something that could be used as a comedic element because I'm guessing it was too outlandish to think that we actually existed. I don't know. Those are the depictions I had when I was still a kid, so I don’t have a lot of context for them.
It seems now that we're starting to feature stories about trans people as ACTUAL people that are dealing with our issues in a more serious tone. I mentioned the film Boy Meets Girl earlier, and that movie hit home for me as someone from a rural area struggling with gender identity.
And we have Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black showing an unfortunately too close to real portrayal of some of the dangers of going through transition and the lengths we go to. It feels like we're at a stage now where the story of trans people revolve around the story of their transition. Almost like it's just the first step in explaining our situation to the world at large.
I'd love to see characters or stories sometime in the next few years that feature trans people; but the story of their transition is ancillary at best. Just simply having a character deal with everyday situations that non-transgender people deal with. The fact that the character is trans is more of an interesting tidbit instead of the focus. I think we're getting to that point and it'll be interesting to see something that normalizes the idea of being trans.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Jemma: I'm probably not as active as I should be. I feel like being in a marginalized position put a lot of pressure on us to kind of pick up the fight and try to get ourselves on equal footing. It's hard to add that extra level of effort to whatever it is you're already doing in life. Trying to find a good career, building meaningful relationships, creating financial stability and growth, dealing with the medical and legal expenses we're hit with, etc.
We already have a lot on our plate; but we still have so much to do. So it's definitely important; and I'm so grateful that there are people who have taken the time to help us get to where we are now. I feel like I need to contribute my share to the fight since I've been able to reap the rewards of those before me and those that are politically active now. One of the best things my therapist has helped me with is realizing that it just takes a bunch of small steps to add up to something big.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBTQ community?
Jemma: Not really. I've made a few trans friends since I started transition. Mostly people just starting out now or within the last few months. I do what I can to help share resources and try to get us involved with doing things. Even if that's just getting out of the house for a bit and having a little fun. I tried some support groups early on in transition; but just never really clicked with those groups.
Hiking Hinoyama National Parm outside
of Shimonoseki, Japan.
I think it's important for us to look out for each other and help each other out because it really is a rough road to go through transition. Even for someone like me, where I feel like I've been incredibly fortunate to have had as easy as a transition as I have, there are just so many obstacles and and hurdles to get through that we all need as much help and support as we can get. 
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Jemma: I think when the concept of transgender people was starting to get firmly planted years back that it was incredibly helpful to have the company of others who were fighting similar battles for acceptance. It's almost like we've gotten to a point, though, where the T in the acronym doesn't quite fit in with the rest. Not that we're all opposed to each other; but more that our paths for acceptance are starting to diverge quite a bit.
We're starting to realize the difference between gender identity, expression, and sexuality. In a way, it's still nice to have a large community under the same umbrella. I just think that we're naturally drifting away to pilot our own course.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Jemma: I love the idea of fashion! I don't follow it too closely, however. It's like a subject to study to me. I have so much else going on that trying to find time to squeeze in what's trending and what's not is just a little too much for me right now. Also, again, we're such a diverse culture that the popular fashion in my area might be pretty horrendous in a different region.
Thankfully, summertime in the south means that T-shirts and shorts are always a safe bet…because that's the majority of my wardrobe. I'm fairly active outdoors so I prioritize comfort and functionality over style. Give me something breathable with a good range of movement and I'll be happy. I do like to put on something nice and get all dolled up for a nice night out though! Just have to make sure to get makeup that will let your skin breathe and not get super streaky from the sweat.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jemma: Love is super important to me. Not so much the romantic type, yet, anyway. More like the love of really close friends and family. The people that are always there to put a smile on your face or help you out when you might not even know you need help. That's the kind of love that keeps me going.
I've got a few friends who I truly consider my sisters and I would be in pretty rough shape without them in my life. I'd really like to pursue some romantic interest at some point. I'm just not quite there emotionally yet. Maybe one day. Settle down with someone who I would fully consider to be my best friend and partner in life.
Kayaking through the old downtown
industrial district.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jemma: I'm currently writing a book! Or at least working on one. It's not a memoir, more of a novel of different stories revolving around life in the rural southeast. Just a collection of vignettes highlighting how absurd yet normally life's turns can take. There are definitely some transgender elements in it. I don't think I'm nearly a strong enough writer to be able to create this world full of characters I can relate to too without at least having trans issues affect the story in various places.
I'd like to think it's going to end up as something resembling Hunter Thompson's works. Articles and passages filled with metaphors that just kind of highlight things in a perspective that runs parallel to the larger narrative around us and then intersects at odd angles. It's exciting to be able to take the different situations I've experienced living all across the southeast and use them to express a little bit of counter culture.
Monika: What would you recommend to transgender women that are afraid of transition, discrimination and hatred?
Jemma: I would tell them that their fear is definitely NOT without merit. The world in general is a scary and cruel place, at times. Even for people not going through transition. It will absolutely chew up and destroy people. If you add dealing with gender issues into it, it's only going to make things harder. But the world is also the great and beautiful place, full of wonder and kindness. It's not always going to be terrible. Yes, we as trans people are going to have more things to work through and against, just to be able to function in society without being total pariahs. Yes, it's going to be insanely easy to sit back and let jealousy over people who don't have our issues and how easy things seem for them. But we're people just like them. We absolutely have the same rights to happiness and love and worth that other people have.
No one, I think, has ever said being transgender would be easy. It's unfair that we feel we have to work that much harder to get to the same level as everyone else; but we are far from the only group of people to have that sentiment. Going through transition just means that even though we see how hard the road is going to be, that we're still willing to put that work in. I think that's a really special notion. It reminds me of the mindset of the people that founded our country. Life would have been easier if they were able to just accept things as they were; but they knew if they wanted something better, something more in life, they would have to do some difficult things to reach those goals.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Jemma: I'm currently working towards getting all of my legal stuff changed over to my new identity and schedule bottom surgery. I'm mostly completely through with social transition. Working on the install team for a new piece of machinery in the factory I work at. Spilling a lot of digital ink trying to get the stories in my head out in some physical form.
College days at a football game.
I'm hoping that in the near term future, I'll have been able to leverage the experience I have helping to start a new manufacturing facility into a position as a project manager somewhere closer to the city, as well as finishing up some of my creative work and *hopefully* *fingers super extra crossed* being able to shop some of it around for publishing/development.
I'd like to think that I'll be in a position that I'd be able to travel more like I did when I was a student, with a comfortable place to stay with room for my fur babies. AND, have at least hiked half of the Appalachian Trail, if not a total thru-hike. Trying to keep my goals reasonable, haha! 
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Jemma: Totally! I tell a friend of mine who is just starting transition something similar to this all the time. Transition isn't my goal, it’s a step in attaining my goals. It's a part of what makes me…well, me; but it's not the final word on who I am.
I'll always have had my perceptions and ideas shaped by growing up with gender issues and going through transition. I'd just like to think that my own personal story is more than changing the letter on my ID. More like it's just something that adds context the person I am and the person I hope to be!
Monika: Jemma, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Jemma: Thank you for taking the time to make me feel important! :)

All the photos: courtesy of Jemma. 
Done on 4 July 2017
© 2017 - Monika 

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