Monday, 18 March 2013

Interview with Jessica McGuinness

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Jessica McGuinness, an American transgender activist and community leader. Hello Jessica!
Jessica: Hello Monika! Thank you for having me. I’m really excited about this!
Monika: What are you doing these days?
Jessica: I worked in EMS for 12 years but had to resign due to worsening arthritis from hemophilia. After about a year of being on disability, I got hired at the University of Pittsburgh as a clinical specialist for the Pitt Men’s Study. The Pitt Men’s Study is a 30 year old study for HIV. It’s been really incredible and I couldn’t be happier.
I was born in 1975 with hemophilia and grew up in the 80’s during the HIV outbreak. Remember Ryan White? I’m one of the lucky few that made it out of that time HIV negative. Most of those kids I remember at the hemophilia center are all gone. It’s nice because I feel like I can give a little back to the community.
The bridge in West Virginia that Jessica fell off.
Monika: Your story was published in the book written by Greg Miraglia and titled “American Heroes Coming Out From Behind the Badge”, which has inspirational stories of the LGBT people. What was your story?
Jessica: As I mentioned, I was in EMS for 12 years. When I entered that job, I was hiding the fact that I was trans from myself and the world. I also grew up around US Marines and always wanted to join but I couldn’t because of hemophilia.
EMS ended up being a dream come true for me. I had found a way to serve the public by doing a job that I could be proud of. In 2005, I was fell off a bridge during a camping trip and was nearly killed. It took me 6 months to recover and I couldn’t get off my couch for the first two months. This gave me a lot of time to think about my life. I realized that if I had died, I wouldn’t have liked the person that I was. This is the moment that I decided to transition.
I didn’t think coming out as trans while working in public safety was possible. I was convinced that people would not accept me and I would end up having to leave. I went to beauty school during the early stages of transition while working full time. I finished beauty school and ended up working part of the week as a male EMT and the other part of the week as a female hairdresser. As you could imagine, this was not easy.
Eventually I got fired from my hairdressing job. Not because I was trans but because I wasn’t suited for that job. On Saturday, I would have a patient that was burned from head to toe and on Tuesday, I had a client that didn’t like the way that I was brushing their hair. I have all the respect in the world for people in the cosmetology field but it wasn’t for me.
With her friends at a wedding.
Now I was back as working a full time male EMT. I was torn and couldn’t find another way out. I decided that I was in a unique position to help the trans-community. I thought maybe I could be that positive face that will show EMS providers and police officers that we are not freaks. I ended up posting this long letter to my coworkers that explained my process and feelings. To my surprise, my coworkers had no problems with it and completely accepted me.
A few months later, I ended up exchanging emails with Greg Miraglia and I sent him the letter that I posted on Facebook. That letter is what ended up getting published in the book. I remember typing that letter out in my sunroom and I was terrified about posting it. It’s really wild to think of what become of it.
Recently, I was posted on and LGBT page on Facebook and somebody that I never met said that they read my story. This is still amazing to me. 
Monika: Have you ever experienced any act of discrimination at work due to your transgender status?
Jessica: When I came out at work, I had already been there for a few years. I guess you can say that I was already part of the club. So when I came out, my coworkers saw me as one of them that needed their support. Honestly, they were amazing.
The thing that I did notice was how they would talk about trans-people prior to my coming out. They would be made fun of and mocked. This would hurt me really deeply and eventually because my driving force to come out on the job. I actually go into detail about this in the book.
After coming out, this behaviour stopped and people became a lot more sensitive to trans-issues. I give those guys a lot of credit and I’m very proud of them. 
In the back of the ambulance that she worked in.
Monika: Could you tell me why there is much hatred toward transgender women? I have a feeling that this hatred is stronger towards transgender women then transgender men. Any reason why?
Jessica: I believe people fear what is different. Transgender people are constantly portrayed as freaks, prostitutes, murders and perverts in the media. We are constantly the butt end of jokes. 
There are very few positive transgender role models in the media. Even when the media focuses on us, they tend to focus on our transitions and the world never gets to see us after our transitions. 
People don’t see how happy we become and how we adapt into contributing members of society. I want to see characters that are cops and office workers that just happen to be trans. We are trans but we are not defined by our transitions. I hope that the media will learn this.
Once we keep getting our faces and stories out there, people will slowly start to turn around. One day, somebody will talk down on us and people will say “I know a transgender woman, she’s not evil. She’s really nice and this person is mean for saying that”.
Monika: Are you a feminist?
Jessica: Great question! I think a lot of people within the LGBT are advocates without really intending to be. To be honest, I just see myself as a woman who is living a happy life. However, trans-people have a very unique perspective of the world. We know what it’s like to walk down the street as a man and what it’s like to walk down the street as a woman. I think that it’s safe to say that most of us realize that the perspectives of the genders are very different.
A lot of the issues that we face are women-issues such as workplace equality and victim blaming. I believe any woman who stands up for these things is a feminist to some degree whether it’s intentional or not. This is true for both genetic women and trans-women. I would say that I’m a trans-feminist.
I believe that a lot of issues between genetic-women and trans-women run parallel but there are a lot of issues that are exclusive to us. By doing my advocate work, I hope to accomplish one and effect the other in a positive way.
With contributing officers at the Pittsburgh book event.
Monika: There are more and more transgender ladies coming out in USA. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you think we will have more and more such women?
Jessica: I think it’s great! The more positive faces that are out there will eventually show the world that we are normal people just like everyone else. We didn’t see this 20 years ago.
Our stories were almost exclusively seen on trashy talk shows. I think that trans-people keep coming out because the world is slowly becoming more accepting. I personally believe that it will only get better with time.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Jessica: I grew up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh PA and I still live here. I love this city and I really don’t see myself leaving it. Pittsburgh is this little hidden gem that the rest of the country doesn’t see.
Recently, Pittsburgh was rated the #4 most LGBT friendly city in the US and I believe it. I really haven’t had too many problems here. There’s always unaccepting jerks out there no matter what city that you are in. I just think Pittsburgh has less than a lot of cities.
Jessica at the Art for AIDS Charity Action.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Jessica: I knew that something was different about me when I was around 5 but I kept it bottled up. I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone and I kept this secret to myself for most of my life.
Nobody will ever understand how much inner-torment that I had. The early 80’s were a lot different than it is today for trans-youth. I grew up in love with the military. Looking back, I think it was a classic case of over-compensating. I grew into a very shy and introverted person. I was not social outside of my friends. I was runner-up to quietest senior and I graduated dead last in my class with a 1.2 GPA. 
After high-school, I turned to a lot of drugs. It’s not something that I am proud of but this made me a better and compassionate EMT in the future. I eventually got off the drugs but I kept drinking for years after. It’s funny to think about these things now because I am the complete opposite. I’m happy, social and driven.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Jessica: I fell off the bridge at the age of 30 and began transition soon after. By the time I was 30, I was pretty well established as a male EMT. When you transition, you have to completely rip down your entire life and rebuild it from rubble. It takes a long time but it eventually irons itself out. I am close with my family now but I think they struggled with everything too. People don’t understand that it’s not just a transition for you but everyone around you is transitioning as well. I love you Mum!!!
With fellow EMS providers after a book event.
I remember when I first started HRT, I was rather crazy due to the crazy hormone switch. I think most trans-folk can relate to this. I look back at this and was shocked that I had friends at the end of it.
I’m not going to lie, most transgender people will lose friends and the existing ones change a lot. Overall, I think most people will stand by you if they love you. I would definitely say that it’s a hard process and that is an understatement. In the end, it was completely worth it but I would never want to go through that process again.
Monika: Transgender ladies are subject to the terrible test whether they pass as a woman or they do not. You are a beautiful woman yourself but how about other transgender ladies that have to struggle every day to pass? What would you recommend to them?
Jessica: Thank you for the compliment. I know that I am one of the lucky ones that does pass but believe it or not, I have not had any surgeries. When I was in the recovery process after the bridge incident, I spent a lot of time on the internet researching. I was reading things about everything from walking to voice therapy. It really took a few years to start “passing”.
The one thing that I put money toward was voice therapy. I was slowly starting to feel comfortable in my own skin so I was becoming more social. I felt that a deep voice was a handicap. I always said that the day I pass in a gay bar and somebody calls me ma’am on the phone will be the day that I knew I had made it.
I personally believe that most of passing is the way that you carry yourself. Work on these small things and you’re almost there. Really try to train yourself and one day, it will come naturally. There’s a lot more to it than the clothes that you wear. You have to sell the total package. 
I don’t think all of this is the truly measure of the woman inside of your skin. That comes from deep within and you have to explore that for yourself. You will eventually grow into a unique type of woman and that is something that everyone has to find on their own. However, these tiny little things will help your process go a little more smoothly.
Jessica and her Mother.
Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow to transition even at late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Jessica: I’ve had zero surgeries. I personally would love to have SRS someday but due to hemophilia, it’s just not in the cards for me. That being said, I’ve seen truly amazing transformations from cosmetic surgery.
For the trans-women who do not pass, I think this is a great option but it is expensive. I know a lot of trans-women can’t afford these surgeries. My only advice is that people don’t get carried away with it. Too much plastic surgery really looks bad on anyone, not just trans-people.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Jessica: I have to say that Andrea James was a role model for me when I began to transition. Back then, there weren't as many transgender women in the public eye. I just thought Andrea was really cool and I was impressed with what she does in the world. I admired what she was able to accomplish even though she was trans and I remembered that during my transition.
A few months ago, Andrea spoke at a local university. I ended up hanging out with her that night with a couple other transgender friends of mine. It was really an incredible experience and she is just as cool in person as I thought she would be.
Monika: Have you ever been married? Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jessica: I have never been married and I have no kids. I have 3 cats though. I was always awkward with dating. When I was young, I didn’t know who I was let alone being comfortable going to bed with anyone. I actually didn’t lose my virginity until I was 22. I believe that I was only able to have sex with her because I loved her.
Although I finally feel comfortable with myself, I always see dating as a pain in the butt, especially for a trans-woman. A lot of people are interested until they find out that you’re trans. I was never comfortable with telling a person that I met. The timing always seemed awkward and I’m always scared of the reaction.
I will never so much as kiss a person unless they know that I am trans. I’ve come to peace with the fact that I am single. I wouldn’t be as free to do my work and advocacy which is something that makes me really happy. I think it would be great to meet somebody but I’m not counting on it. I’m honestly very happy being single.
PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Another thing that I would like to mention is that I practice abstinence. It’s been about 6 years since I’ve had sex with anyone. It’s not for religious reasons or anything and I don’t expect others to live the same life as me. I had a one-night stand and when it was over, I looked in the mirror and felt cheap and used. I had worked so damn hard to become the person that I am today and I am worth a lot more than a cheap screw.
To me, sex isn’t worth having if there isn’t love. Being the fact that I don’t date much and I will only have sex with people who I share feelings with, I simply don’t have sex.
Another reason is that I was exposed to HIV at a very young age. I’ve seen its effect. By some miracle, I made it out of the 80’s without it, I’m not getting it now.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Jessica: This is actually a tough one. What makes a woman? I know butch women and girly women. Both have vastly different interests. I personally like the fact that I can relax and enjoy being myself but I’m not sure if that’s really a female trait. If I had to really pick something, I would say my mindset.
Now that my body is filled with estrogen, the world looks better and I have all of these wonderful emotions now. It’s truly remarkable and something that I always have trouble explaining. I could also say that I just love being a woman in the world. I guess after living so many years as a guy, I’m just happy to be myself now.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics? 
Jessica: I have not gotten involved with any political campaigns yet but that’s something I wouldn’t mind doing in the future. I find politics fascinating. I even carry the Constitution in my purse. I also love a good debate but I really have to be in the mood. I’m not talking about a yelling match, I mean two adults for opposite ends of the spectrum, sitting down and debating an issue. Unfortunately, civil compromise is hard to find these days so I’ve gotten burned out on politics.
Slippery Rock University.
Believe it or not, I grew up a Republican. I still don’t believe that the real Republican party is the clowns we see today. I got so disgusted with those people that I left that party. I think my Republican days was another form of over-compensating when I was denying who I was.
I am currently a registered Libertarian but I think that is going to change soon too. The nice thing about them is that when they say “small government” they actually mean it. The problem is that most don’t want any government. I’m sorry but I like the government fixing the pot holes and regulating food. These are not things that should be left to private donors. 
Libertarianism is something that looks great on paper but wouldn’t work in the real world. I’m definitely finding myself leaning more to the left these days.
Monika: Do you think that in our lifetime we could live until the day when a transgender lady could become the President of USA?
Jessica: Ha! I would love to say yes but I don’t think so. The US just elected our first black President and that brought some real racial feelings to the surface. The USA still hasn’t had a woman President or an (openly) gay President. I believe that the country is ready for a genetic woman to be President but an openly gay person would have a tough time let alone a transgender President.
There are a few transgender politicians out there and I think that is incredible. I think trans-folk can achieve this on a local or state level and even a national congressional seat but I just don’t see it becoming true in the highest office of the US yet.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Jessica: I think beauty pageants are pretty silly overall. I think that they tend to focus on the wrong things and not the things that truly make a woman beautiful. I would rather see women doing spectacular things with their lives and not focus so much on outer beauty.
That is just my personal opinion. I also believe strongly in the freedom to live your life the way that you want as long as you are not hurting anyone in the process. So if somebody dreams of being in a pageant, then go for it. It’s just not something that I’m personally into.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Jessica: I guess that I’m not much of a trendy girl. I tend to wear a lot of peasant tops, jeans and wedged boots. If I’m at a speaking gig or working on a particular issue, I usually wear a pencil skirt. I love pencil skirts! They are classy and sexy.
My Mum taught me well, we are total bargain shoppers. We go to a lot of outlets and such. I guess you can say that I don’t buy the trends of the season, I wait until the trends are on the clearance rack.  
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Jessica: I consider myself a freelance trans-advocate. I speak at colleges and work on various issues that pop up around Pittsburgh. I am one of the better known trans-advocates in my area. When the book came out, that gave me some credibility and I was able to build from that. I’ve met some incredible people over the past few years. Some are local legends. I hope to continue doing this work for some time.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jessica: I have thought about it. I have hemophilia, I am a transgender woman and I worked in EMS for 12 years, each of those could be a book in itself. I actually sat down and started to write it once. It was really hard for me to talk about certain things.
I also can’t tell my story without mentioning certain people and I don’t want them to be alienated. Maybe someday I will but not in the near future. Besides, I had my moment with American Heroes. It’s time for another person to take the spotlight.
As far as a memoir, I used to have a video blog on YouTube but I deleted all of my videos. It was kind of painful to look at myself from back then.
I don’t blog either. If I ever write, I’m usually writing fan fiction for comic books or Dungeons & Dragons. That makes me happy. I guess I get my story out there by doing interviews like this, my speaking gigs and working on issues that pop-up.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Jessica: Happy is the understatement of the decade. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can do anything that I can dream of and nothing is going to stop me. I’ve never felt so empowered and I am loving every minute of it! It was a long, hard process to get to this point but it was well worth it.
Monika: Jessica, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Jessica McGuiness.
Done on 18 March 2013
© 2013 - Monika 

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