Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Jenn Burleton, a transgender activist, musician, feminist, the founder and Executive Director of TransActive Gender Center, an internationally recognized non-profit organization focused on serving the diverse needs of transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, their families and allies. Hello Jenn!
As a young person, I realized that I was considered an ‘undesirable’ by both the adults around me and my culture. And that was never more clear to me than when I ‘came out’ as transsexual in 1966 at the age of 12, an action that was prompted by my reading the newly published book “The Transsexual Phenomenon” by Dr. Harry Benjamin.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
That having been said, I believe that transgender people in America are in a far better position today than ever before, which means that we have moved up from being oppressed into the gutter of life in America to the edge of the curb. Still a long way to go… but we are resilient.
I don’t see transgender identity as a new frontier for human rights, but rather as an emerging component of the existing and continuing struggle for human rights. You know… we’re not there yet with regard to women’s rights, children’s rights, atheist rights, immigrant rights, racial equality & justice and so much more. Human rights are all encompassing, and transgender children, youth and adults are humans.
|Jenn in the '80s.|
There have been a few films that I thought well-represented transgender characters, but they have all been about tragic events. “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Soldier’s Girl”, “A Girl Like Me”. “Orange Is The New Black” is paving the way for more well-rounded fictional representations of transgender people, and I hope that continues.
Transgender people are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to challenging oppression based on enforcement of binary gender roles. Improving the status of all women simply cannot be accomplished without also freeing men from the soul crushing stereotypes associated with so-called ‘masculinity’.
At a time when I felt like the world would always reject me, or that I had nothing to offer, I found that I had this talent and ability that was not only rare and deeply appreciated, but that I could earn a living doing it! That gave me a lot of confidence. I made my living that way for more than 25 years. I eventually performed with a lot of well-known acts before leaving the music business about 10 years ago.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Jenn: I think the work being done by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), The Transgender Law Center (TLC) and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) would fall into that category, as would the work of TransActive Gender Center. I don’t think we have an individual like Harvey Milk, but then again, Harvey Milk did not have the array of organizations, laws and other advocates that exist today. Harvey also did not exist in an environment where marriage equality was legal in 18 states. I don’t believe any of the “celebrity” transgender people fulfill the same role that Harvey Milk did, but they do provide valuable visibility.
|Delivering a speech.|
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
My love for justice and equality, even as a child, gave me the courage and righteous anger to advocate for my own survival early on. Even as a kid, I didn’t see my right to exist as a transgender girl as an isolated right from that of others. I love music not only because of how it makes me feel when I perform or listen to it, but because I have witnessed the transformative power it has to bring people together.
I love music because it engages people intellectually, physically, emotionally and sometimes, politically. Music and other art forms create natural shortcuts to human communication and solidarity. Finally, the love I’ve shared with my life partner of 31 years has made me a much better person that I could have been without her in my life.
I’m pretty much a ‘whatever is clean at the moment’ kind of gal these days. Cover the flaws (if possible) and emphasize the assets. I am far too busy with my work at TransActive Gender Center to have the time to focus on fashion.
One thing I know it won’t be is another memoir about the details of my social gender transition or physical changes. Nothing new there. But it will be about the span of a lifetime filled with adventures, obstacles, triumphs and tragedies and lessons learned about being human. It will also have a lot of humor in it…
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
In 5-7 years I see myself still working at TransActive Gender Center, but possibly slowing down a bit. I’ll never retire from advocacy and activism though, so stay tuned.