Sunday 17 February 2013

Interview with Jessica Janiuk

Monika: For today I have invited a special guest. Jessica Janiuk is an American gamer, software engineer, writer, photographer, and transgender activist from the sunny state of California. She is known for her blog on which she shares her transition story. In addition, Jessica is a community organizer with Google's GDG and Women Techmakers programs. Hello Jessica! How lovely of you to agree to be included in my series of “Interviews with Transgender Icons”.
Jessica: Thanks for having me.
Monika: What do you do for a living these days?
Jessica: I’m a web developer for a trailer hitch company based in the state of Wisconsin, in the US of A. It’s a very glamorous job involving multiple computer monitors and pale skin from lack of sunlight.
Monika: Where did you grow up?
Jessica: I grew up in a small suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin called Delafield. It had between 5,000 and 8,000 people while I was growing up. I think it’s larger now though due to urban sprawl.

Photoshoot by Ken Williams.

Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Jessica: My childhood was filled with nerdy and geeky things. I was very much into science fiction, Star Trek, Transformers, Thundercats, etc. All the typical stuff 80s kids were into I was into. I cross-dressed at a very young age, but I was very secretive about it. I was also very introverted and quiet.
In high school, I’ve had it said that you had to pry my opinions out of me. I was that introverted. I really didn’t understand what depression was until much later, but looking back, I was definitely dealing with some depression back then. It didn’t really come to a head until college though.
I don’t know what the exact first time that I realized I was a woman, but I know I had a lot of experiences in which I knew I was different. I was probably 7 or 8 when I first could put the word “woman” to who I was.
Monika: For most transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college, or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Jessica: The traumatic times for me were more due to inner turmoil than anything else. I did deal with a little bit of discrimination, but I wouldn’t say that the trauma I experienced came from other people. I went through strong periods of gender dysphoria around ages 18 through 21. My depression really hit the hardest during my first year in college. I struggled so much that I got terrible grades and dropped out. It took a year of soul searching to finally begin to understand who I am and start to accept myself as a woman.
After that time off, I was headed in the right direction, but once I recognized who I am, the dissonance between who I am inside and how I looked became really difficult for me. That’s where the most trauma for me was, and it really motivated me to transition.

Behind the scenes at the photoshoot.

Monika: At what age did you transition into a 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: Emotionally and mentally, I think the transition process began as a child, but as far as when I started seeking out the physical change process, I was around 21. I was in college, and that made it a bit of a challenge because I had no money. A lot of the costs of transition, like hair removal, hormones, etc., went on credit cards. Buying a new wardrobe while in college is not easy.
That said, I had a lot of support from friends, faculty, and staff at the university, from members of the community at large, and eventually my family. I was really surprised by the positive reactions I got from people. I think those that had issues with it largely kept to themselves.
My family did have problems with it early on, but as time passed, they realized it was not a phase. I’m very lucky when it comes to family. I was even a bridesmaid at my sisters’ weddings. I did have issues with my job at the time. There’s a fairly well-known big box store chain in the USA that I was working for that basically told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to work there if I was transitioning. It made for a challenging few weeks, but I ended up getting an awesome job at the university and never looked back.

Bridesmaid at her sister's wedding.

Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman? Did you undergo any cosmetic surgeries?
Jessica: I rarely have issues with people thinking I’m male or that I’m not genetically female. The only times I have issues are really when people can’t see me. My voice is in that androgynous area. So, sometimes over the phone, I get “sir”. Once they ask me my name, they usually apologize though.
In general though, no, no one questions my gender. I do wish there was a better term than “passing” because it really doesn’t do our community and our identities justice.
As far as your question about cosmetic surgeries, I did go through reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, estrogen didn’t do much to my chest, so I did get breast augmentation done. I also got a tracheal shave / Adam’s apple reduction too. They were all done at the same time as SRS. Call it a “package” deal. ;)
I’d also like to add that I really think it’s unfortunate that the term “passing” is so prevalent in the trans community. To me, the term “passing” or “passing as a woman” implies that I’m not a woman. I don’t view “passing” as the goal of transition. To me, the goal has always been to be myself and to be happy. “Passing” as a concept I think does a bit of harm to our community because I think it skews people’s expectations and understanding of what it means to be trans.
We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow transgender women to transition even in the 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: As I mentioned, to me transition is not about surgery or about passing. It’s about being yourself and being happy with who you are. Whether that involves simply dressing how you feel, taking hormones, getting surgery, or what have you, then, by all means, do what you need to do to be yourself. I’ve known women and men who have transitioned both young and old. So yes, it’s quite possible. The best advice I can give is to just be yourself and don’t worry about passing.

Speaking at Queer Camp: Milwaukee.

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: When I was transitioning, I didn’t know much about trans issues or transgender as a concept. I didn’t really know anyone else that was trans and had no one really to look to for advice. I took it upon myself to research and learn, which was perfect since I was in college and needed topics to do research papers on.
Out of that research, I felt empowered with my knowledge and started doing talks at the university I was attending. My talks became very popular and I got invited by many professors, and then other schools, and then national organizations. That same knowledge I made available online in website form. My goal was to let future trans people have the knowledge available to them easily so that they would be able to have the information that I didn’t have. In essence, I became the role model I never had.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jessica: The hardest thing about coming out was probably telling my younger sister and my closest friends. My sister and I had been close growing up, and she took it particularly hard. It took years before we were friends again. My close friends took it well, but there are some that I no longer speak with. It’s always hard to lose friends. And of course... bathrooms. Bathrooms are never easy during the transition. Oh... and money, but I mentioned that in an earlier question.

At the Arboretum in Madison, WI.

Monika: What did you feel when you were finally a woman?
Jessica: Transition is such a gradual process that it’s hard to say that there was any definitive point in which I was “finally” a woman, but there were moments when I saw a distinct change in how people addressed me. I had spent a spring semester in college doing voice training with the university’s communicative disorders clinic. It happened to be the same semester that I started taking hormones.
During the following summer, I spent a lot of time on my voice. I had no idea that I had trained my voice to naturally be higher by the end of the summer.
When I came back to school, people almost didn’t recognize me. I had softer features and my voice sounded different. It was really the first time I felt like people saw me as a woman. It brought with it a sense of peace and harmony that is hard to describe. The dissonance of my physical and mental self was disappearing.


All the photos: courtesy of Jessica Janiuk.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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