Monday, 18 March 2013

Interview with Jessica McGuinness

Monika: Today I would like to introduce to you Jessica McGuinness, an American transgender activist and community leader, and an Emergency Medical Service professional. Her story was presented in Greg Miraglia's book "American Heroes Coming Out From Behind The Badge" (2010) that features examples of how police officers, firefighters, and EMS professionals have been able to come out and be successful on the job. 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 ’80s 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 became of it.
Recently, I was posted on an 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 behavior 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 than 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's 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 affect 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 the USA. Unlike in the previous years, some of them have the status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modeling, 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 ’80s 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 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: 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 the 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 experience. 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.


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

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