Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Interview with Jenna Fischetti

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Jenna Fischetti, an inspirational woman, transgender advocate and activist, a contributor to The Transadvocate. Jenna is the founder of TransMaryland, an organization serving the Maryland transgender and ally communities by providing services, education, support, and advocacy. She served as facilitator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland’s (The GLCCB) Gender Identity Groups from 2006 to 2011. Hello Jenna!
Jenna: Hello Monika!
Monika: You are very active in the promotion of transgender equality in Maryland. Could you name some of your successful campaigns or projects in this respect?
Jenna: Let me first thank individuals like Jessica Xavier, Alyson Meiselman, Donna Cartwright, Falina Laron, Cydne’ Kimbrough, Lauren Stokeling, Monica Yorkman, Jean-Michel Brevelle, Frannie O’Grady, Dana Beyer, Laura Hart, Owen Smith, Mara Drummond, Alex Hickcox, Caroline Temmermand, Sharon Brackett, Ezra Towne, J.D. Rosario, Keith Thirion, and so many others who have contributed to the advancement of rights and acceptance of trans Marylanders. I am blessed to have worked with many of them. To name any successes would be to name the community’s successes.
Monika: In 2004 you were fired from your car dealership job after your employers discovered that you were transgender. Have employment prospects for transgender people improved since then or they still have to face discrimination at work?
Jenna: Monika, in 2011 the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released the results of their groundbreaking survey. It highlighted rates of discrimination in Maryland that were alarming:
- 71% reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job;
- 18% lost a job 18% were denied a promotion;
- 35% were not hired;
- 42% experienced an adverse job action, such as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion.
The data for Maryland suggests we still have work to do.

With friends after a local support group meeting.

Monika: What are the other current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Jenna: Maryland has multiple points of concern facing the transgender community. First of which are statewide non-discrimination protections in the aforementioned employment, yet also in housing, credit, and public accommodations.
To that extent, the Maryland Coalition for Trans Equality has been working with Senator Rich Madaleno (D-20) to reintroduce the Fairness for All Marylanders Act as he did for us in 2013. We had the largest state lobby day in Maryland for transgender concerns. We are hoping to break that record this year.
It’s critical to engage our community and our allies in the build-up to the passing of this legislation, as we will need to pivot that effort to pass a bill, into an effort to defend it against a referendum. Any initiatives which ignore that possibility are fool-hearted.
A very close second is complete access to ALL necessary health care. New regulations make it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity in access to service; however, coverage by insurers fails to consistently meet any and all medically necessary procedures. No trans person should be denied treatment or a procedure that is offered to treat their specific health needs.
Next and possibly as important are revisions to the current documentation policies in respect to birth certificates and state-issued IDs/driver’s licenses. Across the United States, we have seen other states enact sensible and proper birth certificate and ID laws or policy changes making it easier for transgender Americans to live authentic lives.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books, etc. so far?
Jenna: Prior to the new millennium we faced horrible stereotyping in all forms of media. 
Starting with 1996’s “Different for Girls”, then “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999, and “Southern Comfort” in 2001, we started seeing roles like Bree in “Transamerica” and 2011’s “Gun Hill Road” starring the talented Esai Morales as a father to Harmony Santana’s transgender character. Harmony won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. Harmony herself is one of the first transgender actors/actresses to actually be allowed to take on roles depicting transgender characters.

I’m not a fan of daytime drama, however, I have to admit, I was riveted to “All My Children” to see how they would handle a trans portrayal in the character “Zoe”. Her character lasted nearly 6 months and all in all left a positive impression, as much as a daytime drama can.
So with respect to fiction, we are finally beginning to see transgender actors and actresses take on some powerful roles. I had the pleasure of meeting Laverne Cox during the Trans People of Color Coalition meet-up at Philadelphia’s Trans Health Conference last June. On the other side of the camera, we have Lana Wachowski coming out in Hollywood in an amazingly supportive way.
From a non-fiction standpoint, I love Janet Mock. She is an absolutely incredible personality who happens to be transgender. There are more and more transgender stories being told. Each time this happens we all benefit.
We are seeing more positive portrayals of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in most of the media.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Jenna: I believe the transgender community has HAD to promote its own cause within the LGBT communities (plural). From Stonewall to today, there has been cis-washing (diluting LGBT branding/imaging to exclude or limit non-cisgender presences) in mainstream gay politics and advocacy which is only recently abating. At the core of all homophobia and transphobia, are fears based on gender non-conformity.
We, the LGBT communities, can ill afford to splinter especially when the taproot of that common peril (our collective gender non-conformity) has been our movement’s perpetual common thread. So within the LGBT communities, we should promote our commonality.

With Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
with whom Jenna worked together.

I believe the transgender community is also capable of promoting its own cause OUTSIDE the LGBT communities. The first requirement is that as a community we recognize social status or financial windfalls do not equate to hierarchical leadership positions.
That’s called elitism. Too many voices of color get excluded in this self-seeking endeavor. Popularity does not always produce vision and unity.
Community empowerment, not disenfranchisement is the path we must follow. One cannot be a leader if one cannot enjoin with others and lift them up, for progress.
I’m on the backside of life. This community’s hope resides in its youth. I believe in all voices at the table, assuming best intentions, and consensus-building. I have learned some invaluable lessons in those areas along the way.
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 gay activism?
Jenna: Harvey Milk was a unique symbol of gay ascension in society made evermore notable because of his tragic murder. I hope the LGBT community will not see another person fill such a role; that of a martyr. Yet I believe we can use all the visionaries we are capable of elevating.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Jenna: I believe every human being is the most singular unit in our political system. It is our civic responsibility to be political, not just for our sake, but for our fellows’ sake too. So whether one is transgender or not, no matter one’s race or creed, national origin, or sexual orientation, we have a significant part to play. I am currently a steering committee member for the Maryland Coalition for Trans Equality. Building relationships with elected officials is an extremely important part of the political system. ANYONE, absolutely anyone can and does make a difference.

With other national transadvocates at Creating Change 2012.

Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Jenna: Wow. Yes. When I first gained access to the internet in the late 90s I was looking for people like me. There were many I would find who seemed to project an authentic sense of self I was seeking. Nearby me, in the Washington DC area, I remember seeing or meeting folks like Christina Kahrl (currently a member of the Baseball Writers Association of American and a sportswriter for ESPN and recent GLAAD board member ), women like Brooke Poley (a 3 Time Emmy® Award Winning Lighting Designer, Director, and Photographer) who I befriended through the local TGEA galas.
I had a very close friend with who I moderated a support group, Mara Drummond, (a highly successful software engineer who wrote the current air traffic control software in use today) show me how to transition with dignity.

Local empowerment rally in front of the Supreme Court.

One can never underestimate the value of mentoring and holding oneself to a higher standard, to be an example of the power we collectively possess.
There are countless others like Dr. Danielle Crossley, (the first public school principal in N.Y. State to transition and subsequently be fired, for said transition) who I met while she lived in Baltimore or folks like Lana Moore from Ohio, (who I met in Atlanta at a Southern Comfort Conference) who is now a board member of GLAAD doing incredible work.
Each of those strong women has been a godsend, and I would be all day listing all of them. I am extremely blessed for the path they’ve blazed and for showing me how to carry myself. 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jenna: Being the last to know…. Seriously, the hardest thing about coming out was the fear of rejection from my children. I would lay my own life down for them, so anything that might trouble them in any way, I sought to avoid. Today, I have a much deeper relationship with all three of them because I’m at true peace inside. They sense that and we all benefit.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jenna: For many years I was conditioned by society to believe I was sick, demented, perverse, or even a freak. Under such conditions, one cannot love themselves, let alone even consider loving anyone else. In such a state, I drank excessively and even found stopping my alcohol and drug consumption impossible on my own willpower.
When I did get help, I found what true, absolute love was. It means having a deep faith in a God on my understanding, who solves all of my problems. It means seeking selfless, honest, forgiving, and faithful solutions to any of my relationships. Love is not an emotion; it is a state of being which can only exist for me when I work to expel selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and fearful notions and beliefs.
I believe the greatest expression of love one human being can offer another is to pray for that other person to receive all the health, serenity, peace of mind, well-being, and joy one would want for themselves or their own family. That’s a true love of one’s fellow. I do this for people I’m bothered by, and in time, I grow to love them. I’ll never be perfect at that, but love comes through seeking. So, yeah, it’s important to me!

Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jenna: Yeah! When I was younger, slimmer, and could fit into all of those fashionable clothes, I would really go for it. I’ve always had an eye for classic simplicity in what I wore. Any of the dozen or so friends who have known me for nearly as many years know that about me.
Today, as a full-time university student, I have a different take on fashion. Comfort has become paramount, but I stick to the classics, v-neck knit sweaters, fashion scarves, stylish denim, and my secret footwear are a series of Skecher Go-Walks (brown and black suede dress up any pair of jeans). I leave the Couture for my dear friend Brielle Echo Whitney, of the Brooklyn Whitneys… Her stash of exquisite fashion is legendary in 16 states and several countries…
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jenna: I’m still writing my story, that is to say, I’m still living life. I would rather help others in the process of writing their stories too through living it to the fullest. I think the memoir is overrated unless it serves as a guide to others in self-fulfillment. If I live a good life, I’ll have a good eulogy. That’s good enough for me.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Jenna: Well, in 5-7 years, I hope the money doesn’t run out before I finish law school! LOL. Seriously, I live my day, as all of my days, one at a time, that’s how the good Lord serves them up to me. I make plans, but don’t plan on results, life happens, and plans change.
However, I hold a sincere belief that any work in the area of eradicating poverty through self-improvement, greater access to services, improved transit options, or even urban renewal and sustainability projects set out to share the love of one person for another and are worthy of my consideration and energy. I have no idea what God has in store for me. I’m willing to be patient and follow His lead.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Jenna: No, I’m not happy. I am blessed, fulfilled, and full of gratitude. Happiness is a temporary byproduct of a favorable situation. I believe I have been afforded something greater and I want to help foster that in others.
Monika: Jenna, thank you for the interview!
Jenna: Thank you, Monika!!

All the photos: courtesy of Jenna Fischetti.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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