Thursday 29 May 2014

Interview with Jenn Burleton

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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!
Jenn: Hello Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Jenn: Sure! I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA), and currently live in Portland, Oregon, the USA with my life partner of 31 years. I spent most of my adult life working as a professional musician, but have devoted the past 7 years and the rest of my life to advocacy work on behalf of transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, and their families.
Monika: What is the current agenda of TransActive?
Jenn: Well, TransActive Gender Center doesn’t really have an agenda, though as a non-profit organization we certainly do have a mission; “TransActive Gender Center provides a holistic range of services and expertise to empower transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, and their families in living healthy lives, free of discrimination.”
Monika: When you were a transgender kid in the 1960s, you were brought up by an alcoholic mom, while your dad was in prison. In addition to your dramatic situation at home, you had to face a lot of transphobias.
Jenn: It wasn’t really transphobia, because the words “transsexual” or “transgender” did not yet even exist. At best you could call it homophobia, but in reality, it was simply hatred for my nonconformity and suspicion that I was destined to be a pervert of some kind.
As a young person, I realized that I was considered ‘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.

When I Was a Teen: WIMO Advisor Jenn Burleton
Reflects. Hallam Renaud Documentaries. Source: YouTube.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed? 
Jenn: There was only one ‘respectable’ role model then; Christine Jorgensen.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jenn: Summoning the courage to take a step that I knew could never be fully retracted should it not go well… which it didn’t.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Jenn: I spend most of my time thinking about the situation facing transgender and gender nonconforming children and youth, rather than adults because I believe that the only way to dramatically improve the quality of life for all transgender people is to embrace an early and affirming care model for those who are transgender.
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.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Jenn: First off, I don’t use the term “transgenderism”, because being transgender is not an “ism”, which describes a belief system. Transgender spectrum people, across all cultures, simply reflect a natural variation in human development. The challenge continues to be making the world understand that variation and diversity are not things to be feared or destroyed.
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.

Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Jenn: They have been, for the most part, focused on easily stereotyped characters. But then again, they have almost always been secondary characters that only served as plot points or curiosities. The best representations of transgender people have, in my opinion, been on various television shows, like “Hit or Miss” (UK), “ER” (US), “The Education of Max Bickford” (US).
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.
Monika: You are very open about your feminist ideals, raising the issues related to the interlocking struggles of all women…
Jenn: Oh, yes. Look, the conceptual foundation for the oppression of all women is misogyny, enforced by cultural, societal, institutional, and political patriarchy. In order for misogyny and its kissing cousin patriarchy to function effectively, binary-only gender roles and stereotypes must be enforced in one way or another. If you can’t tell the ‘men’ from the ‘women’, then how can patriarchy effectively assign or deny privilege?
Transgender people are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to challenging oppression based on the 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’.
Monika: In the ‘80s and ‘90s you played the guitar in some bands. Could you elaborate more on your music career at that time?
Jenn: I was a very good musician. I still am, though I am WAY out of practice when it comes to performance. I play guitar (lead/rhythm/bass), keyboards, and some percussion. I have written and recorded a good many songs (no ‘hits’) and arranged music for other artists as well. Music, in many ways, saved my life.
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: 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?
Jenn: Letters can always be rearranged. At one point it was GLBT. Now, we’ve added the “Q” and it follows the “T”, but we could get all radical and call it the TQLGB community. There is a great deal of ignorance within the larger LGB population about transgender lives and identity and to some extent, animosity exists as well. It’s so important that advocates and allies continue to discuss the unique challenges that transgender children, youth and adults face independently of those our LGB and Q peers deal with.
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?
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?
Jenn: Yes, No, and Yes. I am personally very active politically, but not so much professionally, at least in a traditional sense. Truth is, though, that the very process of challenging gender stereotypes and adultist oppression of transgender children and youth is a political act of the highest order. Transgender people have made a difference in politics, and we certainly can and will continue to make a difference in every walk of life.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jenn: It’s everything. Love has driven every positive experience or pursuit I’ve ever had or engaged in. Of course, it’s also played a key role in some not-so-positive parts of my life, but that’s the chance you take. Living means putting your passion ‘out there’.
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 than I could have been without her in my life.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jenn: Back in the ’70s and 80’s I was VERY into fashion. Partly because I was a performer and it kind of went with the job of being on stage in front of a lot of people, but also because I was younger and had the energy to spend on being fashionable. Now, ‘function’ plays a far more significant role in my style decisions than does ‘fashion’.
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.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jenn: I have, and I will when I have the time. I sort of feel like I’m still living some of what will be key chapters in my eventual book. I have a working title for it, and I’ve done some writing.
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…

Multco TCAM Proclamation Hearing. TransActive
Gender Center. Source: YouTube.

Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Jenn: My next step is almost entirely driven by the existing needs of transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, and their families. Getting insurance coverage for pubertal suppression nationwide is a huge goal of mine. Helping family court systems make better child custody decisions when a transgender child is involved in another major goal. On a personal note, getting married next year just got added to my list of goals, since Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage was just ruled unconstitutional!
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.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Jenn: Persevere. Trust that your truth is the ONLY truth that matters and that you are not alone. Reach out to TransActive Gender Center at If you are not located near us, we will move heaven and Earth to find resources closer to you. Make good decisions and get an education.
Monika: Jenn, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Jenn Burleton.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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