Thursday 20 August 2015

Interview with Jennell Jaquays

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Jennell Jaquays, an American designer of role-playing games (RPGs) and video games, known for the Dungeons & Dragons modules “Dark Tower” and “Caverns of Thracia” for Judges Guild. Hello Jennell!
Jennell: Hi Monika. Thank you for letting me share a bit about myself and my story. 
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Jennell: Well in a FEW words, I’m an artist and game developer who late in life accepted that she was ALSO transgender. I was born and lived most of my early life in the American Midwest (near the Great Lakes) and had a not too unusual childhood. For the most part, sports didn’t interest me (I became a baseball fan one year that the Detroit baseball team, the Tigers, won the world series), but I was very much into comic books of all sorts, and drawing, and building imaginary worlds with my younger brother. I had (still have) a younger brother and sister. We moved just about every three years and friendship relationships rarely outlasted the moves so my brother ended up being my best friend as well. Until I was in high school, most of our adventures were shared with each other.
I was always interested in girls’ things as a child, but with puberty, it intensified and I began experimenting with regular cross-dressing, but only in private. One way or another, this private adventure stayed with me throughout my life until just a few years ago I could no longer say I was actually male.
I tried to suppress that part of me and live a “male” life with wives and kids and success in a career in a male-dominated field as an artist and designer. I succeeded in my career and made a name for myself in several fields. I married twice (before transition), I have two fantastic, talented kids, but I never quite figured out how to make the “male” part of its work. OK, maybe that wasn’t a FEW words.
Monika: How did you first get involved in the world of game design?
Jennell: Initially, I saw it as a way to get my fantasy and science fiction art published. That was back in the mid-'70s when role-playing games were just getting started and the video game industry really didn’t exist. But it actually goes back to my childhood. My younger brother and I used to make our own wooden toys, simple board games, write and draw comic books, and build fantasy worlds out of blocks and plastic figures, and fight epic miniature war battles on our dad’s pool table.
One of the covers she painted as
much as 20+ years ago.
As I child, I imagined working for a toy company to be the most amazing job and wondered why one of my friends' dad would ever leave his job working for one (I think he was an accountant). It is probably not surprising that I found my way into some form of toy and game-making as a career even while still in school.
I began my career by making art and adventures for the role play game Dungeons & Dragons, publishing my own fan magazine with several friends.
That led to a first job writing and illustrating game adventures for Dungeons & Dragons and other games (including Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia that you mentioned). And with that, I never looked back. I never had a “real job” after that. I would be making games for the rest of my life.
Monika: You can boast a fantastic professional career…
Jennell: I suspect that seen from the outside it looks that way. For me, it’s always just been doing what I do and being in the right place at the right time with the right skills. I went from that first job making role-play game adventures at the beginning of the hobby game industry (Dungeons & Dragons) to being a designer for electronic and video games in the earliest years of the video game industry (Coleco and the ColecoVison). I put together one of the first mixed discipline (art and design) teams for video games when I became the head of that group.
For the next thirty years, I would work on all manner of projects and be a part of some of the most famous publishers and game creating teams, such as TSR the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, id Software, the makers of Doom and Quake, and Ensemble Studios, the creators of the Age of Empires games.
Monika: How do you come up with your game ideas?
Jennell: As a designer, I’m often inspired by popular media. Other times, it’s something drawn from personal experiences, such as a location that I’ve visited in my travels. I’m inspired by photos of places, people, and things. Sometimes I just combine random or dissimilar ideas together to create something that is much greater than the original.
Monika: Have you ever considered placing transgender characters into a video game?
Jennell: I’ve thought about it, but only in that sense that a character might also be transgender in addition to whatever other details that they bring to the game. In the past, I have included transgender characters or potential play situations in some of my published role-playing adventures, though the references might not be obvious. I’ve never had the desire to play as a transgender character, preferring to present as female (though before transition, that made me uncomfortable as well … since I was still trying to be secret about how I felt about my gender … even to myself).
One of the things I’m working on at the moment is a presentation on creating authentic and respectful transgender characters in games for a major game playing convention here in Seattle in late August (I’m a core team speaker for a group called, which deals with transgender issues in gaming).
Monika: What would you consider a dream project?
Jennell: Someday, I think I’d like to be able to build a game world that feels like the game adventures I used to design for tabletop roleplaying (substantially different from the way current massively multiplayer online games are designed). In some ways, that’s what drew me back into computer game development 18 years ago and why I was interested in working on an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game six years ago when I went to CCP.
Another cover.
Monika: It is amazing to see so many talented transgender women working for the IT business, just to mention: Lynn Conway, Jessica Bussert, Danielle Hallett, Kate Craig-Wood, Rebecca Heineman, Megan Wallent, or yourself…
Jennell: IT (Information Technology) is a VERY common career path for transgender women. Just as many Trans women choose to work in macho careers (military, police, firefighters, construction workers) to “fix” their transgender inclinations, others of us have chosen geek or nerd careers as a way to ignore or avoid confronting it. So many of us work in games, tech, and engineering that in some ways, it's one of the better professional career choices for trans women in particular.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Jennell: Overall it has improved in my lifetime. When I was young, it was unthinkable for people to transition between genders. It was pretty much a death sentence for any life or career one might have had. I have to believe that some of that comes from women willing to step forward and let the world know that they are transgender.
The efforts by the medical community to understand why people are transgender has moved us from being almost universally condemned as sex perverts into a state where it is understood by rational people that Gender Dysphoria is a medical condition that afflicts portion of humanity.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Jennell: If I had been willing to be honest with myself (and the information available on the Internet had been there for me) I would have recognized that I was transgender at least by the time puberty set in. But times were different, I didn’t. I began my transition at age 54, after struggling with my gender issues and attempting to suppress them for decades.
In my situation, I think it took being free from responsibilities to others (spouse and children) to allow me to really examine my life. I would not describe my transition as difficult. The hard part was the struggle to accept that I was transgender and that if I chose to accept it (it was true whether I accepted it or not) could I go through with living as a woman. Once I convinced myself that transition and change were actually possible, it all just started happening.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Jennell: I had several whose stories I had been following. When I first got online in the late 90s, I followed the story of Alexus Sheppard, a woman a bit older than I whose story moved through some of the same stages that mine eventually would, from denial, through private and then public cross-dressing (which was not something I did), then into acceptance of a transgender identity. When I transitioned, Rebecca Heineman was one of the first transgender women to whom I reached out.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Jennell: I have a great deal of respect for any transgender person, male or female who transitions in the face of opposition from friends and especially family. There are too many to name who fit that, and some would not appreciate being in the public eye for me mentioning their names.
My wife, Rebecca Heineman is at the top of that list. Dawn Ennis, who is currently the news editor for the Advocate is another. Brynn Tannehill and Vandy Beth Glenn are Trans advocates/activists whose opinions I respect and whose efforts have made a difference in my life. And there are more friends whose lives are lived just below the line of public visibility such that sharing their names would border on outing them or giving them unwanted attention, so I won’t.
The magazine that really started her
professional career.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jennell: Coming out to myself was the hardest and the first thing I overcame. I’d lived with denial about who I likely was since my teens. I was afraid to confront it for fear that confrontation would lead to an end of life as I knew.
And I was right. It did. And what came after was wonderful. After that, coming out to my father was hard and something I put off until the very last minute, literally a week before I announced myself to the world. 
Monika: What do you think about transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Jennell: I keep hoping for the day when ANYONE coming out as transgender is not a news story unless it is to celebrate their embracing authentic life. But for now, we are sensationalized in the news. Far-right politicians paint us as predators. Jealous or bitter transgender people commit acts of lateral violence against their more successful peers who appear in the news. Gay-focused news media can’t decide whether to be supportive of us or be critical and transphobic.
My feelings about the portrayal of trans people in film and television are mixed and I can understand wanting to have transgender actors portray transgender characters, but I don’t feel as strongly about it as some do. I want to see authentic, sensitive, supportive portrayals of us. Who does it matter less to me, so long as it is done well? To that end, I think the Amazon TV series, Transparent is one of the best representations of transgender people in media that I have seen.
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?
Jennell: In the past year, beginning with some lateral violence by other transgender individuals against a transgender rights organization in which I was involved (and hearing again of a similar sort of thing being directed towards the head of another organization in the past few days), I’ve stopped believing in the idea of a “transgender community.”
We are a populace with common needs and sometimes similar experiences, but outside of small groups of friends who support each other, we don’t act like a community. If we can’t get past the separatism and stratification that exists and seems to be intensifying along lines of perceived privilege within our populace, how can we be a “community” or an effective part of a combined effort by other gender and sexual orientation minorities?
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jennell: I like quality, well-made clothing, but I’m definitely NOT a fashionista or someone who seeks out the latest in women’s fashion. If anything, my preferred shopping is the sale and discount racks at some of my favorite retailers. I favor clothing that blends in with what other women around me are wearing.
In Seattle, that can be jeans and printed t-shirts or often leggings (usually black) with a nice top, a sweater, a scarf, and boots. I look younger than my age, so I often dress “younger” as well. I am sensitive to what colors and styles look good on me (I’d rather be several years out of style than wear something that doesn’t suit my body type or skin tone). I have a personal weak spot for wearable art in the form of colorful or multi-metal artisan-made jewelry.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jennell: I never figured out dating when I was young. So I entered adulthood as a classic nerdy virgin. And to the best of my self-awareness and memories, I was always attracted to women. There was a LOT of pressure in my society to marry young (the early 20s) and create traditional families. I was one of the last of my immediate peer group (who did marry) to get married. But I did manage to find someone who loved me, marry her, and create that traditional family. And then eventually divorce, and marry again.
So love and romantic relationships are important to me. But the problem with both of my previous marriages (and basically, all my dating relationships as well) was that in my head, admit it or not, I was a woman who wanted to love, and be loved and recognized as a woman. And that didn’t work out so well in my allegedly heterosexual relationships.
Part of my early transition was to be open about the idea that I might not be ONLY attracted to women (or that my attraction might change). Still found I was attracted to women, and as I later became involved in a same sex relationship, I realized that from my point of view, all my previous relationships were same-sex, but with heterosexual women … which went a long way towards understanding why they failed.
With her wife, Rebecca Heineman.
I went into transition comfortable with the idea that I would go the rest of my life journey alone. Being at peace with that made things better. My second marriage was ending and I didn’t want to rush into relationships any time soon. I disliked the dating process and wasn’t looking forward to exploring that in a new gender. I was terrible at it as a guy and I wasn’t sure how to go about it as a woman.
And then I met Rebecca Heineman. She was a peer in the game industry whose career had intertwined with mine since the earliest days. I even worked as a contractor for her game company, Interplay in the late 80s and yet we never met.
Until I was in transition and took her up on an offer of a girls' night out weekend in San Francisco for my birthday. That weekend turned into an online friendship, then into long-distance dating, and then finally both of us moving each other to Seattle and moving in together. It took time, but we both found something in each other that made a relationship that worked. We give truth to the idea that “opposites attract.”
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Jennell: It’s been suggested that I should write a memoir, but those who ask are more interested in my memories of the early years of the roleplaying and game industries, and not as much the transgender part (though, it really permeates the whole path). I’ve shared a lot of my own story in bits and pieces as I go along. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, mostly about my parts of my career (before and after transition), often focusing on my time at Coleco, or as a Dungeons & Dragons artist and designer, and especially for my time at id Software.
As I came out, I shared some of my transgender perspectives on my story as it had relevance. I know that there are many who consider my career with its constant reinventions to be somehow amazing (or even interesting) but to be honest, it was always just my “normal” so I don’t really see it as any more memorable (and perhaps even less so) than others’ stories.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Jennell: Always! About three years ago, three other veteran game developers and I formed a game development company called Olde Sküül (pronounced “old school”). Between the four of us (all women), we had over 130 years of game development experience in a variety of roles, from artists and designers to producers, programmers, and corporate executives.
We’re still small, but we have been slowly growing as we work on projects for ourselves and other companies. Our website is and was recently remade and updated. We are currently preparing material for a computer role-playing game called Shredded Worlds: Dragons of the Rip. 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Jennell: I don’t think there is anyone single thing that I can recommend, except to understand what triggers your dysphoria. You may not be able to avoid that trigger, but it may be possible to not pick at it and make the pain worse. I’ve had to do that with things I know bother me. If something about your life or your body triggers dysphoria, find ways to distract yourself from it rather than dwell on it or make it worse.
Monika: Jennell, thank you for the interview!
Jennell: Thank you for asking Monika.

All the photos: courtesy of Jennell Jaquays.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska 

Jennell Jaquays has passed to the other side. May she find the happiness and love she gave to others. Thank you for all you have done. Rest in Peace.

10 Jan 2024

For more info on transgender biographies, visit TRANSGENDER BIOGRAPHIES.

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