Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Interview with Jemma

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Jemma, a transgender woman that documents her transition on Reddit.com as SuddenlyJemma. Hello Jemma!
Jemma: Hi! Thanks for the opportunity!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Jemma: Sure! I'm in my early 30's, started transitioning at 30 years old. I currently work in a tire manufacturing factory that makes the tires for the giant off-road mining equipment. Our smallest tire is 9.5 feet tall and weighs almost 2 tons! Definitely not the easiest job; but it pays the bills. I have 2 rescue dogs and a handful of guinea pigs at the moment.
Monika: Why did you decide to share your transition details on Reddit
Jemma: The trans communities on Reddit really helped me to come to grips with my gender issues and help to give me a little bit of hope that transition might be a big help to me. At first, I was terrified that transition and hormones wouldn't have much of an effect on me. The Q&A posts, timelines, and the information there was so helpful and inspiring that I'd like to be able to contribute something back for people at that same early stage and need a little hope.

The doggos.

Monika: I am sure you get many questions from your Reddit audience. What do they ask for?
Jemma: I guess the question I got asked the most was about my weight loss when I first started hormone replacement therapy. It was a pretty dramatic change for me, something like 60-70 lbs in the first 4 or 5 months on hormones! It was mostly a combination of muscle loss and cutting back on sugars in my diet.
Unfortunately, that rapid weight loss may have factored into some health issues late last year. I had to have emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder after it apparently started to split in half at work one night. The doctor treating me thinks that the weight loss may have triggered it. Of course, it was just speculation; but it was still a pretty rough couple of weeks to recover from.
Monika: What was the strangest question that you answered?
Jemma: Thankfully, nothing too strange! A few non-transition-related questions about where my favorite places to kayak are and other questions about outdoor activities. Or maybe asking the names of my pets. I guess I've gotten lucky to keep a low enough profile to not have a whole lot of strange, random questions.
Monika: At which stage of the transition are you right now?
Jemma: I just hit my 18th month of hormone therapy and currently am in the process of scheduling bottom surgery. I'm hoping that I'll have most of the medical side of the transition finished by the end of this year. It's such a long process! As much as I'm ready for it to be over, I'm trying really hard not to rush it too much.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the results of the hormone therapy?
Jemma: I would say that I am. It's pretty weird. I'll get a few months not seeing any changes no matter how hard I look and then it's like a flurry of changes in a couple of months. It seems like everything comes in fits and spurts. I don't think anything I had ever read or anyone I had ever talked to about transition came close to preparing me for how strange it would be to see yourself in the mirror and literally not be able to recognize yourself.

Heading out for a paddle.

For me, starting at 31 years old and coming from a pretty masculine starting point, it's amazing to me to see comparison pictures now. The difference is stark! I grabbed an old T-shirt the other day to wear while I was doing laundry and was practically swimming in it; but in my mind, I still have these crazy wide shoulders from years of swimming and weight training.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow?
Jemma: Is it too cheesy to say the wonderful users on Reddit that came before me? To me, anyone that made their transition public, through the ups and downs of it, are amazing role models, simply for showing the rest of us that it can be done. The ones that take the time to reach down and help the rest of us up. That shows us that the worst parts of transition are worth the price for the best parts.
I guess if I were to choose a more widely known role model, it would be Michelle Hendley. Boy Meets Girl was a huge film for me right before I started the transition. It's inspiring to me to see someone be successful in such a public role after going through the transition.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many of us lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Jemma: I had most of my dad's side of my family disown me. They're a pretty religious group and so of course the transition would make me the outcast there. It hurt a lot because I was always really close to that side of my family growing up, so many strong memories from childhood. I have some younger cousins on that side that I would babysit from time to time and be really close with. It hurts a lot knowing that I'll probably never have any sort of meaningful interaction with them anymore. My close group of friends before transition also kind of disappeared.
So, yeah, it was a lot like starting out from the beginning again. Having to build new social connections, replacing blood family with people who I am so close to that I consider them family. I am so fortunate to have had a few people in my life that not only stuck with me during the transition; but really gave me an incredible amount of support to start with.

The guinea pigs.

My work was probably the biggest surprise that I had. A very blue-collar, male-dominated job in a conservative and religious section of the country has been totally fine with me transitioning on the job. There are some that are not OK with what I'm going through; but they at least have the respect to act professionally around me.
By and large, everyone there is really cool with the idea of a trans person. Really took me by surprise when HR called me in one morning to ask about it and what I needed from them in order to make things easy and comfortable with me. I think a lot of it has to do with the manufacturing mindset of showing up to your shifts, get your work done, and don't make things harder on anyone else…and if you do that, no one has a problem with you.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Jemma: Gah, that's such a hard question to really answer. We're such a large and diverse country that my experience might not be even remotely similar to another transwoman's experience just a few towns away. I will say that I'm in a pretty good area. It wouldn't seem like it, though.
I'm fairly close to Atlanta, GA which is a surprisingly progressive city in the south, so I spent a LOT of time in the city when I first started transition. My endocrinologist's office is there. I'm in a city that is a lot more suburban/rural, not too far away, and the prevailing attitude here is that most people aren't going out of their way to pay attention to you unless you're working hard to draw attention to yourself. I was always so scared starting out that I would get harassed or made fun of when I went somewhere; but it really was more a case of just blending into the background.
The biggest thing I guess I've noticed is that so many people have these preconceived notions of what a trans person is and they say whatever negative things on social media or in private, and then when they realize they've been working with someone in transition, or that someone in their social group is trans, it kind of hits them that we're just people. Just like them. Just trying to get through the day and make a successful life. That's the optimist in me speaking anyway. I've met way too many transpeople that have a wildly different story about transition than I do. It breaks my heart that it feels like we're so close sometimes to just being accepted and at other times it feels like everyone is scheming to just send us to Mars. 
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Jemma: I think trans characters in media are following a kind of interesting, if not always positive arc. It started off that trans people were just a joke. Think of the first Ace Ventura movie, for example. Or the campiness of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Camping in the Smoky Mountains.

People that crossed the gender line were a novelty, something that could be used as a comedic element because I'm guessing it was too outlandish to think that we actually existed. I don't know. Those are the depictions I had when I was still a kid, so I don’t have a lot of context for them.
It seems now that we're starting to feature stories about trans people as ACTUAL people that are dealing with our issues in a more serious tone. I mentioned the film Boy Meets Girl earlier, and that movie hit home for me as someone from a rural area struggling with gender identity.
And we have Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black showing an unfortunately too close to a real portrayal of some of the dangers of going through transition and the lengths we go to. It feels like we're at a stage now where the story of trans people revolves around the story of their transition. Almost like it's just the first step in explaining our situation to the world at large.
I'd love to see characters or stories sometime in the next few years that feature trans people, but the story of their transition is ancillary at best. Just simply having a character deal with everyday situations that non-transgender people deal with. The fact that the character is trans is more of an interesting tidbit instead of the focus. I think we're getting to that point and it'll be interesting to see something that normalizes the idea of being trans.


All the photos: courtesy of Jemma.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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