Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Interview with Jillian Rae Celentano

Monika: Today I would like to present to you Jillian Rae Celentano, LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker), an American author and advocate for the transgender community, a mentor for trans youth, and has organized support groups for transgender children and young adults. Jillian co-authored two published transgender studies at Yale University and is a Community Liaison at the Yale Gender Program. Her book "Transitioning Later in Life: A Personal Guide" was published in 2021. Hello Jillian!
Jillian: Hello Monika! Thanks for having me.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away. Was it the same in your case?
Jillian: I have never thought of it that way, but that does hold a lot of truth. I knew something was different since the age of 5. When I told people I felt like a girl they made it very clear that I was a boy. This made me feel shameful, so I never spoke of it again. So my “running” journey was a 55-year run. But as you said, “she” finally caught up to me. I was so afraid of my feminine side and thought she was the enemy, but when confronted, I found out my feminine side was my savior and was the beginning of my true happiness.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we 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?
Jillian: I did pay the price in some aspects in my life when I transitioned. I have a small family and I do not have children of my own, so coming out to my family was overall ok and they have been very accepting. A couple of cousins are ok with it but keep their distance. My job at the time was working in a theater, so if you're going to come out at work, it might as well be at a theater. Everyone was great and very supportive. When I did come out it was at that time I decided to return to school to earn my master's degree in social work, so I was surrounded by students who were liberal. It was interesting with my friends. When I came out to them, they were totally shocked because I hid it that well. They all said they would support and accept me.
"Everyone has their own timeline
when it comes to transitioning."
However, as I say in my book, to make a long story short, I lost most of my friends. Some friendships were more than 20 years old. It hurt and I was angry for a couple of years, but then I realized I needed to forgive them in order for me to move on. The only thing I regret was that they never got to know “Jillian” before making their decision to walk away. The hardest thing about my coming out was losing my life-long friendships. It was very isolating and I blamed myself for losing my friends at first but the good thing is although I lost those friendships, it opened opportunities to make so many more new friendships.
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition?
Jillian: Yes, they were totally shocked because I hid it well and I was a very good actor. I was a very macho alpha male to compensate for my feminine side which I felt I needed to hide.
Monika: What inspired you to write “Transitioning Later in Life: A Personal Guide” (2021)? 
Jillian: I realized there are many books written for trans/gender diverse youth, but not too many for us older folks. I am a public speaker and talk about my journey to hopefully educate as many people as I can. I noticed how much of an impact it had on my audience, so I decided it needed to be in a book to reach as many people outside of the area I live in. Then, the pandemic hit, so I was stuck at home like everyone else, and I am the type of person who can’t sit idle, so that’s when I decided to write my book. I have never written a book before, but I realized when you are passionate about something, the words, thoughts and feelings just flow.
Monika: In the book, you focus on many aspects of transition. For example, you touch upon the phenomenon of ‘male privilege’ that is said to be still prevalent in today’s society and the situation when we lose it when we transition. I guess we never consider it before the transition. However, I must say I experienced it myself at work when my male co-workers treated me in a way as if the transition lowered my IQ…
Jillian: It is a very interesting experience of how men and women are seen in societies. Losing the “male privilege” was definitely frustrating because I am the exact same person with the exact same knowledge, skills, and intelligence, but now find it more difficult to be taken seriously by some people. However, as frustrating as it is, I would not change a thing because I am happy with who I am and love who I am.
"I realized there are many books
written for trans/gender diverse
youth, but not too many for us
older folks."
Monika: How can we prepare ourselves to discover different ways to communicate with both men and women when expressing opinions or making a statement?
Jillian: Stop listening to the news by conservatives. It is entirely made up of false facts and they are promoting fear strictly for political gain at the cost of the trans and gender-diverse population. The best way to prepare different ways to communicate is by talking about facts backed up by reputable resources but also being willing to hear both sides of the story. If people do not understand it, that is fine and I respect that, but to attack and spread hate does not solve anything.
Monika: I liked the chapter on restroom. You wrote that when you first transitioned, you were petrified of using the ladies’ room…
Jullian: Yes, the dreaded bathrooms! I think this is one of the scariest things for trans and gender-diverse people to navigate. Even today, I still have reservations about walking into the ladies' room. I would always have my cisgender girlfriend scope out the restroom first to see if there was a line, how many stalls, and anything else she could report back. It was like a reconnaissance mission. My paranoia drove her crazy, but she was a true friend and was always there for me and very patient.
It should not have to be this way, but society makes this an issue when in reality there are no issues. All we want to do is go to the bathroom, hopefully, wash our hands, and leave. We hold it in or dehydrate ourselves just to avoid confrontation. Why must we sacrifice our health so others will not feel uncomfortable? To the cis people in the world… you have nothing to fear!!
Monika: Have you noticed that men do not talk in bathrooms? Women do… ­čśé
Jillian: LOL yes, I tell my trans male friends the “unwritten” rule of not talking to other men in the men’s room. I get nervous when women talk to me because I’m afraid I’ll get clocked because of my voice. It’s my own inner paranoia.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Jillian: I think a high percentage of passing comes from within. Do not get me wrong, external features are important, but your mannerisms, the way you walk, or your gestures make a big difference. I think we are always on alert no matter what we look like. If we are clocked or judged by strangers, do not give them the power to ruin your day. You will never see them again, so concentrate on the people who love you, and the people you love.
"Now go out and find your success,
love who you are, be proud of
who you are, and begin a new
chapter in your life."
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Jillian: Yes, the first time I saw a transgender person on TV was on a famous talk show here in the US called “Phil Donahue Show". I was about 13 years old and it was then I realized I was not alone, and that there were other people who felt like I did. I did not feel isolated anymore, but I also realized I was too terrified to ever tell anyone. Seeing a trans woman for the first time gave me an ever-so-slight ray of hope that I could one day be my true self.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Jillian: There are so many. My first role model was Renee Richards. She was a pro tennis player who came out back in the 1970s even before the word transgender was invented. Janet Mock is another amazing trans woman.
My latest role model is Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health in the US. She was appointed by the president and she holds the highest-ranking position for an out transgender woman.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Jillian: Today, transgender women and the entire trans population are under attack by political conservatives and unfortunately we are heading in the wrong direction. Lies and false information are creating hate and fear, especially against trans women, putting us in danger. I live in a state that is very pro transgender but it breaks my heart to think of trans people in other parts of the country who have to live in fear just for trying to be themselves. 
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Jillian: Believe it or not, I am not big into fashion. I do love to dress on the feminine side, skirts, leggings, and love soft materials. Purple is my favorite color. Overall, I am pretty plain and boring when it comes to fashion.
Monika: Do you remember your first job interview as a woman?
Jillian: Yes, it was with a real estate management company. At the time, I had been a Realtor for over 15 years with tons of experience. I felt this would have been a perfect job for me. It was early on in my transition, so I was still looking more androgynous than fem. 
The woman interviewing me pretty much clocked me right away. She became uncomfortable and could not look me in the eye. It was like a 5-minute interview, and needless to say, I did not get the job. It was at that point I decided I would go into a profession that would be more welcoming and that led me to become a therapist for our community.
"Be confident, believe in yourself
and show them the amazing person
you are."
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Jillian: Be confident, believe in yourself and show them the amazing person you are. I know it can be different depending on the part of the world you are living in, but find the fit that works for you and do not let the unfairness or discrimination that occurs out there in the job market take you down. I learned to fight back and realize you do have the power to make it happen. Once you discover that, there will be no stopping you!
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Jillian: Yes, I do lots of advocating by educating medical and mental health facilities, schools and speak internationally at psychology conferences. I hold support groups at the local LGBTQ+ pride centers in my state and always support as many pride events as I can.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Jillian: I am still trying to figure that out. Since my transition, I have not really dated. I spent all of my time establishing my career, writing my book, and traveling. However, I have made so many amazing friends that I have found love in my life through very close friendships. Who knows, someday I may give dating a go.
Monika: What would you recommend to older transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Jillian: Everyone has their own timeline when it comes to transitioning. When you are ready, no matter what age, be sure to start building your support system to help navigate through the scary and challenging times. Do not do the journey alone! You deserve to be your true self and happy. Reach out to support groups, and therapists who can guide you through the process, and most importantly be safe through your transition. As I say in my book, “Now go out and find your success, love who you are, be proud of who you are, and begin a new chapter in your life.”
Monika: Jillian, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Jillian: Thank you so much for this opportunity, it was an honor.

All the photos: courtesy of Jillian Rae Celentano.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

Available via Amazon
This is my personal guide to help face who you are, accept who you are and love who you are, so you can watch your dreams and accomplishments flourish... If I can do it, you can do it too. Jillian Celentano lived most of her life not accepting who she was. Since beginning her transition at the age of 55, she has been able to live authentically as her true self.

In this helpful and practical guide, she offers advice to other people who are transitioning later in life. Drawing on her personal experiences, she explores topics such as coming out to children, spouses and family, coming out at work, finding your authentic voice, experimenting with style and clothing, and stepping out in public for the first time. She explains how to deal with clocking and discrimination, body dysphoria and the importance of maintaining your physical and mental health. With candour and warmth throughout, this book will support readers on their path to self-love, happiness and acceptance.

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