In honor of Worcester’s annual Get Your Pride on Celebration, InCity Times interviews Jeese Pack of AIDS Project Worcester. Jesse made the courageous (he’d say natural) decision to “transition” from a young woman to a young man at the age of 19. Here’s his story.
Rose: Let’s talk about the event [the Get Your Pride On celebration – see our “ad”] on Water Street, Worcester Pride and the role your group is going to play.
Jesse: First, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I encourage anyone who’s going to be in Worcester to come to it. … There is going to be a pretty strong transgendered presence there. … Gunner Scott, who is the current director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, is going to speak during the political rally. There’s going to be a Mass Trans Political Coalition booth and table at the event, and they’re going to be passing out information about legal rights and needs of trans people. AIDS Project Worcester, as usual, is going to be a very strong presence there, with outreach workers. We’re gonna have our own table.…
Rose: Tell us what transgendered means.
Jesse: the term transgender has come to mean – it’s an umbrella term – that covers a whole range of different kinds of people whose gender identities or gender expression is different from what’s typically expected in society. And so the word transgender encompasses people who are transsexual, people who are crossdressers, people who are born inter-sexed, people who have a variety of different kinds of gender amalgamations and identities, such as gender queer, folks who identify as androgynous, two-spirit individuals. So it’s a broad term that covers a lot of different smaller communities.
Rose: I guess … I thought it was sort of a … boy born with a girl’s heart or a girl with a boy’s heart. … It’s not being gay … . Is that correct?
Jesse: Yes… . in a nutshell.
Rose: Is your [the transgender community] presence going to be greater in the Gay Pride festival this year, and is that because the movement is stronger in Massachusetts, Worcester County this year?
Jesse: Our presence at Worcester Pride this year is going to be greater than in years past simply because more transgender people are out than they were even two years ago. Basically the community here in Central Mass and Worcester is coming into its own politically, which I feel is best demonstrated by the fact that a Worcester Chapter of MTPC [Mass Transgender Political Coalition] has just started up.
Rose: So you think … you’re more vocal, a greater part of the community …
Jesse: Yeah. Trans folks have always been here, but in the past there’s not been much of a local presence. And still a lot of people are very deeply closeted because there’s a high amount of stigma and discrimination against trans people just in general.
Rose: More so that against gay or bisexual folks?
Jesse: Across the board, yeah.
Rose:Why do you think that is?
Jesse: There’s still a lot of ignorance around trans issues, first of all, and ignorance helps to breed fear, which helps to breed the stigma.Whereas the gay, lesbian and bisexual community has been more out and vocal and at the forefront for like over 20 years. So there’s been a very strong cultural education going on around gay, lesbian and bisexual issues –
Rose: And there hasn’t been for trans people.
Jesse: Yeah. Not until the past 10 or15 years did trans people start having a more visible presence on TV and just in the wider culture in general in the US. ….
Rose: The studies say one in 10 people are gay. How many are transgendered?
Jesse: It’s tricky. The jury is still out .. . In the medical community, transgender people have been counted based on current statistics of those who have undergone genital reassignment surgery. But the problem with that is a lot of trans people don’t get surgery. So we don’t really know, but if I had to estimate on Central Massachusetts the number of people who fall somewhere on the trans spectrum, I would say at least … several hundred.
Rose: Your story. .. You grew up in another part of the country and you came here to attend college – WPI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. That’s where you had your awakening. Talk about that.
Jesse: I came to Worcester in 1999. I went to school at WPI. … I came from the Washington DC area. It was basically towards the end of my sophomore year at WPI is when I started my social, physical and medical transition. That’s when I realized it was possible to transition.
Rose: Did you feel this way in high school? When did these feelings start? Puberty? When did the feelings start? When you started to have sexual feelings?
Jesse: No. I think I always had thee same feelings, and if I had to describe them, I guess it would be extreme discomfort with expected gender role. And when I hit puberty, it became extreme discomfort with my physical body.
Rose: So when you were a little girl, you felt like you were a little boy?
Rose: So you didn’t like the girlie stuff? The Barbie dolls? [As a little girl], you wouldn’t play Barbie?
Rose: So you didn’t play house and all that stuff?
Jesse: Well, my mom did buy me a doll house once, but I only played in it with my he-man action figures [laughing].
Rose: … Did you like wearing dresses?
Jesse: No. That was actually a big –
Rose: How did your parents feel about this? Did they think: Here’s our little girl and she won’t play house or wear dresses? How did they handle that?
Jesse: It was a source of constant tension in the household. My parents were accepting, for the most part. They were never abusive towards me. They thought it was unusual. They were always – my mother especially – putting pressure on me to be more effeminate. But it was not something I could do. So it was a constant source of tension between us. Her gender expectations of me – I was just not able to fulfill. It just did not come naturally at all.
Rose: Did you have brothers or sisters?
Rose: So you were an only child. So all the focus was on you.
Rose: How did school go? Did the teachers or kids feel you were different?
Jesse: Oh yeah.
Rose: So they didn’t think this person is a tomboy? She’s a cute tomboy?
Jesse: No. I was labeled very early on as being a tomboy, but my masculinity and expression was so much so that I had a very androgenus appearance from an early age. So people were always constantly confused by me.
Rose: So you didn’t think you looked like a girl?
Jesse: No. … It was a very long, protracted – especially when I hit puberty as a teenager – it was a very long, extremely awkward phase, to put it nicely.
Rose: Did you find yourself attracted to girls?
Jesse: Oh yeah.
Rose: You told me you thought you were gay. You didn’t know what transgendered was …
Jesse: I didn’t.…
Rose:… Were you raised in a conservative household?
Jesse: It was about mixed. When I was growing up, my parents were vocally disapproving of gay and lesbian issues.…
Rose: There wasn’t any information out there … on transgender folks.
Jesse: There was trans stuff on like [the] Jerry Springer [tabloid TV show], which is very exploitative and not informational. So there was no information, basically. So I had no clue about it.
Rose: So when you went to WPI, were you – and I hate to stereotype – good in math?
Jesse: Yeah. Yup.
Rose:When did you graduate from WPI?
Jesse: I graduated in 2003. I came out when I was 19 as being trans and started my transition at WPI.
Rose: How were things at WPI your first, freshman year?
Jesse: It was a label [gay] that I took on that I had some discomfort with because I have always been attracted to women but I have also had attractions to men. Since then I have come out as bisexual. So that added to my confusion around my identity. …and that was very much combined with just a general horrible feeling around my physical body and my expected gender role.
Rose: So when you looked at your body at that point in your life – how did you feel?
Jesse: It was very surreal. The only way to describe it is if you were to look in the mirror and did not see yourself in the mirror. You saw basically somebody else’s body in the mirror. … I didn’t know who that was [in the mirror]. … because my internal image of myself was as being male, basically.
Rose: So how did freshman year at WPI go?
Jesse: It was pretty good. I got good grades. I made some friends. I fit in pretty well. Most of the other students, again, there was the awkwardness because of my extremely androdynous looks and my identity as being gay. But I never got picked on or anything like that. So the first year went pretty well. It was towards the end of my sophomore year … when I was 18, I had basically a nervous breakdown.
Rose: Oh, my God! So things weren’t well.
Jesse:Well, it was the kind of thing where you’re trying to hold it all together, but you don’t know what’s going on. I wasn’t committed or anything … . when I turned 18, it was like I am an adult, but I could not fulfill a role as a woman. I was like this can’t be the way my life is supposed to turn out. Like, I cannot be … I am not going to grow up to be a woman. I just sort of freaked out.
Rose: Up until, probably now, people who were trans just probably kept it inside for years and years.
Jesse: Yeah. … I think in some situations, it can be even more difficult when you come out in later life. If you already had an adult life with a family and that expected gender role, and then you come out maybe mid-life and have to start a whole new life. That can be extremely overwhelming for people.
Rose: So when did you have your epiphany? Did you go to a conference? Did you see a pamphlet? What made you say: There’s such a thing as being transgender and I’m trans. This is the path I need to follow. What happened at WPI? Was it a course or a friend?
Jesse: I went to a conference the spring of my sophomore year … . It was called “The Safe Colleges” conference [for the Gay/Bisexual/Lesbian community]. … I went to a panel – it was a Trans 101 panel – and I actually met female to male folks basically like myself, who were my age, who had transitioned. I was like, oh – that’s when I realized that it was possible.
Rose: That must have felt so great.
Jesse: In some ways it was a relief; in some ways it was also kind of scary.
Rose: But you knew who you were then.…
Jesse: I had a name for it, which helped.
Rose: I understand WPI was pretty cool about things. You were in a girls dorm; you ended up in a different dorm.
Jesse: I was lucky enough that WPI, around the time that I started my transition, had just opened up a GLBT friendly dorm option called Unity House. That was the start of my junior year, 2001 to 2002. So I moved in there, and I was eventually able to get a single room. So that solved that problem.
Rose: Your mother and father …
Jesse: When I wanted to transition physically and medically, I started cross-living right away and asking people to call me “Jesse.”
Rose:What was your female name?
Jesse: Uhm. I’d rather actually not say what
Jesse: Uhm, I would rather actually not say what that is.
Rose: So you became Jesse.
Jesse: Yes. And I immediately sought out a therapist that worked with transgender people, who happened to be in Northampton.
Rose:Were there any in Worcester?
Jesse: There was one in Framingham.
Rose: But none in Worcester? Worcester County?
Jesse: Not that I knew of. See, there wasn’t a referral system in place.
Rose: Now there is.
Jesse: Yeah. People are able to more easily access information about local providers. So for the first two years, I was in therapy for nine months. Then I got approved to start hormones. I went to a doctor in Springfield to start hormone therapy around 2002, that spring. And I was commuting back and forth, and I was paying for everything out of pocket.
Rose: How did you manage it? Did you have a job? How did you study and commute to Northampton?
Jesse:When I came out and started transitioning, I withdrew from all my extracurriculars. A lot of times I missed class to go to appointments. I still got passing grades. … I scraped together what ever money I could get. I had a part time job there as a writing tutor. I also had some extra income from like living loans. Everything extra went to the transitioning. It was pretty tight.
Rose:What did your parents say?
Jesse: They made it clear they still wanted to be part of my life, which was great. But they had a lot of strong emotional reactions to it – anger and fear and depression around it that I just couldn’t be around because I was going through my own stuff. … From the beginning they took the stance of we are not going to assist you financially for this process because we don’t approve of it.
Rose:May I ask you how much this costs? Here you are a kid and you’re paying for it out of pocket. The hormones, the therapy…
Jesse: Well, probably the course of therapy I went through – $100 per session, out of pocket. I would say that was around $1,000. Starting the hormone therapy, that was between the doctor’s visit, the blood tests and paying for the hormones themselves…
Rose: And your medical insurance didn’t cover any of this?
Rose: Because of the fact that you were transgendered? They didn’t have any categories.
Jesse: Right. That was about $1,000. Later I had reconstructive surgery and that was about $10,000, out of pocket.
Jesse: I paid all that off. I don’t have a car right now.
Part 2 next issue!