(This is part one of a two part series. Part one focuses on Jessica’s personal journey to becoming the “ultimate” her. Part two focus on health care issues facing transgender persons in Jamaica and how she plans to change it. This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for being a part of TransWave’s Transgender Profile Series. After meeting you, and watching a video of you at the Larry Chang Human Rights symposium, I knew we had to feature you on the site. Could you share with us a bit about your family background?
Thank you. Okay..let me take a deep breath. I was born in Kingston & St. Andrew. I was raised in a Christian family: father, Jehovah Witness, and mother, Pentecostal. Growing up as a very poor family but [we] try to mek ends meet, and all of that. I attended school when we had money.
Yes, they were bigger than me. I was the youngest.
When did you first start to identify as female? Do you remember or was it just a gradual thing?
As far back as I can remember when I was two…two to three…playing with dolls. I knew within myself that I was different from everybody else. At first I think that everybody was one until you do things like purple touch. I saw that she act effeminate but then she has an organ that is different from mine. As kids even when you bathe together…you realise that she has a different organ but I could relate to her…whereas with boys their gender expression was different from mine.
Was there a moment that you decided to accept yourself as a woman or did the difficulties in that respect spring more from without than within?
I lived my life pleasing other persons. Even when I identified [I hid it] because the idea of being transgender is recent. We never knew about those things back then. If you’re effeminate you’re gay. When I started to go out and meet other members of the LGBT community and I act effeminate, they’d say, “So why you have to act so girly? Why you can’t be more masculine, why you can’t act more masculine?” I didn’t understand so I tried to accommodate them.
I remember a time there was this house lyme and they bluntly told me not to come because my gesticulations, how I am, would cause tension. When I said I wanted to get married and have children, they were saying, “Why you want fi change how God made you?”
Gay men, specifically, said this?
Yes. The community also had a journey to make [to accept transgender persons] and it hadn’t crossed that bridge yet. They didn’t understand.
The first time I found someone I could relate to was when I saw Laura. When I saw her I said, “Look at that nice lady.” Someone turned to me and replied, “No, she was a man.” They didn’t understand either because at that time people didn’t know the right terminology to use. I found out she was biologically male and transitioned to female. I could relate to her. Each time I saw her I asked her how she did it. I wasn’t in that capacity as yet. You have to know your surroundings before you start. If you want to cross [transition] but you don’t have the support network , the finances, it doesn’t make any sense. You have to wish and pray that one day you can become the ultimate you.
I considered for a long time whether or not I would just be a woman and not transition. It wasn’t until I did a training workshop in 2014 with Latoya that I learnt about transgender[ism]. We did the gender and sexuality talk. When I mapped myself it came back to transgender. I ripped up the paper, throw it away, did it again, throw it away…I got so frustrated until I decided to accept it. It was just really time to be myself, to evolve.
Now that I’ve started the transition, I’ve realised how stigmatised you can be. [Being seen as] gay, is one discrimination. Then being HIV positive. You get it from the wider society and within the LGBT community because no one wants to get involved with you because you are positive. If you’re doing sex work, that’s another thing. And now transitioning is another! Sometimes I am even afraid of those within the community. I went to a KFC once when an employee there recognised me. She told all her coworkers that I was a man. I was so disappointed. She was putting my life at risk. But I just stood my ground. Other times, they pass me on the street and bawl out, “Jermaaaaaaine!”
That might just be an inadvertent slip. It can take time to make that transition, too, into treating you as Jessica.
Is it easier, in that sense, to move around in the wider society because they accept you based on your gender expression, whereas, those who knew you from before have to adjust to how you are now?
Yes. The first will see me and pass and go bout dem business. When I do my business at the bank, or with various companies when doing my bills, they would have known me as Jermaine. I’m okay with that. When I interact with their employees and they address me as Jermaine, I say, “No, my name is Jessica.” It’s a challenge for them so I have to educate them. They’ll say, “You don’t look the same as your ID photo. We have to call you by the name on the ID.” I tell them, “No, I’m giving you permission to address me as Jessica. It doesn’t matter what’s on the ID — I’m telling you what to call me.”
How long have you been out as transgender?
I took my time. You have different steps. If someone asked me how long I’ve been a transgender, I could say from I was a child. How long have I been living the life of a transgender? Not just identifying as transgender but living it: dressing as a woman, using the female bathroom…it’s two different things. I always tell persons it’s like learning to drive: moving the gear stick is one thing, but going on the road, keeping the vehicle steady, it’s another. It’s very difficult. I’ve been living the life for two months. The actual wearing of female clothing and so on, is about two weeks.
It takes a lot of courage. It’s not something where you wake up one day and say, “Today, I’m gonna put on female clothing!” You have to start off gradually. Maybe you start by wearing panties, then you start wearing shorts, you start dressing unisex, you know? I would advise other transgender persons to take their time and do it properly. Sometimes people rush. I’ve spoken with transgender persons living overseas. Maybe they’re in an environment that is more enabling so they rush and do the sexual reassignment surgery. But they didn’t start with hormones, they didn’t start to use the female bathroom. Maybe they didn’t go to a qualified surgeon. Some hear the word “transgender” and think it means you have to transition, when you don’t. They go through with the surgery then later regret it.
For Jamaicans, I say, take your time. Think about it. Jamaica is not an enabling environment. If you rush it you may have to leave your family, your community, and end up marooned in a place from which you can’t move. Fortunately, I am at a level where I am capable of managing it. I am blessed because I can wear female clothes to work and I can use the female bathroom at work. In my own right, by being me, I am an advocate. I educate: sitting down in my female clothing, talking and commanding persons. I say, “Listen, my name is Jessica, not Jermaine.” Then they go home and tell their families, their children, “I have a transgender at work.” [chuckles]