Jamey Jesperson: Finding Affirming Community As a Trans Person
Jamey Jesperson is a transfeminine nonbinary person in NYC who works for a national LGBTQ+ education organization. They grew up in an insular religious community within the Mormon church, and now, their advocacy helps bring representation to people with similar stories to them. Today, they sit with Milk to talk about what it means to find community, a queer family, and ultimately to grow into yourself.
What was the community like where you are from?
I was in a very insular religious community in Southern California. It was religiously segregated. In the Mormon religion, it requires you to put your life into the religion. Like you would have a job with the church that was a part time or full time job on top of your regular job. In high school, I spent 30 hours a week at church because I had early morning seminary, boy scouts, and young men’s youth group. I was surrounded by a very homogeneous community but I had a very rad tight knit group of peers. My youth group that I used to be a part of today has had half of the group come out as queer. It’s amazing. The rest are super supportive within the church. I had that community within a larger conservative community.
What was the most defining moment for you in knowing that you had community?
I first came out as gay in high school because that was the only language accessible to me in my small town and my conservative community. There are very few of us, of course there were no out trans people at the time, just like a few gay boys, who I wouldn’t say I found community with. We all had internalized femme-phobia. Like most trans-femme folks that come out first come out and are like, “We are gay but we aren’t that different! We are still going to be masculine and perform these narrow expectations of masculinity.” And I think I was very judgmental of the queer community. But when I moved to New York, I only then accessed the consciousness, the comfortability, the safety to come to terms with my trans-ness when I was surrounded by trans folks at The New School. Being able to be around non-binary, a-gender, genderqueer folks, anyone under the trans umbrella. Just being surrounded by them and hearing them articulate expressions of their trans-ness and their unapologetic trans-ness. An expression of their gender that I have always wanted but never have been able to access. In college, in that progressive little Liberal Arts school in New York, having people that expressed their gender in ways all across the spectrum was when I started feeling community. But I wouldn’t say that I landed into community until recently at my workplace, a National LGBTQ+ education organization where I work with a majority of queer and trans people of color.
When did you feel seen?
Being able to see yourself reflected in another person, I think is integral to finding community. In that, this trans-feminine friend I made…we instantly were able to connect on a deeper level than I’ve been able to connect with so many other trans people in my life who were afab (assigned female at birth), trans-masculine who didn’t have the same experiences of being socialized the way I was. Being able to compare our lives and see all the many differences but also, so many of the experiences that were exactly the same. The same conversations that she’s had with her parents growing up. The same ways she was policed. The same way she experienced her gender. The same way she was pushed out of school. The same experiences in public spaces. Being able to find that commonality together was great.
What would you say to someone or to yourself when you didn’t have that community, for people who are still looking for their queer family?
It’s important to remind people who feel isolated, who don’t have that community, that there are millions of human beings that are connected more and more everyday because of social media and the internet. There’s community physically but also online that you can connect to in different ways. Some of the people I found comfort in were on tumblr when I was in high school and still a closeted Mormon kid. You don’t have to settle for whatever is around you, you will find people that will hold you in your full capacity who can relate to you as well. Especially for non-binary folks, that had to have more hegemonic markers like gay and lesbian before we landed in genderqueer, non-binary, etcetera. We are kind of kicked out of those gay/lesbian spaces where we aren’t accepted or those binary trans spaces because we aren’t trans enough. Realizing that there is space in between and there are so many people in between.
What have you been thinking about lately?
One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about right now is that I feel not cool enough or big enough to be seen in a lot of queer spaces. Especially in the beginning when I came to terms with my trans-ness. Like the most radical thing for me in that moment was to paint my nails. Painting my nails was the first and only thing I did for the first year of being out as non-binary. Obviously the world just read me as this cis gay boy with painted nails but in my head with my history with the Mormon church and years and years of policing and internalization, that painting my nails was such a crazy and radical way of expressing myself. In my head I was like I am so trans, like I’m so queer, I’m pushing all the boundaries.
“I’m the baddest femme out here.”
Right! I feel like every day I’m thinking about how all that I’ve done that I thought was so radical was just for me to come to terms. People have this road map of coming as as trans as these huge characters which is still so important and amazing and unique to their own experiences, but it’s something that I’ve never been able to relate to. My trans-ness for me is really slow and I’m breaking down a lot of the conservative culture that it’s going to take me a long time to get there. I just started wearing makeup this year. My journey is going to be a lot slower and a lot less loud or “fierce” about it. I’m going to be really quiet and not take up as much space. I’m not cool like them.
Do you feel like sometimes, it becomes so appearance heavy in the queer community and less respectful about one’s queer energy?
Totally! Even if we become aware of another and recognize each other’s identities, we are still so shallow and vain. The queer folks with the largest followings are the ones that are digestible. They are passing, binary, or conventionally attractive. I feel like people who fall out of these molds, especially non-binary people, are constantly being put up for question. It has a lot to do with class too on what can be afforded. The full first year of me coming out I had hand me downs from my 50-year-old Mormon mother. She gave me her skirts she didn’t want anymore. I dressed like a middle-aged Mormon woman, mother of five, when I first came out. Those were the only clothes I had!
That’s so cute though in a way because it’s like her recognizing your own femme self and following literally in her shoes.
Yeah, especially from my Mormon mom, I think I cried for a few days after that.
How do you see the current community being shaped and socialized with more open identities such as queer?
The concept of queer is so important, as that floating marker, that queer will always exist and it will always change depending on the social norms. Being a cis gay and white in the 60s and 70s was super queer and now its not because it focuses on much more radicalized identities and intersecting identities in a society that’s not as accepting about certain LGBTQ people. So I think queer is important because it continues to push boundaries. It can never be fully named or located on a person. It makes us question why we live in a normative society at all. The goal is for everything to be queer and nothing to be queer at the same time. If we are moving towards accepting some trans people and some gay, lesbian, etcetera folks then we are replicating this normalcy. This homo-normative and trans-normative culture and creating images of what transness is supposed to look like when transness shouldn’t be attached to a visual.
What is something that was reaffirming that someone has told you?
Actually yesterday, I had a moment with this friend when we were talking about gender as an energy. It was the first time that I admitted out loud that I was thinking about HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and she’s a very binary trans woman. Very feminine. Very affirming of my non-binary identity. She was basically like, “I’m not pushing you towards a binary or anything but I want you to know that whether you alter your body or not I genuinely see you as a very feminine spirit.” No one has ever told me that before. I know theoretically, educationally, and mindfully that gender isn’t attached to my body it is within me. It is so much more than these constructs. But we live in a reality where we are treated certain ways because of how people read us. Yeah, just in that moment with her I wasn’t dressed up. I didn’t have my hair or my makeup done but in that moment she still saw me, recognized me, and respected me. She validated my identity in that moment no matter how I was expressing myself.
You were being seen in a non-material light.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from the queer community.