As I write, my friend Jessica Brand is on her way from Rhode Island to San Francisco to get gender reassignment surgery. She’s been taking the hormone estrogen for years, and the surgery is another step in her journey to become a woman. Before she left, I gave her a jewelry bag to keep her favorite necklace safe during the trip. I also gave her a hug. She’s a remarkable 22-year-old – whip-smart, brave and funny. She jokes about her low voice: “I’m in good company. Lauren Bacall had a raspy voice too.’’
I’ll admit it. When I knocked on Jessica’s door for the first time to meet her I was nervous. Her story is important. Transgender Americans are on the forefront of the next great civil rights debate in our country. But I was stepping into unknown territory or, as they say in the pop psychology books, leaving my comfort zone. That can be a little unsettling.
I heard footsteps, and the door opened. We shook hands, said hello. I told her the directions were perfect, that I didn’t get lost. “Great,’’ she said, walking into the kitchen. I saw a family photo and asked about it. The Jessica in the photo had no resemblance to the one I was seeing today. That Jessica was a frowning boy in khakis and a navy polo shirt. The Jessica before me was a smiling young woman in a pale-blue shirt with bell sleeves. She told me that was the last picture she let anyone take of her for years. “I hated my appearance,’’ she said. Now she wants everyone to snap away. She loves the way she looks – and feels.
Three people, she said, saved her life: her mother and late father – Susan Trostle Brand and Stephen Brand – and a local pediatrician. When Jessica was in middle school she begged doctors to give her estrogen. They refused, saying she was too young. “They had never seen anyone like me,’’ she said. She’s speaking out publicly about her past to make sure other transgender teenagers don’t have to experience the pain she went through – “ever.’’
She knew at two. Toddlers in her day care center were telling secrets. One boy said he didn’t have a bellybutton. “I’m a girl,’’ said Jessica. She slogged through grade school, hoping her feelings would go away. Adolescence, with puberty, facial hair, muscles and voice changes, sent her into a deep depression. She tried to kill herself. “I never left my room,’’ she said, “and wouldn’t let anyone take my picture.’’
One day Jessica was sitting in a restaurant parking lot with her mother. The pressure was tremendous. She asked her if she loved her. “Yes,’’ said Susan. Jessica took a deep breath: “I’m a girl and have to live like one.’’ Her parents’ response: We love you; let’s do this. They made the rounds of doctors, but no one “got me,’’ said Jessica. Then she found Dr. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital who specializes in serving transgender youths and prescribed hormones. The changes were swift: breasts, hips, soft skin, full cheeks and lips, and less facial hair. “I could finally look in the mirror,’’ said Jessica. “I was seeing the real me. It was thrilling.’’ She emerged from her shell, telling her story to other transgender teens, reassuring them that they could get through challenges and be themselves.
We talked all afternoon that day at her house, even sharing a pizza. I ran out of questions to ask and started chatting about mundane things like the weather. Looking back, I see that shift to small talk was a good thing. Jessica is another young woman navigating the world. “I just want to blend in,’’ she said.
She’s been dreaming – literally – about gender surgery since childhood. After two weeks of recovery, she’ll head back to Rhode Island, where she’ll meet up with two New York filmmakers who are doing a documentary about her called What I’m Made Of. I plan to connect with her again to find out about the surgery and how life’s treating her. Well, I hope. Her body didn’t fit with her mind, and now it does. She finally has what we all want: happiness.
Elizabeth Rau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.