Deconstructing Jessi – Why Pgh’s Lesbian Community Owes One Woman an Apology

For the past 24 hours, I've mulled over the best approach to this post updating you about the discrimination experienced by Jessi Seams, a local transwoman, when she attempted to audition for a women's variety show.  This week, the City Paper's feature article is thoughtful exploration of this specific incident in the context of larger debates over gender identity, trans-inclusion and the LGBTQ community.

A prominent local gay male told me he was unhappy the story was being published because it aired “the dirty laundry” of the community.  While I get where he is coming from, this is problematic thinking, even dysfunctional — the problem isn't that we have dirty laundry, it is that people know we have it.  That perspective doesn't help those who are oppressed within our community. Well, now the readers of the City Paper know that all is not right in the land of the homos.  Surprise!

I'm struggling to find the right words.  I am very angry with some of the women in the local lesbian/queer women's community.  Angry and disappointed at their narrow-minded, bigotry and amazed at the vitriol they spew in Jessi's direction.  These chicks have mounted a self-righteous attack based on the supposition that Jessi wants to have her cake (live part-time as a man) and eat it, too (live part-time as a woman).  They are so absolutely fucking terrified that anyone even associated with a penis might invade their woman only space that they've elevated this one particular transwoman into some sort of spy for the patriarchy (h/t to Jess Snodgrass).

It all comes down to these particular lesbians and their circle of small-minded cohorts having the privilege of self-determination (as lesbians) while women such as Jessi and her male-born counterparts do not.  Period.

Here are a few examples:

We'll call this one “Double Amen”

I'm curious…I read the article in the City Paper and Emilia is quoted as saying,
“You're Jessi, period,” Lombardi says, gazing at her. “She's my girlfriend.”
However, Jessi does not live as a woman at work or even around his own family according to the article.
So, my question is this….If you say someone is your girlfriend during the “night hours” or when you're in a bar, etc…yet they live as a man when they are at work and when they are around their own family, are they then considered your boyfriend?
Just curious is all….

That is probably the most ridiculous and disrespectful statement I've read all week.  If this sensibility reflects the CTN fan base, perhaps Jessi is better off (as are the rest of us). 

In another stunning example of uncritical thought, one woman thinks the City Paper and Jessi are *creating* fissures in the local gay community.  In one long rant, she condemns Jessi for taking advantage of  the economic benefits of being male in her work life, demonstrates total ignorance of the reality of life as a transwoman or transman, and continues to blindly defend CTN without even remotely addressing the very real questions many, many women have been asking.  She does make use of lots of hyperbole.  At least, I think this is hyperbole.

Furthermore, the consequences are deadly. United we stand,
divided we fall.

For example, I have never seen a trans-janitor at any Celebrate the Night
event! This kind of slanderous attack puts the ONLY women-centered,
non-smoking, non-alcoholic event in the city at risk.

         However, s/he has chosen to slander the community that I hold dear in    attempt to elevate her own position and that is inexcusable

It is preposterous to claim that these fissures around gender identity and inclusion have just somehow appeared in what was previously a harmonious, united community.  I guess if you dwell in the land of white, middle-class gay male and lesbian privilege, perhaps it was.  One needs only take a look at the composition of the board of our own community center to recognize that inclusiveness is not our strong suit.  For a lot of reasons that are much bigger than the current individuals serving on that board.  I used to be one of them and making those types of institutional changes wasn't an easy challenge to tackle.  I left so I have to shoulder some of the responsibility for not achieving institutional change.

So what do you think?  Does Jessi get to determine her own gender-identity?  Should CTN conduct background checks on performers?  Would your own history on the Internet stand up to scrutiny?  Could you, perhaps, be found less worthy because you don't conform to rigid norms of behavior, sexual or otherwise?

More importantly, of course, can Pittsburgh's LGBTQ community successfully navigate the fallout from illuminating our failure to include transwomen and transmen in our institutions, social and otherwise?  We can't even admit it!  We can't even admit the possibility of it!

I just truly do not understand how lesbians who have lived partially closeted at work, with their family (extended or not), in the bowling league, at church, or wherever — how can these very lesbians be so damn judgmental of Jessi living part of her life as a man.  How can they not see any parallel? 

I'm perplexed. I'm angry.  I'm frustrated.  I've been invited to participate in a podcast discussion on the topic and I'm looking forward to exploring these issues in a context where people can at least muster up the respect to use appropriate pronouns.  I suppose I shouldn't condemn people for being disrespectful when I myself have contemplated slowly strangling any lesbian who ever again whines about the demise of Bloomers, CJ's or any other lesbian bar all the while hoping a new woman-only establishment would magically fall from the sky and not require female-born female loving patrons to buy anything other than a free-refill coke to be financially viable.  Strangling in a purely hypothetical sense, of course.  Ledcat does not approve, being a fan of Bloomers herself. 

That being said, if you still want to hang out and eat Asian food with Jessi, Emilia and some other cool chicks a week from Saturday, email me and I'll give you the specifics.  It won't be a lesbian owned establishment, but the food is great and cheap. 



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  • ~laughing~…awwww…poor Sue….all that and yet nobody even cared to comment….hmmm….could it be that nobody really gives a shit about what you have to say?
    as for your little Thai food party…trust, there will be WAY more WOMEN…actual WOMEN at CTN then at your little soiree….

  • I believe Jessi owes the lesbian community an apology for thinking he can just “be” a woman whenever it best suits him. Gee, I think today I'll be an American Indian so that I can take advantage of the scholarships they offer for college. After all, I've always strongly identified with them and I have a lot of American Indian clothing and jewelry…

  • Apparently, you care enough to read it and post your thoughts
    If it makes you feel better, feel free to take shots at me. This is nothing compared to some of the atrocious comments being directed at Jessi and transwomen in general.
    It just confirms that we've touched a nerve. As will any further comments or insulting private email messages. So by all means … fire away. Snub me at events. Spread rumors. Mock my blog.
    You know very well the dinner isn't intended to be an alternate event. It is simply a chance for folks to meet Jessi and hang out. Whether 4 or 10 women show up is inconsequential to the purpose of the gathering. It doesn't really matter what you think about it or how you represent it to your cohorts, but if it is threatening enough for you to publicly tear it down — I must be on to something.
    Thanks for reaffirming that thought.

  • Do you think you can be openly lesbian enough today to use your real name? Or is the standard of living a completely open and authentic life just for transwomen and transmen?
    Sheesh, you gals do yourselves or your arguments no favors when you hide behind anonymous comments.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Sue,
    While I can't say that I agree 100% with your argument re: deconstructing Jessi, I agree wholeheartedly about taking potshots from the closet.
    I commend you for presenting your chin to the world for potshots.

  • What's really interesting to me is that you think this is the same person making comments. LOL
    Taking shots…you mean the way you have taken shots with everyone who has had an opinion that differed from your's? I see what you mean.
    Here's the thing…Jessi…has a penis, yes? CTN has only women performers, yes? I have nothing further your honor 😉
    Oh and as for snubbing you at a social event? I wouldn't know you if you walked thru my door right now, so no need to worry about that.

  • This reminds me of the old joke about how someone would be a Christian if he (god) didn't have all these assholes working for him.
    I'll see you at the non-discriminatory dinner!

  • See, I think my biggest issue comes from this paragraph here:
    At work, she's Tom, Dick or Harry — the man she was born as, the man whose name she doesn't want to see in the paper. She works in a field where “it's easier to be male,” and her coworkers don't know her as Jessi at all.
    Hey, in my field, it is easier to be male too. In many professions, it is much easier to be male than female. But you take the good with the bad.
    Jessi is taking advantage of the male power in the workplace. Sorry, that's where I call bullshit. You shouldn't just get to be a woman when it is fun then be a man when it works to your (financial) benefit. Jessi got called on that. That is why I waste no pity on Jessi – I'm saving it for someone who is truly discriminated against.

  • Thanks for commenting, Kelli.
    I think this is a fundamental point of contention in the discussion. I see a parallel between Jessi living as a male in her worklife to any lesbian passing as a straight woman in her worklife.
    It happens everyday. People assume most women are heterosexual and we often allow that assumption to go unchallenged for a variety of reasons — sometimes the financial benefit we receive Women are fired for being gay and there's usually little they can do about it. That's a pretty big incentive to pass as straight or not rock the boat about it.
    Women may also pass as heterosexual to avoid feeling uncomfortable, to avoid harassment, to avoid being passed over for promotion, or simply just to not have to deal with constantly “coming out” when you correct someone's assumption.
    Women pass for straight with their families, neighbors and friends everyday, again for a variety of reasons.
    And the truth, let's be honest, is that MANY of these lesbians have no intention of changing that. They are going to continue to live a dual life for their own personal reasons and I think we'd agree that they have the right to do AND still identify as a lesbian.
    Jessi's choices are no less valid. So, in my opinion, there is a parallel between the coming out/duality of the lesbian experience in a heteronormative culture and the coming out/duality in a patriarchal culture. It is not a perfect analogy, of course. But I think the similarity should be enough for the lesbian community to be more empathetic to Jessi's personal experience.
    I understand that women born women want feel violated when a man enters a women-only space. I get that even if I don't personally prefer to be in that space. However, I wonder how lesbians feel when heterosexual women such as Rene Portland former coach of the Penn State Women's basketball team, say “no lesbians” in her women's space. We are outraged! We want her head on a platter. We feel lesbians are being denied something and defined as lesser-women. Isn't that same thing? Or at least a similar thing?
    Just like we as the LGBTQ community want other minority groups to be empathetic to our plight being the victims of discrimination, hate crimes and second-class status. The parallel is really significant for me.
    What I have been derelict in point out during this debate is that the debate is larger than Jessi's gender identity. The organization that denied her access to a woman only space lied to her about their reasons. That has been documented. They conducted a background check based on their assumptions about her gender presentation, a background check that does not appear to have been conducted on other applicants. Finally, they have failed to identify when a transwoman “counts” as a woman in their estimation. Is it when she lives full-time as a woman? Is it when she is post-operative? What if those are not options for her?
    It is unfair to claim Jessi is hiding her true gender identity or taking advantage of her male privilege when CTN continues to avoid addressing these questions. I personally think an event that is open to the public and connected to the LGBT Community Center should be more transparent. If there's no discrimination to hide, why not provide answers to these questions?
    If CTN wants to be an event for women born women, then simply putting that out there as a criteria could have saved a lot of heartache for everyone. If CTN says “all women” but has some limits on that definition, limits that transwomen may not share, they should put that out there. If self-defined gender identity does not meet their criteria, just put that out there.
    I wouldn't agree with those restrictions, but at least it would be clear and all women in our community would understand the intention of the event.
    This argument holds true even if you continue to claim that Jessi is a man. The point is that she identifies as a woman so she applied. I think some believe she intentionally set out to violate a woman's space, but I don't agree. I think she set out to help raise money for the GLCC.
    So those are what I believe to be the points of contention is this entire discussion. I regret the escalating hostility and have been somewhat saddened by the email I've received privately. However, I am heartened by the email I've received from individuals who share my perspective (or close to it) but don't want to get caught up in a public debate.
    Kelli, I'm glad you commented. We obviously see this from different perspectives, but discourse is how we move evolve. I share Emilia's perspective that we need a transparent dialogue on how transwomen are included in the lesbian community. It is pretty self-evident that they are part of the queer community, but let's be honest about how many transwomen are over 35 and identify more closely with the women at CTN and other events that attract the more conservative lesbian crowd. Is progress possible?

  • This argument holds true even if you continue to claim that Jessi is a man. The point is that she identifies as a woman so she applied. I think some believe she intentionally set out to violate a woman's space, but I don't agree. I think she set out to help raise money for the GLCC.
    Actually, she/he doesn't identify as a woman, UNLESS it's at a gay function or behind closed doors. Otherwise, he identifies as a man at work and around his family.
    I too don't believe Jessi meant to intentionally violate a woman's space regarding CTN. I truly believe she/he just wanted to perform. My personal view is…it's entertainment people…let's move on. Forget about the fact that it's a man dressed as a woman, wanting to be included in a woman's event….let's just focus on the entertainment value shall we?

  • But see as long as you and others continue to insist on defining Jessi's gender identity based on YOUR interpretation of her life, rather than allowing for her self-determination — there is no moving on for me. I can let this particular arguement go and certainly bear no ill will (except for people who made some fairly hateful comments) about differences of opinion. But I can't let go of people being disrespectful by intentionally imposing your gender constructs on another individual.
    No more than I could let go of Rene Portland defining lesbians as not woman enough to play on her woman's basketball team.
    I don't want to fight about it anymore, but I will never be okay with you or any other lesbian (or person) overriding someone's self-definition. It begs a larger dialogue, one I believe our local trans community deserves — how do transwomen and transmen fit into the gay and lesbian subcommunities of Pittsburgh?
    If you can agree that continuing to dissect this one incident and focusing on Jessi's gender identity is not helpful for the larger discussion about transinclusion AND you can just stop using male pronouns to define her (just call her Jessi), then I think we can move on to a more productive debate. But arguing about her gender identity is just taking us in circles.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Sue,
    I appreciate that we can openly talk about this in these comments and I am appalled that you have received emails and comments that were hateful. And I appreciate that you let me voice my opinion even though it differs from yours.
    I will agree that CTN did not handle this appropriately. As I am not personally involved with CTN, I have no idea whether it started out maliciously on their part, or just ended up that way. Which ever, it wasn't right.
    I don't really have any more comments. I justed wanted to thank you for providing this forum.

  • It might help Jessi's cause if the “Orientation” category on her MySPace page was changed to “Lesbian” as opposed to “Straight” since the gender is now changed to “Female.”

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