Letting go of who you were to become who you were born to be
by C.L. Frederick
Actress and humanitarian Emma Watson recently received international praise for her comments while speaking on behalf of the United Nations campaign “HeForShe.” She stated that “it’s time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” The topic was gender equality, and her words rippled across the globe and struck a chord with the transgender community. Beloved Kansas City native and transgender showgirl Valerie Jackson, who currently resides in Dallas, was equally taken with her words. The 29-year-old Jackson realized that more needs to be done when it comes to transgender acceptance and awareness. The Phoenix Newsletter had the privilege to interview Jackson and get her take on what it truly means to be transgender.
Describe the term “transgender” in your own words. When in your life did you begin to understand what being transgender means?
I get this question a lot, especially in the dating world. I always tell people it means I wasn’t assigned female at birth but I’m a female now. I guess you could say I always knew I was a girl, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to know what I was truly feeling. There wasn’t as much of an online presence when I was growing up. Nowadays it’s easy to type your feelings into a Google search and receive pages of results. I saw the Jerry Springer “It’s actually a man!” episodes and the few very masculine trans girls at the end of the bar on a Saturday night. I just remember thinking “That’s not me!” It wasn’t until I moved to Dallas and saw my first trans girl perform that I realized the person I saw inside of me was actually obtainable! That night it hit me like a ton of bricks!
Growing up male, when did you realize you were different?
I realized I was different at a very young age. I remember when I found out there were two genders. I was always so confused why my family kept referring to me as a boy, and some people out in public would call me a girl. I finally accepted I was a boy after many family assertions, but I still knew deep down something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what to do. I recall always feeling lost.
Describe how you felt living as a male, but knowing you identified as female. How did you cope with this realization as a youth?
I would try my hardest to suppress my female feelings any time they consciously surfaced. I tried to fit in with the male gender role as much as I could. I played football, I had a girlfriend and I tried to avoid anything feminine. I was always taught growing up my feelings were not acceptable. I received constant reminders every day what boys should and shouldn’t do. I was constantly picked on when I “slipped up.” I hated my youth. I prayed every single night. Once I was a little bit older and out of high school, I began experimenting with drag and being a “part time” girl. Drag scratched the itch at the time, so to speak.
What was the catalyst that inspired you to live your life as Valerie?
Moving to Dallas definitely changed my life. There’s an established transgender community here with lots of resources. I met a lot of transgender women once I started performing as a drag queen. I admired so many of those girls. I asked questions and began becoming more and more curious about their new lives. The more I learned, the stronger my feelings became.
How do you begin transitioning from male to female? What were the first steps that you took?
I reached out to a few trans women for advice. I was lost and extremely scared. The best first step seemed to be finding a gender therapist. I went to Google, researched the best one and scheduled my first appointment.
How did your family, friends and community react when you opened up about being transgendered?
It was all very negative at first. I think everyone was in shock, confused and scared for me. They all knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process, and it wasn’t the person they preferred me to be. I was challenging everyone’s image/vision they had for me and I think the initial reaction is to always reject anything that contradicts it. I also think people always fear what they don’t understand and I knew they lacked any knowledge about transgender people.
What stigmas and/or discrimination have you encountered as a transgender woman?
It’s definitely a long list! I think the biggest stigma comes with dating me, for sure. I definitely don’t have a hard time finding guys to date. The hard part is finding guys that want to openly date and take me as a serious woman. So many are afraid of having their sexuality questioned or of what others will say and think about them for liking me. It makes a trans person feel unworthy of love, diminished to a secret sexual fetish, shameful of the person they are, and not a “real woman.” It’s a horrible feeling.
What are some of the most special moments that have happened to you since becoming Valerie?
One of the most special moments was when I finally had my name and gender marker legally changed. I cried after the judge granted it. I ran with those papers as quickly as I could to the nearest DMV for a new license. I felt like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning when that new piece of plastic came in the mail. I texted my father a picture of my new license as soon as it came. He congratulated me, and has referred to me by the correct name and pronoun ever since. It felt great to hear him say my name and know he finally acknowledged me as his little girl. It was a milestone in finally, really being seen for the real me.
Another special moment was meeting my first serious boyfriend. We matched on Tinder (a dating app). I put in my bio that I was a trans girl to be completely honest and upfront from the beginning. We messaged back and forth for a little while, getting to know one another. He asked me for my number and to take me on a date. I made sure he knew I was trans to which he said “I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t want to offend you.” He picked me up for dinner and dropped me off without even trying for the first-date kiss. We continued dating for about six weeks until he asked me to be his girlfriend. He had never dated or even met a girl like me before, but he always fully accepted me and recognized me for the woman I am.
What are your sources of strength and why? What motivates you to be the strong and proud woman that you are today?
I definitely find strength in my other trans friends and my mother the most. No one will ever truly understand and relate to me the way they do. My mother and I truly have a special bond. She really feels more like a mentor, sister and best friend. I look up to so many of the trans people that came before me. I keep going strong because I know it’s not just about me. I have to do my part for this world and especially my community. I have to keep living my life visibly and proudly to help the next little boy in Missouri needing a lifeline. Staying selfless and humble keeps me going every day.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your transition? Did you ever feel like giving up?
The most challenging part is finding acceptance and understanding. I don’t need someone to agree with my life or who I am today. I just want to be accepted and respected. I think a lot of people have a hard time finding the difference between the two. I would be lying if I said I’ve never had a giving-up moment. Not many people know it, but I’ve attempted suicide. I’ve been to that low place where I thought to myself “Is this really worth it?” I just remind myself that anything great doesn’t come easy. I would never go back!
What advice would you give to any transgender individual or youth that feels marginalized or bullied?
Stand up for yourself! Teach people how you want to be treated. Most importantly, you have to build a support system. Find those people that love, accept and understand you. Constantly surround yourself with these people.
How would you describe yourself and why would you describe yourself this way?
I’m a strong person. I’ve fought hard my entire life to be the woman I am today and to keep moving toward all my life goals. I’ve endured a lot of hate, judgment, disrespect, ignorance, violence, heartache, tears and pain to get to this point. I’m still here.
What has the dating world been like for you? How has dating opened your eyes to who you truly are?
My boyfriend of seven years broke up with me after I started transitioning. He was extremely supportive, but I understood his reasons. It was really hard to put myself back out there. It definitely feels more natural for me to date men attracted to women. My first boyfriend post-transition felt like a first love. I was with a man that 100-percent loved and accepted me for who I am. I didn’t have to hide anything anymore. I was completely me, and he fell in love with the true me. It’s a great feeling when you find it.
What empowers you as Valerie Jackson and how have you impacted others?
Living an open, honest and visible life empowers me. I don’t walk around with a trans sticker stuck to my forehead, but I don’t hide anything if my history is to come up. I try to live my life like any other girl. I go to work, I have a family and friends, I go shopping, I travel, I see movies, I get my hair and nails done. I do pretty much everything any other girl does. I’m not better than anyone else. Everyone has a past. Although mine is a part of who I am, it doesn’t define who I am today. I think being confident and proud in the woman I’ve become doesn’t go unnoticed. Many people close to me, including acquaintances, I think go through their own transition at the same time. Knowing someone like me can inspire you to reflect on your own life. It can make you want to ask yourself questions like, “What do I need to change? Who am I? What do I really want to do with my life?”
Do you ever miss your old self?
I wouldn’t say I miss my old self because that was a character. It feels nice to give up the act. I feel like part of that person is still in me. I didn’t completely change. I still share the same heart and soul, I’m just no longer holding back. I’m now giving people all of me instead of just part of me.
What are the dangers that transgender individuals face in society today? We have so many stories of transgender individuals being brutalized, attacked, murdered and victimized for who they are. Why do you think this is?
Discrimination, violence and poverty are definitely among the top dangers to the transgender community. The suicide, unemployment, murder and violence, uninsured and homeless rates among the community are heartbreaking. We face much higher rates in all categories. Almost half of us attempt suicide due to discrimination, lack of resources, rejection, etc. The numbers are unacceptable! I think public education is a big factor in it all. More doctors need to know what treatments and cares are necessary for us. More anti-discrimination legislation for trans people in housing, healthcare and employment needs to be passed. More outreach services and resources for trans people need to be created. More allies of the community need to come forward to stand with us. The list goes on and on. There is a lot of work to do, and I have no doubt we’ll get there. It’s only a matter of when we’ll get there.
Transgender individuals are at a greater risk for acquiring HIV. Why do you think that is and what advice would you give to the transgender community on being proactive about their sexual health?
I think trans women especially are susceptible for a lot of reasons. Many trans women are unemployed or living in poverty, so they turn to sex work because it’s what they feel they need to do to survive. Many trans women also turn to drugs to cope with their struggles, and they aren’t as careful with sharing as maybe they should be. I also think a lot of girls have had their value torn down so many times that they just don’t care enough or are afraid to protect themselves. They take what they can get from men and/or are scared of rejection. Everyone should use protection such as PrEP and condoms together. I would recommend being tested frequently depending on how active you are as well. Always know your status and always share it with potential partners.
What does the future hold for Valerie Jackson?
Who knows at this point? I never would’ve thought I’d be where I am five years ago. I want to continue being me and maybe move into some advocacy. I know I have a lot I can contribute not only to the transgender community, but a lot of people in this world. I want to help others, as cliché as that sounds. I really feel like I was meant to be a part of something big and great. We’ll see where this road takes me. I’m ready for the journey!