Jacqueline Patterson is an Indiana native, Executive Director of the Indiana Transgender Wellness Alliance and a transgender woman. While her transition was far from easy, her specific situation granted her a smoother path than the one many other transgender people travel.
“I knew from the time I was 5 years old,” says Patterson. “In those times you were either gay or sick in the head, you know? You just suppressed it. I did some cross-dressing when I was younger before finally accepting myself when I was 57 years old.”
After a battle with cancer, Patterson decided that she didn’t want to die with regrets — she would transition to a woman.
“I decided the morning after my surgery I needed to find out what I had to do with this difference that was plaguing me my whole life. It was kinda like it was there the whole time and I couldn’t get rid of it,” says Patterson.
And like many transgender people, when Patterson’s family found out she was transitioning, they turned their backs on her.
“I have three daughters and seven grandchildren and I’m not allowed to see any of them. And I’m not welcomed in my sister and my brother’s home. The only one that really sees me out of my family is my dad who’s 92,” says Patterson. “And I was married for the third time for about a year and a half before I started my transition and the wife I have now decided to stay with me and she’s been good to stay with me and walk the journey with me.”
Fortunately Patterson’s job at Cummins provided her with benefits that allowed her to obtain the healthcare necessary for the counseling, hormone therapy, and surgery that came with transitioning. Her story is special — although she went through a lot of the personal and family struggles that many transgender people do, she still has the privilege of age and access that a lot of transgender people don’t.
That privilege is often seen in mainstream media through people like Janet Mock, Chaz Bono, and most
recently Caitlyn Jenner, who seemed to transition over night before coming out for her Vanity Fair cover.
“That’s really the best way to do it,” says Patterson. “You plan for your date when you’re gonna go full time. Most of the time it’s governed by letters from doctors and things like that, but that’s what I did. At a certain time I went and had facial surgery [and] when I came back from facial surgery I came back full time as Jacqui Patterson at work.”
But those healthcare benefits and privileges aren’t available to a lot of transgender people. Anthony Masseria, chair of the IUPUI LGBT Faculty and Staff Council, told a story of a woman who transitioned for over a decade.
“The process is dependent upon that person’s timeline. It does have a lot to do with access to resources but it also has a lot to do with their personal journey, their personal need,” says Masseria. “I recently met one woman who has been living full time as a woman for 15 years. Initially she relied on black market methods for hormone replacement therapy and now she’s sort of grown up, I suppose you could say. She has a professional job. She’s been able to finalize some parts of what people would traditionally consider a full transition, so her journey was almost 20 years.”
There is a common thread of stories like these among transgender people, stories of trans-women getting silicone injected directly into their chests and transgender men and women obtaining hormone drugs on the black market. Joblessness and homelessness can lead to sex work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27.7 percent of transgender women live with the HIV virus and a staggering 73 percent of those women don’t know that they are even positive.
Although the realities for the privileged don’t align with the realities of the poor and oppressed, both Patterson and Masseria agree that media visibility is a great thing for the community.
“I think for any community who feels on the margins, for any community who is under-represented in mainstream society, it’s a wonderful thing when you can see yourself in the public,” says Masseria. “I think it’s a little less scary for people who are in the closet or either just generally gender non-conforming. I think it sends a message that ‘it’s okay not to conform to society’s ideas of gender,’ and definitely for people who desire to make the transition — that there are fabulously successful wonderful people out there who’ve made it. I think that’s a good thing — any sort of visibility is good for the community.”
With more media visibility comes misunderstanding and bigotry, so cisgender people have to be willing to advocate for transgender people when the time comes.
“It has to start with the fundamental understanding that trans people — just as much as cisgender people or people in any other walk of life — have the right to identify as they wish and express themselves as they wish,” says Masseria. “I think [it’s about] doing as much as you can to seek to understand and keeping an eye out on your own behaviors. Trans people are people too — you don’t have to ask personal and invasive questions. Just get to know the person I think is the best thing to do. Do what you can to recognize your own privileges [and] recognize your own words that you use. And if you want — take that extra step confronting it head on when you see it going on in the world around you as well. There’s lots of ways to at least if not be an ally be a supporter of the community.”
But Patterson has different advice for her transgender sisters and brothers on how to move forward in the name of acceptance and transparency.
“Trans people have a responsibility to understand themselves, accept themselves and then be active and be out. That’s one thing,” says Patterson. “I think there’s always that safety factor when you’re coming out. You have to always be visible with that. I started the Indiana Transgender Wellness Alliance and that’s really pointed toward wellness of the emotional, physical and spiritual health of a transgender person. And I’m trying to advocate in all the different ways. I think we can legislate acceptance to a degree but I think we have to be out and visible and earn the respect and integrity that we seek, and that just takes being more open with people."