After living as a man for 45 years, one transgender woman has found salvation in telling her story of transition in appearances around the world. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who has spent much of her life hiding in furious activity
This will not be a political piece about transgender rights. It won’t dwell on hot-button issues like the problem of ‘deadnaming’ (calling a trans person by their birth name) or the furore over which toilets they should use. I do ask a few such questions of Jessica Lynn – as you might expect with a 53-year-old transwoman who transitioned in 2010, after a lifetime of trying – and maybe I should’ve asked more, but we just don’t have time. Sitting across from me at the Crown Inn Hotel in Nicosia, Jessica talks and talks about her life – fast and fluently, in a high, rather croaky voice, talking non-stop for over three hours. I stagger out, exhausted just from listening. She, however, is just getting started, awaiting a call from British charity Blenheim CDP in about 15 minutes (they want her to be keynote speaker at a conference next year), then doing a podcast in a couple of hours.
“I’m an obsessive personality, I’m not gonna lie to you. OK? I tend to overdo things,” she admits at one point. Her story – the one she tells in such detail – has already been told 700-800 times around the world, before she tells it to me. “If you see my schedule, it’s insane. There are weeks that I speak in five different countries, on five different days”.
She’s due to depart the next day, having given presentations at a couple of local events. After Cyprus it’s Vienna on Monday, London on Tuesday, Slovenia on Wednesday, later on she goes to Tel Aviv, Portugal, Japan; before Cyprus she spoke at the University of Hull, then the University of Maynooth in Dublin, then Limerick, then Loughborough: “I gave something like four presentations that day”. She’s not always paid, nor is she being sponsored by some large organisation, though there’s a Donate button on her website (www.jessicalynn.website) and a non-profit called ‘Your True Gender’, based in her native California. This compulsive globe-trotting is something she clearly has to do, both because of her legal woes (more on this later) but also because it’s become essential to her life. Jessica used to have vices; in her 20s, she drank to excess – yet she hasn’t touched a drop in 30 years, “the closest I’ve come is kissing a guy that’s been drinking”. This is her vice now, this is her obsession; this, you might say, is her salvation. “My release is going in front of 200, 300, 500 people, and telling them my story”.
She talks openly, feverishly, intimately; when she laughs she’ll often tap me on the arm affectionately, like two old friends sharing a joke. Her diction veers from thoroughly blunt to oddly cutesy, like “coinki-dink” for ‘coincidence’; she’ll often end a sentence with “if that makes sense to you”, as if implying that it probably won’t. She remembers details, like the name of her son Bradley’s teacher when he was diagnosed with Tourette’s (she has three sons, Jeffrey and Curtis in addition to Bradley); she remembers how much everything cost, from houses to legal documents to the kids themselves (“I didn’t have medical insurance for him,” she recalls of Jeffrey, now 27 and her biggest supporter, “so he cost $5,000 to give birth to”). She recalls being brought back to life twice by doctors – not just once, but on two separate occasions – in the course of her turbulent life. She recalls having 14 employees and making over $100,000 a year (!) as an 18-year-old sign painter. We’ll get to that too, space permitting.
This is not a piece about trans rights, it’s a profile of a life which would’ve been remarkable in any case – but it’s also about trans rights, inevitably. Jessica’s eyes are blue, her teeth very white, her hands rather big for a woman. She’s a tall, striking blonde with a touch of the rock star, and has been propositioned many a time since transitioning: “I’ve had the strangest pick-up lines. I’ve had a guy say: ‘Come back and I will lick your body for 24 hours straight’.” (This was in Istanbul, where the traders in the souk really took to her: “I had a guy – I was buying a necklace for a friend, sitting there talking to him – he goes: ‘Can I just take you in the back and f**k your brains out right now?’.”) Yes; but she also used to be Jeffrey Butterworth, a contractor and cabinet-maker in southern California – and, based on the photos she shows me, an intense-looking man with curly hair and a worried expression.
She always knew, she says, even as young as four years old. “You’re born this way. It’s a proven fact.” Being trans is genetic but not hereditary (if that makes sense), though she did find out later that her dad, an accountant at IBM, had also been into cross-dressing, in a small way. Needless to say, Jessica’s “drive” went far beyond cross-dressing. She recalls going to her friend Michelle’s house – whose parents finally forbade the little boy from playing with their daughter anymore – to play dress-up and tea-party, “and I wanted to be her. And it did not make sense. This is in 1969-1970, nobody did that, I had no idea what it was. Why do I want to look, be, act, live like a girl?”. At seven, “when I learned the difference between boys and girls, I took a razor blade to bed and physically tried to saw off my penis”. Her parents never knew about that little incident (there was blood, but no serious damage) – but of course they sensed her inner struggle, and indeed later revealed (when she finally came out to them, in her early 20s) that they’d thought about transitioning her at four or five years old, and had taken her to see renowned sexologist Dr John Money at UCLA.
Why didn’t they go through with it? Maybe because the young Jessica – like a lot of transgender people, she says, citing Caitlyn Jenner as another example – was adept at hiding her desires in furious, workaholic activity. First she collected stamps and insects, then began playing football and discovered that, “when I was on that field for 90 minutes, I’m not thinking about wanting to be a girl. It became my next obsession”. At 15, she was the youngest player on the No. 2 non-pro team in the whole country; she had four scholarship offers, and an invitation from the Olympic Committee to try out for the 1984 Games – “but it was a coping mechanism,” she says, shrugging sadly. Football gave way to the sign-painting business, and $100,000 a year as a young entrepreneur – “but it was another coping mechanism. To deal with this turmoil, I turned it to work. It was just my way of coping”.
‘And what of sexuality?’ I ask, mindful of the fact that she’s been married twice – the first one a crazy, five-week marriage to “a beautiful, kind, screwed-up girl” when Jeffrey was going through a bad time, mourning a girl named Barbara who’d been killed in a car accident. Which sex was she attracted to?
“Men,” she says firmly. “But I didn’t understand it. Young boys have their first wet dream, right? Mine was being with a boy – and I was a girl! And it did not make sense to me.”
So how does she know she was transgender, and not a repressed gay man?
“It’s a different feeling,” she replies – then pauses, trying to pinpoint the difference: “Most gay guys don’t want to be a woman… Later on, when I started experimenting with men, I would not be a man with a man. I had to be dressed as a woman. OK? And a man wasn’t allowed to touch my penis. OK?”
That was in the 90s when she hung out at a club called The Queen Mary, a place with female impersonators in the front room and a back room for women like herself – “There’s a certain group of men who are attracted to transwomen; we call them ‘chasers’” – long before her transition but after the breakdown of her marriage to Rachel, mother of her three boys. The aforementioned Barbara, the love of her life as a teenager, was the first person she ever came out to, though of course – like Rachel, who also knew of the inner turmoil – she loved Jeffrey as a man. (Jessica was with her in the car when it was totalled; that was the first time she had to be brought back to life, the second being a suicide attempt years later.) As a man, she was always very attractive to women – even though she made no secret of her gender dysphoria, and couldn’t even get aroused half the time. Did the fluid, non-macho signals she emitted act as a turn-on – Rachel would pluck Jeffrey’s eyebrows and shave his legs, and teach him how to do his lipstick – or was it just a function of being dynamic as a person, and treating women as she’d like to be treated herself? Human sexuality is a complex thing.
That’s not the way Judge Scott Becker of Collin County, Texas saw it – and we’re jumping ahead now, coming forward to 2012 when Jessica had already transitioned, shed her penis (though she emphasises that’s a personal choice, not a necessity) and started looking like she does now, sitting across the table at the Crown Inn. “I’ve had facial surgery,” she enumerates, “I’ve had the nose done. These are all fake teeth. I’ve had my upper lips shortened, I’ve had my lips plumped up”. She’s had rhinoplasty, septoplasty, vocal-cord surgery – “they cut my vocal cords in half, stretched them, made them thinner [and] took off 80 per cent of my voice box” – to transform the deep man’s voice she’d endured for 45 years. Maybe that’s why she did so much, because she’d waited so long: “For 45 years, I hated – hated – looking in the mirror and feeling my body, seeing my penis. I just dreamed for 45 years of being a female”.
But we digress (it’s that kind of story). The relationship with Rachel flickered back to life even after the marriage was over, surviving on and off for about 18 years – and they were still living intermittently as a family even in 2012, years after a California judge had awarded Jeffrey full legal custody of the three boys. A complicated arrangement led to Rachel being in Texas with the kids while Jessica was completing her transition – but it turns out there are two stories here, not just the life of a transgender person but a story of family breakdown and legal shenanigans that’d be compelling even without any LGBT angle.
Rachel sued in Texas (a state where judges can overrule a previous custody decision in another state), demanding the removal of Jessica’s parental rights with regard to Curtis, her youngest son. Ms. Lynn has “taken one of the most selfish acts a parent can take, changing her gender,” claimed the other side, and the judge – following a trial where everything was made as difficult as possible, possibly to the point of being discriminatory – firmly agreed, decreeing that Jessica should never again see her son and that her name be struck from his birth certificate. Devastated, she turned for help to a Texas law office run by a transgender judge, but was disappointed. “They said there’s not much you can do about it,” she says sadly. “They said ‘Go out there and start talking about it’, and that’s what I did. And that’s what brought me into speaking.”
So here we are, six years and hundreds of speeches later, a story that’s now been told to thousands of people and may even (she says) become a movie, a deal being imminent with “a really known producer in California” – but also a significant story in other ways. A story of a life spent, maybe not in denial but certainly in distraction, looking for ways to dodge her constant feelings of self-loathing and dislocation: forays into alcoholism, cocaine addiction, suicide attempts, abortive relationships with the wrong gender. A story of an obsessive personality whose life revolved for years around a single, unspoken obsession – and now revolves around another, unsatisfied one. A story, too, of a transgender person who, for all her angst and “dark periods”, lived in a place that was generally sympathetic – then met the other, conservative America (“the Trump America,” as she puts it) and was instantly execrated. That’s the bigger, political story.
This is not a political piece, which is probably just as well. Is it really true, as Jessica says, that “about 80 per cent of transgender people know by the time they’re five years old”? Do children so young have such a firm grasp on gender? Is it true, as she says, that a child should transition at a young age because, even if they change their minds later, you can just “stop the hormones, put the boy back on testosterone and he’s going to come back, 95 per cent [of the time], as a normal boy”? It’s important to know the facts on these issues – but of course other pundits spout the opposite views (which of course she dismisses as fake news), so who to believe? What do ‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean, anyway? (“Physically I feel comfortable in my body now. OK?” explains Jessica. “I like to look feminine. I like to wear heels, I like to look nice, I like to smell pretty. That’s my thing.”) The subject has become so politicised it’s almost intractable, at least for casual observers. Even the precise numbers of transgender people are up for debate: 0.3 per cent of the population according to UCLA, 1-2 per cent according to activists.
Maybe; but the fact remains, indisputably, that transgender people exist – even in places where they tend to be invisible. “Coming here to the university yesterday, one of my first questions was: ‘How many people here know a transgender woman?’,” says Jessica. “Two classrooms yesterday, nobody raised their hand. I was in Ukraine, 100 students, nobody raised their hand. You go to California, everybody raises their hand! You go to New York, everybody raises their hand!” She chuckles briefly at the comparison. “But I know you have ’em!” she adds pointedly; “It’s not the water in California.” She’s right, of course – and her story can only open doors, even if she tells it partly to salve the pain of being deprived of her child, the latest twist in a packed, whirlwind journey. I leave her to it, sipping coffee and checking her phone as she waits for the next appointment.