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Seeing the real Jessica

Jessica Orsini, formerly Jeff Orsini, opens up about her experience being a transgender individual holding public office.

April 24, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Although Jessica Orsini’s tiny office, nestled in the depths of the MU Agriculture building, was originally built as part of a fallout shelter, she is not trying to hide.
She hid for long enough as Jeff Orsini and braved a confusing boyhood, discrimination in the U.S. Air Force and angry parents until she finally worked up the courage to transition, the process a person goes through to change gender.
Today, Jessica serves on the Board of Aldermen in Centralia and is the only openly transgender individual currently holding public office in the U.S. Although her position is historic, no dreams of media celebrity tempt her. Rather, Jessica is drawn to the simple things: pitching in with the other aldermen, assisting to edit an academic journal while doing database support for the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Dean’s office and settling into a “platonically non-separated” partnership with her current wife.

Vox: You had some difficulties when you ran for alderman of Centralia for the first time in 2004. What happened?

Jessica Orsini: Initially I ran in 2004 … a right-wing candidate ran pretty much through the pulpits and beat me. However, the mayor at the time decided to appoint me to the Planning and Zoning Commission afterward, and (during) the two years I spent on it, people got to know me. They got to realize that I wasn’t just some stereotype, that I was a person, that I had good ideas, that I was concerned about the community. I ran again in 2006, and I won.

Centralia’s a small town, and usually that comes with the stereotype of small-mindedness. Do you feel that applies to Centralia?

I think that that’s one of the misnomers about small towns — that small towns won’t accept anything different, that they’re closed-minded. I think that in small towns, there’s a certain wariness toward things that aren’t necessarily understood or toward outsiders, but once somebody becomes known, they can be very accepting communities.

Has there ever been a time when you’ve felt harassed or insulted?

I was trying to find a new place to live, and a landlord actually said, “We don’t want none of that here, we got kids living here.” But for the most part, it’s not been a very discriminatory experience.

You transitioned while you were working at a software company. How did you go about handling the transition at work?

(My supervisor and the owners of the company) recommended I send an e-mail out to my co-workers — 300 of them — and so I sent an e-mail out titled “Changes” and explained that at the start of 1996, I would start coming to work as Jessica instead of Jeff. And I lived in that role until my surgery in June of 1998.

What was your experience growing up while feeling that you weren’t supposed to be male?

I tried everything. I tried going out for sports. I tried the military out of (high school). I tried getting married … all these things that were supposed to try to reassure that, yes, I could be male. And I was miserable. Absolutely miserable. I finally said enough was enough.

What did you do at that point?

In 1991, I went to the mental health office at Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany. And I talked to the counselor and said, well, here’s the issue, I’m gender dysphoric, and I need to figure out how to deal with this. And that was at 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and by 2:30 p.m. they were changing the locks on my office door, by 3:30 p.m. they were giving me my security debriefing as they took away my top-secret clearance, and by 5:00 p.m. I was being introduced to my new co-workers at the base switchboard until they could figure out how to discharge me. They finally discharged me for “medical reasons.”

How did your family handle the process?

When I first told my parents, they insisted that I must be having a nervous breakdown. They just didn’t know how to deal with it — it was so far outside their realm of experience. And then one day in ’97, I got a card from my father, and it said, “I may not know what it’s like to walk in your shoes, but I’ll walk beside you.” And it just floored me. It was amazing. And they completely turned around. Unfortunately, in that 180 degree flip, they decided that I should also find some nice young man and settle down … which brought up the whole messy matter of me trying to explain to them “Well, actually I’m a lesbian,” and then trying to explain that gender is an entirely different thing from sexual orientation.

You’ve been married before, prior to moving to Missouri. But getting married at all, that’s an advantage most lesbians don’t have right now.

Yeah. It does kind of show how ridiculous the marriage laws are. I mean, if (my current partner) and I could be married, why can’t a normal lesbian couple be married? And in at least one state that I know of, the one that I’m sitting in right now, I can’t get married at all. The state of Missouri basically told me that I couldn’t marry a guy because I used to be one, and I can’t marry a girl because I apparently am one.

What are the most common stereotypes and assumptions you run into?

When they first meet me, people are kind of surprised that I look normal, that I’m not wearing a feather boa or something. I think a lot of people unfortunately get their ideas regarding transgender people off of seeing flamboyant displays on pride parades. We’re just people like everyone else. We’re just trying to do the best we can in life. We hold day jobs. We contribute to the community. We have families. We have people that we love and that love us. V

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