This winter (2015) I became interested in using my camera to help the homeless in Philadelphia... clearly there is a lot of misunderstanding about homelessness. This will be the topic for a future photo essay. In the process of meeting and trying to understand homeless people, I came across One Step Away, a Philadelphia newspaper that “offers people experiencing homelessness meaningful income opportunities and personal growth, creating solutions and change so that everyone has the shelter they deserve.” The newspaper is sold by vendors... people who are or who have been homeless. As part of my mission to speak to homeless people, I began speaking to One Step Away vendors as well. After introducing myself and asking their name, I ask what happened in their life and how they are doing. One frigid morning in late January I met Jayden Hensley. Within seconds after starting his story he proudly shared that he is in transition.
“Transition, Transgender, Trans”, I know the words and generally what it means. I know about transgender people who are prominent in the news like Chaz Bono, Chelsea Manning, and Bruce Jenner (this photo essay was published just before Jenner came out as Caitlyn Jenner).
Beyond the news stories, meeting Jayden made it clear that I really didn’t understand trans. And other people probably don’t understand either... the perfect basis for a photo essay!
This story does not attempt to provide a deep understanding of the biology, psychology, and sociology of transgender people... there are many better resources. It’s simply a real-life story inspired by the experience of one transgender man: Mr. Jayden Hensley. It’s a story of pain and struggle that through perseverance has finally brought him to a better place. My hope is that this photo essay will help people to understand what it feels like to be trans, and to embrace trans men and women as valued members of society. No one should have to walk in Jayden’s shoes.
The last fifty years has seen remarkable social change for people of color and women, and in attitudes towards sexual orientation. To be sure there’s still a lot to do before everyone is seen as equal.
Within the realm of sexual orientation, the speed of change has been amazing. Homosexuality is becoming a non-issue and gay marriage is sweeping the country. But there is a segment of the population that is only just coming into the light... transgender men and women: people born with the wrong gender assignment.
(The recent interview of Bruce Jenner on national television will go a long way towards bringing trans into public view.)
From Wikipedia: “Transgender is the state of one's gender identity or gender expression not matching one's assigned sex. Transgender is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.”
Trans people face enormous life challenges. Beyond the physical and emotional impact, they can face resistance from people that can’t fathom the idea of wanting to redesign their bodies... almost monstrous to contemplate. Most tragic of all is that some of the greatest resistance can come from within the person’s own family- “Can’t they be cured?” The answer is a resounding NO! Nature just put them into the wrong bodies. Like many physical challenges, the wrong gender assignment can be made right.
Jayden’s discomfort with his body and family ridicule manifested as life-long legal trouble. He’s been incarcerated on-and-off for half of his life. As bad as any cell might be, his worst prison is his own body. Jayden’s true self has been locked up since birth in the body of Jamie. But now the bars are opening... Jayden is in transition to be the man he was destined to be. Having had to walk through the “snow and rain” of intolerance to get to this point in his life, he will celebrate his rebirth with a new name: Snowden Rain Hensley!!
Understanding trans at a gut level requires grasping two very difficult concepts: the conscious feeling of being in the wrong gender body; the need to change gender assignment through hormones and irreversible surgery.
As Jayden explains, the realization of being in the wrong body seems to start very early in life. It combines a sense of undefined personal discomfort with an orientation towards activities typical of the other gender such as boys games and girls games. Inevitably as a child grows they see other children’s bodies and wonder when their body will grow into the right form. With age and sophistication, the transgender person eventually comes to the realization that they are in the wrong body. This is a process not a point in time, and people go through their own individual journeys of acceptance and ultimately of 'coming out'.
Changing one’s body because of discomfort might sound extreme, but in fact people do it all the time. We live in a society where physical perfection is required. We look in the mirror and don’t like what we see: too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, sag here, wrinkle there. So what do people do: exercise, diet, makeup, injections, liposuction, facelifts. For trans people it’s worse: when they look in the mirror, they see someone who is not them. They want to look in the mirror and see themselves, not someone else. Not taking action to adjust their personal identity results in a life of pain and tragedy. And they want to be valued for who they are, not ridiculed and not pressured to conform.
This is a difficult topic and it’s OK that people have a hard time understanding it. And as we know, anything related to sex causes extreme focus and judgment, more often negative than positive. To be very clear, trans is not about sexuality, i.e. sexual orientation: who you want to be with intimately. It’s about gender identity: who I am. A trans person may be attracted to either or both sexes for intimacy... just like everyone else!!
So, what is a trans person to do: pretend to be someone that they are not, and many do just that, or stand up for their dignity and become the true person they are.
Transitioning is not instantaneous, and that causes further problems. When people transition, different clothes and hormones cause people to start looking different... we don’t recognize them. But it’s not so different when people get face work like injections and surgery... they look different. They kind-of look like the person we know, but different and it can be weird. A person in transition faces the additional challenge of being 'outed', i.e. identified as the gender they are leaving behind.
Why did Jayden want to tell his story:
Jayden’s goals speak volumes about the quality person he has become. He wants to help educate other trans people so they don’t have to go through what he has had to go through. He wants to help them come out, and he wants to be an advocate. Jayden says- “Trans people often can’t advocate for others; To be an advocate you have to put yourself out there, but I can do it... it won’t hurt me; It’s important to advocate for others.”
Jayden was born as Jamie Hensley in 1975 in rural Indiana- “I had a normal childhood, but I didn’t get along with people; I was a video-game nerd; My father was a stock car driver and wasn’t home a lot... he died in 2004; I don’t deal with my mother anymore.”
What is transgender:
Jayden explains that it’s not being comfortable in your birth gender- “It’s not who I am inside; It needs to be corrected by hormones and surgery”. But not all trans people are the same- “Some don’t identify with either gender and some take on the other gender identity without hormones or surgery... people are different." And it’s not about sexuality: “It’s not about who you prefer to be with in a relationship; It’s just about how you identify yourself.”
When/how Jamie became aware that something was wrong:
“At five years old I knew I was different; When we played house I would have to play guy roles like the dad, doctor, truck driver, military; I didn’t feel right but I didn’t understand why.” At first Jamie thought she was gay- “At thirteen I told my parents that I like girls.” In reality she had interests that most boys would have.
“Confusion about my body made me do bad things and I was always getting into trouble; I was put in a correctional facility for juveniles; The school said that it was just a phase that I would grow out of.” Jamie was in correctional facilities three times from fifteen to eighteen. This is where she got her GED. She then went home to her parents- “But things were bad; They had issues with me being gay.”
How Jamie came out:
In 1995 Jamie went to California and where she met a trans guy. She went to trans meetings to give him support- “It was there that I realized I was trans... it wasn’t a light bulb moment, it was more of a four or five month process that got me to that point; It’s a different journey for different people”. It made sense to her- “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror” (even today Jayden still doesn’t like looking in the mirror or seeing pictures of himself because he still sees a woman). “I hated guys because I always wanted to be like them!!” … “In late 1995 I came to the final realization that I’m trans.”… 'She' had begun the process of becoming 'He'.
Jamie did research on hormones and surgery- “I looked at pictures and learned about side effects of hormones; I learned everything that I would need to commit to in order to go down that path.”
Marriage and motherhood:
Jamie went back home- “My parents were on my back to get married and have kids, and there was this guy whose parents were on his back because he was gay!"… They got married in 1996. Amazingly, her husband turned out to be trans as well- “We both knew it before our son was born.”
Jamie was sent to jail from 1997-2000 for receiving stolen property and failure to comply with a law officer. In 1997 while in prison, Jamie gave birth to a son. Jamie’s parents adopted the baby so they could provide better care including medical coverage. In 2013, Jamie’s mother transferred custody to the state which then put the teenager into a correctional facility. Jayden says- “I’ve tried to connect with my son but it hasn’t happened yet, but I hope it will; He does know that I’m a trans guy and he thinks it’s cool!”
By 2007 Jamie had become Jayden. He has been in jail several more times- “I had to steal to live.” He got out the last time in October of 2014. He became homeless until January 2015 when he got his first home.
How does he put his legal troubles into perspective- “I’ve been in juvenile detention or in the department of corrections for half of my life; I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings; It’s not the cause of my bad behavior, but I was so uncomfortable with my feelings that I was always sabotaging myself.” As far as any
future illegal activities he says with complete conviction- “I’m done!”
Jayden has faced unspeakable horrors on his journey, both inflicted on him and self-inflicted. In prison he was assaulted and exposed to unmentionable curiosities about the effect of hormones on his body. And in an act of total desperation without hormones while in prison, his pain drove him to attempt a double mastectomy, almost ending his life.
Jayden recently participated in a project called "Stop Policing Gender: The Experience of Incarceration for Transgender Individuals". This video describes the disrespectful and damaging treatment these citizens often endure. Jayden, aka Snowden, provides an emotional description of his incarceration, particularly the withholding of hormone treatment. See the video at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-L3lax8ldqHZVJ4N2FRcG1KMUE/view?pli=1
The Jayden Hensley of 2015 shows a remarkable transition that goes way beyond gender. He presents as a strong self-confident person who works hard to have a responsible life and who gives much more to others than he receives. He actively seeks to be a role model for others.
Current state of his transition:
“I identify with being male... I’m a trans guy!” When will the transition end for him- “Some just want to be male and to put trans behind them, but that doesn’t help the trans community; So I will continue to identify as trans so that I can be an advocate for people in transition.”
“I’m passing better today”… Fewer people are referring to him as her, but it still does happen. When homeless he was denied access to a men’s shelter- "I'm not going into a women's shelter- no way, I'd rather sleep on the street!".... And there is the ever-present restroom issue. Recently he was in a reintegration program through the Philadelphia mayor’s office. He was at a meeting and asked security for the key to the men’s restroom- “I was denied because the security officer said that I’m a woman; I would like to see unisex bathrooms, individual rooms with a symbol that includes both sexes; I want to get a tee-shirt that says- 'Ask Me About My Pronouns'". He hates that people have to be called “she and he”. He wants people to be referred to as people, though he admits that he would love to have someone greet him with: "Hey Dude!!!!”
Jayden is on hormones and looks forward to reassignment surgery- “I’ll get 'top' surgery in the U.S. if Medicare and Medicaid will pay for it and hopefully that will be this year." As a backup in case Medicare or Medicaid won't pay for his surgery, Jayden has opened a "gofundme" account for support: http://www.gofundme.com/dodgejames).
"For ‘bottom’ surgery the very best surgeon is in Serbia. It’s a four part surgery that costs $140,000, so it could take twenty years before I can do it.” Top surgery is the most important to Jayden- “That it will change my appearance and will make a huge difference in the way people see me and the way I see myself.” He jokes- “That will take a huge weight off my chest!!"... "If I can’t get bottom surgery I can live with it."
Today Jayden has a very difficult time with his body image because he can still see a woman. He admits to having a complicated relationship with Mountain Dew. He loves it but has to limited it because of his weight. Has he always had a weight problem- “I got heavy on purpose so that guys wouldn’t hit on me.”
He adds- “I hate it when people call me Tranny, but it depends on who says the word; If it’s someone in the trans community it’s OK, if not then it’s negative”… It’s simple, it’s all about respect!
His relationship with Jamie today:
Jayden doesn’t make a distinction between himself and Jamie- “We are the same person but life is about change.” He sees his life in two stages- “I don’t go back to my life before I started taking hormones.”
Jayden works constantly to support himself. He started a business to make plastic canvases. These are needle pointed with sports teams logos which can be for coasters and wall hangings. He’s been a vendor for One Step Away since Sept 2011. He recently got a job with mobile phone company- “I hand out fliers on the street for six hours a day @ $10/hr. The person who hired me has known me for years and knows that I’m trans; I can’t work in the store because of my felonies.”
Jayden gives of himself in many ways though volunteerism. He’s a fixture at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia where he’s involved in many activities such as bible groups and feeding the homeless.
Beyond his general advocacy for the trans community, he provides support to families with children in transition. He is also an active member of a trans male support group.
Update as of April 2015:
Things have suddenly taken a difficult turn for Jayden. His lost his housing and is now sleeping on the street. He can’t rent a room because of the deposit required. (See Humans of Philly on Instagram @ https://instagram.com/humansofphilly/.) Both public and private shelters will only offer him female housing and there is no way he would accept that offer.
He says- “I’m done with Philly; I just seem to be hassled all the time right now about being trans, whether it’s about housing, being served in a restaurant, or using a restroom; I’m not sure what’s happening... maybe it’s me.” Jayden is an outspoken advocate for the trans community which means if he sees something wrong he speaks out and that can cause conflict. He adds- “It’s hard to be an advocate, but I have to help!”
Jayden is leaving Philadelphia to do a cross-country tour- “I’ll go to cities with homeless newspapers so I can support myself; I want to understand the trans community across the country so that I can write a resource guide to help people identify trans friendly cities.”
It’s very clear that Jayden will be missed: by his friends, by his church, by the trans community, and by me! He does say- “I’ll be back!”
Thoughtful: Jayden at his beloved Arch Street United Methodist Church (Philadelphia).
Love Me For Who I Am: Jayden makes a heart sign under Robert Indiana's Love sculpture (Love Park/JFK Plaza, Philadelphia).
Trans Male Support Group: Jayden with his friends- “I just love these people!” (From the left: Adrian, Luna, Don, Jayden, Isaac, Kain, Toby, Charlie).
What Does It Feel Like To Be In The Wrong Gender Place?
In doing this story I’ve been most interested in trying to capture in some way the experience of being in the wrong body. I hope to transfer this experience to readers. Jaydon’s challenge with proper access to restrooms is an issue I’ve carried with me while doing this story. It led me to my own amazing experience with gender identity.
Recently I was at an evening meeting. During a break I went to the lower level of this older building to use the restroom. There are two single-person restrooms separated by about 10 feet, one labeled men’s and the other women’s. These are like powder rooms in the home... very small rooms with toilet, sink and mirror. There was a man waiting to use the men’s restroom. The women’s restroom was unoccupied and there was no one around so I motioned to the waiting man to use the women’s restroom. He declined. So I thought this is no big deal, the restrooms are identical, only for one person and no one else was there. So with cavalier spirit I went into the women’s restroom... no big deal. But inside I immediately noticed a difference between this and the men’s version. While the latter is painted blue-gray, this one is painted purple-pink. As I was using the restroom I began to get an uncomfortable feeling. I’m not exactly sure what it was about. Maybe it was that a woman might come to the door. I’m not sure but suddenly I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. In no way was this about physical gender, i.e. body parts, these restrooms are identical. It was just a feeling that I didn’t belong there... I was a man in a woman’s space. Perhaps this is what Jayden feels when he’s obliged to use a women’s restroom. It’s an emotional reaction to being in the wrong place. Body parts have nothing to do with it, yet body parts are what society will focus on!!
After processing this for several weeks I suddenly saw it at a higher level. I envisioned that small women’s restroom as if it were my physical body... a woman’s body. Yet the person inside was a man. The closed door was a barrier that I needed to break through so that my inner identity could be freed. Is this perhaps, by even a small measure, the feeling a person has when trapped inside the wrong gender body? If so, my 1 minute experience with this level of discomfort tells me just how painful a lifetime in the wrong body must be. No wonder trans people go to such great lengths to become the people they really are.
Standing Defiant: Jayden at a men’s restroom entrance.
Before meeting Jayden I had virtually no awareness of trans beyond the rare news report. This just wasn’t on my radar screen as a major social issue. As I've gotten to know Jayden, I've developed an extreme appreciation of the extraordinary courage that trans people must have in order to come out and to make the changes they need to make. I'm so impressed with Jayden and value him as a friend.
Additionally, this experience has made me re-think what is meant by masculinity and femininity. The following is from Wikipedia:
Masculinity (manliness or manhood) is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with boys and men. Masculinity is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. This makes it distinct from the definition of the male anatomical sex, as both men and women can exhibit masculine traits and behaviors.
Femininity (womanliness or womanhood) is a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with girls and women. Femininity is socially constructed, but made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. This makes it distinct from the definition of the biological female sex, as both men and women can exhibit feminine traits.
While this is very complex, on the surface these definitions speak to the obvious externally derived cues: attributes, behaviors, roles. What seems to be missing is the internal component. Jayden taught me that gender identity is based on a feeling, perhaps caused by “biologically created factors”.* These feelings are distinct from the outer characteristics that trans people may or may not display for the world to see. True masculinity and femininity starts in a person's core and begins before society defines its expectations… If readers are able to accept this notion, the Living Trans photo essay will have been a success!!
*There is an on-going debate that includes both biological and psychological causes.
Jayden's Journey Continues: Hopefully his 'One Step' is not too far 'Away'!
Painting by Tobi Zion (TobiZionArt.com)