As an amateur magician, Jessi Seams can make a length of rope do her bidding, or coax bottles of soda pop from thin air. But her most impressive feat, perhaps, has been to conjure a sense of identity for herself in a society that has always seemed foreign.
Growing up, Seams says, "I was certainly always male, but in private time I enjoyed dressing. Through the teen-age years, it was more of a fetish than anything else. I tried to live normally as a male." But expressing femininity had a powerful draw over Seams, and lingerie and dresses held her attention.
"I tried the marriage thing, thought that might break my habit, thinking, 'Maybe this is a phase.'" After five years, the marriage failed. And two or three years ago, in her late 30s, Jessi says, she realized the truth of who she was.
Jessi Seams is transgendered. The anatomy she was born with -- her sex -- doesn't match her sense of who she really is: her gender. So, even though she has male genitalia, she presents herself to the world, or at least selected parts of it, as a woman.
On her own time, she's Jessi Seams, a leggy magician in a loving lesbian relationship. She's Jessi everywhere socially, at coffee shops and bars gay, straight and in between.
At work, she's Tom, Dick or Harry -- the man she was born as, the man whose name she doesn't want to see in the paper. She works in a field where "it's easier to be male," and her coworkers don't know her as Jessi at all. Neither do her relatives: Her family has "no clue, none whatsoever" that she lives much of her private life as a woman. They know her girlfriend as her girlfriend and, since they know Jessi as a man, see nothing unusual about it.
Navigating between the two worlds has become easier with self-acceptance, she says. After a lifetime of trying to fit into little boxes determined by society, Seams says she is "comfortably in between."
The "transgender" label applies to people in many different circumstances, and at many points along a continuum.
Perhaps the most well-known modern transwoman -- the term for a person born male who becomes female -- is Christine Jorgensen, a New Yorker who made headlines in the 1950s after traveling to Denmark for sex-reassignment surgery. Jorgensen had radical surgery, including castration, hormone treatment and eventually vaginoplasty, the surgical creation of a vagina.
But not every transgender person has the intention, or the means, to follow Jorgensen's example. The surgeries are expensive, and are generally undertaken only after years of counseling, hormone treatments, and presenting oneself as the desired gender. For people with HIV, obesity or other ailments, gender-reassignment surgery is just too risky. Insurance policies rarely cover the treatments, and when they do, the paperwork can be a nightmare. Misunderstandings can also lead to tragic failures: Transman Robert Eads died in 1999 from ovarian cancer after being refused gynecological care because he'd been living as a man for years.
Some transgendered people are "post-operative": Like Jorgensen, they've had their genitals changed to match their gender. But others opt for less thorough measures -- having breast surgery or taking hormones to change facial and body hair, for example. Some are "pre-operative," living as members of the sex that matches their gender. And some are non-operative, meaning that genital surgery is not on the horizon.
Seams falls into this last category. Aside from taking some hormones, she has no plans for any further bodily modification, any more radical transitioning. "As far as surgery, that's not a definite on my mind at this time," she says. "I'm comfortably who I am."
But not everyone feels so at ease.
Celebrate the Night bills itself as "Pittsburgh's Annual All Woman's Variety Show and Dance." The event is timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day; this year it's being held Oct. 6, at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Proceeds benefit the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and other organizations serving Pittsburgh's GLBT -- gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender -- community. According to CTN's mission statement, "While CTN performers consist of primarily women, we encourage everyone from the GLBT community, and their family and friends, to join in the CELEBRATION!!"
To Emilia Lombardi, who is Jessi Seams' partner and a professor at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health, it seemed like a perfect place for Seams to get involved. The magic act Seams had been honing over decades, at bars and parties and cabarets, seemed like a great fit.
Seams sent CTN a video clip of herself performing at The Link Bar, a gay and alternative bar and performance space in Irwin; the same footage appears on Seams' YouTube page, www.youtube.com/user/jessiseams. Seams comes out in a spangly low-cut black tank top, to cries of "Work it, girl!" and "WOO!!" It's a party crowd, and her act caters to the audience. The Barenaked Ladies tune "Alcohol" plays as she makes bottles of hooch seem to jump between two tubes, swilling liberally from them. In the grand finale, the bottles begin to multiply until the whole table is filled with different varieties of booze. Seams sadly realizes the one she's been drinking from is empty. Then she magics open a little door in the bottle, revealing a full shot glass, which she drains.
Like just about every performer, Seams plays to her audience. She does the booze trick at kids' parties -- without the cleavage, and with pop instead of alcohol. But Celebrate the Night, it seems, wasn't interested.
CTN organizers refused repeated interview requests, but Seams gave City Paper copies of her e-mail exchanges with event organizers from March through July.
The first e-mail Seams received from CTN's committee, dated March 19, thanks her for her submission. It spends six paragraphs objecting to her costume, the bawdy atmosphere in the clip, and her consumption of alcohol during the act. And then, there's this:
"Lastly, there is no tactful way to broach this subject, so we will be frank, and sincere. In reviewing your web [site] you refer to yourself as male, then we saw an article on the Internet where you were interviewed and you also stated that you were a Transgendered male, and that you were not sure that you were going to fully transition as a woman. Though we recognize and welcome Transsexual men and women with open arms, and we do acknowledge that your web site and interview may not accurately represent your current situation, we ask that you please clarify whether you are or are not recognized legally as a woman."
Seams replied the next day, first to the concerns about the act -- "it was a bar with a wild type of crowd ... NOT the act I would choose for your stage." She went on to explain that "my situation has changed since I wrote that on my website, and am currently in the process of transitioning to woman."
"Can you please clarify what you meant when you said, 'my situation has changed'?" CTN replied. "Please understand that this event was created as a venue for women to perform. In Pittsburgh, there are many places for men to perform, but not so for women."
"If it's a drag show [you're] afraid of," Seams replied, "I can assure you I am NOT drag. I'm looking to perform as my identified gender, which is female!"
Such distinctions can be important, since drag performers -- people who perform on stage as members of the opposite sex -- generally live their offstage lives identifying with the sex they were born with. A drag queen, for instance, while performing occasionally as a woman, generally lives most of the time as a man.
"[W]e have transgendered men and women involved with our event, and they all live full-time, legally, as their prospective gender," CTN replied. "We feel no need to qualify that any further. It is quite clear that we are seeking 'Women Performers.'"
"In the e-mails, it says they've never had a transsexual performer, but they've had trans ushers and janitors," says Seams. "We're fine to do the dirty work, but they don't want to see us on stage." In an e-mail dated March 29, CTN said, 'Though all performers must be female, anyone may volunteer, attend, or be a vendor or sponsor, regardless of gender." Later, organizers added, "While we do have transgendered people involved in our event, you would be the first one to be a performer."
The e-mails went back and forth on Jessi's status and her life "in limbo." Finally, on April 22, CTN e-mailed that the committee had discussed it and "we are all excited to meet you and have you audition ... we have never had a magician, and so we really would like to see this work out." Cordial e-mails about logistics followed.
Seams says she tried to get the organizers to come see another of her shows, this one to be held at the Gemini Theater, in Point Breeze. And she has since added more family-friendly clips to her YouTube page, from that performance. In these, she takes the stage almost coyly, flirting just a bit with the more sedate crowd. Her look is total cheesecake -- a shock of blonde hair, a black bow tie, shiny satin shorts and miles-long legs ending in vertiginous black heels. But the music and her demeanor are innocent, almost shy. The audience eats her up, laughing along with her goofy flourishes as, in one segment, she makes a length of rope do her bidding.
But, Seams says, CTN organizers "never showed up" to see her live. "They didn't even come see the damn show."
And on June 26, CTN explained why. "It has come to our attention recently that you are acting as an escort," the group said in yet another e-mail. "[W]e cannot risk having that affiliated with CTN ... it is with regret that we have decided not to accept your application to audition for CTN."
Online profiles of Seams viewed by City Paper list her as female, and do not include references to escort work. Seams says she has never worked as an escort, but concedes that her profile on URNotAlone, a transgender social-networking site, might have indicated at the time that she was. "I mis-clicked or something," she says. "They're going online and believing stuff. They are making judgments without meeting me, based on what they've seen on the Internet."
And while CTN isn't talking, the blogosphere is abuzz, including the Queer Event Listings, an online events list and discussion forum created by Ehrrin Keenan, a local lesbian blogger. Emilia Lombardi posted to the public list about the controversy, including some of the e-mails exchanged between Jessi Seams and CTN. Numerous discussion threads address the matter; many encourage CTN to clarify its position, but some descend into tirades.
"Well, they've got a fat lot of nerve excluding anybody," reads one post. "Nothing else in Pittsburgh can make one ashamed to be a lesbian like the recurring CTN nightmare. This undue snottiness gives me just one more good reason to dig in my heels this year and REFUSE to be dragged to this thing."
"Emilia, I find what you are doing to be vile," counters another post. "CTN historically was the only women's event on the PGH scene for several years. YOU also have never approached CTN directly regarding this -- but find it acceptable to forward on emails to everyone else! Obviously [you] feel more comfortable spreading half truths and spinning gossip that dealing with all the facts of the issue."
But CTN itself has done little to clarify its position. The CTN committee eventually posted a statement, which it also sent to City Paper along with its demurral regarding an interview:
"We, CTN, would like to thank everyone involved in this public discussion, and those who contacted us directly, for sharing open dialogue and/or showing support. CTN is growing and learning, and relies on the collaboration of volunteers and community. While we believe this situation could have been handled differently, we have taken all your feedback into consideration, and feel that CTN is going to be better and stronger as a result. ... We acknowledge and accept that we can not, and will not please everyone. We also, as always, encourage everyone to get involved, if not with CTN, then through another organization that aspires to help our community."
"That's like saying 'I'm not racist, I have black friends,'" Keenan says of CTN's statement of inclusiveness, and of its pointing out in e-mails that the group has transpeople on its board. "That doesn't excuse you from having your policies called out when there's prejudice in place." Neither, she says, does the fact that CTN is quite popular with its fan base, or that it benefits worthy causes like the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
The GLCC has not replied to requests for comment on the controversy either, which leaves Keenan (and Seams and Lombardi) dissatisfied: "If a candidate accepts money from an organization or an individual, it's implicitly saying, 'We support what you're doing.'" Keenan herself served on the GLCC board in years past, but left last year because "I thought we had different missions."
So no one, it seems, is willing to explain why Seams has been left out in the cold. Did other potential performers have their backgrounds combed for references to sex work? Is there a stated policy on transwomen? A distinction made between pre- and post-operative transwomen? These questions were sent to the CTN committee after it declined comment for this article, and remain unanswered.
Sitting next to each other at an outdoor table at Starbucks, Seams and Lombardi share an easy affection, and a clear sense of having been wronged. Both are transwomen, though Lombardi has had surgery to complete the transition.
"They kept asking me 'legally' -- what do they mean 'legally'?" says Seams.
In fact, legal standards can vary widely, depending on where you are. The anti-discrimination provisions of Pittsburgh's city code, for example, include language widely hailed by advocates for transgender equality. In barring discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation, the code defines "sex" as being "[t]he gender of a person, as perceived, presumed or assumed by others, including those who are changing or have changed their gender identification." The city code of Harrisburg similarly makes specific provision for "those persons who are changing or have changed their sex."
Meanwhile, at the University of Pittsburgh, student activists in the Rainbow Alliance are working to get Pitt to amend its non-discrimination policy to reflect the city policy. They are seeking to add protections based on "actual or perceived gender identity and expression," says Kelly Coburn of the Rainbow Alliance. A nuanced stand, she says, is the only one that makes sense.
"What about intersex people?" asks Coburn, referring to those born with sexual characteristics that don't mark them as exclusively male or female. "It's just not that cut-and-dried. There's so many layers of gender."
"Pittsburgh does have anti-discrimination laws on the books," notes Lombardi. But, she concedes, "the issue of social exclusion is something you cannot regulate -- it's moral." And being unwelcome to perform at a private show, she says, reflects the latter issue.
As for name changes on official documents, state laws vary. In Pennsylvania, getting a new birth certificate requires a letter from a surgeon documenting that sex reassignment surgery was performed. A legal name change requires a court order.
"It's just the bureaucratic process," says Lombardi. "I lived in L.A. six years before coming to Pittsburgh and I changed my license there -- I needed two letters from a doctor. Coming from Ohio, no matter what is done to my body, I can't change my birth certificate. So the whole legal ID thing ... who makes that determination?"
"Certainly not anyone on CTN's committee," Seams shoots back.
In any case, Seams is a long way from changing her driver's license, let alone her anatomy. And both she and Lombardi say doing so is not really that important. "Physically, what's the need?" Seams asks. "I identify as femme."
"You're Jessi, period," Lombardi says, gazing at her. "She's my girlfriend."
It might seem, at first blush, that Lombardi and Seams would find support from gay- and lesbian-friendly organizations like CTN. People living in same-sex relationships, like people living as transgenders, have first-hand experience with the idea that sexual identity is more fluid than many straights believe.
And both groups have suffered from a history of bigotry and ignorance. In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force handbook Transgender Equality notes that "one national survey of violence against [transgender] people found that 'faggot' is the most common epithet used when transgendered people are victims of hate crimes." As transgender activist Jamison Green writes in the handbook's introduction, when homosexuality was first studied by Western science, "many of the first identified homosexual people ... were what we would now term transgendered individuals. These were visibly gender-variant people, many of whom expressed a strong identification with the 'opposite sex' to the point of wishing (in some cases) that they could change their bodies."
But "[d]espite these strong connections," Green adds, "there are also historically based reasons for misunderstanding and mistrust between gay and transgendered people." One of them is that in the mid-20th century, medical advances meant transsexuals could change their bodies -- at a cost. By the 1950s, "the availability of hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgeries ... drove [a] wedge between gay and trans people," Green writes. Because of homophobia among doctors, "To gain access to medical treatment, transsexual people had to censor their own experiences [and] renounce any similarity to or affiliation with lesbians and gay men." Partly as a result, transsexuals were thought to be "homophobic and reactionary" with no goal except "being accepted as 'normal' heterosexuals."
In the meantime, in the wake of those early, flawed diagnoses, activists sought to define homosexuality in terms of sexual orientation rather than sexual identity. And while they sought to define gay and lesbian people as "normal," their efforts "contributed to the marginalization of trans people" by removing them from the debate, Green writes. Over the decades, transgendered people have often been left out of legal battles for equal-rights and non-discrimination laws: "Some gay, lesbian, and bisexual activists fear that including gender identity will defeat a ... nondiscrimination bill," the handbook notes.
And some activists are wary of including transgendered people in woman-only events.
Celebrate The Night is not the only such event that has struggled with these issues. One of the biggest and best-known women-only spaces in the U.S. -- the 31-year-old weeklong Michigan Womyn's Music Festival -- has also taken fire for excluding transwomen from its performances, workshops and other activities.
In 1991, MWMF security guards overheard transwoman Nancy Burkholder revealing that she was trans, and threw her out of the festival. The next year, a pre-operative transwoman was ejected from MWMF in 1992 after revealing her penis in a common shower area, causing panic among some in the fest.
In the following years, transpeople and allies began gathering outside the festival every year, eventually coalescing into a group called Camp Trans, to protest festival policy.
Lisa Vogel, founder and producer of MWMF, has addressed allegations of transphobia and defended her decision to have the festival remain open only to "womyn-born womyn." (The spelling 'womyn,' with singular 'womon,' is a feminist shibboleth removing "man" and "men" from those words.)
In a letter to Camp Trans on Aug. 9, 2006, Vogel wrote: "I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space -- as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womon of color, trans womyn or trans men. I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense [of a] deeply needed space for womyn born womyn."
And while Camp Trans activists bought tickets to the fest last year, trumpeting it as a victory, Vogel released a statement saying, "If a transwoman purchased a ticket, it represents nothing more [than] choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this Festival."
Women-only spaces have a long history in feminist and lesbian movements. The exclusion of men is meant to create a safe space for women, where they can be free of the patriarchy they believe governs so much of the world outside. An oft-cited reason for excluding transwomen from such havens is that, since transwomen have lived as male for some time, they are part of that patriarchy and unable to understand the subjugation women experience. For someone like Seams, who for the forseeable future plans to retain her male anatomy -- if not her identity -- the question becomes even more acute. Seams, after all, can return to the workplace, or to family gatherings, and pass as a man. That option isn't available to most CTN performers.
So how do events or organizations balance the desire for a safe haven with the desire to respect difference?
Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, says such questions are "complicated" for activists. "As advocates for equality, we try to use as inclusive an approach as we possibly can." However, she adds, "We also understand that there are women and members of the lesbian community who perhaps are uncomfortable. It's important to honor how hard they've had to work as a community to develop identity and respect -- it's very precious, and we understand they are having a complicated time as they wrestle with these ideas."
But Lombardi, who has long been an organizer and participant of the Camp Trans protests, says that for many women, "Trans people become the Judas goat. They become a symbol of ... fears about patriarchy."
Seams herself says she understands and values the idea of a women-only space -- but says she belongs there, too. "I wouldn't go joining the Boy Scouts or the Army because they have certain rules," she says. "I see their rules, I understand them if I know. Just don't change the rules on me midstream, then I become very pissed. It's women; what the hell does it matter?"
Queer Event Listings moderator Keenan says woman-only spaces are important and worth safeguarding. "I think they're really valuable. I'd rather hang out with all women than in a mixed crowd or a crowd with all men," she says.
But making that distinction is solely up to the person, she says. Having someone else assign one's identity is something that gays and lesbians have long faced from the straight community, and something that community should eschew. "You can't say, 'No, you're not woman enough.'"
Transitions of any kind, Keenan says, can be gradual. "I didn't come out one day to everyone I knew. I've still never had that conversation with my grandmother -- that doesn't make me less of a lesbian. People are able to say, 'This is who I am, I'm not tied to my genitalia, I'm a fully formed human being.'"
And, Keenan says, the mere act of trying to transition should be supported. "Regardless of where someone is in transition, if they have the courage to say, 'I'm searching for this person, I'm trying to evolve as a human being,' that's a wonderful celebration of humanity. Those are the people we should support. It's really sad that we're spinning our wheels arguing about who's OK and who's not OK based on characteristics."
Pittsburgher Jess Snodgrass has spent years attending the MWMF protest Camp Trans -- as a cisgendered woman (a term that means her gender and sex are the same), she's had access to the festival and could therefore educate festival-goers from inside, in a way that transgendered people could not.
Snodgrass says her eyes were opened when she began dating a transwoman in college at age 18. "I was so smitten. I was like, 'I love the Butchies [a lesbian-feminist rock band].' She was like, 'I don't think the Butchies are cool.'" The Butchies have been boycotted and protested for supporting MWMF's trans-exclusive policy. "It was a very personal thing for me, that sense of injustice from a community I perceived to be my own." Snodgrass has worked toward trans inclusion since then.
Those trying to justify excluding transgendered people from events, she says, are "talking about someone who's not allowed to be part of the conversation." And the idea that having transwomen in women-only spaces threatens the space betrays a lack of confidence. "'Transsexuals are spies for the patriarchy' -- are you kidding? I know [women's] communities are precious and they're worth protecting. To pretend that women are going to be victims of man-in-a-dress syndrome is to say that we're not that strong. A lot of trans-inclusion fears come from a place of not really believing women's communities are going to work. That makes me really sad."
Snodgrass says the idea that a man would sneak into a space like MWMF for kicks or to "see naked boobies" is preposterous. Such a man would likely face reprisal by fierce women.
"Some say male privilege is something you get whether you want it or not, like white privilege," Snodgrass says. But for a transwoman still living as a man, she says, the automatic assumption of that privilege "is not experienced as a form of privilege; it's oppression. If you stand up and say, 'I'm a woman,' that's it: You're my sister."
The message Seams wants to hear, meanwhile, is just as simple: "I want a damn big apology."