How an educator and advocate is building awareness and acceptance of transgender community

Jessie Nieusma (he/him/his), of Norton Shores, is a father, builder, yogi, and grateful to serve as a leading voice for the transgender community. He’s a gender and sexuality educator and board member of the Muskegon chapter of PFLAG, the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.

Nieusma works with the medical community, businesses, and schools to humanize trans people and kids, so they receive the care and role models need. The Lakeshore talked with Nieusma on how his work is helping to build greater awareness and acceptance in our community.

The Lakeshore: What are the biggest issues facing the transgender community?

Jessie Nieusma: Nearly 80 percent of people don’t know a transgender person. In addition, transgender people are three times more likely to be unemployed — four times more likely if they are a person of color or a minority. Many kids are homeless because they aren’t accepted and have nowhere to turn. For kids especially, there are no role models for them to look up to. Therefore, they are left to Hollywood portrayals, which have often gotten it wrong. Being transgender is just one part of someone’s identity. We are literally just people who want to live our lives just like everyone else. The more visible we are, the more people can see that we exist.
Jessie Nieusma works with the medical community, businesses, and schools to raise awareness and acceptance, and to humanize transgender people and kids, so they receive the care and role models need.
TL: What was your journey to serving as a transgender leader?

JN: For me, I am incredibly lucky and privileged to have a family who loves me and has supported me throughout my experience — coming out five times. It wasn’t easy. I battled drugs and alcohol to cope. As a late teen, I came out as bisexual. At 21, I was a lesbian. By 26, I was genderqueer (not male or female, having aspects of both masculinity and femininity) and at 27, I came out as transgender, beginning testosterone hormone replacement therapy at 28, and top surgery at 31. I’m now 35, clean and sober, and have been working to provide gender and sexuality education to ensure others living in our community have real resources to go to for support. I try to be an open book and I find that if I’m open with myself, that people are more willing to listen.

TL: What are some of the myths that you hear about transgender people?

JN: There are many scare tactics around sports, bathrooms, and stereotypes. Many people think that we don’t have the same goals as cisgender people, like wanting to find a life partner, having a career and/or children, and health care coverage. It’s so important to have open conversations that span the spectrum, along with both gender and sex, and the different ways to move the needle toward equality and getting to know each other across our differences.

TL: There are 102 proposed bills around the country targeting transgender people and youth. 35 health care bans in 22 states. 56 sports bans. What are your thoughts about the impact on the community?

JN: It’s frustrating and disheartening and based on bad science. A new bill offered in the Michigan Senate would ban transgender high school athletes from playing with the team that corresponds with the student’s gender identity. Usually, backers of these bills can’t point to one person in their sporting community that this is an issue for. Therefore, it becomes all fearmongering. The trans community is one of the most marginalized groups in the world, and that’s why I’m so vocal. Trans kids don’t have people writing and advocating for them. Parents who are supportive struggle to find resources. In some states, these bills target parents of transgender youth, threatening to remove the only support system available. We must do better.

TL: Michigan made it illegal two years ago to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace, but there are no federal protections in place. How can organizations best support transgender employees?

JN: Many employees are scared to come out for fear of losing their jobs and facing hate and discrimination on the job. Employers should follow the lead of transgender employees in their organizations. Listen to employees when they come forward about concerns and ideas that would make them feel safer and more protected. Provide inclusive restroom policies and allow employees to go by the name they prefer to go by. This is especially important when it comes to name tags (this can be for all employees, not just trans people). Often, companies will insist that you use the name on your enrollment paperwork. This is very disrespectful and degrading, and there is just no good reason people can’t be called the name they use in everyday life. It’s something that is so simple and a huge step toward acceptance and feeling seen. Update health care policies to offer inclusive benefits that include gender-confirming treatments — both psychological and medical.

TL: If someone is looking to find resources for themselves or a family member, what do you recommend?

JN: PFLAG.org is a great place to start. I serve on the board of the Muskegon chapter (you can find PFLAG Muskegon on Facebook and Instagram), which is the only one in West Michigan. We launched it two years ago, right before the pandemic, and it’s been operating virtually — the third Friday of the month. We hope to have in-person opportunities this summer. Ideally, we want to have support groups for parents and friends and the LGBQ population. We cover transgender 101 topics like pronouns to deeper dives. There are also many podcasts, movies, and TV shows I recommend (see list below).

To learn more, connect with Jessie on Facebook and Instagram or email him at jessienieusma@gmail.com or pflagmuskegon@gmail.com. 

You can also check out these transgender resources:

Organizations
Pflag.org
HRC.org
TheTrevorProject.org
TransEquality.org
TransgenderMichigan.org

Educational background
Regarding the words transexual versus transgender (Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/transphobia)
Dr. Rachel McKinnon (aka Veronica Ivy) on trans people in sports (YouTube)
Chair in transgender studies through the University of Victoria in Canada: Education and videos: https://www.uvic.ca/research/transchair/
History of transgender people (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender_history)

Podcasts
Queer America
Making Gay History
Nancy
Queery
LGBTQ&A
The Laverne Cox Show

Documentaries
Disclosure on Netflix
Real Boy on Amazon Prime
The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson on Netflix
Trans in Trumpland on Amazon Prime and Topic TV
Man Made on Amazon Prime

Historical Films
The Lavender Scare
Stonewall Uprising
Screaming Queens
The Times of Harvey Milk
When We Rise

TV
Pose on FX
Tales of the City on Netflix
Sense 8 on Netflix
Trans in Trumpland on Prime

 

Read more articles by Kristie Burns.

Kristie Burns is a Norton Shores resident and owner of KB Communications, which works with clients to positively position them within their industries, markets and communities. Visit kristieburnscommunications.com to learn more.
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