Published: May 13, 2004
Transgendered student speaks out
Senior Jessica Janiuk has used her experience as a transsexual to promote education and awareness
In April 2002, UW-Eau Claire senior Jessica Janiuk slipped on a knee-length skirt and fixed her makeup for a life-altering experience. It was the first time that Janiuk left the confines of her home to show the world that she was, and is, a woman.
Janiuk, 23, is one of an estimated 400,000 transsexuals living in the United States, according to the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. She was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder by the Program in Human Sexuality Center for Sexual Health, associated with the University of Minnesota, during her first semester at Eau Claire, that April.
Dick Boyum, a psychologist at Eau Claire's Counseling Services, explained that gender is not as clear-cut as it was once believed to be.
"Within the context of gender, there are very broad ranges of behavior," Boyum said. He offered the stereotypical "tomboy" and a feminine male as examples. GID, Boyum believes, is a genetic condition that shows the extremely diverse character of the gender spectrum.
Since being diagnosed with GID more than a year ago, Janiuk has carefully documented her physical and emotional transition from male to female, and is planning to write a book explaining her experience. She is using that personal experience as a springboard to encourage discussion and acceptance of transsexuality.
"I almost feel that it's my responsibility," Janiuk said. "If I don't share, how are people going to learn?"
Growing up the wrong sex
Janiuk was born as Matthew Michael Janiuk on Feb. 18, 1981, in Delafield. She said she knew from an early age that she was different from other boys. At age 5 Janiuk would secretly dress in her older sister's clothing, but she said the dressing wasn't a conscience act until about seventh grade. She said the urge to dress was instinctual.
"I knew about it," she said, "but I repressed it."
Janiuk continued to repress her feelings of femininity throughout high school and her first year of college because of the shame she felt, she said. "The shame was result of cross-dressing and what society's views are," she said.
Janiuk spent her first semester of college at UW-Madison where she roomed with her best friend from high school. During that year, Janiuk would buy women's clothing off the Internet, and dress in them when her roommate was gone.
"I went through purging phases," Janiuk said. She describes this behavior as throwing away everything she owned out of embarrassment. She also experienced what is known as Gender Dysphoria during her freshman year. Gender Dysphoria is emotional and sometimes physical pain that results from gender conflict, Janiuk said. She added the pain, for her, felt like a shudder that passed down the back of her spine. This pain often results in severe depression.
UW-Whitewater student Seth Truran lived on Janiuk's floor her freshman year of college in Madison. He said it was obvious Janiuk was not happy during that time.
"She was depressed," Truran said. "It was always something."
Depression caused Janiuk to take a year off from college. After moving home, she felt an urge to tell her friends that she was born the wrong sex, she said.
"It was a need to talk to people about it so I would know if I was a freak or not," she said. "I was looking for somebody to tell me that it's OK."
She also started wearing nail polish in public, but not without skeptical looks from students, co-workers and her parents.
Janiuk's father, Mike Janiuk, said he was extremely surprised at his son's behavior.
"I can't say that we saw depression," Mike Janiuk said. "Before we knew it, he started doing things like wearing rings and nail polish."
Janiuk began dressing as a woman full-time in November 2002, and started the biological transformation March 2003.
Showing her true self Janiuk said that the first time she stepped out of her house dressed as a woman, her feelings were indescribable.
"It was an emotional sensation, not something that can actually physically be described," she said. "It was a sense of completeness."
After coming out, Janiuk said her friends were surprised but accepting.
"I'd never shown any signs of feminine behavior," Janiuk said. "As a person, I was always more emotional, but I wasn't one of those (macho) guys."
Truran remembers the first time he saw Janiuk dressed as a woman.
"It was a little bit awkward," he said. "She looked very different, but now I don't even think about it."
Truran and other friends built a support system, Janiuk said, that helped her come to terms with GID. Truran said that while Janiuk's interests and personality haven't changed, her contentment has.
"She's really turned her whole life around," he said. "She's much better emotionally and psychologically. It was a huge confidence issue."
While friends were immediately willing to offer support, coming out to her family was considerably more difficult, Janiuk said. Janiuk's mother approached her after finding feminine clothes in her son's room. Her father said he and his wife were initially angry.
"At first we didn't understand it and we thought that he was making a mistake, that there was another way," Mike Janiuk said.
Janiuk also said her parents were more confused than anything at first.
"They didn't understand it," she said. "They thought I was in a cult." After accepting their son's disorder, Janiuk's parents helped her write a letter explaining the disorder, which they sent out to their extended family. The responses were generally positive.
"I think I have a very rare family," Janiuk said. "They've been great."
Senior Chris Arndt, president of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Straight Alliance, agreed that Janiuk's family has been understanding.
"They're extremely supportive," he said, "shockingly supportive."
Her father said the most difficult part of talking about Janiuk's experience has been "the pronoun issue."
"I still have trouble with that the most," Mike Janiuk said, adding that he and his wife still feel like they've lost a son.
"I don't think we'll ever get over that," he said.
But, he said, they now understand their child's disorder and are glad that Janiuk is happy.
"She is much more comfortable and happy," he said. "She is the same person, but more content."
The physical transition The physical transition from male to female is not easy or without risk.
According to the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which were created to codify a consensus among professionals on how to treat GID, a potential candidate for Sex Reassignment Surgery must legally change his or her name, undergo hormone therapy for one year prior to the surgery and live as that sex for one year.
Janiuk has undergone Hormone Replacement Therapy, taking estrogen, progesterone and the anti-testosterone hormone spironolactone since March 2003. She has used the patch and injection forms of estrogen and taken pills that contain the other two hormones. The hormones are difficult on the body, however, and have raised Janiuk's estrogen level to eight times that of an average woman, she said. Being diagnosed with a genetic kidney disease has increased the risks associated with hormone therapy, which include kidney and liver damage.
This possible damage is a main concern of Janiuk's parents.
"Later on in life, we're worried about the strain on her body," her father said.
The hormones have caused a number of desired physical changes, though, during the last year, Janiuk said. These changes include softening of the skin, a decrease in upper-body strength and the redistribution of body fat to feminine areas such as the breasts and hips.
Janiuk said the hormones basically caused her to go through puberty again.
"You're going though what most girls do at 14 or 15 years old," she said.
Janiuk also endures regular electrolysis and laser hair removal treatments. The treatments are painful and she has them done on her face and body, because the hormones do not affect facial hair or where body hair grows.
Another aspect of Janiuk's transformation was voice training, which she did through the speech therapy program at Eau Claire. She said she enjoyed the lessons.
"I think my musical background helped a lot," she said.
After undergoing HRT, electrolysis and voice counseling, as well as having her name and sex legally changed on her birth certificate and drivers license, Janiuk was approved for SRS a week ago. In August, Janiuk will have the operation as well as breast augmentation and a tracheal shave to get rid of her Adam's apple.
Boyum said having the operation allows many transgendered individuals to lead happier lives.
"You want to look like on the outside what you feel like on the inside," Boyum said.
Janiuk said she is not afraid of the procedures she will endure this summer, which cost a total of $27,500 and will require a month of recovery time.
"I'm excited," she said. "I just want to be done with this whole process."
Looking toward the future While she is excited to have SRS, Janiuk said she won't forget who she is and what she has gone through.
"After surgery, a lot of trans people just want to be considered female," she said. "I will always be a trans woman."
She also said she sees herself as a "minority among minorities."
"I accepted myself as transgender, then I had to accept myself as a lesbian," she said. "I went from the pinnacle of societal power as a straight male to a transgendered female."
Boyum said, in terms of numbers, there are relatively few students that seek counseling for GID.
Janiuk lives alone but says she doesn't mind the solitude. Arndt said he and Janiuk recently went to see the movie "Hellboy" at the theater.
"There was one quote, 'When times are difficult all we freaks have are each other,' " Arndt said. "When that was said she grabbed my hand."
Janiuk is currently the vice president of the LGBTSA at Eau Claire and is on the Student Life and Diversity commission of Student Senate. Janiuk also designed a Web site that she has maintained since 2002 with information and links on transgender issues. She said she hopes to adopt children some day.
"I'll have an average life, eventually," she said.
Arndt said Janiuk's character is remarkable.
"Jessica is, quite possibly, one of the kindest, truest people I've ever met in my life," he said.
Truran said that although he realizes some people might not understand what Janiuk has gone through, they shouldn't judge her.
"It is really hard to look at the world through someone else's eyes," he said. "In the position that she's in, it's like trying to compare an apple and an orange."
But, he added with a laugh, "She can give me dating advice now."