Lexington-Herald Leader – Lexington transgender educator works to breaks down barriers, provide knowledge and resources
June 24, 2015
Caitlyn Jenner’s presence on the glossy cover of the July issue of Vanity Fair magazine incited a powerful moment of visibility for the transgender community, including the one in Lexington.
But the moment was soon followed by a vitriolic backlash that affected more than the Olympian turned Hollywood reality star.
“I worked in social justice for 10 years and I got emotional reading some of the hate online,” said J’Lissabeth Faughn, a Lexington-based transgender educator and social justice activist. “It’s really vicious.”
The magazine cover — which featured the transgender woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner — and the publicity from it, provided a false sense of security to many transgender individuals who were inspired to come out, but found much of the world not accepting of their identities, Faughn said.
Faughn has dedicated her life to educating others about transgender and social justice issues as a speaker to schools and companies around the country. She has worked as an educator and LGBT director at institutions including University of California Berkeley, University of Missouri, University of Alabama Birmingham and Sacramento State University.
She served as the first male-to-female transsexual director of a Women’s Resource Center and the first open transgender Director of a Multi-Cultural Center at Sacramento State.
Some of the programs she offers include, “Unlearning homophobia” and “Beyond diversity toward inclusion” workshops and “Surrendering privilege,” a talk in which she speaks about her personal journey as a transgender woman.
Faughn’s colleague and fellow social justice speaker, Marica Purdy, an educator at Iowa State University, said Faughn presents difficult topics in an open dialogue format, which is crucial to fostering understanding and acceptance.
Faughn moved to Lexington for its lower living expenses and to be closer to her aging mother and sister, she said. She now travels around the country to speak about transgender and social justice issues.
Faughn also works for a national suicide ideation hotline with the GLBT National Help Center, where she said she spoke recently with a young girl who, after seeing Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, came out as transgender to unreceptive parents.
“People really do struggle with trans identity on a different level than they do sexual identity,” Faughn said.
She cited a 2014 study conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law that found that 41 percent of transgender individuals report attempting suicide in their lifetime, which exceeds the 4.6 national average and 10 to 20 percent of lesbian and gay people who reported suicide attempts.
The study also found higher suicide attempt rates in young people and those who experienced rejection from family members, discrimination, victimization or violence. Ignorance and misunderstanding often drive hatred toward transgender folks, she said.
“What I think is so difficult for people to wrap their heads around is most of us are raised in this binary system where you’re either male or female,” she said. “We’ve really based our entire society around that.”
Faughn faced opposition from several institutions while pursuing her career in higher education.
But she described the incidents of discrimination as “minor” compared to the job discrimination most transgender people experience. Part of her work includes teaching the transgendered about resources they can pursue in these cases.
Faughn’s experience drives her to help other transgender people, she said.
She first came out with her transgender identity in the 1990s while attending Murray State University for undergraduate study.
“All I knew up until I was in my 20s was Sweet Transvestite from The Rocky Horror Picture Showand Jerry Springer, like ‘my boyfriend likes to wear my underwear,’ and that was it,” she said.
The transgender community is still as much hidden today as 20 years ago, even in areas seen as “promise lands” for LGBT people like San Francisco and New York City, Faughn said.
“It’s not easy to be trans anywhere,” she said. “In areas like New York City I think there’s easier access to resources and you have organizations that have been established, but as far as the day to day and even the visibility, I have yet to see where it’s really easy.”
Events like Lexington’s Pride Festival — which will take place downtown Saturday — provide opportunities for LGBT visibility, so transgender people can find resources and others with whom they can relate, Faughn said.
The event is important for this area especially because “we’re in a state where not everyone in every part of the state gets to be proud of who they are every day,” she said. “People save money and come for the weekend to see there are people working for their rights and agents of change happening.”
Rural areas often offer less acceptance than bigger cities, such as rural Columbia, Mo., where Faughn began her male-to-female transition.
Purdy knew Faughn before her transition when she was a graduate student in the LGBT office at Iowa State University. The two taught classes together and volunteered as part of the founding faculty at Campus Pride, a summer institute for LGBT youth.
Purdy works with Faughn to develop programs for trans education, such as a discussion on body image for LGBT people, which they both present at college campuses. She considers Faughn her mentor and close friend, and admires Faughn’s sense of humor, openness and empathy.
“J’Lissabeth thinks deeply all the time, not just about her own issues but the struggles of others, whether that is identity, race or religion,” she said. “She’s just a really rare jewel.”
Faughn considers her identity a privilege, because she gets to view the world “in a very unique way only very view people get to,” from the perspective of a perceived male and now a perceived female.
Faughn hopes society progresses to the point all transgender individuals can view their identity positively without fear.
“I hope all trans folk get to that place where they can really be proud and recognize what a unique gift it is,” she said.
In the meantime, she will continue to educate and lead the charge toward equality and inclusion.
“I’ve broken down a lot of barriers because I want trans folks’ experiences to be much better than what mine were.” Faughn said. “I’m so thankful to live in a time where I can lead that topic.”
Jessica Voorhees: (859)-231-3589. Twitter: @jessrvoor.
By Wendy Aguilar | Posted: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 12:00 am
Finding her identity
J’Lissabeth Faughn (in dress) is the coordinator of the Pride Center, Multicultural Center and the Women’s resource Center.
With the biblical name John means a gracious gift of God and the name Elizabeth means oath of God, that is what J’Lissabeth Faughn believes she is; a gift.
Faughn was born perceived to be male and was given the name John but when she later identified herself with being transsexual, Faughn asked her mother what she would have been named if she was born perceived to be female. Faughn’s mother picked Elissabeth.
Faughn took on the name of John Elissabeth, but over the years her students combined John and Elissabeth creating her name J’Lissabeth.
Now, Faughn is the Director of the Multi-Cultural Center, PRIDE and Women’s Resource Center at Sac State and she is also transgender. Faughn said she believes that she is a gift from God who has been given a voice.
“I fully believe that my identity is a gift from God, Allah, Buddha or whatever,” Faughn said.
Faughn said that growing up, she always loved to do activities considered to be gender specific to boys such as football. However, Faughn said she also had an interest in women’s clothing and fashion.
When Faughn was 14 she came out as gay, but said that identification never felt right to her because she never connected with the gay male culture. In college, Faughn said that a fraternity brother suggested she was bisexual, but she was not ready to be affectionate with anyone.
“I wasn’t interested in being intimate with someone because I wasn’t comfortable with myself,” Faughn said.
In the late 1990s during graduate school, Faughn realized that her identity was about her gender and came out as transgender after finally getting the ah-ha! feeling of finally realizing who she is.
Faughn’s mother was an educator and her father fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but she said that they were accepting of her which is not always the case for transsexuals.
While Faughn received support from her parents and many friends, she said she lost a lot of people because of her identity.
Faughn has not always been met with tolerance and kindness, in fact she said she has been attacked mentally, emotionally and physically.
Faughn said she was once attacked with a crowbar in a parking lot in St. Louis and spent three days in the hospital. Although she reported the attack, the assailants were never found.
She said she also found oppression and discrimination in the workplace.
Faughn became a member of the Sac State campus in July 2013 after coming from an extensive background in student affairs at other universities. Faughn worked as a coordinator for the LGBTQ centers at Iowa State University, the University of Missouri and UC Berkeley.
Faughn’s identity was talked about in the workplace and she said people even stopped communicating with her, responding to emails and would leave notes on her car.
“My identity was getting in the way of me doing my job,” Faughn said. “I knew for my sake and the sake of the center that I had to leave.”
Once she came to Sac State, she has never felt oppressed on campus.
“The minute I accepted the position, students started emailing me with support for being someone who is visible,” Faughn said.
Sac State student and Multi-Cultural Center employee Gaby Bermudez said that Faughn has brought collaboration between the centers on campus regardless of a student’s sexuality.
“Faughn is a role model,” Bermudez said. “She’s here and she’s working for the university. And she’s working for our students and you don’t have to be (transgender) to look up to her and see her as a role model and to be inspired by what she does.”
Multi-Cultural Center Program Coordinator Jessica Castellon has also seen the increase of partnership between the centers and the departments on campus and also the impact that Faughn has made on others.
“Seeing a person who identifies as a (transgender) woman in a leadership position symbolically means a lot to people especially because there are a lot of trans students on our campus,” Castellon said. “Being able to see someone in a position of power, folks find a sense of comfort with someone they can identify with and that goes across identities because as a queer-trans woman, (Faughn) is able to look at the world from this marginalized place, but still be empowered by it and thus empowers everyone else from it.”