Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire with a conservative family, Jess was raised to believe that being different was a bad thing. As a transgender person, she knew that at a young age that she was very different but didn’t know why or what it meant. “All I knew was that I needed to keep it a secret,” says Jess.
At the time, in the 1970s, there were no easily accessible resources about transgender people. There was no internet and Jess’s local library was a building the size of a very small house. So, as she grew up she knew she identified with the girls but she didn’t have the language to explain why.
When Jess was 16 she grew her hair out from a crew cut to shoulder length. One day, when no one was home, she played with her mother’s makeup and when she looked in the mirror her first thought was that she was Jessica—not Brian as she had been named. This experience validated what Jess always knew to be true: That she is a woman.
But she was scared. Jess truly believed she was the only person in the world that felt that way and didn’t dare say a word to anyone.
It wasn’t until she enlisted in the Air Force at 17 and went overseas that Jess learned about transgender people and realized that she was not alone in this struggle. At that time the military did not allow any LGBT people to serve at all. So as she learned who she was, Jess had to remain extra-vigilant in ensuring no one learned that she identified as a woman. After getting out of the military, moving back to New Hampshire, and getting married, she began to quietly explore who she really was.
Jess was 45 when she finally left the house for the first time dressed as the woman she knew she was. And even then, she did so in secret—always being sure to leave the state and go only to areas that were known to be safe, such as Ogunquit, Maine.
“I was fortunate that most of my experiences out in the world were positive. I was acknowledged as a woman and treated with respect.” —Jess MacFadzen, NH State Police Dispatcher
As she gained more confidence, Jess started venturing out into New Hampshire and was fortunate not to experience any harassment or discrimination. Still, every step out of the house was scary—knowing that if something did happen, there were no explicit state laws to protect her.
“I was fortunate that most of my experiences out in the world were positive,” Jess says. “I was acknowledged as a woman and treated with respect.”
She says even bad experiences had a positive side. One day, Jess was refused service in a restaurant. But when she saw what was happening, another waitress stepped up and went out of her way to welcome Jess and make sure she was taken care of. About a month later, Jess was in Portsmouth and a man tried to stop her from using the public restrooms.
“He was determined not to let me use any public restroom but when other members of the public spoke up he gave up and left before it could become a problem. I felt lucky both times that there were caring, accepting people around that lent a positive light to what could have been very traumatic experiences,” says Jess.
Still Jess feels frustrated those experiences happened at all. If New Hampshire had explicit laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people, these incidents could have been prevented.
For Jess, as for many transgender people, one of her biggest fears was that her employer would find out about her gender identity and she would lose her job. She was working at the New Hampshire State Police when she first started living publicly as a woman—but at work, she continued to present as a man and to hide her true gender identity.
“I really think one of the most important things we can do to advocate for ourselves and for the young people coming up behind us is to be out and visible, living our lives, not only showing them that we can be healthy and happy but that it does get better.”
After about a year, a coworker started spreading rumors about Jess. She started hearing derogatory comments, and jokes being whispered when she was around. For the first time in her career she felt disrespected and looked down upon—and she started to dread coming to work.
During this time Jess began to sink into a very deep depression. She began to think there was only one way out, and started to consider suicide.
“Most people don’t know I had gotten to the point where I had actually written a goodbye letter to my wife at the time and had even practiced how I was going to do it. I was so good at hiding it,” says Jess.
Thankfully, one day—after months of feeling like no one was noticing how depressed she was—two co-workers asked Jess the one question no one else had, “How can we help?” That was enough to make Jess realize that there were options and people who care about her as a person and not as a topic of conversation.
Realizing she didn’t have very much left to lose, Jess decided to turn a negative experience into a positive and to fully transition and stop living a double life. She was still terrified of the very real possibility that she might lose her job—but she knew she couldn’t afford to live in hiding anymore.
“It was very scary to actually make that announcement. But the command staff of state police supported me 100% when it came time for my transition,” Jess says. “After so many years of convincing myself that the world was gonna end if people ever knew, having the support of those people makes all the difference in the world for somebody going through that transition.”
Now, Jess has been at the NH State Police for 27 years. She’s participated in the governor’s roundtable and helped to craft the Transgender Employee Policy now used by the Department of Safety. She plans to be active in the campaign to pass explicit, transgender-inclusive non-discrimination laws to protect people in housing, employment, and public places across the state.
“Most people don’t know I had gotten to the point where I had actually written a goodbye letter to my wife at the time and had even practiced how I was going to do it. I was so good at hiding it,”
And in the meantime, Jess plans to remain visible: “I really think one of the most important things we can do to advocate for ourselves and for the young people coming up behind us is to be out and visible, living our lives, not only showing them that we can be healthy and happy but that it does get better.”
As for lawmakers: Jess urges them to speak out. She saw firsthand that when people in positions of power—like her employers at the NH State Police—speak out, people listen. It’s time for lawmakers to use their platform to create positive change and help grow public support for transgender non-discrimination.