Tuesday, July 24, 2012

INTERVIEW: Jessica Angelina Birch MD (author of Confessions of a Transsexual Physician)

Good morning, all!

Joining us today is the lovely and incredible Jessica Angelina Birch MD, author the transgender memoir Confessions of a Transsexual Physician, as well as a traditional family medicine and transgender health care provider.


♥ Thanks so much for stopping by, Jessica! For those who may be new to your remarkable story, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a family physician and solo practitioner, in Amherst, New Hampshire. I was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts. I joined the U.S. Air Force at age 18, and spent my tour of duty in Texas and Kansas. After 4 years in the military, I returned home to attend Greenfield community college where I graduated with highest honors. I transferred to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts where I received my bachelors degree in biology. After college, I worked for a year at the Tufts veterinary clinic assisting in research projects, and after that, I attended the University of Massachusetts medical school where I received my medical degree. I did my residency in family medicine in Erie, Pennsylvania.  I moved to New Hampshire in 1992.

♥ Like so many within the community, you struggled with your sense of identity for decades before ultimately taking control of your gender. What was it that made you decide it was finally time?

It was a combination of events. I diagnosed a patient with Klinefelter's syndrome, a condition in which a person has an extra X chromosome (XXY) and who subsequently declared himself as being  transgendered. This was the 1st person I ever met who sought out medical treatment and hormone therapy for “her” condition. I had never really thought it possible for the average person to receive this kind of treatment until I met her. Around the same time, my father-in-law died unexpectedly from gastric cancer. He was well respected in the community and had two bishops and an honor guard at his  funeral service. So plagued by guilt, I couldn't take communion.

♥ Do you have any regrets about not doing it sooner, or do you feel that was the right time for you?

The easy answer would be to say that I wish I had been born a girl, but the process of transitioning at age 48 was in many ways a spiritual awakening for me; I gained an immense amount of  insight into my own sense of purpose in life, having gone through the process at a later age.

♥ Can you recall any influences or inspirations growing up? A celebrity, perhaps, who publicly acknowledged or celebrated their gender identity and made you feel a little less alone?

Actually, the answer is no. Although I'd heard of  Christine Jorgensen, I couldn't possibly imagine myself  becoming someone like her, and for most of my life,  I had a hard time imagining that there was anyone else in the world like me. I was very na├»ve.

♥ As a doctor, you have a much different (and some would say better informed) view on gender identity. Do you think that has made it easier for you to transition, or given you greater pause to consider the implications?

Once I found a therapist, a professional person, who gave me permission to express my gender identity without guilt, my world changed almost overnight. Being a physician meant having some financial resources, which helped make my transition possible, and it also gave me access to medical information at the hospital library. The downside of being a medical professional going through transition was the struggle, at first, to maintain my reputation. After coming out to my company administrators, I was placed on paid medical leave for almost 6 months, and before being allowed to return to work, I was required to have a psychiatric evaluation. I was allowed to maintain my employment for a couple years working in the company's urgent care center, but I lost my family practice that I had spent many years developing. Ultimately, my employment was terminated based on productivity.  After trying to find another physician position at fourteen different hospitals in New Hampshire and Massachusetts without success, I decided to open up my own practice, borrowing money off my life insurance policy to get the business started.

♥ Your medical practice advertises itself as one that accepts diversity, and which specialises in transgender health care. In terms of timing, did that focus come about as a result of your decision to transition, or did it help lead to your transition?

I had already fully transitioned when I opened my practice. In my book, I talk about how my business partner and I triumphed over adversity to make our practice unique in the state of New Hampshire.

♥ At what point in your transition did you decide that you wanted to share your story with Confessions of a Transsexual Physician?

Strange as it may sound, I think my life is predetermined, and some outside power or force drives me. At the start of my transition, I obsessed about everything that was happening to me, and I often found myself in the middle of the night writing. Everything I wrote, I saved on my computer, and about 2 or 3 years ago, I decided that I needed to write a book using that material. I felt compelled to tell my story.

♥ What was it that compelled you to share your story? Was it something personal, professional, or a combination of the two?


♥ The world has changed significantly over the past 10-15 years. Looking at the number of transgender biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction books available, is there a book you recommend to patients (other than your own, of course!), or one you wish you could somehow go back in time and share with a younger version of yourself?

Like many transgendered individuals I know, Jennifer Boylan's She's Not There (A Life in Two Genders) was one of the first books I read.

♥ It seems like the more information that becomes available, the more labels and definitions we have to deal with, and the more fluid they have become. In terms of your own self-definition, has how you label yourself changed over the years?

No. I just love being a girl

♥ While the internet has provided us with a wealth of information, it has also served to further sexualize or fetishize transgender identities. Do you feel that exposure has harmed the community, or do you feel it can lead to a positive means of self-exploration?

I'm not sure. I  I can probably speak best from the transwoman point of view. When I was young, I did get sexual pleasure from wearing female garments, but now I just want to “fit-in” if that makes any sense. I just love every aspect of being woman; from the way I dress, the way I decorate my house, to the activities I participate in etc.

♥ Getting back to Confessions of a Transsexual Physician, is there a key theme or message you're looking for readers to embrace and take away from your story?

I think it's hard for me to define the message, but after reading the book, I think people will come away with a sense of empathy, regardless if they are transgendered or not. In my mind, the story is about life's journey and the unexpected twists and turns that it takes.

♥ What was the initial reaction to the book from friends, family, and colleagues? Did it open any eyes, or change any of your day-to-day interactions?

They're my friends, of course, but most of them said they felt very moved by it.

♥ If we can impose upon your personal experience for a moment, what advice would you give to a young man or woman struggling with their gender identity? Is there anything you've done that worked exceptionally well for your situation?

I address this at the end of the book, in the Afterword. As people are trying to get to know "the new you", it's important to show them that you're happy and that you have friends and support. Try not to focus too much attention on your transition but rather try to show others that you can be “normal”; talk about the weather, what movie is playing at the local theater, or what your planning to do for the weekend.

♥ Along the same lines, is there something you wish you had done differently?

I often feel guilty about divorcing my ex-spouse when my two boys were teenagers. It was a trauma for them, and although they are great kids and probably much more mature and open minded about this subject then other kids their age, wounds were inflicted. I never meant to hurt anyone but I believe I would have hurt them even more had I not changed. That's my solace. I like to think that I've taught them that being being true to yourself and facing adversity are virtues.

♥ Finally, before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project or an appearance on the horizon that you're really excited about?

Well, this next year, I have to study for my board recertification. I also want to continue to dance (ballet, tap, and contemporary) at the local studio near my work. I love writing because it gives me a way to express myself, so, I'm sure there will be more to come.


A huge thanks to Jessica for so graciously agreeing to join us today. Her story is a remarkable one, both because of and in spite of her position in the medical community. To learn more about Jessica and her book, please head on over to her website.

I'll be giving Confessions of a Transsexual Physician a read just as soon as I can fit it into the towering TBR pile, so watch for a review to come!

1 comment:

  1. I was wonder about your book the last time I visited the office. I'll get it as soon as the kindle edition shows up. Sounds like a good read.