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Transgender activist Jessica Lam helps plan conference at Florida International University

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Years before Chastity Bono shocked Cher with the news that she was becoming Chaz, Jesus Lam Sr. had a similar talk with his mother, Yolanda.

“I don’t want to see you wearing a dress in front of me,” Yolanda told her first-born son, now Miami transgender activist Jessica Lam.

"I said, ‘Mom, I don’t need to wear a dress in order to be a woman,’” Jessica said in an interview. “I’m more than just the sum of my body parts and what I wear.”

Lam, 41, is an organizer of this weekend’s second TransCon: Justice Summit to be held at Florida International University Biscayne Bay Campus. About 10 percent of the 80 attendees at last year’s conference were transgender, she says.

“One of the biggest issues we’ve had is that the transgender public doesn’t allow themselves to be public in this community,” Lam said. “They’re afraid to come out of the shadows, so a lot of them do not.”

She commends Bono for putting himself in the national spotlight on TV’s Dancing With the Stars. “Chaz has been trying to make changes for the transgender community,” Lam said. “I just hope Chaz can dance.”

jesusLam also appears in the public eye. Four years ago, she went on Larry King Live.

“When I transitioned, I wanted to share this experience with others in a positive way,” said Lam, a musician and DJ who mentors lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.

“I come down to their level, so to speak. I talk their lingo. I’m myself,” Lam said. “I’m transgender. They’re floored by that information. Shocked. Like they don’t believe it. I don’t look like your typical transgender person, like a male in female clothing.”

Lam isn’t bothered by the myriad questions she’s asked. “There are no stupid questions — except the question that’s not asked.”

Jesus Carl Lam was born May 17, 1970, near West Miami. From a very young age, Jesus didn’t adhere to gender stereotypes, Yolanda Lam said.

“He was a year old when he had his first haircut. He cried because he didn’t want to cut his hair. He used to say he hated getting his hair cut and he wanted it long,” Yolanda recalled. “Being Cuban, we’d say, ‘We raised you as a boy, you have to act like a little boy.’”

At age 13, Jesus told his mother that he should have been born a girl. “When I told her how I felt, she said ‘I have a son and not a daughter’,” Jessica said.

Jesus tried to live as a teenage boy. He dated girls, cut his hair and played sports. At 17, he moved out to live with his girlfriend, Estela. They married two years later. “I figured that by taking on a stereotypical role — being the head of a household and having lots of sex with her — I would take on a lot of the social constructs,” Jessica said.

By 21, Jesus was father to two sons, Jesus Jr. and Christopher. He also began cross-dressing at home.

“[My wife] wasn’t too happy about it. She pretty much threw a fit,” Jessica said. “By the time the kids came around and my mom found out, she said ‘this is no way for a father to act’.”

Jesus “ended up in church and became a minister,” Jessica said. “I figured that God would fix me and take these thoughts away.”

That didn’t work, either. In the mid 1990s, Jesus got divorced and began publicly identifying as a woman and calling herself Jessica Caridad Lam. “It just seemed to be the right name for me,” she said.

Jessica changed her name legally in 1999 and had sexual reassignment surgery in 2003.

Yolanda and Jessica’s father, Jesus, who died in 2010, had great difficulty with her decision.

“My mother had to come to the point where she mourned the loss of her son and saw a daughter come out of this shell,” she said.

After she transitioned, Jessica identified as a gay woman. “My father had more issues with my sexual orientation than with my gender identity,” Jessica said. “If I identify as a lesbian, why would I have to get rid of my penis?”

“It goes down to the core: It’s two different things when you’re talking about orientation vs. gender identity, Jessica said.

She now spends much of her time as an advocate for gay and transgender rights.

This weekend’s TransCon conference will focus on medical and legal issues. Among the speakers: Rusty Mead, a lesbian attorney from Jacksonville who has transgender clients.

“With transgender folks, there’s always a threat to their jobs,” Mead said. “They’re in sheer survival mode. Everything’s at stake. Their livelihoods. Their lives. Basic survival.”

Mead’s clients frequently ask her: “Are you transgendered?”

She’s not. “I’m just trying to make sure that these people are being treated inherently equal. That means we LGB folks need to do the same thing,” Mead said.

Jessica’s sons, both straight, have also become activists.

“She fights for equality and I believe in it, too. She always raised us to be open-minded,” said younger son Christopher, 20.

After her divorce, Jessica got custody of both sons. It wasn’t always easy for them to have a transgender parent.

“In middle school and the beginning of high school, it was a touchy subject,” Christopher said. “The friends who I spoke to about it, couldn’t get their heads around it. ‘You mean she’s your dad?’”

Now Christopher sometimes “plays” with his new friends, introducing Jessica as his “stepmom.”

“Oh, man, she’s so hot,” one friend told Christopher.

“Really?” Christopher said. “She’s my dad.”

Nonplussed, his friend responded: “For a guy, she’s still pretty hot.”

IF YOU GO

TransCon: Justice Summit will be presented Saturday and Sunday by Aqua Foundation for Women at Florida International University Biscayne Bay Campus, Wolfe University Center, 3000 NE 151st St. Sponsors are SAVE Dade, National Center for Lesbian Rights, FIU Stonewall, O Cinema and the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth.

8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday

"What is Gender?" presented by Dr. Marilyn Volker (Also available in Spanish)

"HRT—- Endocrinology FAQ" by Dr. Lorena Lewy-Alterbaum.

"Transgender Sensitivity in Healthcare Settings" by Dr. Anagloria Mora and Dr. Carol Clark.

8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday

"Transgender Wellness" by Dr. Alberto Dominquez-Bali.

"Surgical & Medical Procedures and the Emergence of Transgender Youth" by Dr. Marci Bowers.

"Surgical Procedures and Issues Concerning the Senior Transsexual" by Dr. Harold Reed .

"Putting it all Together” by keynote speaker Dr. Marci Bowers, followed by a Networking Gala with food and refreshments.

For more information or to register, e-mail transcon@aquafoundation.org or call 305-576-2782.

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