KINGSTON, R.I. – April 30, 2015 – A decade ago, Jessica Brand couldn’t stand to look in the mirror. She hated what she saw – facial hair, muscles and other markings of a growing teenage boy.
“It was terrifying,” she says. “I wanted to punch the mirror.”
Those days are over.
On May 6, the 22-year-old University of Rhode Island graduate will stand before a crowd at the opening of the Gender and Sexuality Center to happily bare her soul as she tells her story of transitioning into a woman.
“At a young age,” says Jessica, “I knew my body was wrong and did not fit who I knew myself to be. I was a girl. I am a girl.”
She’s been preparing her speech for weeks, not only as a tribute to the center but also as a gracious and public thank-you note to URI for providing a nurturing and welcoming place for her to undergo a very personal experience.
Sitting in the audience will be Jessica’s mother, Susan Trostle Brand, of Exeter, a longtime education professor at URI who has lovingly stood by her daughter from the beginning. “Basically,” says Jessica, “my mom saved my life.”
Jessica knew at age 2. She and other toddlers were telling secrets at a day-care center. One boy disclosed that he didn’t have a belly button. Jessica spoke up: “I’m a girl.”
By age 4, she wanted Barbie dolls for Christmas, not toy trucks. She hung around girls playing house, or at least tried. “They always kicked me out,” she says. In grade school, women TV characters tugged at her heart. Sabrina, the teenage witch, was her idol.
But she kept her secret inside, coping by studying obsessively.
“I learned my sorrows away,” she says. “I couldn’t be myself. Living in the wrong body made me feel like an outsider, and it made me feel strange.”
She withdrew in middle school – from everyone. She wondered if her feelings would change but then she hit puberty in 9th grade and her world fell apart. Depressed, she rarely left her bedroom. She wouldn’t allow anyone to take her photo.
She tried to kill herself.
“I wasn’t developing right,” she says. “I needed to look and develop like the other girls, which was the opposite of what was happening to me. I was getting male characteristics, and that was frightening.”
She agonized in private, too scared to reveal her urges to her mother, as well as her father, Stephen Brand, also a URI education professor. (Stephen died unexpectedly almost two years ago.)
Finally, she couldn’t hold it in any longer. She remembers the exact day: Jan. 24, 2009. She was 16. Sitting in a restaurant parking lot with her mother, Jessica asked if her love was unconditional.
“Yes,” Susan said.
“I can’t go on like this anymore,” said Jessica. “I’m a girl. I’ve got to live as one.”
Susan and Stephen and their two younger daughters – Faith, now 12, and Fiona, now 9 – rallied behind Jessica, giving her their full love and support. “We rose to the occasion,” says Susan, “and learned as much as we could.”
The girls were understanding and supportive of their older sister. “My daughters learned quickly to use the correct pronouns,” says Susan. “If I made a mistake, the girls would say, ‘No Mom, it’s ‘She is over there – not he.’ ”
Over the next few years, Jessica would see seven therapists, most unhelpful. Finally, she found another lifesaver, Dr. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence who prescribed hormone therapy.
Within months, a smile appeared on Jessica’s face. Her skin became softer. Her hips expanded, and her cheeks grew plump. Facial hair lessened. Breasts developed. For the first time in her life, she could think clearly.
“The hormones cleared the fog,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, finally. I can live.’ ”
She liked what she saw in the mirror: “I was so happy I was seeing someone who represented me, someone I could recognize as my true self.”
On June 9, 2013, her wavy brown hair was styled at a salon. Her nails were polished pink.
And she changed her name. She would be Jessica, Jess for short.
At URI, where she was a double major in finance and French, graduating in December, she felt safe and accepted. She spoke in her mother’s social equity class. She gave a talk to students during URI’s Diversity Week. And she found a friend in Annie Russell, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center.
“We are immeasurably blessed to have this University,” says Susan.
“URI helped me in every way possible,” says Jessica.
On May 13, Jessica will undergo gender confirmation surgery at a hospital outside San Francisco. Much of the cost is covered by her student health insurance, which lasts through August. She’s the first URI student to use the gender surgery coverage.
“This means the world to me,” she says. “It means that part of my body that isn’t right will be right.”
She has dreams. She might study finance in graduate school or become a hedge fund manager some day. She hopes to marry and have a family. One thing is certain: She’ll continue to advocate on behalf of transgender youths.
Last year, she was crowned queen at the “Born This Way” prom in Newport. She danced into the wee hours with the king. Not long ago, she spoke to hundreds of parents and transgender teenagers at the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia. And two New York filmmakers are making a documentary – “What I’m Made Of” – about her journey that is expected to air next year.
“You’re on the front lines now,” says Susan.
“Exactly,” says Jessica. “This is a good time to get my story out.”
And help other transgender students find peace, she says: “I don’t want anybody to feel the pain I went through – ever.”
She has already selected her new outfit for her May 6 speech: her favorite black dress, a gold necklace and new black sandals. Her words, she says, are important. She will rehearse to the last minute to deliver a message that is inspiring and uplifting.
“I’m so excited to be where I am today,” says Jessica. “I can show people they can make it through a challenge and come out as powerful advocates who are happy and, most importantly, themselves.”
Jessica Brand, 22, of Exeter, a University of Rhode Island graduate who will speak at the opening of the Gender and Sexuality Center, 19 Upper College Road, on May 6. The speaking portion of the program will begin at 11 a.m., followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony, refreshments and tours.
Jessica Brand, a URI graduate, and her mother, Susan Trostle Brand, a URI early childhood education professor. Jessica graduated from URI in December 2014 with degrees in finance and French.
From left to right, Faith, Fiona and Jessica Brand.
Photos courtesy of Jessica and Susan Brand.