In recent years, the group of people who have transitioned to the opposite gender have gained increasing visibility. Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Jamie Clayton (Sense8) and Caitlyn Jenner (I am Cait), have become household names and have achieved success, where it once would have been impossible. But, what if you’re not a celebrity? What is it like for a person to transition in the real world? To find out, I tracked down business consultant, public speaker and owner of Visions and Goals, JoAnna Ferrari.
JoAnna embarked on her journey to transition when she was fifty-three years old. That was three years ago. Before her transition, JoAnna was successful in the business world, even growing one company by 290%. But the day that she went to work as her authentic self, this all began to change. JoAnna describes it best herself on her Youtube channel, saying, “I kept some of my clients, and I wasn’t always working as JoAnna because some of my clients knew me just as John, but when I told them, all of my clients quit me. All my clients forgot my skills, forgot the results that I had been getting for them . . .”
This story intrigued and upset me, which was how I found myself on a Saturday morning sitting across from JoAnna in a small café, determined to find out how she made it, how she clawed her way back after losing everything due peoples’ perceptions of her transition. “After one of my clients had decided she could no longer work with me, she told a colleague about what had happened,” JoAnna recalled. “The colleague was looking for a transgender speaker for a Westpac event and asked her whether she thought I would be interested, which of course, I was. After speaking at the event, I started getting business again and growing a new client base. At the same time, I continued speaking about transgender issues at corporate events.”
In this period of time, JoAnna recognised that there was a bigger issue at hand then public perspectives on transgender people. She continued, “When TedX called me I said, no, I wouldn’t do a presentation on being transgender, but [I am] happy to talk on self identity and how labels affect us. Tedx was the first time I had a plan not to talk about being transgender but to use it to build a bridge to the general population so they could understand it and more importantly see themselves in my story.” JoAnna’s TedX speech in which she discusses the secret self can be found on Youtube. ‘It reveals just how quickly we, as humans, label things we don’t know. To me transphobia is such an emotionally charged accusation,’ JoAnna said.
JoAnna, who had been incredibly successful in helping her clients achieve their goals, lost every single one of them over a change in gender. It invokes the question, what possible impact could JoAnna’s transition have on her skills, talents and wisdom? How does a gender transition alter her ability to grow a business by almost three hundred percent? Well . . . it doesn’t. She had always known that she was a woman. The only difference was that she was no longer willing to hide it or, as she put it, “I wasn’t willing to give up my right to be the best me possible.”
When I asked JoAnna what she thought of the way people viewed those who had transitioned in such a negative way, she explained, “Dealing with business or life or anything else, there are four ways of looking at a situation. You can: disassociate, associate, see it logically, or see it emotionally. Disassociating is when you don’t feel like it is something that relates to you, you’re off the roller coaster, watching it, but never really knowing how you’d feel if you were on board. You can’t know whether you’d feel excitement or fear, whether you’d grip the bar so tight as you feel the speed . . . the twists and turns. Being on board the rollercoaster allows to be associated to the experience in such a way that the disassociated just cannot.” Joanna further explained that from those two perspectives, your experience is very different. “You can also see it from an emotional position, or a logical one. Although, even logic is only your logic unique to your perspective.”
JoAnna struck me as a woman at peace with herself. She held no grudges and didn’t blame people for their behaviour toward her. Instead she empathised with them in an extraordinary way, recognising that in their disassociated state, they couldn’t possibly understand what it meant to transition and so they couldn’t much be blamed for their attitudes toward something they didn’t understand. “When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy,” JoAnna continued with a warm smile. “I wake up happy because I’ve already decided that something wonderful is going to happen today. I don’t know what it is, but I go looking for it and usually, I find it.”
JoAnna’s attitude struck me as inspirational. No matter how other people felt toward her, she had already decided that it wouldn’t impact her day, because, after all, something wonderful was going to happen. ‘I am happy being me, so anything that happens around me doesn’t add or subtract from my being happy.’ I think JoAnna summed it up best on Youtube when she said, ‘I want to change peoples’ minds so that they don’t look at me as transgender, but that they look at me again and see a human being. They see a contributing member of society; a person. If I can get people to see me as that, then this whole thing has definitely been worth the trip.’
Those words resonated with me in the highest significance. JoAnna lost her clients because they stopped seeing her as a person. Transgender, gay, lesbian, straight . . . these are all just labels we slap on people so that we can divide them into little boxes that we are capable of understanding. But from where I was sitting, in that little café, it was ever so clear that I was sitting across from a beautiful human being, deserving of love and respect, just like anyone. For we are, all of us, human. And that is the only label you need.
JoAnna looks forward to publishing her third book, Live and Unlabelled early next year.
Words by Cael McIntosh