#SouthernStories: Nicole Modjeski talks transition, mental health, and life in Mississippi

GLAAD met Nicole Modjeski in Jackson, Mississippi during GLAAD's Southern Stories Summer Tour Nicole, a trans woman living in the Magnolia State, was attending GLAAD's screening and panel discussion of the documentary, L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin. Nicole told us a powerful story about her transition, coming out to her family in Missisippi, and the impact that Caitlyn Jenner had on Nicole's family. Transgender people already faces a high rate of discomfort in America, with 59% of non-LGBT people stating they would feel uncomfortable were they to learn their child was dating a transgender person according to a GLAAD-commission Harris Poll. This rate of discomfort is even higher in the South, at 61%. We followed up with Nicole via a written interview to learn more about her journey toward living the life she loves in Mississippi. This is her story.

What was it like to come out as transgender and transition in Mississippi?

To be honest, it was terrible. I had to hide who I really was for many years.

At an early age I knew I was different. I was born premature and that caused me to have an eye sight disability.  I was placed in the Mississippi School for the Blind so someone could help attend to my special needs, being partially blind.  In the school, boys and girls stayed in separate dorms. I remember wanting to be with the girls. I wanted to play with the toys the girls would play with, and I preferred playing with stuffed animals and tea parties over the typical games associated with boys. I later cross-dressed in secret. I enjoyed dressing as the woman I was, but I was terrified my family would find out.

When my twin brother and I graduated, I stopped cross-dressing for fear that he would find out and tell my mom. I knew she didn't approve of the "gay and lesbian lifestyle," and I knew she wouldn't understand my feelings. I was afraid I would be thrown out and rejected. Being disabled, too, just heightened the fear, so I tried to pass as a normal male.

When I was a teenager, I had seen a transgender woman rejected from my mom's church. I wanted to know how she went from being male to female. I was fascinated and I knew then I was a woman somehow inside and I wanted to be like her, but once again, fear kept my feelings of who I was in check. I was ashamed because I felt God could not love me. I was taught not being a straight male was wrong, so I hid my feelings and told no one.

I had very few opportunities to meet people from the LGBT community until going to college at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was there I met a lesbian African-American woman named Kim, and she and her friend, Mieko, became my best friends. I saw Kim's family and other gay students' families reject them, so it taught me to be afraid. I went home and met a wonderful person and her friend. Her friend was gay and she accepted her with no problems, so I saw there could be some people in the South that would accept others. But being around my family and wearing the mask for so long, I kept it in check. 

When I came out I was still rejected by some people I called friends, or they tried to use me, or manipulate me into not being transgender. I had very few resources available to me, not many groups or peers who could help. I was alone and isolated. I had to join another state's transgender group just to find support. In 2013, I attended the Mississippi Pride event.  I had met a drag queen online by the name of Mackenzie, and she arranged for me to go to the event. There I met some nice people, but not many transgender women or men, other than one or two.

I was still looking for other transgender people closer to home, and someone in the out-of-state transgender group mentioned an article about the L word documentary. It was there I found out about Brandiilyne Dear's Dandelion Project, and I contacted Brandiilyne soon after.  In 2014, I found a church that is open to all, called Safe Harbor. The people there accepted me, and I met a few others that were transgender, too. For the first time, I felt like I could worship God and be myself, my real self. The pastor, Amber Kirkendoll, even arranged a ride so that I could attend Sunday services.

Because Mississippi has such limited resources, most transgender people can't even afford therapy or hormone treatments. I was lucky in that I found help from a depression that many transgender people have. My longtime friends rejected me, and eventually I found a clinic that was willing to help me with depression. It was there I brought up having feelings of a woman and, they introduced me to a wonderful therapist named Angela Essary. For the first time, I found someone that could help me start my journey. Because I have a disability, I had governmental insurance, so Angela was able to treat my depression and help me with the hormone letter. I found a doctor to prescribe the hormones and I started my journey to be the real me.

I am not finished, and I don't know where all the money will come from for my medical transition that others like Caitlyn Jenner have had. Because Mississippi's resources and health care for trans individuals are limited, I can only have faith it will happen. People in Mississippi judge what they don't understand. It wasn't easy. My family said they would not accept me and 2 years later they are coming to terms. I am blessed I found Safe Harbor Church and the Dandelion Project.

How have things been since we saw you on the Southern Stories tour? What have you been doing?

I've been continuing my transition and dealing with everyday life. I am trying to find my own place to live where I and my precious kitty can be ourselves all the time, so I have been looking for low income places.  I am on disability and I have visual impairment. I've been going to a wonderful pro-LGBT church called Safe Harbor Family Church and meeting with Brandiilyne Dear's group, the Dandelion Project. And shopping. I can't forget shopping. 

Life is not easy in Mississippi. Things can be bumpy when you're transgender if you don't have the right people around you. Luckily, I have a mother that tries to support me when she can. Luckily, I have a wonderful church who supports me. I've been trying to find other trans people in the local area but most of them are in other areas, like the coast.

Are you involved with any LGBT organizations in Mississippi?

I am part of the Dandelion Project and the Gulf Coast Transgender Alliance, ran by Molly Kester, also Co-President of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center. But they are too far away for me to interact with them on a daily basis. I would love to be more active and get involved with more local groups. There needs to be more groups or organizations in the South and Mississippi. I would love to be a part of them.

When we met you, you told a really powerful story about your family and Caitlyn Jenner. How has Caitlyn Jenner's coming out impacted you?

Yes, when I came out to my mom and brother in 2012, they were not happy. They said they would never accept me as a woman, that it was a sin to be transgender. My brother and I argued a lot. I won't go into details, but it was not a happy time. I even considered suicide for a time. Luckily, a person online, Vickie Turner, was there to comfort me and stayed up all night on the phone talking to me. She calmed me down, and then my cat, Chloe, came to me and I was calm. They saved my life.

Before Caitlyn Jenner, my family was against me. Caitlyn Jenner's special with Diane aired, and my mom and my brother watched it. It was like a light bulb was lit in their heads. My brother came to me and said he would accept me. He understood that being transgender can't be changed and was not a sin. He thought of it as an Illness in some ways, though it is just who we are. It was soon after, my mom started to support me in small ways, taking me shopping and having us buy makeup together. Caitlyn Jenner had a positive impact. It showed them that I wasn't the only one who was transgender. Caitlyn Jenner has allowed my family to love me.

What do you see for the future of Mississippi?

Honestly that is hard to say. Mississippi likes to resist change. I think if more policies like the Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage pass into law, then it will force Mississippi to change. So any new laws protecting transgender people or making it easier for us to transition has to be done on the federal level. I feel eventually, when something becomes common place, then Mississippi will accept it.