Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a bi-weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Jordan Wieleba is a comedian, musician, illustrator, GLBTQ advocate, cornerstone of Denver's comedy community and Best of Denver winner. Recently seen gracing the cover of Out Front Colorado, she also provided the illustrations for the book Sharing the Good News: A Positive Model for Coming Out as Transgender. Westword recently caught up with Wieleba to discuss helpful books for people struggling with gender identity, prescient sci-fi authors and her beloved stolen copy of War of the Worlds.
Westword: So, you recently did the illustrations for a children's book? What's it called and how did that come together?
Jordan Wieleba: The book is called Sharing the Good News: A Positive Model for Coming Out as Transgender. I do volunteer work at the Gender Identity Center of Colorado and I met the director, Karen Scarpella, who's a licensed psychologist who specializes in gender dysphoria and other issues, and she's been wanting to write this book for a long time. She finally did, and she knew that I did graphics and illustrations, so she asked me to do some cute little cartoons for the book and essentially format the whole thing. It's available on Amazon now, but she also gave it to a bunch of clinicians across the country.
So it's meant for all ages, but approachable for a kid?
It's meant to a be a light read. It's only fifty pages, written in a way where anyone can read it and really understand it. Essentially, the book is for anyone who might be struggling with gender-identity issues or thinks that they might want to come out as transgender. Like the title says, the book offers a good model for coming out, for telling your friends and family that this is the path you're going to go down.
I think that's important. A lot of people don't get it. There's not many resources available to transgender people. It seems like even more liberal, understanding parents are still reinforcing binary gender norms to their kids.
People are socialized into following patterns of behavior even if they don't feel right.
Absolutely! When I was a kid -- I was assigned male, that's what we call it because I didn't get to choose -- and growing up in the early '80s, the stereotypes were all enforced. My parents wanted me to play sports, do your stereotypical boy stuff and I resisted all the way. Thankfully, I had younger sisters and when they came around, I could play with their toys and stuff.
Actually, when I came out, my mom told me that she already knew, that she was just waiting for me to say something. It's been such a taboo subject for so long that people don't understand how young you are when you start having these feelings. It started from birth. I always knew, I just didn't know that there was anything I could do about it until I was a teenager.
I started doing comedy a little late, so I didn't realize that you'd gone through your transition publicly. You were already doing comedy and playing in bands. I imagine you got to hear everyone's input, whether you wanted it or not.
Yeah, I had been doing comedy for five years before I came out, and I almost quit because I was petrified of what people would think. It's not like I had this great reputation to begin with, and the reason I was in the closet for so long is because I was afraid of what people would think. When you're surrounded by comedians all the time, it's a little intimidating. In the end, though, I couldn't get away from the stage. I couldn't quit.
It seems like it's informed your comedy a lot, too.
Sure. It helped me define who I was, which has been a big part of my life in the last few years. I didn't really feel any connection to my material before I came out. When I finally was able to be myself, I learned how to be myself onstage and it really translated into my act.
I think that self-actualization is important for anybody, and it can be a struggle even without these huge obstacles of socialization and gender panic. Also, some comics can be real dicks. Overcoming that is a huge deal.
Absolutely, it's a performance of self. It took me a very long time to learn. I remember when I was a little kid in school, we used to have this program where kids got the chance to write a book for this little in-school publishing house. I did it every year, kindergarten through fifth grade. I remember that it had a little author bio in the back of every book. They asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and every year I said, "comedian." And it happened. I got to be what I wanted to be when I grow up. I wanted to be a girl and a comedian, and I got to be both.
That's awesome. So, to pivot more towards books: have you been reading anything lately? Keep reading for more from Jordan Wieleba. I just started reading a book called Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock, who is also transgender. She's become a real advocate in the past few years and her book is doing really well. I wanted to read it to see if I could understand her journey and relate it to my own. It's an autobiography. We can all relate on some level. We all felt like we were born in the wrong body. But everyone goes through it a different way.
Are there any other books along those lines you've found helpful?
Before I came out, I tried to find books that weren't weighted with medical details. Most of the fiction written about being transgender is all wacky body-swap type stuff. Like, "Oh no, the jock is in the body of a ballerina." I'm sure there's good fiction out there, but maybe it's tricky to find.
Like Ranma 1/12. Or Bosom Buddies.
Are there books written about how to support your transgendered loved ones?
There was one called True Selves: Understanding Transexualism -- for Families, Friends, Co-Workers, and Helping Professionals, by Mildred L. Brown and Chloe Ann Rounsley. It essentially goes through all the processes, from childhood all the way through the final surgery. It explains what to look for in transgender children and explains what it feels like in your body, what to expect from people when they come out and how others will react. It was written more for parents and health professionals. That was helpful, especially for my parents. My therapist had to give my parents some reading material because I couldn't explain it to them while I was going through it.
Yeah, it'd be pretty difficult to advocate yourself when you're taking hormone replacement that -- as you say in one of your jokes -- feels like going through a second puberty.
Yeah, when people say, "Calm down, you're just being hormonal," I say, damn right I'm being hormonal!
It seems like a gnarly thing to go through all around, but the sense of self-actualization that you mentioned...
That makes it worth it. Once you can be yourself, it's like a weight has been lifted, which is the most amazing feeling.
So, are there fiction genres that you gravitate towards?
I am a fan of sci fi. I'm such a nerd for UFO books. I read all of Whitley Strieber's books, from Communion all the way to his non-fiction stuff. I haven't had as much time to read fiction lately. I read Erich Von Däniken too, he's a big guru of the ancient alien theorem. He has a book called History Is Wrong and it's all about misinterpretation of the bible and artifacts from the past. Do you ever watch those Ancient Aliens shows?
No, I'm more of a swords and wizards type of nerd. But you gravitate towards aliens in particular?
It's fascinating and it's a good escape when you read stuff like that.
What about your classic science fiction? I haven't read much in the genre beyond the big names.
Oh, I love Heinlein and Bradbury. I read all of those years ago. I want to read those again, it's been so long. Back when I was playing in a band, I stole a copy of War of the Worlds from some house we were staying at and I read it like five times when we were on the road.
I love H.G. Wells. There's a sort of chicken-before-the-egg question with Wells: Were all these inventors inspired by his stories to create what he explored in fiction, or was he just that prescient about how the future would look?
He was definitely ahead of his time.
For sure, but there's this thing with a lot of the great science fiction writers, from Jules Verne to Phillip K. Dick. I doubt it's too much of a stretch to assume that engineers, programmers and inventors are science fiction fans who wanted to make these ideas a reality. Although it's also kind of terrifying that some of that Minority Report-style surveillance state actually exists now.
I think that early science fiction was a good indication of what was to come in the future. I think you're right, but they also might have had more of an inkling of where society was headed than average people.
Do you have any shows coming up that you want to plug?
My new show, Something Fabulous, starts on May 26 at Blush and Blu. I'm still hosting Capitol Hilarity there twice a month.
So the new show is going to be more variety-style?
It is a variety show. We're going to have burlesque, drag, standup comedy, poetry and music; performances of any kind. Right now I'm taking submissions from everybody. The owners know a lot of performers, too. They've been really supportive of all the shows we've done there, and they make the best drinks.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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