One of the best documentaries I’ve watched all year, This is Jessica is a touching and powerful look at taking control of one’s life on their own terms. After watching the film, I just had to talk to Jessica about her journey. I’d love to dive even deeper with her one day, but her candid and open responses here truly show a strong woman who isn’t willing to let anyone else tell her what to believe, how to believe, or what to tell the world. Jessica’s story is one of strength and hope.
Here’s our chat, one I’m truly thankful and honored to be able to share with you all!
Hi Jessica, I’m so sorry we weren’t able to connect via phone or video, but appreciate the chance to chat this away. I feel like I have so many things to say, but in an effort to be respectful of your time, I’ll dive right into the meat of what I think folks who follow my site will be interested in. So let’s start with two brief introductions, one to you and one to the film.
Thank you, Justin. Appreciate your time. I was very touched by the review of the film. You understand the intention: save lives and build empathy
If you had to summarize who you are today in a few sentences, how would you answer the question “Who is Jessica Bair?”
I would say that Jessica Bair is a parent, a wife, a technologist, an advocate, a veteran, a world citizen, a lover, a global traveler…a fulfilled human. I have lived so far beyond my largest hopes and dreams as a child. It compels me to share what I have with others, in the hopes they can design the best life for them.
And that second part of the introduction, how would you briefly describe the documentary about your life, This is Jessica?
This is Jessica is my origin story. It examines the life in which I was born. How I struggled to fit into the mold assigned to me at birth, those expectations and demands of family, the faith community and society in general. The intent is to show that there is Hope. That each of us have the power to design our own life. My youngest daughter, who said, “This is Jessica…” in the film actually tattooed it on her arm as she was finding her own path: “Design Your Own Life.” When you let go of fear, you can have the life you dreamed about, and you will find people who celebrate that with you. Hopefully, many of those people will be from your current family and community. If not, it is their loss. If you share your true self, you will be happier as a person and other will have the opportunity to love you as who you are. That is healthier and more sustainable for everyone. Finally, suicide is never the answer. Hope is the most powerful force in humanity. Find your Hope.
How did you connect to Andrea and how did this project come about?
I met Andrea in 2008. I was serving as the Co-Chair for the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Steering Committee. We were giving Andrea an award at our annual fundraising gala dinner, for her work in creating Women on a Roll, a community for queer women. I volunteered to be her escort at the award dinner and shared my admiration, having attended a number of her events as I found community in West Hollywood, CA, after my transition.
A few years later, she heard I grew up Mormon and asked if I would be willing to share my story. It was not something I had interest, opening my life to the world. However, in 2018, we spent time together at the Outfest Film Festival Opening Night, and then bumped into each other again the following night at a screening. Andrea remarked how happy I appeared, the most happy she had ever seen in the 10 years we knew each other.
That night I reflected on the blessings and joys in my life; how I was only alive because others were willing to share their stories in film, television, books, online and in person. I knew I would be forever ungrateful if I did not consent to share my story. So, I sent Andrea a text and we meet the next morning for breakfast, before more Outfest screenings.
As we discussed a potential project I asked that: 1) it not be boring. 2) that no person would be the “villain” of the story, as we are all human right trying to make it through life the best we can.
Andrea was open to find the angle for the documentary. I opened all of my archives to her and answered every question, nothing off limits. As we were filming in Salt Lake City, she was struck by the experiences with the Mormon faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and determined that would be the story to tell.
I feel like I know a good deal about you and your story, since I watched this film. But since you don’t know me, let me briefly introduce myself as a preface to my next few questions… I’m Justin, the son of an American Baptist pastor (mom) and an electrical engineer (dad). My upbringing and my faith inform a lot of who I am and what I do, as I believe is the case for most of us. In my case, despite not being much a churchgoer in my adult life, I still consider my faith a big part of who I am. My website, The Farsighted, along with numerous other projects I’ve written and recorded for this and other sites, often focuses at least somewhat on the intersections of faith and art. I could get into the weeds on this, but I’ll save that for another time. For now, I just wanted to give you a small idea on where I’m coming from.
Thank you for sharing
With this all in mind, I want to focus on some of the aspects of faith and spirituality and community within your story. On this front, to begin with, (if you’re comfortable discussing) where do you stand today in regards to your personal faith in God, Christ, the Church, and your long standing faith community?
I worked so very hard to find a way to fit into the Mormon faith and community. As the film discusses, the policy of November 2015, which stated if my children lived with me, they could not go on a mission, be baptized (they all had already be baptized, but that was also a restriction of the policy), or fully participate as a member, until they turned 18 and disavowed me and my marriage. It finally broke my faith, as I could not believe it was divinely inspired. Many members left the church over the policy, which was repealed 2 1/2 years later.
My oldest children were now adults and experiencing their own faith crises at that time. Christian was returned from his mission and Lauren was living on her own. They introduced me to the CES letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts, which explores the origins of the Mormon faith. It eliminated lingering doubts I had about the divinity of the Church. I also read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and learned more about the origins of the human race, and reconciled the fact that I have some Neanderthal DNA in my body, and how that relates to what I was taught about Creation as a child.
After being raised in “The Only True Church of Earth”, I did not find another faith community in which I can believe. Instead, I take the good parts about the faith: “do unto others as you would like them to do to you” and “love your neighbor as yourself”, and endeavor to live that way every day.
What made you so able and willing to continue pursuing relationships within the Church and the faith community, even as you experience so much push back from the Church and some of those within the Church?
I really believed in God, the Church and Family, as a child, a teen, a missionary, a young parent, a solider, a spouse. I believed it was what was in me that was wrong. I needed to try harder, to “endure to the end”, and needed to be fixed. When I chose to live in 2006, instead of suicide, I did not lose my faith and worked for years to find a way to be part of the community. I found love and acceptance with individual people in the Mormon church. However, as an institution, and with senior leaders, gender is binary. There is no space for transgender, intersex or gender variance humans in the Mormon doctrine.
So many others walk away from their faith and community so much more quickly. And, of course, both responses are equally valid, but I found something so powerful about your desire to remain connected to your community. Is there anything about that experience you’d do differently or thoughts you’d want to share about that experience.
We do the best we can as humans, with what we know and feel at the time. I really wanted to find acceptance with my parents and with my Church, whom I loved and devoted so much of my life to serve and cherish. I still love my parents. I accept all of the good the Mormon church does in the world, and appreciate it. I just had to find a way to let the rest go, including that there was not a way for me to be an active member, without destroying part of who I am. Acceptance of that took time. Also, I have four amazing children in my life, none which I would have known if I had not grown up with such a strong faith community. I can’t imagine life without each of them. Again, I accept the good and let the rest go.
While the Mormons certainly have a reputation for a certain brand of conservatism that includes homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry, the documentary seemed to show many of the people within the community to be warmer and kinder. Whether or not the Church itself deserves the reputation, is it fair to say there are some really loving and open people in the community? What kind of support from people within the community have you had and/or do you continue to have? Have you found that your transition and experience has helped anyone around you in your community learn to be more open and accepting?
There are narrow minded people in all aspects of life, usually from their own fear of loss. I’ve found that sharing stories builds empathy and understanding. 1-1 story telling is the best, but film in unparalleled as an “engine for empathy”. Todd Paxman is interviewed in the film. We have been friends since high school and he is very active in the Mormon church. He has become an advocate for trans and queer people within the church and helps local leaders understand the human aspect.
Here is an exchange with another person with whom I attended high school and watch the film during the festival circuit:
Mormon Friend: I just watched your documentary. Very glad to see and hear in more detail your story and your journey.
Me: Thank you, I never expected to live this long, so compelled to help others have the same opportunity. Dialogue is so important.
Mormon Friend: You are so calm and composed but there were a few moments when your voice broke and your heartbreak really showed. In those moments and when I hear you say you didn’t expect to live this long. It causes emotion in me and my heart to break for you. Yes, indeed, dialogue is so important. Bless you Jessica. ❤️❤️
Me: You are very kind. I still love my mom and my sister; and forever grateful for my kiddos. And, for great friends. ❤️❤️
Mormon Friend: The thought that keeps coming into my mind is that the overall tone I get from you is so Christlike. Such an example. I apologize if that is a description that causes you any offense. If it does I am sorry. But I hope you know that in my mind that is the highest honor I can attempt to give.
Me: No offense, thank you. I endeavor to live the principles of Christ that we were taught as children, each day. 🤗
Moving more into your current work, I really wanted to give you a chance to talk a bit about the advocacy work you’ve been doing these past few years and the work you do now.
When I first transitioned, I invested a majority of my volunteer time and resources into political activism (the Human Rights Campaign), while also fundraising for the Los Angeles LGBT Center to address the local human needs of health care and housing. Pioneers for human rights made it possible for me to have access to health care, keep my job, change my legal records and have a place to live. I work to ensure the same opportunity was possible in other parts of the United States, as you can still be fired in half of the states if your employer finds out you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community. This is why the Equality Act is so important to be passed in Congress.
I served four years on the Board of Directors for the Outfest film festival, to provide a safe place to share our stories.
My main focus since the film release is on suicide prevention, especially the work of The Trevor Project. Suicide is the primary cause of death for teens in Utah, and Hope helps prevent death.
How does your specific experience coming from the Mormon community inform the work you do? Do you feel like you have had some unique experiences that have lent themselves to helping you be able to do the work you do now?
Growing up Mormon, service to others is built into the community and every day life. It is not possible for me to live a happy life if I am not sharing my time, resources and experiences with others. It is part of me as much as my genetic DNA. I used to donate 20 hours a week of my time and 10% of my gross income to the Mormon church. Over time, I transitioned those resources into advocacy.
I am a member of Mormons Building Bridges on Facebook. Also, Affirmation, a community for LGBTQ+ Mormons and Families. Both working to create ties of humanity with the Mormon church.
Before I start to wrap up, I was curious about your experiences on the film festival circuit. Your doc played (and won some awards at) many great festivals. What was that experience like for you, especially with your film showing off some truly deep and personal parts of your life?
It was very touching to watch the film with a live audience: to hear the laughs, the sighs, and even cries…all human. I am impacted by the stories shared with me by audience members, each worthy of a documentary. Stories are what make us human and the best part of our humanity.
It is surreal to see yourself, your photos, videos, documents and life of the screen, open to all to access or scrutinize. I had to lose fear to allow the film to be made and continue to let it go for the release.
In addition to your film, were there any other films you played alongside that blew you away and/or that you’d recommend to cinema nerds and movie geeks like myself?
The film my wife and I loved the most was was Nelly & Nadine, about two women who found love in a WWII concentration camp.
We also enjoyed They/Them, a queer take on the horror genre and conversion therapy.
Thanks again for taking some time to chat, one day we’ll have to have that video chat we weren’t able to connect on for this go ’round. For now, I really thank you for your time and thoughtfulness, as well as for being willing to share your story so freely and powerfully on film.
For the last question, what is a final thought you’d want to leave readers with?
You have the power to design your life.
Thank you so much!
Thank you, Justin, for your thoughtful and insightful questions.