September 17, 2019

Up North Pride's Jonny and Elon Cameron

The couple discuss LGBTQ rights, Up North Pride, Jonny's transition from Jenn, and love.
By Lynda Wheatley | June 17, 2019

The founders of Traverse City-based Up North Pride, Jonny and Elon Cameron, met when they were 25 and 28 years old. Over their past 17 years together, they’ve navigated a move from Chicago to northern Michigan, marriage, and — weeks after leaving a job, building a new home, and taking in a parent and her terminally ill longtime partner — launched Up North Pride. Most recently, they made another life transition: Jenn Cameron transitioned to Jonny Cameron. The two share their story.

Express: Tell me about what propelled you two, along with Marta Turnbull, to start Up North Pride in 2014.

Elon: It wasn’t really the best time to take on another project, but we felt strongly that this town needed something that would bring people together in a way that acknowledged that we’re here. And I think that — unfortunately for many of the members of the LGBTQ community — the more public you are does not mean the safer you are. The average lifespan for a trans person of color is 35 years in this country. It’s just abhorrent to me to think that there’s any citizen of the one of the most wealthy nations in the world whose life expectancy is only 35 years.

Express: Elon, what was it like in Traverse City when you were growing up? Was it hard to even find gay people? Was it like a, “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation?

Elon: It wasn’t even “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was an unsafe place. The police actually performed sting operations as recently as the ’90s — the mid-’90s. That wasn’t that long ago. They were cruising in parks and there was an undercover operator who would flirt with a gay man, and if the gay man was interested, which, come on — they would book them.

Jonny: They’d entrap them, criminalize them, and publicly humiliate them.

Elon: So until the very very recent past, and really only for people who are socially acceptable in other manners, have we ever had the support of social services. You know, public accommodation. That was the big thing that passed in 2010 when we passed the Non-Discrimination Ordinance — let me rephrase that — when we added LGBTQ people to the existing Non-Discrimination Ordinance that the city already had.

It dictated that no one could be discriminated against in employment, housing or public accommodation, because previously we had been discriminated against in all of those places. I know gay men who were fired from their jobs. I know gay men who were ostracized from their social circles because they were put in the newspaper as criminals for being gay, less than 30 years ago! But it’s really, it’s stunning to consider that 25 years ago, a gay man could’ve been put in jail for being interested in another man publicly.

Express: Jonny, what was growing up like for you?

Jonny: I was raised a southern belle debutante in Texas. I was put in a white dress and presented to society. I had the Mary Kay lady at my house teaching me how to do makeup when I was 12. I had a grandmother who was a pillar of the Baptist church.

Express: How did you two meet? 

Jonny: [After living for a time in Austin], I was working for the Reconciling Ministries Network, which is a national non-profit challenging the United Methodist church and its policies and practices towards LGBTQ people. I did their communications, and I was organizing and reclaiming my parts of myself that were really harmed by growing up Southern Baptist and being queer and coming out bi, and then coming out, and coming out in all these ways. I didn’t know where my home was. I knew it wasn’t in Austin anymore, but I knew I hadn’t found my people [in Chicago]. I’d been pretty lonely. I just hadn’t found my people.

Elon: I’d already lived in Chicago for seven or eight years at that point and had a very well-established group of queer friends who were fashion designers and art dealers and bike mechanics and who worked at ad agencies — just people who had really interesting lives and jobs.
Jonny: Getting to know Elon … I finally found a safe place to start getting out of my Banana Republic camisole shirts and all of the adornments of trying to pass as femme or being female enough, or appealing. 

Elon: It took us about three weeks to figure out we were dating, because obviously we have differences in our gender, but at the time we were navigating a same-sex relationship, and it really wasn’t clear if we were having a slumber party, or if we were gonna make out. … You know, I came out to my mom when I still lived in Traverse City, but I wasn’t open about my identity until I lived in Chicago. So at that time, I hadn’t really experienced a lot of opportunities to date women or to know what I liked. All I knew was, if what I saw in northern Michigan lesbians was a lesbian, I must be something else.

Jonny: And what I had been experiencing in Austin [where an androgynous look was the ideal], was “I must be something else.” I was hanging out at the lesbian coffee shop — I did a great job — I identified internally as bi, but I mostly dated women. Yeah, there was something that wasn’t me. 

At this point in the interview, as we discuss Jonny and Elon’s personal growth and the evolution of their relationship over nearly two decades, it becomes evident that the reporter’s assumption that Jonny transitioned because they [Jonny] “felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body” is not correct. 

Express: Do you feel like one of you struggled more than the other with the transition? I was assuming it would be Elon.

Elon: I had been asking Jonny for a long time, “Do you feel like transition might be a thing for you?” And they were like, “Eh.” 

You know, you have to understand that if you get societal messaging that who you are is not OK, you could be in a loving relationship with someone for 10 years — you could be married to someone — and still be afraid to tell them that there’s something else? You could have someone saying “I love and accept trans people, and I suspect you might be one,” and you could still not be able to recognize that truth because of nothing other than societal pressure.

It’s the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the subtle and not-so-subtle messages we get from our parents and from our culture. Jonny and I were together for 14 years before they said, “Yeah, I think that might be a thing.”

Express: So, Jonny, was there a turning point, a moment or a day that you reached, or was your realization gradual?

Jonny: I was at the Creating Change conference in Philadelphia the weekend that Trump was inaugurated. We were at this queer conference — 2,500 people. Pride was a 501(c)(3) at this point. I went to an executive director roundtable with a lot of my heroes that have been in this work for a long time, nationally. We were breaking out into groups, woman-lead executive directors, directors with whatever, and executive directors who were trans. I literally was in this room of queer people and I was like, “I wanna be with [the trans leaders].” 

I walked over and I was like, “I feel like I wanna be with y’all here.” And even coming out to people who were obviously the most welcoming and embracing, I was still like, “Can I … am I trans enough?”

I was just down a very personal rabbit hole of self discovery of getting really real with myself, and I cried a lot. I thought about all the ways that I’d harmed this wonderful, beautiful feminine in me because I was so angry about not having the body I wanted and not having a more masculine presentation, so I’d kind of hated on this part of me. I’d done some anger and harm. That was the point where I was like, “Well, glad I’ve got that date with my therapist when I get home.

There was also this thing that happened as I was really moving toward transition, which was [because of their founding and continued work of organizing Up North Pride], suddenly, we became the queer spokespeople — highly public. At some point, I realized: The noise in my head is really loud, I hate looking at myself in a mirror, I have parts of me that I am completely dysphoric about. I realized that I was going to be in this small town with some public-facing stuff, and I was gonna transition publicly.

Express: Do you think your work with Pride and the LGBTQ+ community helped realize you needed to undergo change to be more who you are, or did it complicate it?

Jonny: It complicated it. What’s public, what’s private? What am I doing for me, what am I doing because I love these young people, and I want to pave the way as my elders have paved the way for me? That got murky in the last few years, and it’s a lot more in focus now. I am identifying now, for myself, and trying to be more true in an LGBT space. Identifying as genderqueer and coming forward that way. … For me, I just know it’s not “girl,” “ma’am,” “honey pie,” “lady.”

Elon: And it’s also not “sir,” “mister,” “gentleman.”

Jonny: Although, I’d rather that. It keeps me safe in certain places where people don’t know me. That’s for safety. So “they” is my pronoun, and when you talk about me, talk about me as Jonny: “Jonny was over the other night. They looked great, their mustache is fu*%ing fantastic.”

Express: But wait. You’re not saying you felt like a man.

Jonny: I’m not.

Express: You are just … Jonny, where you are.

Jonny: I really don’t like correcting people too much, but it is me, and if you really want to get to know me, that’s where we start talking about it. There are a lot of young people who are identifying non-binary, more so than ever before, and we’re gonna see this continue. It’s not like we’re trying to break … well, maybe we are.

Elon: We’re not trying to break down the useful, helpful determining factors that allow people to navigate society with greater ease. We’re actually trying to make our culture, our society, our being on this planet more humane for everybody.

It’s not about saying “I’m different, I’m special, I’m other.” It’s about saying, “I’m human, just like you. I just have different aspects to my being-ness. And because those things are marginalized and “othered” by our primary macro-culture, there’s an aspect of that that’s work. 

It’s a lot of emotional labor to just be a queer person in this world. We’re always fielding questions. It’s a blessing to be able to field questions, but it’s work. 

You know, you just go to the hospital, and you do a thing, or your husband gets a thing done, and you leave. We go to the hospital, and 500 people ask me, “Well what’s going on? Well, what kind of surgery?” Somehow, because trans people are so marginalized, well-educated, well-meaning allies will often ask about Jonny’s genitals.

Jonny: The only people that get asked about their genitals are transgender people.

Elon: No one else.

Jonny: It’s objectifying and very dehumanizing, and I’ve been very surprised at how many people are interested. Not directly with me —kind of sidesaddle, through other people. But that’s impolite — I’m not an object.

The conversation turns to the manners (or lack thereof) of even well-meaning people when talking to or about a person’s transition.  

Elon: You might have a nickname at home that isn’t the name that’s called out in the world, right? It’s not hard to change who we call a person. Women get married all the time and change their last name. Everyone can do that. They don’t suddenly say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I just can’t keep up with your name changes.” Whereas a trans person gets that all day long: “Oh, I’m so sorry, I just can’t keep up with all your name changes. Oh, and this pronoun! I’m an English major, I just can’t do they/them for a singular.”

Express: Are you getting that?

Elon: All day long.

Express: What can people who think of themselves as allies do to help?

Elon: There are these awareness events that you can show up at one week a year, one day a year and march with us, but, to be an ally is more. I mean, we’ve got great t-shirts — get a t-shirt, wear it, put it out there — but actually put some action behind it as well. You can’t just wear our Pride, you have to do something. And that’s an uncomfortable transition from an ally to an accomplice, right? We’re asking you to actually put some of your privilege on the line to make our lives safer.

Express: For people who might be figuring out where and who they are, or are considering transitioning, do you have any advice?

Jonny: For people in the area who have a concern or who may be exploring this, there’s a trans and non-binary support group through Polestar. There is also the program that I am in [University of Michigan Comprehensive Gender Services], and what I like about it is that they have a longitudinal research aspect to it. So they’re studying the positive outcomes of the therapy. They have a lot of requirements to get in, but you can fill out an application, and they are very responsive.

Express: Within the trans community, is it equally embraced if someone doesn’t do any surgeries; they just do hormones, or simply dress differently?

Jonny: It’s different for everyone. I mean, I have friends who are going all the way. I recently met someone who had never met another transgender person, and they are absolutely certain that they are having all the surgeries. But it’s — it’s expensive. It often comes down to access and privilege.

Elon: If we didn’t have fiscal help from our family, there’d be no way we could do the things that we’re doing. We’ve depleted our retirement accounts. We have no savings. This is — Jonny’s survival is more important than our future, right? But these are things that people don’t see, you know — our life. I like to joke that we live extravagantly from paycheck to paycheck. But we pass for middle-class.

Jonny: And when we’re talking about young people who’re prepubescent, there are hormone blockers that some young people can get onto so that they can make a decision that’s not so long-lasting, until they’re older and more actualized. It’s a tender area though because there are also kids who are trans, and at seven years of age — the age of persistence — if they are showing certain markers, that’s when you know, if that persistence is at such a level at age seven, then you may want to recognize that it may be very likely that you have a trans child on your hands.

Express: And then?

Jonny: Therapy. They need to make sure that a therapist is absolutely an LGBTQ- informed therapist. There are a lot of therapists who make that claim who aren’t.

Elon: I think Polestar is actively gathering resources to make sure that they can make a [vetted] referral network basically.

Jonny: I am so grateful for the wonderful therapy and so many awesome people I’ve had in my life. I’ve been around a lot of people who’ve helped me. But yeah, therapy. Revisiting that kid and going, “I’m so sorry.” Picking up the pieces. And that’s a lot. I am still picking up my pieces. 

Express: Final insights or advice for anyone — gay, straight, trans, or on a spectrum — who’s reading this?

Elon: The most basic thing I can think of is as a human — and that’s what this is about. It’s not about anything more complex than that. It’s not about all these politicized aspects of our identity — it’s about: We deserve to be who we are and love who we love. And that’s true of everyone. Let’s make that true for everyone.

Let’s make that true that there are no more kids — may there be no more queer kids in these isolated areas who don’t think that they deserve love.

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