When Jennifer opened the door we were both nervous.
The plan was to go for a hike, but I didn’t know what that meant. I changed my outfit from jeans to shorts to jeans again, my shoes from Docs to sneakers to Docs again. I dug up my old water bottle and bought sunscreen. I borrowed my roommate’s Fjällräven Kånken backpack and my roommate’s girlfriend’s 2002 Hyundai. The last time I met Jennifer, casually after a reading, I was so nervous I could barely talk. I wondered if I was even qualified to do this interview considering. As I prepared to leave, the worry increased. I wondered if I was even qualified to go outside. I suggested we go for a hike because I connect deeply to the way Jennifer writes about nature. But I’m not outdoorsy. Not at all. My definition of roughing it is not leaving my house for three days and having to find inventive ways to turn peanut butter into a meal.
But here I was at Jennifer’s house in Riverside, ready for a hike, whatever that meant. We said hello and I bent down to greet her dog, Frankie. (Focusing on a dog: classic anxious person move.) “Do you do hugs?” she asked. I recognized this thoughtful and vulnerable greeting from her reading. I said yes and we hugged. As she got ready to leave, and I returned to Frankie, I noticed that she was wearing sneakers, jean shorts, and a cutoff Steve Nicks tee. I regretted my decisions.
But, as they say, anxiety loves company. “I’m like…” Jennifer trailed off. “I was nervous about this because I’m not a good speaker. Which is why I write.” I reassured her and we both laughed. I admitted to being nervous as well. But as I said this I realized I wasn’t that nervous anymore.
I first discovered Joshua Jennifer Espinoza on Twitter. October 17, 2017: i identify as a woman because it’s easier to understand but please know that my true gender is exhaustion
Within fifteen minutes of reading this I scrolled through 100 more tweets, browsed her recent wedding photos, and ordered a copy of her second poetry collection, There Should Be Flowers. It would arrive in 2-3 business days.
Jennifer has 33.2 thousand followers on Twitter and it’s easy to see why. I told a friend that Jennifer’s tweets punch me in the gut and then give me a hug. When I repeated this to Jennifer she just laughed. Whether she’s tweeting about anxiety, depression, or being the self-proclaimed “gayest gay who ever gayed,” Jennifer has somehow won the Internet by being herself. Twitter is filled with people masking real vulnerability with online speak. But Jennifer uses these structures for something deeper. She’s funny, yes, but behind her clever words and turns of phrase a real life person is felt. This authenticity is a gift. The reaction to her tweets is not “lol we’re all depressed,” but rather, “This person is depressed the same way I’m depressed. Why does this feel so good?” December 15, 2018: me flirting: you ever feel like the phrase “childhood trauma” is redundant?
Jennifer asked if we could go on a shorter walk, much to my relief. We made our way through her neighborhood to a nearby trail. As she began to tell me a bit about her life and her transition, I became acutely aware how starved I’d been for other trans women since moving to LA. There’s a difference in communication between trans people whether we’re explicitly discussing trans-related topics or not. I asked Jennifer if she had a large trans community when she was first transitioning.
“Like online, yeah. And I kind of– I mean I’ve always been kind of shy.” She explained that even online she often did more observing than interacting, that for her it was more about witnessing others with similar experiences than forming overt relationships. Then she paused. “It’s interesting my relationship to community because I’ve never known how to be fully a part of one.”
Maybe it’s because of the 33.2 thousand Twitter followers, but I was taken aback by this confession. I asked her what she meant.
“I guess it comes down to not fully knowing how to be with other people. Just sort of disassociation, I guess, that I think has prevented me from connecting to people. And I think a lot of that is trauma and shit like that. Especially early developmental trauma. I just always felt this sort of disconnection from people. And that’s made community a difficult thing to realize.”
I should not have been surprised. So much of what Jennifer has written about and said has resonated with me. Of course we’d also have shared experience around community. I told her I’ve had several situations where I’ve commiserated with other trans women about this. “I’m a trans person talking to another trans person and we’re both like we don’t know how to do this! Even though having the conversation–”
Jennifer finished my sentence. “You’re like literally doing it, yeah.”
I laughed. “Exactly.”
“We’re all just so fucking awkward,” she added.
We looked at each other and laughed some more. We made it to the top of a steep hill and looked out over the blooming yellow clovers. She took a sip of water and asked if I was feeling okay. “I feel great,” I said. And I did.
Jennifer grew up in San Bernardino, only a few towns over from Riverside. Her suburban housing development was located right next to the nearby mountains. As a child, she often climbed over her back wall and roamed the foothills alone. She’d walk around and climb trees and take refuge in nature. Raised in an Evangelical Christian household where her latent queerness was unacceptable, it was how she coped with alienation.
When she was around 7 years old her dad brought home a computer and suggested she play around with the word processor. She began writing stories, an expression of creativity and another way of coping with her feeling of isolation. In middle school, a unit on poetry featuring Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson shifted her writing away from prose. This would continue into high school with angst-filled Live Journal writing, and beyond with poetry she’d post on Tumblr.
“For years it was just a way to get my feelings out, process things, and then eventually I started finding these pockets of other people who were writing in ways that I thought were similar to what I was trying to do, who were interesting and different. I started finding these communities and finding places to submit my work. And eventually it got to the point where I was like, Oh I’m a girl and I need to transition.”
And that’s how a poet becomes a trans poet.
Jennifer’s poetry is urgent and beautiful and clear and complex. Her poetic turns of phrase carry the same pointed weight of her tweets, but with an added aura of grace. She writes about being trans, because she is trans, and while any artist outside cis straight white maleness must be weary of reduction, her work’s transness is one of its best qualities.
Being trans is not simply the experience of being assigned one gender and existing as another. It can be an entire framing of one’s life. Within the identity of transness exists a belief in change, self-destructive desire, chronic dissatisfaction, an understanding of reality, and a questioning of nature. Being trans is, ultimately, being human, and Jennifer’s poetry encompasses that complicated experience.
Within her work, Jennifer often contends with the painful inevitability of having a human body. While transition is often spoken about with a finish line, Jennifer prefers to think of it as a “compromise.” It’s not about being born in the wrong body; it’s about being born in a body at all. It’s about how difficult it is to be human.
But her poems are far from maudlin. She seems to be in constant amazement of her continued existence. That living is hard only makes it more impressive when one keeps doing it. That the world is harsh only makes its wonders, a flower, the wind, a kind stranger, oneself, all the more beautiful. Logically, Jennifer suggests, we should all stop trying. But we don’t. And that’s an overwhelming achievement.
Did you go outside today
Did you see the people
climbing one another
their fingers twisted
and tangled in
each other’s hair
Did you think to yourself
how long can this continue
Did you know the answer
Did you stay alive anyway
Jennifer has dealt with agoraphobia her entire life. When she began transitioning it only got worse. The world is not kind to trans people and while the Internet can bring us together and raise awareness, it can also accumulate our trauma.
“It just creates this sense. This aura of danger every time you step out the door. I take daily walks with my dog and I kind of use that to deprogram that from myself. I’ll have to stare at the houses, at the hill, at everything and be like danger is not radiating off these things even though it feels like it is… So there’s this practice I think of being and being in public and existing. And there’s a privilege to that as well.”
I asked Jennifer about her favorite experiences in nature and she mentioned her honeymoon on Catalina before pivoting back to the very hill we walked on. This place, this simple trail on an assuming mountain.
Again, I’d underestimated our shared humanity. Jennifer writes so beautifully about nature, I assumed she’d mastered this aspect of gay womanhood. I imagined her camping, going on road trips to far off lands, and hiking for hours on end. I felt insecure about my own lack of experience. But like in childhood, her connection to nature is just over the wall of her backyard. And when the world feels hostile, traversing that wall, creating a daily practice, is a necessity.
“I think being in nature is part of confronting that and challenging that. Reconnecting with your body, yes, but also with the earth itself. With reality. Because I think as trans people we have to disconnect ourselves from it so often just to feel okay.”
Jennifer aspires to be more outdoorsy, to go camping, and fulfill all those cliché fantasies. I do too. But one need only read Jennifer’s work to see that her relationship to nature is already fully developed. These little moments outside may not make for daring stories, but they’re daring all the same. When I think about my most meaningful moments in nature they’re similar to Jennifer’s. A secluded corner of a city park. A flower breaking its way through concrete. A body of water in full view from the highway. A hiking trail ten minutes from my home.
Some trans women may not share our fear. Some cis women might. And others probably have no interest in the outdoors at all. It’s impossible to generalize. But talking with Jennifer I wondered if she and I could reassess for trans women, or, at the very least, for the two of us individual trans women, what it means to be outdoorsy. Is there a required number of miles to travel? Or can it simply be a spiritual connection to the outdoors wherever we may find it?
We got back to Jennifer’s house. Frankie enthusiastically greeted us. We continued discussing Jennifer’s belief that personhood itself was a scam. “I think it exists only to say these people are people and these people aren’t.”
I said that I always loved how brazenly she defied the conservative talking point that if people could switch genders next we’d want to transition into a bird or a tree.
“I would fucking love that! It’s like the old meme that was like ‘You wouldn’t download a car’ and it’s like ‘Fuck you I would if I could!’ ‘You wouldn’t transition into a tree.’ ‘Fuck you I would if I could!'”
We both laughed. There was a brief pause and I sheepishly asked if she had a minute to keep talking or…
She did. We sat down on her couch.
We talked for another hour. We talked about coping mechanisms. We talked about Mitski. We talked about Jennifer’s wife and my ex. We talked about our annoyance with narratives around transitioning in relationships. We talked about clothes. We talked about our childhoods. We talked about feeling isolated from cis lesbian communities. We talked about imposter syndrome.
We probably could’ve talked for another hour. Or seven. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. Before I left I reminded her that we’d met last December at her reading. I told her how nervous I’d been. I explained that I usually don’t get star struck, but her work just means so much to me. Reading her words and knowing we were thinking the same crazy thoughts got me through my roughest days.
“And then when I saw you in person I was all of a sudden, I don’t know. Like unable to be normal,” I explained. “So whatever I said to you, I did not put words into actual sentences. And you were so great.”
She smiled. “Eh I feel like I was probably the same. So awkward.”
“Classic awkward trans women,” I sighed.
We laughed again. I thanked her again. We hugged again. And I left.
I went back to the trail to take some pictures. I meandered around for a bit enjoying Jennifer’s little slice of nature as my own. I noticed how visible the road was from the trail and thought about Jennifer’s ability to blur the lines between what we think of as nature and what we think of as artificial. There’s something rather trans about that as well.
I was lost in thought, reflecting on my afternoon, feeling full and at peace, when I saw something move in the corner of my eye.
A snake. Casually lying its body across the entire width of the trail. I took a few steps back and snapped a picture.
As I made my way back down the hill, I sent the picture to Jennifer. I joked that we can talk all day about trans women being anxious to go out in the world, but we should really just be looking out for snakes. She sent me a meme about discussing gender with cis people vs. trans people and said our conversation made her think of it. We both wrote back extended hahahaha‘s and I felt the same comfort as when I read that first tweet of hers a year and a half ago.
Maybe if trans women can redefine what it means to be close to nature we can also redefine what it means to be close to each other.
Maybe this, right here, was community.🌲
Read some of Jennifer’s work here for free, including the first poem of hers that I fell in love with, Autopainophile. Then go buy her books, There Should Be Flowers and Outside of the Body There is Something Like Hope!
edited by Heather.