Big Talk is our long-form interview about Stuff That Matters. We interview rad people who are also passionate experts in their field. We can often get lost in the little details of day to day life and the intention of Big Talk is to get you thinking about the bigger picture, while perhaps learning something new.
Our Big Talker this week is Jessie Anderson, owner of Big Bro's Barbershop. Earlier this month, Pride took over for a weekend in Vancouver (and in many cities around the country). We thought it would be a fitting time to chat with Jessie about Pride, growing up Trans, and the story behind Big Bro's.
Tell us about yourself in 140 characters or less
I'm an activist for trans rights, former sex worker, & the owner of Big Bro’s Barbershop, a beauty/resource centre for the trans community.
Let's flesh out the story a bit and take it back to the beginning. What do you think were some key monumental moments growing up?
1990: born in Toronto, ON
- moved to Vancouver, BC with mother and stepfather;
- grew up in East Van
2001 : mother was diagnosed with her first round of cancer and conquered it after a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments
2003 : determined that I was attracted to girls/was likely a lesbian
2003-2006 :was class president of the academically-advanced Summit program at VanTech, despite being an artsy theatre/film student at heart
2004: started finding older queer kids to hang out with outside of school, including a Seattle-based posse who called themselves “The Goddamn Lesbians”
- began dating one of the Goddamn Lesbians;
- fell in love for the first time
- heart broken for the first time
- fell into a depression, later linked to gender dysphoria;
- visible turmoil developed between parents until my stepfather left the family
- began hormone replacement therapy;
- mother was re-diagnosed with cancer and conquered it after another year of chemotherapy;
- graduated from high school - birth-father, stepfather, and first girlfriend came the the ceremony while my mother had to remain in the hospital
- mother almost immediately re-diagnosed with now-terminal cancer (estimated two years to live);
- I tried to figure out What To Do Next after high school knowing that my only active parent could pass away at any moment;
- I started working at Fantasy Factory and volunteering with PlanetAhead-Condomania to teach safer sex workshops to high school students
- my mother and I were evicted from our house in favour of selling the land;
- I used this as a prompt to get my first VERY tiny apartment
- Began dating a prominent queer organizer and moved in with her;
- started working at Little Sister’s Bookstore and at a men’s bathhouse;
- began getting involved in the indie queer porn scene on an international level as both a producer and a performer under the alias Charlie Spats, and left PlanetAhead-Condomania in case an offended parent found out about my side career
- Broke up with my partner after she repeatedly sexually assaulted me, but continued living with her from inside the walk-in closet until our lease ran out;
- moved in with my mother four months later, but she passed away at the hospice the night that I moved into her home;
- I struggled to maintain my own life while also trying to pick up the pieces of hers all by myself
- Battled depression, suicidal thoughts, and grief;
- kept myself alive by launching my own queer porn company;
- started dating men for the first time;
- started dating my most recent partner while she was in an open marriage
- Threw a few play parties for the community alongside my ex and a mutual friend, but eventually stopped participating in those events and publicly called out my ex as a manipulative ongoing abuser to trans men in the community;
- my partner divorced her husband and we developed our relationship further;
- Jim Deva, one of the owners of Little Sister’s, passed away suddenly and the store atmosphere changed immediately following his death
- Quit my job at Little Sister’s to go to barbering school;
- launched the initial version of Big Bro’s Barbershop
- Won the “Best Emerging Entrepreneur” award at the Small Business BC Awards;
- launched the official storefront location for Big Bro’s Barbershop;
- was dumped by partner two months before planning to start a family together;
- now settling into working on myself, unpacking my C-PTSD, and strengthening my emotional resilience to trauma
Before we dive deep in to Big Bros, I have to ask- can you tell us about your experience working in the adult entertainment industry. Highs? Lows? What got you interested in the industry and why did you end up deciding to leave the industry?
I got really into queer porn as a fan! I used to be really into filmmaking, and at 16, I fell in love with the movie Shortbus, which I believe is the only American film to incorporate sex into a narrative feature. It’s really not pornographic, while still being very explicit; the sex is used as a storytelling device, and for character development. Indie porn was only a hop and a skip away from Shortbus, and my initial draw to it was that there were transgender performers depicted in an authentic and highly flattering way! When I started transitioning, I came to terms with the idea that no one would ever find me attractive ever again, so these images of trans men having hot, amazing sex with hot, amazing partners was really powerful! I wanted to contribute to making those images more available, to queer people and beyond.
Overall, I have no regrets at all about working in the adult industry! I met a lot of really incredible and beautiful (on the inside and out) people. Most of the directors and co-stars I worked with checked their attitudes at the door; everyone was so humble and cute and just wanted to create an authentic experience together. The reasons I left had very little to do with the industry and more to do with me - at a certain point, I just realized that I had yet to unpack a lot of my gender dysphoria, my sexual assault, and my totally normal run-of-the-mill body issues! And yet so much of my life involved considering what *other* people would think of my body - my partners, my co-stars, my directors, my fans, my occasional viewers, and more. I just got tired of my body being public property. And I say that as a reflection of how I was feeling at the time; I’m certainly not here to poo-poo on any slutty behaviour! But launching Big Bro’s was a huge relief, because it gave me an opportunity to use and be recognized for skills that didn’t involve how attractive my body was.
I might return to the adult industry in the future; I’ve only casually/circumstantially retired. I’m excited to really get comfortable in my body and develop a truly authentic sexuality for myself - and only for myself - and then show that off on camera later!
Tell us about Big Bro's. Where did the idea come from?
The initial inspiration for Big Bro’s Barbershop was simply that there didn’t seem to be any concrete place for trans people to go and know, absolutely, that they were safe and welcome. I had hoped to help build a stronger trans presence at Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium while I worked there, but found that it was too difficult to do within a pre-existing business with even a slightly different focus - for instance, when I brought in products designed specifically for transgender people (which are incredibly challenging to find in stores), the “best” place for them was in the middle of the Adult section, making it an awkward situation for trans youth to come in with their parents for chest binders or other products. I wanted to make sure that whatever space I built myself would be family-friendly, and encourage allies and family members to come by and feel safe asking questions about how to support their trans loved ones.
The barbering aspect of the business was relevant to my own interests, addressed an ongoing challenge for trans folks - beauty spaces of all kinds tend to be heavily gendered, and can be awkward or dangerous if you are not read as the “appropriate” gender for the space - and it meant that the bulk of the business’s income came from a trade that couldn’t be sold online! Plus, all kinds of people need haircuts, so I knew it wouldn’t be on the back of the trans community alone to keep my business alive. That would be impossible; trans people are heavily marginalized and often low-income, so I knew that I needed to offer something that appealed to folks of all income levels!
What has been one of your favourite memories of owning the space so far?
One of my clients told me that I had been the first trans man he had ever seen or heard of before, back when I was working Pride Sunday at Little Sister’s. He later went home, did some research, and learned a thing or two about himself. That was pretty cool!
There's been greater awareness about the trans community due to last year's media coverage around Caitlin Jenner. Blessing or a curse?
With increased visibility comes increased violence, unfortunately. I look to the history of the gay and lesbian movements to see how time will pass for our community - yeah, a mainstream celebrity transitioning is probably helpful for overall awareness and possible progress, but it has also taken us from being a relatively invisible group to a targeted one. And when I say “us”, I mostly mean trans women of colour - black trans women are at the intersection of the trans movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, and have been murdered at record-breaking rates in the US these past couple of years. And, not that any trans person has ever been at their most clever in their first year or two of transition, but Caitlyn Jenner is not nearly knowledgable enough to represent Our Community and Our Needs to the general public.
In your opinion, do you think growing up trans would be more or less difficult these days?
Structurally, things are definitely getting easier - there are more procedures in place for medical and legal systems interacting with trans people, for example, as opposed to each individual staff member responding to a trans person’s needs with giant question marks in their eyes. But again, visibility comes with violence; it’s a bit of a toss-up of whether it’s easier to be invisible or to be targeted. In my personal case, it’s certainly easier! I’m now read as a cisgender, white, possibly-even-straight guy. My trans backstory is interpreted as endearing now, if anything, because I appear relatable enough in my current state. But not everyone grows up to be a white guy!
Is there a myth/ misunderstanding/ stereotype that you feel you are constantly debunking?
Not all trans people get surgery.
Trans people don’t need surgery to be valid in their gender.
Trans people do not wish to discuss their genitals with you.
There's been quite a bit of media coverage around the politics of Pride lately. What are your thoughts on all that's been happening?
The first Pride was a riot. I think it’s unfortunate that Pride as we know it is a parade of corporations and straight people who love a good party. I don’t hate it entirely; I think it’s really cool that everyone wants to show their support! But when you start alienating the community that Pride is intended to serve - for instance, when you prioritize the feelings/inclusion of the police department over the fears and the dangerous realities facing queer Black people - then there’s a fundamental issue, and we need to re-examine what it is we’re celebrating. If it’s been decided that we’ve won the battle of LGBT rights because white gay dudes have a great life now, then that’s not a celebration for a whole lot of the rest of us!
A good ally knows to step down from a marginalized community’s safe space. I would consider myself to be an incredibly safe ally to women, but I know better than to push my way into a women’s space just because I’ve decided that everyone should feel fine with me being there. The needs of the marginalized community should always 100% come first in a space dedicated to their well-being, and if those needs include taking space from people who *might* be harmful, then those people have to leave, no questions asked.
How did you spend your Pride weekend?
My Pride was pretty quiet! I finally held my Opening Party for Big Bro’s Barbershop, and rested through most of the rest of it. I’m a Career Queer; I’ve been working through Pride for the past five years! I’m sure I’ll get into partying again at some point, but for me, it isn’t the one time of the year when I finally get to interact with my people. I get to experience Pride every day!
What is one thing you wish you could tell everyone you meet?
It would absolutely depend on the person, but I suppose if I could slip every stranger a note before they start talking to me, it might say to not ask me about my genitals in our introductory conversation.
What do you want to be known for?
I hope to be able to continuously provide the queer and trans communities of Vancouver a safe space to exist, even through the changing language/society/needs of those communities over time!
With all the work you do, how do you stay sane?
I go to therapy, and spend a *lot* of time on self-care. Work-wise, I try not to take my job home with me; with my general mental health, I try to focus on resilience - I can’t control the situations that occur around me, but I can take care of myself physically and emotionally so that I can safely bounce back from any harm done.
And lastly, because we're called The Social Yoga- do you do yoga/ have you done yoga/ any favourite or hilarious yoga moments?
I’m not a big yoga fan! I’ve heard great things, but I have a ton of body issues to work through after being forced to participate in gender-segregated P.E. in high school, so I strongly dislike group physical activities and haven’t gotten into a personal yoga practice yet. I might get there; I’ve been working out at home a lot lately!
How can the yoga community be better allies?
Keep in mind that a lot of trans people are strongly disconnected from their body, and might need a lot of tenderness in order to fully access their own body - and even an instructor’s best efforts may not get them there. Also, keep the wellness of trans people in mind outside of the classes themselves - having gender-neutral bathrooms and change rooms available, as well as making it publicly clear that the instructor/studio is aware of trans identities, can make a public space substantially less intimidating for potential trans attendees!