Trailblazing trans pilot Jessica Taylor pushes for equality

Lean Into Aviation (3)“Are you the Caitlyn Jenner of airline pilots?” I ask Jessica Taylor as she is fresh off a turn flying from Aspen to Los Angeles. Taylor flies on the Aspen route network, known as one of the most demanding for pilots in the US.

I hope I’m not being overly forthright, and Taylor laughs. She says she’s glad for the media attention on Jenner as the Olympian begins to live her life as Caitlyn.

“On many occasions I will hear things like, ‘Hey she’s like Caitlyn Jenner’ or ‘She’s like Caitlyn’,” Taylor says. “That very simple comment will allow dialogue to begin with people who previously didn’t have the language to ask questions. She has provided a basic understanding for mainstream people to begin a conversation with a transgender person.”

Taylor isn’t just fresh off her Aspen to Los Angeles flight, she’s fresh off national television, speaking with Dr Drew Pinsky on a special dedicated to informing and educating the public about transgender people, their lives and how they lead them.Image 1Qualified to fly over thirty types of aircraft, Taylor currently flies Bombardier CRJ aircraft for a regional carrier, based in Denver. She transitioned to presenting as female three years after obtaining her airline pilot certification. For Taylor, the move was about honesty and truth — to herself and others.

“In January 2012, during a New Year celebration, I vowed to myself that no matter what the outcome would be, I would live an authentic life,” Taylor says simply.

When I ask her to elaborate on what that meant to her — many trans people talk about authenticity as a key reason for deciding to come out, live openly trans lives and, in some cases, transition to living fully in a different gender — Taylor starts off with big picture ideas.

“We all live with a certain understanding of ourselves that we can define and accept. As we age our definition becomes more articulated and meaningful. We begin to understand the limitations of ourselves as well as the definition of our soul,” Taylor says. “Knowing you’re living a life completely contradictory to the one you see in the mirror is like wearing a suit that won’t come off or change.”

Taylor has clearly experienced that feeling. “Each morning you put on the same suit until one day you discover that who you really are is truly beautiful. Your heart and mind become congruent with your surroundings and this creates authenticity. The moment of truth is as revealing and freeing as being let out of a cage.”Image 2After that January realisation, “over the next few months, while being employed at my current employer I worked hand in hand with them — as well as many other agencies — to complete my transition,” Taylor says.

Taylor was a trailblazer among a very few transgender pilots to have transitioned while remaining flying, in 2014. Taylor’s official transition involved taking just two days away from work to enable her airline’s systems to update her name and identity.

“To date,” she says, “I am the only pilot to have never been grounded by the FAA during my transition. It was as seamless as it comes.”

“From the basics of a name change to the complexities of the Federal Aviation Administration,” Taylor says, “my transition became the standard for many others. While having to fill out piles of paperwork to apply for my name change, passport, pilot’s license and the medical certification process was arduous and required a lot of work, the hardest part of my transition was just around the corner.”

“From the first day I arrived as Jessica I knew my life had taken a drastic turn. From a male-dominated career and a male-privileged role, I discovered the tremendous task that women had overcome and continue to overcome in this industry. In one scenario I recall meeting a certain resistance as to my ability to operate the aircraft, and at one point having my qualifications called to the table. In the past months, I have dealt with the good. bad and ugly of our gender differences in the cockpit.”Image 3Like many women in aviation, Taylor has had to prove herself as a pilot nearly every time she flies. “The hardest part of my transition was learning how to be a well respected and professional woman and pilot. With a small group of pilots, I was hoping that my gender wouldn’t be an issue, having previously flown with so many of the captains in base. Yet, to my surprise, I found that gender can mean the difference between captains believing you are qualified or not to fly the aircraft.”

If that sounds similar to the experience of cisgender women pilots — those who are assigned female at birth — it’s a similarity that Taylor recognises. “As a male I carried a certain amount of privilege that comes with being a predominantly male privileged profession. As a male, I would have been the first person to say that women do not face sexism. However, as I soon found out I could not have been more wrong. All women that have gone before me blazed the trail in which I follow to this day. We as transgender women will follow a similar road to equality,” she explains.Image 4After transitioning, Taylor says, “in a very short time I realized that I needed to be better, more knowledgable and more professional than my male counterparts. It seems as though I have to prove myself to each person I fly with each time I fly with them. With the exception of just a handful of captains I have had to completely redesign how I interact, together with the verbiage I use, as well as maintaining strict standards in following the standard operating procedures. and my own knowledge.”

There are many more transgender pilots than one might initially think, Taylor tells me. Many are members of the NGPA, the National Gay Pilots’ Association, which Taylor calls “an organization that has helped many transgender pilots to find resources (as well as support) from a network of pilots including myself. In fact, when I was transitioning, NGPA was the first place to offer help and understanding. Ms Kelly Lepley, a current MD-11 first officer for UPS, was the first to jump in and help. She became and still is my best aviation supporter and networker for information.”Image 5Taylor is paying that support and help forward by doing a significant amount of work with the FAA to make the process for pilots transitioning more robust, appropriate and effective.

“The FAA Aeromedical office uses many old practices, particularly regarding the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Over the past few years many transgender individuals have lost their medical certification due to these outdated practices and policies, while also facing discrimination by the FAA,” Taylor says, identifying the issue.

“My work involves updating the aviation medical examiner’s guide to include gender identity dysphoria as well as disorder. On a case by case basis we have seen the separation of a simple treatment for gender identity dysphoria as well as a complex treatment for gender identity disorders. The treatments of these two very different mental and genetic diagnoses need to be separated and treated as such for the certification process.”Image 6Taylor describes the difference between a dysphoria and a disorder as largely one of effect.

“Gender identity dysphoria is someone who does not identify as the gender they were born as. In essence, if you were born a female but identify as male you have a gender dysphoria. Gender identity dysphoria is usually treated with hormone therapy, transitioning, or identifying as gender non-conforming. Some may choose not to undergo hormone replacement therapy and just identify as the appropriate gender role,” Taylor summarises, highlighting that the matter is complex and that classifications do vary.

“Gender identity disorder carries an entirely different set of circumstances in which usually involve other conditions that limit a persons ability to interact with society as a whole. For the purpose of pilot medical certification, gender identity disorder should carry an entirely different set of diagnosis and treatment as opposed to a simply process for those who have gender identity dysphoria,” Taylor advocates.

“Once the separation of diagnosis is adapted by the FAA, we will push to move gender identity dysphoria to be a standard issue medical process,” Taylor says, “meaning pilots will be able to get a first class medical certificate without requiring any special certification process.”

In the meantime, Taylor works often with transgender pilots who reach out to her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or via email from her website, to ask her advice on the correct and most effective approach to the FAA’s Aeromedical office.

“Social media has allowed so many people to connect with me who normally would have never done so. It is a safe place to connect, ask questions and find a common bond in a non-threatening atmosphere. Many of my followers admit that in a social setting they would never hang around a transgender person, but that they are learning acceptance through my life,” she says.Image 7“Last year on Instagram, I had a follower find out I was transgender and a fellow pilot. He blasted a few religious slurs and mentions of hatred. After one conversation he changed his tone, saying, ‘I guess you’re right, you’re not that much different than me. I’m sorry — you’re actually a cool chick. I respect you a lot.’ This is one of many amazing examples,” Taylor says, of how just living an authentic and open life as a trans person can be challenging yet immensely rewarding.

Pilots also ask about how to raise the issue with their companies, and Taylor points those companies to organizations like HRC (the Human Rights Campaign) or GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, but which now also works for bisexual and transgender people).

“Even though many people do not want to stand out, we don’t want to be set out for segregation,” Taylor emphasizes. “With employment we need more transgender friendly companies to step up and be proud to hire someone who identifies as transgender.”Image 8“Allow your company to set itself apart like many Fortune 500 companies have done, including United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and many others. These companies are setting the standard for diversity in the work place as well and are consistently rated among the best places to work.”

With high praise for her own company, Taylor is also glad that passengers have recently begun to have the language and framework to start asking about her life as a transgender pilot. For many of them, she is the first transgender person they have met. “Many of my passengers have expressed overwhelming support, as well as careful observation to begin to accept and adapt a new understanding for our community,” she says thoughtfully.

300x300v4 Panasonic 300“Earlier this year a passenger left her iPhone on my flight. After calling her husband I established the easiest way to reunite the iPhone with her was to fly out and take it to her. So I jumped on an airplane to Chicago and delivered her phone. When she saw me, there was this moment of panic, a delayed reaction. She was confused as to why a transgender pilot would do something like that for her. She must have hugged me for ten minutes crying saying she was sorry for the previous hatred in her heart towards our community,” Taylor recounts.

“Passengers,” Taylor says as she prepares for her next leg, from Denver to Cincinnati, “are the reason I fly. The people of this world all have a story, a family, career and passions.

“It is my privilege to reunite people with the things and places they love, to connect them with loved ones, to be the person that welcomes them home. It is my hope that in some way we can draw common bonds in our lives to live together with love. Welcome aboard.”

14 Comments

  1. Karl Robbins

    An absolute amazing paper that has been very well written. I have total praise and respect for Jessica for what she has done and not backed-down due to lack of visionary of certain individuals/groups. Keep up the great work Jessica and all the best for your future in the Sky 🙂 x

    Karl Robbins (Twitter)

  2. Jessica, you are a wonderful example of how gender diverse people can be authentic, professional, and happy simultaneously. Congratulations on your successes, and thank you for being a model of excellence as a person and as a pilot. Our community is better because you’re part of it.

  3. Very interesting read, although I do disagree with your wording for GD/GID. I feel you’ve definitely got them the wrong way round – or the Journalist has.

    Gender Dysphoria – is where you have anxiety or similar about your physical body.
    Gender Identity Disorder – is where you feel your ‘mental’ gender is in disorder with your physical gender.

    GID is the actual medical condition, while GD can be caused by GID and is effectively a mental condition (GID most definitely isn’t). So while treatment for GID (Hormones etc.) also helps with GD, if someone is severely Dysphoric they almost certainly also need counseling or other treatment as chances are they have anxiety, depression etc.

  4. Linda Lee

    No, gender dysphoria is the new term in DSM-5 replacing gender identity disorder in DSM-4. There is just one term though many still use the old one.

  5. Sally Sheridan

    Jessica, you are an example to society,, being transgender or transexual does not define the individuals sex orientation or carreer, I love your position, and the determination you have. I am a systems engineer and extremely passionate by aviation I started to fly in Mexico with uls and small aircraft 20 years ago, as well I share all your thoughts during this interview and also I have transitioned some years ago.
    keep high and fly in safe blue skyes..

  6. Katie, Linda, Dee — thank you very much for your comments, which I absolutely take on board. I’m aware that there is a nomenclature issue, and acknowledged that in the section talking about wording, but these are Jessica’s words about the way that the differences between GD/GID affects and affected her life and work. Obviously, there are significant issues around how the various editions of the DSM describe many things, and I thank you again for sharing your perspectives.

  7. Pingback: To FAA, transgender pilots no longer have a mental illness | NewsCut | Minnesota Public Radio News

  8. Erica Collins

    So as a parent that has been raising a transgender child whom wants to fly, I openly saw dissenting attitude towards had as a novelty joke instead of any acceptance when i took her for flight lessons. They made remarks on how “until complete passibility is attained, it will be treated as a reckless attitude in regards to flight safety and public confidence”. So how is it that a trans person is supposed to develop in this climate? I have researched the trans woman pilots in this country, All of them including yourself received your careers as a male before transition once in your hired position. How does my 17 year old daughter transition in front of these bigoted men and have any chance at a career? Getting hired does not seem to be as easy as telling your company HR director about transition when the are in a position of being required to deal with you. I do not believe you know what this struggle is like and offer no real solution to discrimination. I am suggesting that she should maybe go to medical school or something more tolerant.

    Erica

  9. raul gerena

    Jessica, you are an example to society,brave keep it up do not let any one put you down you are a example, transgender or transexual does not define the individuals ,you are a pilot ,i am a loadmaster in a another carrier i be honor to flight with you

  10. Kathi Durst

    Great article regarding a beautiful and brave woman.

    Erica, remain hopeful and encouraging for your daughter. Ive had a 28 year career at American Airlines and can share that MUCH has changed in the last decade. It’s as if the airlines are competing with each other to be the most diversified.

    That’s not to say there isn’t much to be done anymore. It’s just the hiring is the issue but rather the gentle, kind, and patient conversations that we need to have individually to allow dissenting comments and questions from those that haven’t completed the “thought journey” that despite differences, we humans really are more alike than not.

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