Fabulous People

Joni Weiss: Putting the T at the Center

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Joni Weiss has only been back in the state of her birth four years, but based on the service she has given to Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, you would think she had never left.

At present, Weiss is a member of the Pride Interfaith Council, the organization that puts together gay and transgender-affirming religious and spiritual gatherings—most notably the Utah Pride Festival’s annual interfaith service and the Community Inroads Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting gay and transgender-friendly businesses and their work in the community. This January, she also became a member of the Utah Pride Center’s board of directors, 17 individuals who handle a number of the center’s most vital tasks, such as helping bring in funding.

After joining, Weiss helped the board undertake another important job, one that she was surprised the board wasn’t doing already: Starting a diversity committee.

“You wouldn’t think we’d need one, but we now have one to focus on issues for people of color and transgender people and bisexual people. Those parts of the community who tend to feel a little bit left out,” said Weiss, who identifies both as transgender and pansexual—that is, attracted to people regardless of gender identity or biological sex.

“Being new to the board, I guess the diversity committee is the biggest thing I’ve been involved with, and just in general trying to represent the transgender community and bisexual community on the board in discussions and board meetings,” she continued.

It’s a lot for one person to have taken on in just four years. Although Weiss grew up in Salt Lake City, she moved to Denver at age thirty shortly after marrying.

“When I got married my wife and I decided we didn’t want to [stay here],” said Weiss, who was observed male at birth. “The Mormon influence was kind of hard for her and the pressure to have children was great and neither of us liked that, so we wanted to get away.” For the next 18 years, Weiss worked for AT & T until her job was outsourced to IBM after 2000 (“they sold me with the furniture to IBM,” she jokes). She describes her current job with the computer giant as a “jack of all trades” position.

“I’m a bottle washer. I do some training, I do some training documentation, some automated programming for an internal product at IBM, which is my favorite piece. If I had to [say anything in particular], it would be that, and production support.”

When Weiss came out as transgender in 2005 and began the process of transitioning, she said the company supported her every step of the way.

“They are very supportive of transgender and gay people,” she explained. “They have human resource policies that protected me once I came out and they had a program in place within HR that assisted me in coming out. It was very well orchestrated.”

Although she didn’t come out until later in life, Weiss said she had known she was “female inside for most of my life.”

“In kindergarten I didn’t want to play with the boys, I knew I would rather hang out with my sister and her girlfriends,” she explained. “What was I supposed to do as a boy wasn’t really fun for me … and when puberty hit I would cross dress and I would feel more comfortable in a dress. I wanted to do what all the girls were doing, but I couldn’t. So I knew then that something was wrong, but I still didn’t know what transgender was.”

Weiss didn’t know the term until roughly 2003 or 2004, when she began doing some research on the internet.  She describes one Web site, run by engineer and computer scientist Lynn Conway as particularly helpful in teaching her what transgender meant.  

“I really struggled with [being transgender] because I thought it was wrong and I didn’t think that I would be able to come out and do anything about it,” Weiss explained. “I prayed and prayed — I’ve always been a spiritual person — for it to go away all my life. And it just never happened. … and when it didn’t go away was when it really hit me that I didn’t really have any other choices. I had to come out and face whatever the consequences were.”

When Weiss came out in March of 2007, she and her wife divorced. More happily, she began involving herself with the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, attending workshops, making friends, and volunteering for a number of groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign’s L Word night at Mo Diggity’s (a lesbian sports bar that closed its doors in 2008) and the Sundance Film Festival’s Queer Lounge, the independent film festival’s annual queer-friendly forum.

“It wasn’t very long before there were people who were newer to coming out than I was,” she laughs.

In volunteering and in making and talking to her new friends, Weiss said she began realizing that the transgender community in Utah had a lot of unmet needs—including the need to socialize with and meet people “outside a support group environment.”

“It just really struck me that it was hard for people like me to realize that there are people like us out here,” she said.

So when Weiss’ friend and Utah Pride Center board member at large Brenda Larsen asked her to consider applying for the board, Weiss took her up on the offer. She was elected to the board last November and says she looks forward to several more years of advocating for bisexual and transgender people as a board member.

When not busy at her job or with her duties for any number of volunteer organizations, Weiss said that she spends much of her time “cat-proofing” her house for the litter of kittens she cares for and playing the drums for a band she describes as a combination of “rhythm and blues and rock and roll.”

But no matter what she does, Weiss is dedicated to helping the community — which is often largely focused on issues pertaining to white, lesbian or gay people — find ways to welcome and serve all of its members.

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