Joe Ippolito: psychologist, activist, festival organizer

Joe Ippolito: psychologist, activist, festival organizer

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The Fringe Festival is one of my favorite events in the city. I love the big Live Arts acts like Brian Sanders Junk and the smaller, quirkier Fringe offerings. I’m also a film fan so I’m looking forward to attending Gender Reel, the East Coast’s first and only multimedia festival dedicated to “the visibility of gender non-conforming, gender-variant and transgender images and experiences in film, photography and art.” This week, PGN spoke to Joe Ippolito, the man behind the movies.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. JI: Well, I’m 41; I’ll be 42 in December. I live in Philadelphia but was born in Florida where I grew up and went to undergrad. I moved to New York in 1993 and moved to Philly in 2001. I came here to get my doctorate at Chestnut Hill College and have since made this my home.

PGN: How was growing up in Florida? JI: Well, I transitioned my gender in 2001, so as a kid I was female and, like most kids, went through various stages. I was a tomboy for a bit and I also went through a more feminine stage in my late teens and early 20s. I came out as a lesbian when I moved to New York.

PGN: What were some things you liked to do? JI: I was very outdoorsy. We lived in a development that had a pool so I enjoyed swimming a lot. It was in Davie, Fla. — which is right between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale — but unlike the cities, it was very rural and conservative. We had the largest rodeo in the country there. I actually did a lot of horseback riding as a kid. My father was Italian and my mother was Jewish, both from up North, so we kind of stuck out, but I had a great childhood. Great family, good friends.

PGN: What was a favorite class? JI: I wasn’t strong academically. I really had to work hard to keep up, but I was very passionate about learning. I had some learning deficits that I had to overcome. But I loved doing things with my hands, so woodworking was a favorite class.

PGN: Did you move to New York for school? JI: No, I just went there to live. At the time, I had a boyfriend but soon after the move I decided to explore dating women. From that point forward, I’ve never gone back to being with men. While I was in New York, I started pursuing my master’s at Fordham.

PGN: You have an impressive résumé: clinical psychologist, researcher, educator, mental-health specialist, lecturer and author. What’s your favorite thing to do? JI: I enjoy being a therapist — it’s a great job. But I also really like organizing things, like the Trans Health Conference and the Gender Reel Festival. It’s mostly in the context of volunteer work, but it’s a passion of mine.

PGN: When you lecture, what do you tell people to help them understand trans issues? JI: I tell them that the experience is different for all trans people; there’s no one model to explain the journey or even how someone may identify. We want to label people as one thing or another but it’s a very diverse community.

PGN: I think that’s what confuses people. They want a simple answer when there isn’t one. What is your journey? JI: In my case, from a very young age I never felt that I was a girl, which is not an unusual thing in the trans community. When I first came out, I was very identified with the lesbian community but it never felt quite right. I appreciate and respect those who are comfortable living as masculine women and relating that way, but personally it was not for me. I wanted to be treated as a boy with my partners. I wanted to be a part of the world as a man, though my identity is actually as a transman, which is for me quite queer-identified. Not so much in terms of my sexual orientation but in my essence and how I socialize in the world. People always assume that because I date women and present as a man that I identify as a straight man, but that’s not how I identify at all. I identify as a queer transman. Trans for me, and I can’t stress enough that I’m speaking for my own experiences only, is an integral part of my identity. Sometimes I think if I’d been born a biological male, I probably would have transitioned to a woman. I sometimes think maybe my path in this world is to live as a trans person. If you can understand that.

PGN: Yes — as a person who is racially mixed, growing up I’d get people telling me how hard it must be, but for me I liked being a part of two worlds, understanding both sides. JI: Exactly. I think what can be hard is not how you feel but how people react. They want to put you into a category, one or the other. There can be a lot of contention in trans communities about identity. Is it a medical condition or a core sense of self? Are you transsexual or transgender? I just believe people should be able to identify with what makes them comfortable. As an activist, I try to support that. There are many ways that people can be.

PGN: I recently interviewed Tenika Watson, who was in the car when Teddy Prendergast was in his accident. She was telling me that she was old-school and didn’t like the term trans. She basically said, “I went through all this to be a woman, I’m not in transition, I’m there.” JI: I get that, completely. And I believe everyone’s experiences and identities should be respected and embraced.

PGN: Speaking of different experiences, Gender Reel should showcase a lot of them. JI: Oh yes, the idea for Gender Reel came about because I personally wasn’t seeing the kind of trans images and experiences I wanted to see at mainstream LGB festivals. I don’t say that to be mean — it’s getting better — but I wanted something we put together for ourselves. I love to organize and putting this festival together is a passion. We formed a committee and expanded to include art and photography. It’s now a multimedia festival.

PGN: Give me a hint of what people will see. JI: For starters, we have Pauline Park, who is an Asian trans activist from New York. She has a Ph.D. in political science and was the first openly transgendered grand marshal of the New York City Pride March. Her résumé of queer activism is an impressive read. We are screening “Envisioning Justice: The Journey of a Transgendered Woman,” a story of her life, and she’ll be there for a Q&A afterward. We broadened Gender Reel to be inclusive of anyone pushing against the binary gender system, so we have a film called “Keisha Knows,” which is about butch identity, and a film called “50Faggots,” which is actually a Web series. The episode we’re showing is about the experiences of effeminate males fighting against the structure of the overly masculine gay man. We’re also having lots of discussion panels, art exhibits ... We even have one video installation called “Beware the Lily Law,” about the issues facing gay and transgender inmates, being played at the Eastern State Penitentiary.

PGN: I love the fact that it’s part of the Fringe Festival, because it means it’s included in a larger audience; it’s being marketed to more than the LGBT community. JI: Yes, the T has been locked in with the LGB community for years, good, bad or indifferent. But there are significant differences: For the LGB community it’s about being a sexual minority; for the T it’s about gender. On the flip side, there are a lot of trans people who are also gay and lesbian, so there are obvious crossovers. It can get difficult to understand. I think we’re where the gay community was 15 or 20 years ago.

PGN: Back to you: single or partnered? JI: I’m single. There are a lot of negotiations that go on as a trans person dating. Dating a lesbian-identified person could pose issues for them — being seen with me might bring into question their queer identity — and straight women may have difficulty relating to me because of my socialization as a woman and because of my openness as a trans activist. It can be a difficult balance.

PGN: I saw the Chaz documentary and found it interesting that his partner, identifying as bisexual, wasn’t as concerned about the physical transformation, but had issues with the personality changes that she felt were brought on by the testosterone. JI: I kind of take issue with those blanket statements because I feel they reinforce stereotypes. For me personally, I feel that I’m very masculine looking on the outside but am still very connected to my womaness on the inside. I spent 30 years as a woman and the last 10 as a man. I embrace my female socialization and those aspects of me that led me to where I am. I think I still relate to people, women especially, the way I did prior to transitioning. The essence of who I am has not changed. Again, I only speak for myself — everyone has their own experience. But bottom line, whether you like how he’s managed his transition or not, I think what Chaz is doing — performing on “Dancing With the Stars,” etc. — is very important; being so public puts a face to the community like Ellen did years ago. It’s a start.

PGN: So another personal item: I understand you’re into bird watching? JI: I love birds! I was just watching one that was behind you a minute ago. I live near Wissahickon Park, and I enjoy walking along and looking at different birds: It’s fascinating. If you asked me what kind of animal would you be, it would be a bird, something big [laughs]. Not Big Bird, but a large bird, some kind of bird of prey.

PGN: Family member who had a big influence on you? JI: My father passed away in 2005, but I’m still very close to my parents. My mother was very progressive and used to work for Women’s Awareness, which was like Planned Parenthood but back in the ’70s. I remember going with her and her explaining what they did, including abortions. Florida was/is very conservative and the women had to be escorted in. It always stuck with me. It still happens, but thank God now there are laws in place to help. She was a feminist and very liberal — they both were.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled? JI: I’ve done quite a bit. I backpacked Southeast Asia from Tokyo to Hong Kong and have traveled in countries all throughout Europe. I think Thailand is the furthest I’ve been.

PGN: When I Googled you I came across a whole lot of Joe Ippolitos. One was a 65-year-old runner, one was a mobster and one was in real estate. Have you met any other Joe Ips? JI: It’s funny, Joe is not actually my legal name: My legal name is Jodi Ippolito. I never changed it and I don’t really care. For instance, at the gym, my membership card still says Jodi so that’s what they call me there. I never bothered to change it because it’s very costly to do a name change and Jodi is kind of a gender-neutral name anyway. Unless you see how it’s spelled, it works well. Even before I transitioned, people were calling me Jo or Jojo so it just stuck. The funny thing is I was named Jodi after my maternal grandfather who was Joseph, so if I changed it, I’d be back to Joe anyway.

PGN: By the way, I came across a term I wasn’t familiar with on your website: What does “cis” mean? JI: We used to refer to someone who was natally born male or female and continued to remain as the gender they were born with as biomen or biowomen. There was a lot of contention about that word with some trans people because it made it sound like trans people were not biological people, so the term cispeople came about, I’m not sure from where. Our language is constantly evolving and as people have issues with new terms, it will probably change again!

PGN: Anything else I should be aware of? JI: In addition to Gender Reel, we’re having the first trans march on Oct. 8.

For more information about Gender Reel, visit For information about the Philly Trans* March, visit

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