Using humor to break barriers

In an instant, JJ Marie Gufreda lost friends she had known for 30 years.

She didn’t commit a horrendous crime, injure anyone else or steal from the people she loved. Rather, she came out as transgender.

“It was very disappointing to me to know that a relationship that I’d had for so many years could be gone instantly,” she said. “I wondered what else I could have done. If I told somebody that I made meth and blew up the whole neighborhood, would they have dropped me as quickly as saying this?”

Her show, “Left Hander in London: The Earthquake,” focuses on her own experience coming out as transgender. She wanted to use her life to help bring humor to the challenges transgender people face in today’s society, as well as put a face on the issue for those who haven’t encountered or don’t understand what it is.

“It’s difficult to use logic when someone is mad or fearful. A lot of people are afraid of transgender people,” she said. “Maybe humor is a way to break some of that. I don’t try to attack anyone; I just kind of try to lay things out there.”

Even in Gufreda’s own experience, it can be difficult to react correctly and compassionately when someone comes out. When she was in college, her roommate — one of her closest friends — sat down and told her that he was gay.

This was in the late 1970s. Gufreda had not yet come out as transgender — she knew nothing about the LGBT community. She didn’t take the news very well.

“I reacted like a good Sicilian, and I yelled at him, because it didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about gay people. It wasn’t so much that I had a problem with it. I was upset because something I thought I knew was totally wrong.”

The conversation ended in the two roommates retreating to their own rooms. But the more Gufreda thought about it, she realized that she was wrong.

“Once I was alone, I thought to myself, ‘Man, you are the worst person in the history of the world. This guy didn’t tell anybody else about this, because he thought you’d do exactly what you just did,’” she said. “So I decided the next day to try again.”

Gufreda apologized the next morning, and asked for a do-over. They had the conversation again, and she tried to really hear what her friend was saying.

That episode helped her understand what she would experience when she came out.

“What I was most disappointed about was, when I needed you the most, you weren’t there for me,” Gufreda said.

To help others, she wrote a book, “Left Hander in London: A Field Guide to Transgenders, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals in the Family, on the Job and in the Pew.” The book served as a map to help people navigate their relationships with those who come out.

That served as the source material for the stage show. Gufreda added music and dancing, including a song, “When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go,” that addresses the ongoing debate of transgender people and restrooms.

“If we’re going to have an argument, you can’t have an argument about that. Are you telling me I can’t go to the bathroom? What kind of discussion are we going to have?” she said.

Making people comfortable with the LGBTQ community is a necessity to survive in today’s society, Gufreda said. She is the president and CEO of GEI Inc., an operations consulting firm in Greenwood. She also was the past president of the Indy Rainbow Chamber, a gathering of LGBTQ business owners, employees and allies.

She has seen how businesses try to address their LGBT employees, as well as those whose beliefs oppose that.

“You have to get through this stuff. In many cases, you’re not saying that you’re going to change what they believe. You have to help those people adapt. The way I do that is by using humor,” she said. “The biggest thing about this show is to change the world by helping people get through this.”

If you go

“Left Hander in London: The Earthquake”

Who: Greenwood resident JJ Marie Gufreda

When: 4:30 p.m. Aug. 19; 3 p.m. Aug. 20; 9 p.m. Aug. 23; 6 p.m. Aug. 24; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25 and 27.

Where: Firefighters Union Hall Theatre, 748 Mass Ave., Indianapolis

Tickets: $15 adults, $12 seniors and students, $10 children 12 and under

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.