Jessie Read is sitting in his home in Denver, wearing blue wire-rimmed glasses, surrounded by contemporary texts on Buddhism and his two Chihuahua mixes, Eli and Harper.
“I always had a sense that my 30s [were] going to be my time to thrive,” he says. “I feel really excited to be 30.”
By many measures, Read is already thriving. A counselor with a burgeoning private practice, he has had a busy day at his other two part-time jobs: First, he led two young children through behavioral therapy, then he picked up the 5-year-old he nannies for an afternoon of pizza, ice cream and exploring at the Children’s Museum of Denver. All three children are on the autism spectrum.
“I kind of fell into it,” Read says of his work with children who have autism. “In college, I was working at summer camps, and I was always most interested in working with the kids who were most misunderstood by other staff.” Growing up in Atlanta, Read says, he sometimes felt like a misunderstood kid, too. He struggled to focus on his homework and spent middle school being “very angry and very punk.”
As Read began to age out of his punk phase, he also started making weekly trips to visit his grandmother, Ruth Read, for pot roast and conversation. Read was inspired by Ruth’s lifelong political activism, as well as her kindness toward people regardless of race, sexual orientation or ability. “She’s where a lot of my values of justice come from,” Read says. “She’s always had an open door for anybody, and all different kinds of people from all different places seek her out and call her ‘Mom.’”
It’s an ethos that informs Read’s career, including his work with children on the autism spectrum. “A lot of behavior therapy treats kids as … robots or objects or things to be manipulated,” he says. “I’m really into their dignity and their worth and what they’re bringing into the world.”
Although he sees value in behavioral therapy, Read increasingly finds himself focused on his practice, where he counsels non-binary and transgender clients of all ages. That specialty is a natural fit for Read, who is queer and trans. But he hasn’t always felt so drawn to other LGBTQ folks. When he started transitioning toward a more masculine presentation in his early 20s, he struggled to find and accept his identity. “I was like … ‘I’m definitely not queer, and I don’t like queer people,’” Read says.
Over time, a therapist gently helped him accept his own queerness. It was one of several times an LGBTQ-identified therapist would change his life. Years later, in graduate school, Read initially shied away from working with transgender clients, thinking the subject matter would be too difficult and personal. But after seeing a transgender counselor, “a lot of what I believed about myself changed,” he says. “I was like, ‘Now I only want to work with trans people.’”
There were other reasons Read felt compelled to serve this population, too. In his graduate program, for example, he often found himself educating his professors and other students about gender, trans identity and social justice.
“There were a lot of hurdles,” says Jessie’s partner, Catie, whom he married in 2016. “He is one of the most determined people I know. When he cares about something, he’s really, really focused and gives everything that he has — and more than he has, sometimes.”
Read graduated with a master’s degree in clinical mental-health counseling in 2018 and reports that, so far, he has yet to work with a cisgender client. Instead, he draws on his lived experience and his professional training to help trans, non-binary and questioning people explore their identities in a safe, affirming space.
“One of my favorite parts is to be able to [tell a client], ‘You don’t have to talk about being trans in that kind of way,’” Read says. “’You can tell your story to me in a way that’s authentic to you. Being trans is the most common experience in this room.’”
(When asked to specify his own gender identity, Read replied, “I identify as I don’t like gender.”)
The hardest part of his job, Read says, is being unable to control the world outside his office. Sure, he can sit with a client and talk through issues, but he can’t stop anti-transgender legislation — think “bathroom bills” — from winding through the political system. Nor can he prevent the harassment and discrimination transgender children and adults often experience from family, peers, employers and strangers.
It’s a tough spot to be in for a person so dedicated to action and social justice. “Even if it might be uncomfortable or scary, it’s really important to both of us that we stand up for the things that we believe are right,” says Catie. “Especially when it’s hard.”
Despite these intractable societal hurdles, Read seems enthusiastic about the future, at least as it relates to his personal life. He looks forward to having children and often catches himself fantasizing about parenthood, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places, such as the airport security line. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’d have a little diaper bag and carry it through the metal detector,” he says, laughing. “If I want a baby going through security at the airport, I [must] really, really want a baby.”
Read is excited about other aspects of his 30s, too. Professionally, he has started a pair of support groups for “gender-expansive” children and teens and is contributing a chapter to a social work textbook about supporting trans and non-binary clients who are in the process of coming out. The recent graduate says he also hopes to carve out more free time for personal pursuits, from camping, hiking and backpacking to meditation and banjo-playing.
Read doesn’t deliberately seek out pastimes that turn his attention away from social media, but his hobbies often provide a much-needed break from the flood of negative news that frequently crowds his media feeds.
“Even on my Facebook, it’s a lot of mostly sad stories about trans people,” he says. “It’s starting to change a little bit, but we just need more good stories.” But after a day spent exploring the outdoors with Catie, he’s ready to throw himself back into his day job: improving the lives of trans and gender-expansive Coloradans.
“He’s a very empathetic person, and I think that’s going to make all the difference in what he’s trying to do, because he’s going to understand the people that he’s working with,” says Read’s grandmother, Ruth. “This is kind of a new field, and I think he’s going to make a difference. I think he’ll do very important things.”