A Legacy of Leadership
Transgender activist, anarchist, and revolutionary Jerimarie Liesegang was a pioneer
By Dawn Ennis
The death of Jerimarie Liesegang in November 2020 was keenly felt across Connecticut’s LGBTQ community. The 70-year-old Willimantic resident was well-known for her intersectional work over 25 years, fighting for and winning changes to state laws chief among her achievements.
Tributes poured in from the New Haven Pride Center; the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective, where she served on the board of directors; GLAAD; and other organizations across the nation. A queer anarchist group called attention to her powerful chapter in the 2008 book Queering Anarchism about “The Tyranny of the State and Trans Liberation,” in which she proclaimed: “The fear of challenging the State as a non-operative trans person is a significant challenge and barrier to putting my beliefs into actions.”
Liesegang repeatedly overcame those challenges and more on behalf of the state’s transgender community and other marginalized groups.
“You modeled anti-racist allyship and literally put your body on the line, not just for trans justice, but for everyone facing injustice,” writes Dru Levasseur, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the National LGBT Bar Association. “Your political protests landed you in jail at times, terrifying for any trans person, but not you. I remember how you told me you didn’t drink or eat before and during being locked up to lessen the abuse from prison guards.”
“She was the first person to welcome me into this community with kindness,” recalls Tony Ferraiolo, an author, inspirational speaker, life coach, and trainer from New Haven who knew Liesegang since 2004. Together with Levasseur, he co-founded The Jim Collins Foundation. Liesegang was with him every step of the way.
“I will always remember her kindness, and willingness to share her story, and help others understand transgender people a little better,” out journalist Doug Stewart of FOX 61 says.
“One of the amazing things about Jerimarie was how she juggled family, work, and activism,” says Frank O’Gorman of West Hartford, a gay Christian social justice activist. “She lived with her partner Anja, daughter Tasha and two cats. She worked at a high-powered job at the Hartford Insurance Co., with lots of long-term project management responsibilities.”
She told him that at her job interview, she was close to broke and desperate, and opted to remain seated upon hearing the traditional “We’ll let you know” line. “I really need this job,” Liesegang told the hiring manager, over and over. And she got the job.
“Somewhere in between family and work, she founded CTAC [the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition], co-founded Queers Without Borders, planned lobbying strategy at the state capitol for TBLG rights, sent out political emails, and rallied for BLM, immigrant rights, people without housing, Chelsea Manning, and anyone struggling under oppression,” says O’Gorman. “Where did she manufacture the time to do all of this? One of life’s great mysteries!”
“She had an amicable personality yet would stick to her principles when the occasion demanded,” he adds. Both O’Gorman and her longtime friend Richard Nelson remember her extraordinary confidence. She stood up to bullies and big mouths, but was in fact a shy person, they say.
“She never really wanted a spotlight on her. She never really wanted all that,” Nelson says. “But she had to go to the state legislature. She had to organize with all of these different groups. She could hold her tongue and work with them and the legislature. She had to do it for the good of her community.”
Leisegang’s activism dates back to the 1990s. One of her greatest achievements was in 2008, when she went to the state capitol representing the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition, which she co-founded and served as a board member of until her death. Liesegang spoke in support of changes to the state’s hate crime law: an amendment which added protections based on “gender identity or expression.”
“I lost most everything in my life,” she testified. “I have two wonderful adopted children [and] basically, I lost almost all visitation rights to them. My visitation rights were basically equivalent to that of a sexual predator. I lost my job. I lost my family. I was disowned by some of my family.”
Born on Long Island to a longshoreman father and a mother who was a nurse, Liesegang earned degrees from Notre Dame and the University of Georgia in chemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and her testimony reflected her education.
“Deciding to have an inground pool is a choice. Being transgender is not,” Liesegang told state lawmakers. “This legislation is not about ‘special rights’; it is about basic human rights!”
In 2011, Liesegang was instrumental in the adoption of the state law that expanded protection from discrimination to include gender identity and expression. “That was a shining moment for her, for sure. Her voice was so powerful, and her organizing was so powerful,” recalls Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project. “She drew people to her, and to the work.”
For Linda Estabrook, executive director of the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective, the connection with Liesegang was both professional and personal. “Jerimarie was instrumental in the planning and implementation of the first ‘Transgender Lives: The Intersection of Health and Law Conference,’ – my final project towards my MPH. She was a friend and a mentor,” Estabrook says.
Liesegang’s work was not carried out just at the capitol or in the streets, but in writing and creating videos about LGBTQ history, even during chemo treatments for the cancer that left her gravely ill. “It is in a revolutionary’s blood to keep fighting, and fight she did,” blogged Nelson.
But with Liesegang’s health failing, Estabrook came up with the idea of producing a video tribute to Liesegang from all her friends, colleagues, and members of the community. Nelson and Anne Stanback, the founding executive director of Love Makes a Family – Connecticut’s marriage equality organization where Jerimarie served on the board of directors – stepped up to assist, as did Jennifer Levi and many LGBTQ community members and allies.
Among the many moving messages on the recording is one from Rev. Aaron Miller, transgender clergy, who is pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford. He made this promise to Liesegang: “To continue your good work until we have finally achieved justice and equality for transgender people, and for us all.”
Rest in Power, Jerimarie Liesegang.