Me and Ceclia

By Abby Louise Jensen • Ceclia Payne & Interstellar Chorus Line in Exist

When I saw Nat (Natalie Brewster Nguyen Narrative Director of Exist) put out a Facebook post seeking someone to play a speaking part in Exist: Messengers of the Cosmos, I had no idea what the part was and, even less, who Cecilia Payne was. Nat, however, knew immediately that I would be perfect for the role. It was only much later that I realized how right she was.

Like Cecilia, I've always been a fighter, especially when someone tells me, "No, you can't do that." In Cecilia's case, she won a fellowship to Harvard to continue her research in astronomy when Cambridge refused to award her a degree because she was a woman. In my case, my parents learned early on that telling me "No" just made things worse, so that seldom happened once I entered high school. Yet, I still took on every challenge that I saw. In high school, I loved math and took every math course they offered. In my senior calculus class, the instructor said there was a problem in our book that no one at the school had ever solved. I took the book home that night and came back the next day with the solution. (I still have the book.)

When I told my mom that I was applying to college, she told me that I could apply to whatever school I wanted, but that they wouldn't be able to help me. (Both my parents worked, my dad at two jobs.) So, I applied to Harvard, Stanford and a few other top schools. I got into Stanford and paid my own way for four years. Later, when I went to law school at UC Berkeley, I did it again.

Although, unlike Cecilia, I didn't write a brilliant dissertation or become the first woman professor at Harvard, I did become the first transgender attorney to argue before the Arizona Supreme Court, and the first (and, I dare say, the only) attorney to argue before that court as both a man and a woman (before and after my transition). Today, I continue to create my own "firsts" by making new law as an appellate attorney for the Pima County Public Defender's Office, and by fighting on behalf of Arizona's transgender and gender nonconforming community for equal rights and fair treatment. Even appearing in Exist is a "first": my first return to the acting stage since college.

I hope you enjoy our performance as much as I have enjoyed being part of it!