Marcus Iannozzi: An Agent For Good

We’ve come a long way, baby! Not that we don’t still have a ton of work to do, but as a community and world, visibility for the LGBTQ+ community has grown in tremendous leaps from when I was just a lass. I recently watched a program on George Michael and it was shocking to realize how recently it was still scandalous for a pop star to be openly gay. For me, I admit it grabs my attention a little when I hear someone casually speak about their same sex spouse on TV, especially on that bastion of middle America that is the game show genre.

Recently, my ears perked up when I heard a Wheel of Fortune contestant tell Pat Sajak about his wonderful husband, a real, “who’d have thunk it?” moment. And of course, this month has really improved visibility for the trans community with super smart Amy Schneider blowing away the competition on Jeopardy. As of this moment, she’s still going strong. 

Another person going strong and working to improve the lives of people in the community is this week’s portrait, Marcus Iannozzi. Iannozzi is the Founder and Principal of Message Agency, a digital agency that works exclusively with nonprofits, foundations, universities, governments, and mission-driven enterprises. He is also the Founder and Co-Chair of TransWork. TransWork is a program of the Independence Business Alliance, with the goal of increasing access to opportunity for transgender people in the Greater Philadelphia region. Launching in 2018, the program includes two components: connecting trans folks with supportive employers; and promoting and supporting transgender entrepreneurship.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up outside of Philly; my family is from Conshohocken/Norristown. I was an undergrad at Penn from ’87 to ’91. It was a very different time here in the city. I came out in college as… queer, which would be the most apt way of describing who I was. After college I stayed here. In the ‘90s there was a clear LGBT presence and I saw the potential in the city and the sense of community that was here. 

At that time, I was dealing with gender issues, but didn’t quite know where I was headed. I knew I wasn’t a woman, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. Back then trans identities were not as visible or understood, but I remember in 1995 going to one of the first meetings of the Transgender Health Action Coalition, called T-HAC, and meeting some folks who I still know and being a part of that early movement. It still took a couple of years for me to figure things out, but then I transitioned when I was about 32, we’re talking about 2000-2002. I’ve lived in the same house since 1995 and I’ve watched the city change and have tried to be a part of that change when I could. 

Tell me about the family.

[Laughing] Oh, that’s challenging. Our biggest challenge was when my partner and I decided to have a child. Ironically, my parents were much more accepting — and we had a much better relationship — prior to me having a child. It’s very weird.

That is weird, usually the biggest objection when we come out is the thinking, “We’re never going to be grandparents.” 

Yeah, they’re very Catholic so that was a lot of the issue. It took a lot for my mother to come around as far as my gender identity was concerned. My father, on the other hand, said that he understood me for the first time in his life. Things are different now, not that we still don’t have challenges. Discrimination is still pretty rampant, and violence against our communities is too prevalent. But there’s a visibility now that we didn’t have then. It was hard to find other trans folks. There were few services, we had no rights, and the broader LGB community often had an adversarial stance towards trans folks. It’s come such a long way, it’s been amazing to see the genuine support and kinship grow in the community. A lot of folks still don’t understand trans identities but it’s more common now to find folks who do. 

Visibility is so important. 

Yes, and if the past 4 years have taught us anything it’s that we need to be an aligned community. We need everyone and we need to build bridges with other communities, because we won’t get through this political climate without forming those bonds and relationships. I serve on the board of the Independence Business Alliance, which is part of the new Diverse Chambers Coalition of Philadelphia (DCCPHL) and they’re both phenomenal opportunities to build those bridges. It’s great to see this type of collaboration happening in the business community. 

It’s fantastic. So let’s get a little more about you, what was your favorite toy? Favorite book?

Favorite toy was a typewriter! And for books, I read all of the Agatha Christie novels. [Laughing] Hercule Poirot was my favorite character as a kid. I was a big nerd. I was always a writer, it’s what I always did. Even at 8 or 9, I’d write these little books and stories and poems. I later became an English major and was able to take those skills and combine them with technology to do what I do now. 

It all comes back to writing at some point.

Yes, I’ve worked for myself since 1995. [Laughing] So I haven’t had a boss since then, which is nice! I started out freelancing for researchers at colleges and universities, and this was before the internet was really a thing. It was during the Clinton administration and there was a lot of funding going to finding alternative routes to participating in the labor market. Not assuming that everyone wanted to go to college, think apprenticeships, etc. I started getting requests to do websites and translate the material to make it accessible for everyone, not just academics. So I learned HTML and CSS, and how to make websites. So my whole career, by choice, has been working for non-profits, universities and foundations. 

So you never had to flip burgers in high school?

Actually, I worked at my dad’s deli. It was a family business, so I’ve been working since I was 12. It gave me a very strong work ethic. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

An English professor, but I got very disillusioned at Penn about scholarship and realized that I’d rather do something than talk about things others had done. 

Describe your spouse. 

My spouse, Lisa, is an accountant and has a business degree. When our son was born, she was working at Penn but also helping me with the books, and I asked her if she wanted to join the business. [Laughing] She had to think about it carefully and then agreed and I credit her with a lot of the success that we’ve had. I’m good at what I do, but I’m a terrible business person, I never think about money, it’s always the last thing on my mind. But with her help, we’ve now grown to employ 18 people. 

Wow! I’m impressed. So how did you meet?

We met through friends. Apparently she was interested in me but being an adolescent at 32 is an unfortunate situation and I was kind of clueless on top of that, so didn’t realize it. She finally found a way to get in touch and we went out to dinner. She decided that I was the one, and not long after, I got with the program. We’ve been together for 20 years. We got married in 2007 and have a 9 year old son. I can’t imagine life without her.

Did you realize that first date was a date? 

I did! But I’d been on a series of really terrible dates, so I decided I was just going to date my rickety house. I’d spend Saturday nights fixing things up and then I got that phone call and that was it. We’ve been pretty inseparable ever since. I’m grateful every day to have her in my life.

What’s something your son did that made you LOL?

We were hysterically laughing at something the other day, but now I can’t remember what it was! One thing he asked me a while ago wasn’t necessarily funny, but it’s something I’ll never forget. He said, “Daddy, what’s the difference between faith and hope?” He’s a very abstract thinker, and I said, “Well, hope is when you believe that something is going to happen, but you’re not sure it will. But you really want it to. Faith is when you believe it’s going to happen, even though people tell you otherwise.” He responded, “I think I have hope… but I don’t have faith”. He’s a very sweet, sensitive child. He has some learning issues so it’s been a rough couple of years dealing with the pandemic and trying to run a business and parenting a kid with different needs all at the same time. 

Have you spoken to him about your story? 

I was open with my son about who I was from the start, obviously in an age appropriate manner. I explained to him that I was a girl but that I became a boy, and that was fine until I noticed that he was having some anxiety over his own gender so I asked him what was going on. He stammered, “I… I don’t want to be a girl.” I asked him if he felt like a girl and he said no. I asked if he felt like a boy and he said yes, so I said, “Then you’re a boy.” He had a look of relief on his face, and apparently thought that because I had transitioned, he assumed that he’d have to one day as well. That was an ironic moment I never anticipated.

I guess he thought we’re all caterpillars and have to change at some point. 

Yes, it’s already difficult being a parent, but as an LGBT parent, you face a lot of interesting challenges. 

I’m sure. I guess you’re also constantly outing yourself. 

Yeah, but that’s been the past 20 years of my life. Moving through the world and having to disclose your difference so that you can make sure that there’s visibility is very challenging. But I’ve always been someone who lived openly, though maybe not loudly because that’s just not me. Earlier in my transition I was very involved, I ran support groups, I testified in front of City Council, I was part of the effort to get the gender identity ordinance passed, which added greater protections to the Fair Practices Act for gender identity expression, and I was there for a lot of the early things in the community. 

I took a little break, but I’ve been starting to get back out there, especially as a parent, in part because I believe in visibility and also because I know that a lot of trans folks haven’t had the same opportunities that I’ve had. If there’s any way, big or small, that I can make a difference, I’m going to try. That’s one of the reasons I got involved with the IBA and TransWork. For years I’ve felt that the community has taken on health care and social services for the trans community, but we haven’t really taken on economic mobility and justice. Being self-employed, you’re less likely to be subject to the whims of someone else and the discrimination that often comes with it. And in the workplace, we’re working on not just getting trans people employment opportunities, but creating policies that are trans-affirming. 

As a bi-racial person who could pass for white, I hear all sorts of racist comments from folks who don’t know I’m a POC. I assume you have similar experiences. 

Yes, a lot of times people don’t know and will say something transphobic in front of me. I remember on the day I was supposed to testify, I was outside of my office and a friend of mine who ran a drag show walked by and said hello to me. There were two city employees emptying a meter in front and when she walked away, they started making very derogatory comments about her. It was one of those moments, do you speak up, what do you say? And here I was about to testify about discrimination, so I said to them, “I’m a transexual and I’m about to testify regarding gender identity and expression for the Fair Practices Act. You are an employee of the city of Philadelphia. You really should think before you speak, you never know who’s listening.” They freaked out and that was a real moment for me. 

Being socialized as a woman, I always knew about the sexist and misogynistic banter that men use as a social lubricant. But witnessing it is shocking and even worse when someone’s expecting you to go along with it. I would always speak up. But, fortunately, I’m rarely in the company of men like that.

Give me the 20 second version of what you do at Message Agency?

We are a digital agency. We do branding and websites and digital strategy, but we only work for non-profits, foundations, universities, some government, and mission-driven enterprises. You have to have some kind of social impact for us to take the work. And we’re a certified B-Corporation and LGBT business enterprise.

What is a B Corp and why is it important to you? 

It’s a big source of pride for me. A B-Corp is a for-profit business that is certified to have a triple bottom line: “People, planet, profit.” We prioritize those items in our decision-making in that order with profits last. The business gets audited every 2 years and it is very invasive and takes months, but we do it because it demonstrates that we do what we say we do. It’s a lot to live up to, and as humans, we don’t always clearly think through things and make mistakes, but the intention is there and what we prioritize is there. And we get to work with some amazing organizations doing incredible things.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy gardening. I have a little house with a front yard that I terraformed. When I moved in, it had dirt covered with carpet! I guess it was to keep the weeds from growing. I now have blackberry and raspberry bushes, fig trees and roses, and it gives me great joy. 

A song that makes you sad or melancholy?

Actually, melancholy music makes me happy! There’s a song by David Byrne, called, “One Fine Day” and there’s a version with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus that I find very moving. It helped me get through the beginning of the Pandemic.

Quarantine cocktail?

A sazerac, or an Old Fashioned if there’s no Absynthe handy.

Show I hate to admit I’m binge watching…

Oh, there are a couple of them. But “Lovecraft Country” really stands out. It turned a genre on its head with a perspective on race that is rarely seen on television.

My show would be “Super Girl.” It’s surprisingly progressive and they have a trans character there played by a transwoman. Being trans isn’t her main plot point. They refer to it on occasion, but otherwise she’s just one of the gang with a love story that’s one of the strongest on the show without ever labeling it as anything different or unique. 

Wow, I’ll have to check that out. It would be wonderful if being trans — or lesbian, gay, bi or intersexed — was just one aspect of who we are. Just an also. And we could all just be humans. That would be an amazing world to live in.