An Interview with Jes Simmons: Part One

Jes on Swing-1

In October of this year, I had the great pleasure of listening to Jes Simmons speak about her experiences as a transsexual woman.  After her sex-affirmation surgery, Jes survived 18 years of job discrimination before finding a home teaching English at Longwood University.  We are very lucky to have her, as she is both a fabulous teacher and a mentor and advocate for LGBT students—especially the “T”—on campus.  Jes’ bravery and perseverance  are inspiring, and her story is one we all need to hear.  I am honored to be able to share it with you this week.

Transgender and transsexual issues are gaining increasing coverage in our media:  Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are wonderful role models, allowing us to see both their struggle and their courage. They, along with you and other trans people who are speaking out about their experiences, are at the vanguard of a movement that Time magazine has dubbed “The Transgender Tipping Point.”  People are learning about trans issues, but there is still a lot of confusion and misinformation, beginning with terminology.  Can you define some basic terms for us, including the difference between transgender and transsexual?

Even the trans community squabbles and disagrees over the meaning and limitations of transgender and transsexual. I believe most see transgender as an umbrella term for anyone with a gender variation. Transsexuals have been under intense social and media focus these past few years, and such scrutiny unavoidably brings revisions and re-workings of words used to talk about the spectrum and fluidity of gender. For instance, the sex change I had in 1997 became sex-reassignment surgery and is now referred to as sex-affirmation surgery. To me personally, transsexual means the individual has had sex-affirmation surgery, while transgender means the individual has not had surgery or doesn’t want/cannot afford surgery. Neither is necessarily a more authentic way of being, though the transsexual (whether male-to-female or female-to-male) has lost or gained societal male privilege.

I prefer to call myself a transsexual because I literally went across from one sex to another by transforming my body to align it with a woman’s body (my mind and spirit were already female): my surgeon created a neo-vagina and hormones gave me small breasts.   I had no other surgery. When I was in Montreal at the Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie Plastique, the other male-to-female patients underwent tracheal shaves and breast augmentation, and it took them far longer to recover. I never opted for either, as I never had a visible Adam’s apple, and I was happy with the small breasts that hormones naturally (!) gave me. At my first meeting with my endocrinologist at the Cleveland clinic, I asked him how much my breasts would grow because of Premairin, and he replied, “Well, that depends on your mother. How large were her breasts?” When I told him that my mother was a ballerina and had small breasts, he looked very concerned and gently said, Aww . . . well, you can get implants later.” I remain quite happy with my 36-Bs.

In discussing your childhood, you have described a feeling of being a girl on the inside—something you could identify at seven years old when you read about the “anima,” or Jung’s concept of subconscious feminine qualities within a male.  This concept registered with your sense of self, even at that young age.  Caitlyn Jenner has described a similar feeling, saying that her brain and soul are female.  The term for this mismatch between gender and biological sex is gender dysphoria.  What is the difference between someone—male or female—who acknowledges aspects of the opposite gender in her- or himself but is comfortable with their assigned gender, and someone who experiences gender dysphoria?

The moment I woke after my sex change and remembered where I was, I smiled hugely. I experienced “gender euphoria”! Honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to be comfortable in one’s birth gender, and it’s difficult for me to fathom how someone with opposite-gender qualities could ever be comfortable in her or his birth gender. My gender dysphoria was always just a part of my life. When I was five or six, I would put my forefinger on the tip of my penis and push it inside my body. I felt pure delight when I removed my finger and a tube-like cavity remained. Within a few seconds, though, my little penis would emerge like a turtle’s head, and this often brought tears.

As a child, I felt oddly invisible, as if I were watching others from off stage and was unable to fully participate in life. I couldn’t understand the boys and was very uneasy when forced to be around them, even before I started school. I longed to play with the girls, but to them I had boy cooties. In fourth grade, a small group of lovely girls adopted me and allowed me to hang around with them at recess. Unfortunately, this was short-lived as a boy in my class had a crush on one of the girls, and he threatened to beat me up if I hung around her and her friends. I became a solitary child.

I have a brother who is one-and-a-half years younger than I am, but we somehow grew up in same household with very different memories. (Of course, this is probably true of all siblings.) He was all boy. I envied his ability to just be himself and play with other boys. When my brother was in fifth grade, he was invited to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Although this never troubled me or made me feel left out, my mother decided to call the boy’s mother and ask if I could join the sleepover. I didn’t know this boy (he and my brother were in a lower grade) and didn’t want to spend the night away from my home. (I’m not sure what he or my brother thought about this.) My sole memory of the sleepover is trying to help the boy’s mother wash dishes after dinner and her repeatedly insisting that I run along and join her son and my brother.

Gender dysphoria is a recent term, appearing in the primary medical manual for psychiatrists in 2013.  Before that, doctors used the term gender identity disorder, which implied that trans people have an illness and left cultural factors—such as discrimination and abuse—out of the picture.  How has the medical understanding of gender dysphoria evolved over the years?  In what ways can the medical community support trans people, helping them to resolve gender dysphoria without stigmatizing it?

Psychiatrist Karl Menniger has a quote that might be appropriate here: “It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one.” It would seem to me that psychiatrists were the free fish, and the terminology they created was their attempt to figure out how people like me were feeling.   Vocabulary is essential. When I was a boy, I believe I was fearful of telling my parents or my brother that I felt like a girl. Aside from that unspoken truth, I had no words to use to explain how sad and wrong I felt. I did, however, have another way to communicate my inner feelings. I still have a drawing I did on my 10th birthday. I traced part of my left arm and my hand on a sheet of typing paper; actually, it was on the back of a poem my poet-father typed and had thrown into the trashcan in his study. Wrapped around my thin arm are seven gem-encrusted bracelets. Each had an arrow pointing to it with an identifying word.  On my fingers—and even my thumb—were differently shaped rings, also labeled. I still have that drawing because my father placed it within the pages of our family’s massive 1950 edition of Columbia Encyclopedia that he tended to use as a catch-all scrapbook. [1] How could my parents have seen what I’d drawn and not ask me about it? In this same encyclopedia was a photo of my brother (age 3) and me (age 4½) at Halloween. We are both in our pajamas. I’m wearing a witch mask, and he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. Again, did neither of my parents (or my brother) ever ask me why I wanted to be a witch? Perhaps they did, and I’ve repressed it. Nonetheless, I am grateful they let me be a witch for Halloween. (That is my least favorite of holidays, perhaps because I was already in disguise as a boy for so many years.)

To get to your question about the medical community, one answer is to have doctors, nurses, and staff who are well educated about and understand trans people and our health needs. And this includes mental health specialists (as they are often gatekeepers to our having access to surgery.)   Although my therapist was amazingly supportive, kind, and helpful as I negotiated my trans journey, I spent many sessions helping to educate her on transsexualism. This, of course, was back in the late 1990s, and today there is so much more information available online, as well as in psychiatric and medical journals and textbooks. With more visibility on TV and films and on social media, healthcare professionals (and the general public) have a greater awareness of the trans community and our needs. My hope is that this awareness destroys the stigma associated with being trans and that it brings tolerance and understanding.

You ask how it’s possible to “resolve gender dysphoria.” I can only answer for myself: My gender dysphoria ended only with gender-confirmation surgery. When transitioning as a female (but still having a penis), my gender dysphoria stayed with me, though at a slightly lesser intensity. There’d always come a time—such as when bathing—when I’d see myself naked and my dysphoria would once again surface and become overwhelming and unendurable.

As a transsexual woman, you have faced institutional discrimination, losing your job as a tenured (male) professor and then finding that you were unwelcome at other universities after your gender confirmation surgery, until finding a home at Longwood.  Although each trans person’s experience is unique, discrimination is widespread, and there are few laws to prevent it.  What kinds of discrimination do trans people face?  What laws or cultural changes is the community fighting for, and how can we support them?

A huge obstacle for us is the question on employment applications that asks: “Have you ever worked under another name? If so, what name?” Answering truthfully can mean our application never even gets seen by the person in charge of hiring.

When transitioning from one gender to another, we often face bureaucratic and discriminatory obstacles when we go to have the sex designation changed on our driver’s license, social security card, passport, or any identity card or document that requires a sex designation. I have awful memories of having to appear in person to change the sex designation on my driver’s license and on my social security card. Often the person before me disappeared behind a door and was joined by one or more people. Inevitably, the door opened for a furtive look at me. I felt shamed.

Another huge fear is having someone in authority question our gender (whether a police officer or even someone I charge, such as a dentist or doctor). It used to be very awkward for me when I’d go in for a mammogram or check-up and have aides or nurses ask me the date of my last period. Humor sometimes helped. I’d smile and reply, “June 1997 . . . for one day . . . after my sex change.”

One troubling aspect of being trans (especially for trans women) is other people’s irrational fear or uneasiness being around us, especially for those of us who don’t visibly “pass” as a member of the opposite sex. Being “read” can result in stares or laughter, and even verbal or physical abuse. I am very fortunate to pass well, and I’ve never been treated this way. Ironically, when I was a teen with longish hair in the late 60s and early 70s when men’s fashions were somewhat feminized (remember those colorful loose shirts, flared pants and high heeled shoes?), strangers often saw me as a young woman. I remember the thrill I felt one day when I was browsing in a used bookstore and overheard the clerk tell a customer, “The science fiction section is where that young woman is standing.”  I had been the only customer.

As a transgender boy growing up in the mid-to-late 1960s, not only did I lack a basic vocabulary to talk about my feelings, but I also had no one to offer me advice or support. Thus, I kept my apprehension (read: fear) about using the boy’s room to myself. The boy’s room was a scary place for me from first grade (1960) through high school (1972). This was because I felt so unconnected to the boys who used the restroom. I hated their boisterousness, occasional rough housing, and shouting, as well as the sexual innuendos and banter they so casually expressed. I saw the boy’s room as a risky and unsafe place to be caught in, and I was afraid the boys would physically hurt me because I was slender and effeminate (though perhaps androgynous might be the most accurate word). I managed to endure boy’s bathrooms for those school years by trying to “hold it” until I got home at the end of the school day or by raising my hand in class so I could use the restroom during class period, when it was more likely to be vacant.

Certainly with the recent failure to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston, the issue of trans people using public restrooms that match our gender presentation is very troubling. For most of my life, I simply avoided public restrooms if possible. They were my dark alleyways, my unfamiliar streets and neighborhood. Before my sex change as an adult, I was warned by my gender therapist not to use women’s restrooms until my driver’s license read “F.” If a woman “read” me as a male in the women’s room, I could be arrested. I did as she said, but the irony was that in the men’s room I was being read as a woman. I recall leaving a men’s room in a shopping mall when an elderly man started to enter. As I passed him outside the open door, he staggered and backed up apologizing to me. ”Oh dear, excuse me. I’m so sorry.” He then peered into the restroom at the urinals and looked at me again, clearly confused. I gave him an awkward smile and walked away. As a boy and as a pre-op man, I would have preferred the option of “Door Number 3”: a single stall family bathroom or a gender-neutral bathroom. Unfortunately, at that time of my life, the former was rare and the latter was nonexistent.

I have faith that society will grow more accepting of trans people, especially as we become more visible in social media, movies, TV shows, and literature. That said, I know that laws or changing social mores cannot fully protect us from intolerant, prejudiced people. No one wants to feel tolerated or unwanted. Even with no visible discrimination, a workplace environment can simply feel too toxic to endure.

If I had to specify one change in a law, I’d like to have the sex designation removed from driver’s licenses.

[1] In 1988, I published a poem in College English called “Looking at Baby Through Magnifying Glass,” which is about going through all of the ephemera my father stuck in that encyclopedia while my daughter sat in a basinet nearby.

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