An Interview with Jes Simmons: Part Two

Jes on Swing-1

Earlier this week, I posted Part One of my interview with Jes Simmons, a fabulous teacher and colleague who is sharing her experiences and perspectives as a transsexual woman with us.  After her sex affirmation surgery, Jes survived 18 years of job discrimination before finding a home teaching English at Longwood University.  Welcome to Part Two of the interview:

You’ve spoken about your sense of relief and belonging in seeing Longwood’s statue of Joan of Arc, the university’s patron saint.  Why is Joan of Arc a source of inspiration to the trans community?  Who else—in our past or our present—represents trans experience and courage?

I don’t know whether Joan of Arc is a source of inspiration to the trans community as a whole, but she has become that to me. Before I came to Longwood University, I read as much as I could find online about the school. I was intrigued that Joan of Arc was its patron saint (though that term surreptitiously evolved into “patron hero” in last year’s commencement program.) When I read how Joan was put to death not for her religious beliefs but because she refused to wear clothing deemed proper for her gender, I felt an immediate connection. I knew to my core that Longwood University was the place for me. When I arrived on campus after being hired, I went to the Rotunda and stood before the statue I’d only seen in online photos. Tears came as I touched her clasped hands. At that moment, Longwood truly felt like the place I was meant to be.

I believe every trans individual is a source of inspiration. As is every person who accepts us. The LGBT students on campus who either shyly wave at me as we pass or shout an enthusiastic “Hey, Dr. Jes!” from across the quad inspire me because they bring me such joy and sense of purpose. But to answer your question more legitimately, I could go back to ancient Greece, to the blind seer/prophet Tiresias who the Greek gods turned from male to female for seven years and then back to male again. Famously, when asked whether men or women enjoyed sex the most, Tiresias replied, “Women.” (As one of the lucky transsexuals who can have orgasms after, I must agree! Those I’ve had as a woman are so different from those I had as a man.)

Jumping ahead centuries to 1838, there’s Adélaïde Herculine Barbin, a French hermaphrodite who was brought up as a girl and lived happily as a young woman until 1860. A doctor examined her for severe pain in her vagina and found evidence of male sex organs. He declared her to be male and had a judge officially decree she was a man. Barbin then lived an impoverished and lonely life as a man, wrote a memoir, and then committed suicide. French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault discovered Barbin’s published memoir while doing research in a Paris library and reintroduced it to the world as Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite (Pantheon Books, 1980). The book contains an insightful introduction by Foucault.

And then we have Einar Wegener, a painter from Denmark who underwent the first sex change surgery in 1926 to become Lili Wegener. (Actually, Wegener underwent several surgeries, which are understandably crude and primitive by today’s standards. ) I’m really looking forward to seeing the upcoming film about Lili called The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne. The film is based on a book of the same name by David Ebershoff (Penguin Books, 2000), itself based on Man Into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex, edited by Niels Hoyer (Jarrolds Publishers, London, 1933).

Many people are confused about the difference between gender identity (who you go to bed as) and sexual orientation (who you go to bed with).  Our cultural approach to trans people magnifies this confusion, as Leslie Feinberg explains in Transgender Warriors:  “…perhaps the biggest societal misunderstanding about the trans population continues to be the assumption that all transgender people or transsexual people are gay.  That’s not true.  The majority of lesbian women, gay men, and bisexuals are not transgendered or transsexual, and the majority of trans people are not lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  Nor can the sexuality of some trans people be easily categorized.”  What role does homophobia within our culture play in this confusion?  What can we do to clear up the confusion?

I am proudly two of the letters in LGBTQ acronym: Lesbian and Transsexual. (I suppose this puts me in the minority of male-to-female transsexuals.) I’ve always been attracted to women, both as a man and as a woman.   Whenever people learn I’m lesbian, I detect a surprised reaction, no matter how hard they try to hide it.

One friend of mine who was truly surprised was novelist Barry Hannah (1942-2010). Barry was a student in my father’s creative writing class in Mississippi College back in the early 1960s. He regarded my father very highly, and they kept in touch through the years.   Barry and I became friends in the late 1970s when I was in grad school at Mississippi College and working as a teaching assistant in the English Department. When I wrote to tell Barry about my surgery and losing my career as a teacher he wrote back: “Your torment and loss in worldly matters I’m sorry for. I’ve no idea of the misery of being born into the wrong form. I can only try to imagine.” He ended his sweet letter with hopes that “instants of mild ecstasy come to you.” Eventually, this struggle to understand found their way into his southern gothic novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2001), which featured my father and me as minor characters:

The poet’s son in middle age said he had suffered all this while for being a man. He now wanted a woman operation. And as a woman he desired other women. His father the old poet could not understand. (178)

Although the novel is Barry’s invention (my poet father died in 1979, 18 years before I had surgery), a reader can discern how my sex change confounded him.

Most people who are confounded by the sexual orientation of transsexuals maintain the standard, heteronormative assumption that women are attracted to men and men are attracted to women. When confronted with a male-to-female transsexual who is also lesbian, they struggle to round off the square peg so it will fit into the round hole of their narrow or unexamined belief system: Jes is now a woman; ergo, she must now be sexually attracted to men.   How wrong they are!

In describing your personal experience with transitioning from a man to a woman, you have spoken about the grief involved:  your wife lost a husband, your daughter lost a father (though she still calls you “Dad”), and you lost the professional and personal life you’d lived as a man.  What sustained you through this grief, and how do you view it now, 18 years after your surgery?

Two words: my daughter.

After surgery I felt whole, connected, and “right” for the first time in my life. I was happy; I was gender euphoric. To venture back to an earlier metaphor, I was finally standing on the stage with everyone else. But this bright time devolved into the darkest time. I was feeling great and wanted to celebrate and be with everyone I loved . . . but they essentially wanted nothing to do with me. Only my daughter, who was around 11 at the time, gave me unconditional love and support. And her love remains priceless.

I also handled my grief by writing poetry. A sustaining and healing power comes from writing poems, especially when they are an attempt to come to terms with life. I wrote about my divorce, the loss of my career loss, and my transsexual experience. Many of these have been published in journals or been anthologized. I looked over a few titles and realized they are a succinct map of how I coped:  Losing Custody; Sounds from a Divorce; A Transsexual Fetches the Boomerang;  After Sex-Reassignment Surgery; Job Application: Question 3; Returning to My Daughter in Ohio;  My Daughter Visits, or The Sea Change; How to Survive Loss.

Today, I am happily sustained by finding a welcoming and accepting home at Longwood University and in Farmville. I’m enjoying life with so many amazingly kind and supportive friends here and, honestly, this is the first place I’ve found contentment and inner peace. I have an amazing daughter who is now a remarkable woman, and I am so proud of her. Our bond today is loving, strong, respectful, and, best of all, healthy.

There is much that is heartbreaking in the stories of trans people—high levels of abuse and discrimination, and suicide.  In the interview that Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner did with Diane Sawyer, Dr. Norman Spack of Boston Children’s Hospital said, “Untreated, unevaluated teenagers and young adults between the age of 16 and 25—45% will attempt suicide.”  What words of encouragement can you give to trans youth who are struggling with gender dysphoria, and what resources are available to help them?

One word: Don’t!

Take a breath. Wait. It will get better, I promise. If you want, please use and repeat my own special phrase: “In Joy, In Myself” (enjoyin’ myself). Treat yourself the way you’d like others to treat you. Take yourself out on a date, even if it’s just to go for a meandering walk. Find beauty around you—green tree leaves against a blue sky, a curious bird hopping on the sidewalk, a child’s innocent gaze.

Suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem. I understand how the horrific pain you feel inside can exceed your ability to cope. Trans youth who are thinking of suicide must immediately call the Trevor Project’s hotline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386). If they’d be more comfortable texting, then text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200. Online, trans youth can find strength at transpeoplespeak.org and at wehappytrans.com. These are helpful and welcoming; certainly they’re more than I ever had as a trans youth myself.

My heart goes out to all trans youth. To them, I say, educate yourself about trans issues and absolutely trust your intuition (that inner voice) when deciding to reveal yourself to others, to accept friendships or dates, or to venture into unfamiliar places or areas.

In Virginia, trans youth can find lots of information at www.equalityvirginia.com. This website has a lengthy list of helpful and local resources for them.

Can you recommend some resources for further reading and understanding?

Yes, gladly. The following books and dvds would serve interested readers well . . .

  • She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Broadway Books, 2003). It’s a wry and poignant book that reads well because Jenny wrote wonderful and very funny novels as James Finney Boyan. Jenny (name drop!) and I had a brief email correspondence in 2005 when I was drafting my own memoir. I later gave up on publishing it, as the market seemed flooded with transgender memoirs and I just wanted to live my life.
  • Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (Random House, 2015) is a biography written by Amy Ellis Nutt (a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist). It’s the true story of two adopted twins, Wyatt and Wayne, one of whom grew up absolutely knowing he was a girl. It’s sweet and sometimes painful to read. Both twins are now 18; Nicole recently had sex-confirmation surgery.
  • Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein (1995, Vintage Books). This book is informative, challenging, and entertaining.
  • The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender by Marine Rothblatt (Crown Publishers, 1995) is a remarkable, eye-opening and revealing text on gender and sexuality.
  • Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhood’s—My Mother’s, My Father’s, and Mine by Noelle Howey (Picador USA, 2002). Howey’s book is insightful, poignant, and delightful to read.

I can also recommend the following DVD’s abut transsexual/transgender people; each rings very true to me personally.

  • Red Without Blue (Cinema Libre Studio, 2007). This documentary concerns twin boys who grew up in a dysfunctional family; one came out as gay the other as trans. I feel a personal connection to the film, as Claire had her surgery at same the hospital in Montreal where I had my surgery.
  • Prodigal Sons (First Run Features, 2008). Kimberly Reed’s film that won “Best Documentary” at several LGBT film festivals. It is mesmerizing throughout.
  • Boy Meets Girl (Wolfe Video, 2015). This is simply a fun and insightful movie starring young trans actress Michelle Hendley and Twilight actor Michael Welch.

At this point in the interview, I’d like to say that even when gender dysphoria turns into gender euphoria (either through surgery or just dressing like and living as the gender we are inside), it is often tempered by guilt and regret for the pain we unintentionally caused our loved ones, our relatives, and our friends.   Here is where societal understanding and acceptance would help us immensely. Forgive us. Understand us. Enjoy us. I hope that this interview might help us gain a little more of that. Thank you, Liz, and thank you reader.

 

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