Trangender matriarch Jheri Jones has four sons and lives with two of them in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Connecting with her children after her gender transition is the subject of the touching, vulnerable documentary The Joneses, now available online. The Advocate spoke to Jones about the experience.
The Advocate: Did you ever expect there would be a documentary about your life? What have you learned from the process? Jheri Jones: I never expected to see a documentary about my life, and I've learned a lot as a result. Seeing myself in a film as others see me was certainly a revelation. It dispelled a lot of illusions I had about myself and helped me to see just how flawed I am. It was, at times, very uncomfortable to watch. and I have come away with, I hope, greater humility as a person.
What was the most unexpected challenge you faced while transitioning? What was the most gratifying moment? The greatest challenge for me while transitioning was overcoming the fear of whether I would be able to "pass" in the female role and not be looked on by others as some kind of freak. I cross-dressed for about six years before fully switching to the female role. I had a job working as a man and cross-dressed after working hours. We had an expression to describe this arrangement: It was called "straddling the fence," and it was frustrating. Once I made the decision to fully embrace the female role, go through legal changes to alter my name, birth certificate, driver's license, etc., I then was forced to leave my old job and begin the process of building a new work history as a woman. It was trying at times, but by the mercy of God I came through it all OK. The job situation was probably my biggest challenge in a long list of challenges.
Truthfully, I can't think of any unexpected challenge. All of the challenges I had to deal with were pretty much what I expected, and there were plenty of those. The most gratifying moment for me was when I woke up from surgery on February 4, 2000, and realized that I now had a body that was in balance with my true gender.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when reconnecting with your children? Before reconciling with my children, my biggest fear was being rejected by them, but thank God, that never happened. We all adjusted to my new status over time.
What was your reaction to the news that this administration is trying to legally erase the existence of trans and nonbinary people? I am very concerned about the Trump administration's treatment of transgender people, and let's hope it doesn't get any worse than it already has. I am hopeful that laws already in place and the court system will protect transgender people from any legislation that the Republicans might try to pass that would be detrimental to the transgender cause. I will say, however, that I reluctantly have to agree with the president that transgender people should not be allowed to serve in the military while they are in transition, because it is simply not realistic to expect someone in transition to be able to fully comply with the duties of the military while having to deal with all the challenges of a transition. However, once their transitions are completed, trans people should certainly be allowed to serve in the military as long as they are physically able to do so.
What do you think your story shows for trans people in the South? My own personal story shows that going through a transition like mine is certainly not impossible if you live in the Deep South. The cultural environment has changed significantly in the last 50 years or so. The Deep South, though still quite conservative in many areas, is more open and liberal and constantly moving in that direction. And of course, we now have the internet, where someone transitioning can get the information and answers they need, which was not available to me.
What advice do you have for transgender people working to reconnect with their families? To all transgender people trying to reconnect with family members, I would say, "Don't ever give up. Make every effort to reestablish those ties. It is not easy and it can be so awkward, so depressing, so scary, but if someone can be embraced by family in their new role, the rewards and blessings are worth whatever we have to endure to get there. I was estranged from my children for seven years until I gathered the courage to present myself to them as a female. It was definitely awkward at first, but they warmed up to the new me and we have been a close family unit since then.