Revisiting Jeffrey Catherine Jones

The July Locus contains a couple of obituaries for the trans artist, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, who I wrote about briefly here. Both authors (Arnie Fenner and Robert K. Wiener) were good friends of the deceased; both consistently use the name “Jeff”, and both consistently use male pronouns. I am not, however, going to get ranty about this. After all, these articles have been written by people very close to Jones, someone I have never even met. I have no idea what the truth of the matter is. I do, however, think it is necessary to address the issue. It is human nature to assume that high profile members of a minority group are typical of that group, and reading the two obituaries people could easily come away with the idea that most trans people are tragic, crazy, and will come to regret their transition.

I’d like to state from the start that there’s nothing wrong with someone turning back from transition. There can and should always be an exit route, up until the point that the person concerned is convinced that what they are doing is right for them. Doctors and psychiatrists who encourage transition in the expectation of fees are just as culpable as those who peddle aversion cures. It is perfectly possible for trans people to find equilibrium and happiness without full transition, and if that’s what works for them we should support it. But equally there are reasons why transitions might fail, and by no means all of them mean that the person concerned was “not really trans” or that, as radical feminists allege, the whole concept of gender identity is a lie.

As I said, I can’t ever know the truth of the matter. What I can do, however, is draw on my experience of transitioning relatively late in life, and thereby hopefully explain the pressures that trans people are sometimes subjected to. Please note that what follows is very personal. Other trans people may have had very different experiences, and I am not trying to speak for everyone, just explaining how things did go, and could have been so much worse, for me.

Let me start with a couple of quotes. First this from the autobiography on Jones’ website.

Some of my early memories come from about the age of 4 or 5. By then I knew I wanted to be a girl. Maybe I was born with a kind of gender inversion — some call it a birth defect. I know nothing of these things. I do know that my identification has always been with females — in books, movies, art and life.

Now this from Arnie Fenner’s obituary in Locus:

Though he lived the rest of his days as a transgendered person he told me candidly in 2006, ‘‘It was a mistake. I still think like a man and desire women like a man does. I thought it would make me less depressed and I was wrong. I drove down a dead end road and now I can’t back up or turn around; the only thing I can do at this point is accept things as they are. And I think I have. Besides, what other choice do I have?’’

I want to try to explain how these things can both be true.

The first thing to note is that Jones was born in 1944. Back in those days, things were very different for trans people, especially in Georgia. This again from Jones:

In the south, in the ’50s there were no gays and no lesbians, and certainly no one like me. So I became secretive. In my own mind I became ashamed, guilty and worthless — this was the road I started down so long ago.

It wasn’t that bad for me. By the time I reached adolescence there were people like Christine Jorgensen, April Ashley and Caroline Cossey who I could look to as role models. The guilt, the shame and the feelings of worthlessness, however, are very real. April and Caroline had enough bravery and self belief to transition early. I never did. Many trans women have done things that look like running away from femininity, perhaps in a desperate attempt to “cure” themselves. Calpernia Addams joined the Navy. Jan Morris climbed Everest with Hillary and Tenzing. I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes in the military, nor have I ever been fit enough for mountain climbing. There were times, however, when I would have given anything to be “cured” of the way I felt.

Unfortunately, despite a considerable amount of snake oil peddled by dishonest psychiatrists, all the evidence suggests that trans people can’t be “cured” in this way. We simply don’t know enough about how human brains and bodies work to make those feelings go away. What we can do is allow them to transition — a cure of a very different sort — and it seems to work very well. The number of happy trans people appears to vastly outweigh the number of unhappy ones (see here for data).

Transition, however, is a difficult process, especially if you do it late in life, and even more so if you are already famous.

The late in life thing is partly a matter of biology. The further you are post-puberty, the more entrenched your physical appearance becomes. Trying to transition at the age of 55, as Jones did, means that you have to be quite lucky to end up looking convincing as a woman. Of course people shouldn’t judge by appearances, but they do. Trans women are often held to a far higher standard of beauty than cis women. People who are kind will sadly tell you that you just aren’t making the grade; people who are less kind will laugh at you. And of course you always have dreams. I would have loved to end up looking like Debbie Harry, or even like April or Caroline. There was never any chance that would happen. But if you don’t meet people’s expectations of appearance, feelings of failure are inevitable. If things are really bad you will routinely be insulted in the street by complete strangers. I have heard of trans people who are afraid to go out of their homes, because they know they will be followed by a gang of neighborhood kids shouting abuse.

Late transition is difficult in other ways too. I know this doesn’t fit with the general desire for things to be black and white, but actually gender is a product of both nature and nurture. If it wasn’t a matter of nature, trans people would be easily cured by the sort of brainwashing techniques peddled by the snake oil salesmen. But nurture plays a part as well. The longer you live in a male role, the harder you try to conform, the more you start to think and behave like a man. Personally I tried hard to hang on to my identity. I might have been utterly terrified of the prospect of transition, but I was already experimenting with interacting with society as a woman when I was in college. I had male friends, but not “laddish” friends (well, apart from the various cricket clubs I hung around with and kept score for, but even then I was effectively one of the WAGs, not one of the team, and delighted to be so).

When Jones says, “I still think like a man”, that sounds to me more like an admission of failure to resist conditioning, rather than an admission that one is not really trans. The follow-on comment, “and desire women like a man does”, suggests a world view in which trans women are supposed to be gender-stereotypical in every way, including being androphilic (fancying men). That’s a world view that was often forced on trans people by doctors in the early days. We’ve mostly got away from that sort of thing now. Many of my trans woman friends are enthusiastically lesbian, and don’t see this as a failing. I don’t see it as a failing either. Jones may not have believed women had to be gender-stereotypical, but it is a message that is often thrown at trans women by those around them, and failure on your part to live up to their expectations can result in their failure to accept your transition.

That leads us into the whole question of the environment in which you transition. One of the rules of thumb that I quickly learned to go by is that the closer a relationship you have with someone pre-transition, the harder it will probably be for that person to accept your transition. That’s because your identity is more firmly rooted in their mind, and they have an emotional attachment to the person they believe you to be. Some of my family still sometimes accidentally mis-gender me and call me by my old name.

In the obituaries Fenner and Wiener both state that Jones’s friends continued to use the name “Jeff” long after Jones had started living as a woman. They say that Jones was happy with this, which may well have been true. For me, however, every mis-gendering, every use of the wrong name, is a sign of at least failure on my part, and possibly of lack of acceptance of my identity. To have that message reinforced day-in, day-out when I was starting to transition would have been unbearable. It would have driven me crazy.

In the autobiography Jones says:

People have been unimaginably supportive, and slowly that shame is passing away. My wife, Maryellen, has been my backbone through all of this. I’ve never known such acceptance and love.

That sounds great, but it doesn’t sound like the unhappy, regretful person described in the obituaries.

I should note here that I’m not trying to point the finger at Fenner and Wiener, and accuse them of lack of support. Both sound as if they were very fond of Jones, despite that fact that their friendship came at a cost. It is pretty clear that Jones was not an easy person to befriend. In any case, coping with the transition of someone you know is hard. Even I get it wrong at times. A case in point is Poppy Z. Brite, who is in the process of transitioning from female to male. (I’m not outing anyone here. Poppy has been very open about the process online.) I’ve never met Poppy, though we have many mutual friends, but his books have been known to me for years, and until a few months ago I always associated those books with a woman writer. These days I have to constantly remind myself to think of Poppy as a man. With time it will become easier, but if I can get these things wrong I can’t blame other people too much for occasionally doing so.

For my transition I took fairly extreme steps. I moved to Australia, and built up a whole new network of friends who had never known me as anything other than Cheryl. This worked very well for me. As it turned out, as I gradually resumed contact with (non-family) people who had known me pre-transition, it mostly went fine. Neil Gaiman was one of the first, because he came to Australia for a convention. I will always be grateful to him for the warm and friendly reaction I got.

The point here is that I had a circle of friends who accepted me as the person I presented as. There was no mis-gendering, no wrong name, not even any sympathetic concern. I was just me, and that did wonders for my self-confidence. I don’t claim that this will work for everyone, and of course many people won’t be lucky enough to have such an opportunity. It is also true that these days, with public attitudes towards trans people having changed significantly, the pressures I faced, and that Jones may have faced as well, will be a lot less. Nevertheless, I believe that I would have found things much more difficult if I had been surrounded by people who were having difficulty accepting my transition.

The final point is that of fame. I was pretty much unknown, except to friends, family and work colleagues, when I started to transition. I am so grateful that the Internet wasn’t very widely known back then. Jones, on the other hand, was world famous, as Jeffrey.

I’d like you to stop for a moment and consider what it would be like if Neil Gaiman suddenly announced that he was transitioning to female. (I use Neil as an example here because I know he won’t mind, and he provides a usefully extreme example.) No matter how confident he was about this, no matter how supportive Amanda, the kids, Lorraine and so on were, Neil would still have to deal with the rest of the world. There are many women fans who are in love with him, hours of TV showing him as a man, thousands of photos showing him as moodily handsome. Jones didn’t have that level of fame, but didn’t have anonymity either. Jeffrey Jones was a famous, much loved, much awarded artist. I can’t begin to imagine the sort of stress that must have caused.

In short there are all sorts of reasons why transition for Jones must have been a much harder process than it was for me. That the process might not have gone well is no great surprise. Even for someone as apparently successful as me (and I am very happy with how things have gone) there are always disappointments. Had I not transitioned I would probably be much more financially secure than I am now. There’s the sexism. There are members of my family who will never speak to me again. There are people I feel that I have let down badly. But equally if I hadn’t transitioned I would never have met and fallen in love with Kevin, and I would probably never have had the self confidence to do the things that won me three Hugos, or to write posts such as this. I would still have been very much ashamed of who I was, and regretful of a chance missed.

These days, I suspect, things are rather easier. The reason that people such as Jones and myself transitioned fairly late in life is because we were born in a time when trans people were barely known, and feared and hated when they were. The world has changed a lot since then. I confess that I occasionally view young people like Kim Petras with a somewhat jealous eye. But, as Jones said, the only thing that I can do is accept things as they are, and be happy that many young people today will be spared the shame, guilt and agony that the likes of Jones and I suffered.

So, if you are a Locus subscriber and have been wondering about the Jones obituaries, the good news is that things have got better. Tragedy, at least in the short term, is no longer an inescapable doom for trans people. Also, please don’t immediately condemn Fenner and Wiener for their apparent mis-gendering. They knew Jones better than we did, and like Jones they grew up in a time when trans people were almost universally regarded as freaks. Transition is a complicated and messy business, and I don’t envy anyone trying to cope with it late in life.

47 thoughts on “Revisiting Jeffrey Catherine Jones

  1. Cheryl, this is a really interesting post; thanks for that.

    Your HTML is b0rked, on the Kim Petras link; it’s broken the LJ feed quite badly.

  2. Wow. Just wow.

    More courage than most, ma’am! Thanks for sharing – may i point others to this?

  3. Brave old world?

    There might be another hurdle for late transitioners, and this is very much a modern-day problem: the growing complexity of the biometric and econometric data cloud surrounding adults who belong to technological cultures.

    These days, ‘stealth’ (or, for that matter, successful detransitioning) may be effectively impossible.

    I count my blessings for hailing from the not-so-golden era before the general automation of public record-keeping.

    Heteronymically yours,

    Elane Imgoven

      1. Good heavens, you must have *just* transitioned when i met you – and the self-confidence you radiated even then – my heavens! I honest-to-god never had any clue you were anything other than as you presented.

          1. I don’t think so – it would most likely have been ConFrancisco (I would have been found with either Bruce Pelz or Drew Sanders that year) or ConJose (that’s later of course) – unless it was Chicon V (but that’s ’91) – or one of the Baycons – I used to be active in the early ’90’s :>

          2. FWIW, I don’t remember “meeting” you so much as just knowing you were part of the fabric of cons i did… I’ve known Kevin for such a long time, I don’t remember *not* knowing you – tho there must have been that time in the late ’80’s when I start conning and there was no Cheryl in West Coast conventions yet…

      2. Oh, yes, it would have been somewhat easier in the ’90s, but still hardly a cake-walk at any time in history, let alone now.

        I’m not **quite** from the steam-engine era, having run away in ’77 and paid cash on the maidenhead (as t’were) in ’78, but even then there were already signs that it was not going to get any easier if I waited any longer than I had to.

        I do salute the courage of they that choose to be ‘out’ activists. I’m not too sure that there was all that much room for activism out in the Colonies in the late ’70s. Certainly, in the case of my city, one fell through all imaginable cracks as the civil authorities really had no established practices from which to take guidance.

        Personally? I suspect that in the best of all possible worlds, gender issues will eventually decline to become biohlogical trivialities on the order of eye colour. Will that happen within my (middle-aged) lifetime? I am not yet so sure…

  4. This looks like the perfect chance to tell you that I’ve long admired your self-confidence in being so enthusiastically and unashamedly into rugby and cricket. From what you say here, that self-confidence was hard-won — which only makes it more admirable.

    1. My mum is a big sports fan. I don’t see why I can’t be too, even if I can’t cook as well as she can.

      1. Nobody can cook as well as one’s mother. It’s a basic rule of the universe. Ask any Italian.

        (Unless one’s mother couldn’t cook at all. This exception is required by the universe in order to avoid an infinite spiral of negative cooking ability, which would probably cause said universe to implode.)

      2. Precisely, why shouldn’t you like sport? It’s a ridiculous situation when ciswomen are able to take advantage of the constantly increasing opportunities to break out of traditional gender roles while transwomen aren’t allowed out of the embroidery and ribbons end of the spectrum.

  5. One of the problems – not even with late transition, but with transition as an adult – is that you have started to accumulate people who do the same sorts of thing. I nearly decided to transition when I was still doing graduate work at Oxford, but let myself be chivvied into waiting by some of my well-intentioned gay male and feminist women friends. In the end I didn’t start transition properly until my very late twenties – by which time I had a lot of friendships and a lot of history with people.

    I tried to do something similar to you and ran away to Chicago to transition – for a variety of reasons, that didn’t work out so well, though I came back knowing for certain that I would definitively transition permanently within months, as I did.

    I never even considered going stealth, simply because I wanted to write, and be an activist – and there were simply too many people around in the worlds I was going to move in who already knew me> But it all worked out for the best, even when my surgeries got to be a problem and I was seriously ill. I suspect though that, if I had died of those bad surgical consequences, as I might have done, people who by now have totally adapted not only to thinking of me as Roz but to some degree back-projecting that identity into my past, would have done with JC Jones’ friends do here.

    I am conflicted about the envy issue – I certainly envy those of my young friends who are transitioning at roughly the age I should have done but know that they are living in a very different world, and that the practicalities are different. I know what a rough time some of my friends had with John Randall at Charing X and know he would have hated me. (I have a Randall ethics story so bad I don’t tell it because it is literally unbelievable, but true.)Transitioning when I did meant I got access to the Maudsley and UCH – on the other hand, UCH nearly killed me and wrecked my health and to some degree my looks.

    Which saved me so much time, from another point of view, and got me over my slightly vain younger self faster than might otherwise have happened. The relevance of this is that – our lives are what they are and might have been is a bad friend.

    1. Your comment brought me to the point of laughter, upon realising that many people opted to temporarily go to another country, perhaps another contintent altogether, in order to get on with the serious work of physical transition. I ended up spending a summer in the UK, which was just about half the planet away from home for me. It was a glorious summer indeed, and my chief regret is at having spent so much of it in a hospital bed instead of out in the parks and gardens of the South East.

      It all leads me to wonder whether the true beneficiaries did not also include the airlines and steamship companies?

  6. “and desire women like a man does.”
    A friend of mine was told something like she couldn’t be a trans woman because she fancies women. Because you can’t be both trans and a lesbian? I’m not sure, but I think it may even have been another trans person who told her that.

  7. I am conscious of being quite lucky in having switched in my thirties from being bisexual with a preference for men to being almost exclusively lesbian. Lucky, in that that way no one seems to feel entitled to criticize me or describe my sexuality as inauthentic – too many cis women have that particular progression.

  8. Jones’ story sounds like a very complex one, and thank you for your insight and thoughts about the Locus obituaries–I’d seen them, and was a bit confused by them.

  9. I always admired Jones for drawing women who looked real. “Barrels! nothing in *this* one.”

  10. Wow 🙂 Great post, really insightful. And I have to say, you have never struck me as anything but confident. Thanks for having the courage to share.

  11. One difficulty I have is in talking about historical relations with a friend who transitioned. Do I use the gender s/he was at the time when referring to hir-then? In some cases, using the current gender causes difficulty, and in others using the original gender does, particularly when I’m talking with third parties. I’m not sure there’s a good way to manage this. Even if we had an ungendered third-person, I expect people with stable genders would get upset being referred to with it (at this time, in most Western cultures and subcultures).

    If I’m sending someone to a person-now, I use their current gender if I know it. But history’s tricky.

    1. That’s a very good question, and I’m afraid it very much depends on the person concerned. As far as I’m concerned, my earliest memories almost all revolve around my unhappiness and confusion at not being accepted as a girl. My birth certificate now says that I was born a girl (thank you, Gender Recognition Act), and I’d be perfectly happy for people to refer to me using female pronouns for the whole of my life. But I certainly wouldn’t want to speak for anyone else on this.

      1. “…it very much depends on the person concerned.”

        Very much so, and in the case of those who made earlier transitions, or who effectively eloped from their previous social life, the question’s largely moot.

        History’s always going to be tricky, the moreso after someone dies and we can no longer ask them what their own preferences would be.

        Thank you, whole-heartedly, for starting this discussion.

  12. I really appreciate this post, because it discusses the psychological complexity involved in a way that many public discussions about transition do not.

  13. Truthfully, I don’t know if I would have been as easy and comfortable with your transition when I met you in Perth in 96 if I hadn’t been friends with Roz and with Rachel Pollack for the previous decade. They’d already knocked any of the rough edges off me, and put up with (and answered) all my questions and stupidnesses.

    And I’d written Game of You by then, and had definitely sorted out in my head where I stood and what I thought and what I felt.

    But looking back on it, all I remember is that I was happy to see you looking so very happy.

    On the subject of Jeffery Catherine Jones, when I was interviewed by a documentary on Jones, a month or so before Jones’s death, I asked about nomenclature before the interview began, and the interviewer/director told me that Jeff was Jones’s preferred name and what Jones wanted to be referred to/addressed as, and that “he” was how he was styling himself at that time.

    Which may shed some light on the “both consistently use the name “Jeff”, and both consistently use male pronouns.”

    I’m hoping that the documentary will provide some answers or at least illuminate Jones as a person. All I was able to do was talk about Jones as an artist.

    1. Well it might have been old hat for you, but it was very new for me, and it helped immeasurably. Thanks again! 🙂

      Thanks also, of course, to Roz and Rachel for being there before me. Hopefully I’m doing my own paying forward here.

      Rachel, for the benefit of those readers who don’t know, is a Clarke and World Fantasy Award winner. Impressive.

      As for my state of euphoria at the time, part of it was obviously due to having started transition at last, but I suspect a large part of it was down it it being less than a year since I had met a certain Mr. Standlee. I had such plans.

  14. And I’d written this post first with She’s and then thought, well the last thing I heard from Jones (via the director of the documentary) was Jeff and male pronouns, so went through and changed them to Jones and He, figuring that the person’s wishes in terms of gender address are paramount. FWIW.

    1. It’s difficult. The first question I would have asked myself, and I’m sure you did the same, is “is the director accurately reporting Jones’ wishes?” I’m pretty sure that would have been a “yes”. It would have been obvious from other attitudes otherwise.

      After that I would have wondered what was going on in Jones’s mind. Was it a case of, “I’ve made a mistake, I’m much happier male”? Was it, “OK world, I give in, I’ll be what you want me to be”? Or was it, “I’ve failed, I have to go back to being a man”? All of these and more are possible, but without knowing the person concerned well it is impossible to know what’s true.

      I’ve been trying to avoid pronouns. I wouldn’t like to have to do it in live speech, but I’m managing OK in writing.

  15. What a powerful and moving post. My grandson is in the process of deciding what gender he wants to be. That he has the space and support to explore different possibilities is due to the courage of people like you. I am proud to call you my friend.

    1. That space is really important. As I’m sure you recall, when we were kids LGBT people were generally told that they could never choose to live the way they wanted, because it would bring shame upon their families, and because society would punish them for doing so, so it could never make them happy. If I can save a few young people from the hopelessness that sort of thing engenders, it will be a job well done.

      I note also that the ongoing disputes about the need to “protect” children from finding out about the existence of LGBT people, most recently the disgraceful behavior of Opera North and Bay Primary School, are at core attempts to prevent young people from having such choices.

  16. Hi,
    I met you very briefly at Eurocon and promised my aunt that I’d read your blog, and now I have. At least some of it, and I want to say thank you, because I think it is (and you are) awesome. I am deeply impressed with your strength and confidence, and above all your smartz. I like smartz. And cheese.

    I also like this post, and the discussion in the comments about what pronouns to use when talking about something that happened in the past, a lot.
    One of my closest friends is in the process of transitioning and I used to have the same problem. These days I always use male pronouns. Female ones confuse me, because that’s not who he is anymore.

    1. Cheese is a wonderful thing. So are brave young people like you and your friend. Thank you for dropping by.

  17. Today I went down to Clarion Alley (in SF), where Mark Bode and James O’Barr have painted a mural in tribute to Jeffrey Catherine Jones. I wanted to take a few pictures.

    I admit I was disappointed by the Locus magazine when I downloaded it, especially the cover text. It seems disrespectful to me. Going to the mural was one way to deal with my feelings. I was planning to write about the Locus obituaries when I discovered your blog post.

    Thank you so very much for writing this. You articulated so much of what I thought, but you also helped calm down my urge to rant. I really appreciate it.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks very much for dropping by. I too had a brief moment of wanting to rant on seeing the Locus material, but then I sat down and remembered who was involved in creating it. They know me well, and they wouldn’t have published that way unless they had been asked to do so by people they felt knew Jones well. So spent some time thinking about things, and this post was the result. I’m glad it helped someone else.

  18. Here’s to British SF fans moving to Australia to transition! 😉 I noticed from some of your Tweets that you’re a Tigers fan; they are my local team. It’d be great to hear about your Australian experiences some time; maybe next time I see you at a con?

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