Surgery or Suicide
Dr. Jes Simmons opens up for the first time in years about her journey as a transsexual professor.
In the sweltering summer heat of 2013, Dr. Jes Simmons stood in Longwood University’s historical rotunda of Ruffner Hall, grasping at the cold, stone hand of Joan of Arc’s seated statue. The drops streaming down her face were not that of sweat, but tears of release as she realized this was where she was meant to be.
Simmons, now a lecturer of English composition and rhetoric at Longwood University, looks back on this moment as a symbolic triumph of her 18-year battle to return to the world of academe; the same world that had shut her out for many years prior, because she is transsexual. Since that moment Simmons has singly been known as a highly recommended English lecturer among Longwood University students, until now.
Anima (noun): inner self
Simmons was born in England, in 1954, but moved to the United States shortly after, she said. “I grew up living in several states, as my father was an English teacher and a poet, and we moved from university to university,” she stated. She said even as a young boy, she knew something was off, but at this time in history there wasn’t any vocabulary to describe a boy feeling like a girl.
She had no way of communicating it to her parents. Although her younger brother was a “typical boy,” Simmons said her parents didn’t seem to question her differing behavior. At that time it was “not on the radar,” she stated.
“In school, I wanted to play with the girls, I wanted to be a brownie scout more than anything,” she recalled, “I can remember being in fourth grade and the brownie scouts, and the boy scouts, would come in their uniforms on Fridays and I wanted the brown skirt and I wanted the brown top and I wanted that beret.”
She described her life growing up as that of solitude. “If I had a friend in school, always in the back of my mind was the warning ‘if they really knew about you they wouldn’t be your friend’.” She stated she immersed herself in literature and at the age of 13, living in El Paso, Texas, her father brought her a copy of Carl G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols. While reading the book, she came across the term “anima,” which Jung defines as unconscious feminine qualities within a male. Back then, Simmons said, that word significantly registered with the person inside she had not yet released.
However, that didn’t stop her from feeling like something was wrong. “I can remember being eight years old and praying every night for God to kill me and when he didn’t I was very upset, you know. I would count, I’d say ‘kill me when I count, by the time I get to 100 and I’d count down, 3–2–1…and I’d do it again…and that’s how put myself to sleep.”
Today, we label this occurrence as gender dysphoria, which Dr. David Magill, associate professor of English and co-director of women’s and gender studies at Longwood University, generally describes as “the vision that you are not the gender of your sex.”
Transition (noun): process of change
In 1981, after receiving her B.A. in English at Millsaps College and M.A. in English at Mississippi College, Simmons married and taught at Texas A&M University, while receiving her Ph.D. After graduating in 1987, she said they moved to northwest Ohio where she taught at a private, religious-affiliated university and shortly after welcomed the birth of their daughter, Laura. “When I got married she knew…while we were dating, before that I had a very strong feminine sense and had gender dysphoria…I didn’t want to keep that from her and we thought we could work it out. And we almost did for seventeen years.”
Years later, she said she suffered from severe depression that began to take its toll on her marriage and psychological health. “It was surgery or suicide*,” she said. According to a recent study by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41% of individuals like Dr. Simmons attempt suicide at some point in their life.
Simmons said she hadn’t wanted a divorce, but at the time same-sex marriage was illegal in the United States. She talked about the pain she caused her wife and daughter, “As a husband I died. As a man I died…The tombstone that will one day have my name will not have my male name on it.”
In June of 1997, Simmons received gender reassignment surgery in Montreal, Canada. This was subsequent to passing the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (now known as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health or WPATH) “real-life test” of living as a female for one year, according to their website.
She stated that the “test” included therapist care for one year, legally changing her name, and working as a female to be sure she could survive in society as a woman. It wasn’t until completion of this test, as well as approval from a gender clinic board in Cleveland, could she receive the surgery and a prescription for the drug Premarin, or conjugated estrogen tablets.
Upon recovery from the surgery, Simmons said she had never felt better, but with that happiness came a price. She lost her family, her marriage and custody of her daughter, her house, and her career.
Discrimination (noun): unjust treatment of different categories of people
“I went from getting chalk stains on my [tweed] jacket as a male professor, tenure, to getting butter on my blouse as a female concessionaire working at a small movie theater,” said Simmons. Her position as an associate professor and division chair at the small, religious-affiliated university did not transition with her. She was released from her job and asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, she stated.
She attempted to get in contact with the department chair at the community college she taught at as woman during her ‘real-life test,’ prior to the surgery. “She never returned my calls. And eventually I called enough that the, it must have been an office secretary, she just basically said she’s not going to be able to talk to you and we don’t have a place for you here. She just hung up the phone.”
Because all of her publications and previous teaching jobs were under her male name, references weren’t given and finding a new teaching position was nearly impossible, she said. “The struggle for me after that, when I didn’t get hired as teacher, the huge struggle were the application forms because everyone of them said have you ever worked under another name…For a trans person, that’s a door in your face,” she explained. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 55% of transgender women have faced discrimination being hired for a job.
She explained the difficulties she had for the next 18 years, trying to find work without discrimination or ostracism, “I had minimum wage jobs and once you try to get back into academe and your resume says you were a framer at Ben Franklin and you worked at a photo store and you worked at a movie theater, I wouldn’t hire me…”
Pride (noun): satisfaction with self
In 2013, her daughter Laura was looked into a position as a Spanish professor at Longwood University, she said. During her background research of the school, she found Farmville listed on Equality Virginia’s website as a place “where LGBT people can live comfortably through the support of outspoken community leaders and proximity to institutions of higher education,” among large cities in Virginia such as Richmond and Charlottesville, according to their website. It was then, she said, she decided to leave a copy of her resume with Longwood University.
“They offered me the job and I was overjoyed and I said to them ‘before I say yes, I want to let you know something.’ And I sent them a long email about it and they said ‘perfectly fine, we don’t care,’ ” said Simmons.
At first, she kept her transsexual identity slightly hidden for fear that it would interfere with faculty and students’ perception of her teaching ability, said Simmons. However, when the Longwood PRIDE club, an organization dedicated to awareness and advocacy of the LGBT community, according to their website, gathered for their first meeting of the year in the fall 2015 semester, Simmons was in attendance, said PRIDE Club President, Isabella Morris.
At the beginning of the meeting, they gave general introductions and that was the moment when Simmons “came out” to them as member of not only the transsexual community, but the lesbian community as well, said Morris. “The best way I could describe it was like a long moment of silence, followed by grins and applause,” said Simmons.
Since that moment she has sought to become an ally on campus and works to be available to students 24/7, she said. According to Morris, Simmons spoke at Longwood’s Student Diversity and Inclusion Council’s annual “Coming Out” rally on Thursday, Oct. 8.
Simmons reached out to Magill in hopes of having her own ally on campus. Every year the Women’s and Gender Studies department hosts a symposium highlighting different speakers, said Magill. “When I put out the call for those series and asked for people who might want to speak, she was the first person to write me and say ‘I’d really like to put something together about my experience.”
Simmons will tell her full story at the Women’s and Gender Studies Symposium which will be held in Greenwood Library, Wednesday, Oct. 21, as part of LGBT pride month and “Women’s Week” on campus.
Today, there is an estimated 700,000 Americans who identify as transgender, according to a study by Gary J. Gates of the Williams Institute. According to Magill the term “transgender” describes a wider range of the trans community, but “transsexual,” he said, “would be if you’ve…physically gone through an operation that would change your sex.” Popular cases like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are far from the reality, according to a recent CNN article.
Simmons said, “It’s been a struggle. I am a transsexual teacher who has survived career destroying discrimination. If I could help any student, or faculty member, on this campus, that’s what I want to do now. I want to be there.”
*If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1–800–273-TALK(8255).