Triumphs, tragedies and setbacks: These are transgender voices across Mississippi

In Mississippi, 15,250 people identify as transgender. According to a report published by the Williams Institute in 2016, they make up .61 percent of the state’s population.

They are Mississippi natives and transplants, teachers and activists, artists and blue collar workers. They are Mississippians. These are their experiences.

Jensen Matar, 31, of Jackson
Jensen Matar has an impeccable sense of style, down to his socks. He laughs off compliments with a deep, throaty laugh. Originally from Boston, Jensen grew up all over the United States, frequently moving and traveling with his father as the two set up businesses. He moved to Mississippi several years back to help care for a sick relative and decided to put down roots. He works for the ACLU of Mississippi and said, outside of his social activism, he lives a relatively quiet life. He’s a “huge Patriots fan” and likes to sing. When he’s not at the gym, he and his girlfriend often hang out at home and watch movies.

On family: “I have always been a leader in my family, a parent to my parents, a parent to my four younger siblings. I’m the oldest of five and I’ve really enjoyed being in that position my entire life. I’ve had interesting relationships with family members because of that. I’ve always been looked up to and responsible, or expected to be responsible.”

On coming out: “When I moved to Mississippi, I had just come out as male, transgender male, and my family didn’t quite understand that and what it meant. And, to be honest, I don’t think they cared to understand it, but they didn’t love me less because of it. They were just not interested in talking about it. Of course I wanted to talk about it, I wanted support. I guess like any relationships, there are challenges.”

“My mother, she is extremely religious and she was not supportive of me and my transition from the beginning. In the beginning of my transition, she would still tell me she loves me but she would not refer to me by my preferred name or preferred pronouns. She wouldn’t disrespect in the sense that she would use the wrong ones, she just wouldn’t use any at all. There was a push and pull between the two of us and what made each one us comfortable or happy. Somehow, someway, we ended up in the middle for a while, which was OK with me because it meant she was trying, even if it was just a little bit. We’ve always hung up the phone by saying I love you. It wasn’t a bad relationship, it just wasn’t the best, and I knew it was going to take time.”

On being accepted by his family: “Right before last Thanksgiving, my mother called me up and she called to apologize. She was just upfront. ‘Hey, I just want to tell you that I’m sorry and I still might not quote understand what your transition is all about and how to be fully supportive of it but I do feel like I was influenced by other people in my life to think negatively about it and because of that i treated you poorly or not as well as I could have and I’m sorry for that.’ That takes some courage, I give her credit. It took a little while, but I knew she would come around and that’s when she invited me to Thanksgiving.

“I wouldn’t say I was expecting it. I was expecting her to try, is what I was expecting. To what extent, I don’t know. There is no real end goal, but she impressed me. She impressed me for being so straightforward and for taking the initiative to make the call and out herself in that position…. that was pretty awesome. And I accepted (Thanksgiving invitation). I got on a plane and I went to see my family.

“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel hope, hope for the future, hope that I will be able to rebuild relationships with family members and potentially they could be stronger than they ever were.”

On gender stereotypes: “I lived 27 years of my life being treated as a female and, when I say female, I mean captain of the cheerleading team female, completely on one side of the spectrum, and that was me fighting against what I knew to be true. I was an extremist. But as a trans person who has seen many different sides of things when it comes to gender, it is amazing how many things are gendered in this world, so many things a person who is not trans would not think about at all.

“We could start with clothes. You know how shoes have names on the shoe boxes and they’re like human names? The Bic pen. Did you know there’s a pen for women? They totally charge women more on most things that could easily not be gendered.”

Molly Kester, 56, of Biloxi
Molly Kester is always on the go. From volunteering with her local church to attending art shows, live music and hanging out at the local LGBT bar on Saturday nights, she’s constantly busy. But she’s designed her life that way. A retired tech sergeant in the Air Force who worked on B52s and KC135s, Kester first began transitioning when she was 50 years old. Now she says she can’t stop smiling.

On being an extrovert: “I didn’t get out in public before I transitioned. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t care to be around people. It’s a totally different world now. I didn’t feel comfortable being me. I used to be introverted but I’m extroverted now. I’m getting to be me so the real me is coming out.

“I’m making up for lost time. Now that I’m out in public, I like to be around people, and people like to be around me, so it sort of works.”

On being an activist: “I want other people to realize trans people are on the Coast and we’re here. A lot of gays and lesbians have come up to me and say they better understand trans people now. It makes me feel like it’s actually been worth putting myself out there. That makes me a target. There’s been some off comments, but no one has really come at me in any kind of bad way.

“I’m lucky. My job supports me, my family supports me, I have the church. I have all that going for me, so why shouldn’t I be a voice for those that can’t? I feel like I’d be selfish if I didn’t.

“I read a study once that said only 8 percent of Americans said they had met a transgender person. I’m trying to change that percentage.

“What’s been surprising is a lot of older people said they’re proud and happy and ‘you do you’ kind of stuff. It’s been really kind of amazing. A lot of times, you hear older people are set in their ways, but a lot of times they’re very outspoken and confirming that I’m doing what I should be doing. It’s kind of nice.”

On being who she is: “I generally take the mom role in most group settings. I’m the one who looks after everyone, the first one there and the last one to leave. I care about people. Transitioning has really allowed me to do that more and take that role on. It’s kind of expected from a woman, more than a man. It’s easy to be that person who hovers over everybody and makes sure everybody’s OK.

“I’m very comfortable and confident with who I am and I think that shows when I talk to people and when I’m around people, I don’t get misgendered. I dress very feminine, even at work. I wear skinny jeans.

“Generally, I make friends everywhere I go. Most of the places I go, people remember me and greet me, obviously I’m doing something right.

“I’ve purposely tried to not mask my voice because it does make people realize I’m transgender

On life before: “I thought I was happy. Once my youngest son graduated high school, I started really realizing I wasn’t happy. I decided I need to pursue the true me. People at work would tell me to smile, and I would say, ‘I am smiling.’ I have a better relationship with my children now because I am happy.”

On dating: “If you’re not within that stereotype, the classic what a woman is supposed to be kind of thing, it makes it difficult. If you’re outside of what women are supposed to be, like a regular Southern woman, I don’t know how to put it. I’m obviously not any of those categories. I’m outspoken, I’m bold, I don’t have all the right parts and all that stupid stuff but I do have a boyfriend. We’ve been seeing each other for three years now.”

On Mississippi: “Even though Mississippi has a long way to go, we’ve made big steps in the right direction. We did a law enforcement training for transgender people. We’re doing things way ahead of the other states as far as LGBT.

“A lot of people have come a long way on the Coast. I’ve traveled all over Mississippi and have never had a problem from anyone, anywhere.”

Evonne Kaho of Jackson:
Evonne Kaho doesn’t discuss her age. She’ll laugh and then redirect you to talk about what she’s accomplished in life. The founder of a local nonprofit for transgender people, Love Me Unlimited 4Life, Evonne often travels across the country and posts pictures on social media at various red carpets.

On the current political climate: “Seeing how transgender people are treated in the South, the Bible Belt state, I want to help people of my kind. We are constantly under attack by the current (Trump) administration. Being from Mississippi, we need to address this social and political structure that reinforces inequity.

“Mississippi is so judgmental. You go certain places and people look at you a certain kind of way, especially being trans. A lot of people claim in Mississippi to accept you but, at the end of the day, they don’t. I need people to stop looking at people’s outer appearance and start looking inward. We don’t know what a person is going through.”

On growing up in Natchez: Growing up in a small town, it was very difficult for me. Me being different, by the time I entered high school, I had low self esteem. I was destroyed because of the teasing. I was taught homosexuality was a sin and my soul was going to be doomed to hell and I was confused. I often questioned why God made me this way, was it a punishment? I was physically and emotionally broken.”

On the woman she is now: “Life threw me challenges — I overcame all of them. Now I am proud and confident and beautiful Evonne. I am glad that I encountered these challenges — they equipped me with strength. I am a woman. I am beautiful. I am trans. I am Evonne.”

Ryan Anderson, 27, of Meridian:
Ryan Anderson loves animals. He is dedicated to rehoming shelter dogs — he often drives a van full of them states away, for hours on end, to make sure they end up with a loving family. When he’s not working with animals or at the local Books-A-Million, Ryan and his girlfriend, Missa, are at home with their five cats and two dogs. He swears “I’m at my limit” with adopting the dogs he fosters but then laughs and shrugs. He and Missa met in middle school and have been together for nine years and love camping and music festivals; Bonnaroo is a personal favorite.

On being trans in Meridian: “It’s kind of a vacuum. The closest place that has a resource center, a community house or anything that provides information is in Hattiesburg. I’m at least 90 minutes away from any type of support group, (pride) parades, anything.”

On getting his gender legally changed: Ryan legally changed his name in 2016 and has taken surgical steps to get a letter from his doctor so he can legally change his gender. He’s in the process of having his gender changed on his birth certificate after once being denied by a judge for a paperwork misstep. Ryan could not afford legal representation and put in the request himself. Ryan has legally changed his gender on federal documents, including his Social Security card and passport.

“Basically what I’m doing is suing the Mississippi Department of Health to say, ‘You put the wrong gender on my birth certificate — will you please change it?’ So, I have to serve them my petition and give them time to respond, then go (back) to court, so that was pretty upsetting. It just took a lot to get up there in front of the judge and to have him be like, ‘I still can’t.’ If there was a step-by-step process in which you could just fill out some forms and submit your doctor’s letter and not have to go to court over it, I think that would be a lot easier, but that’s just my opinion. It’s all that just to be like, I’m obviously male.”

On the emotional turmoil: “I’m a pretty emotional person — I always have been. Testosterone did not change that. Whenever the judge was breaking the news to me that he wasn’t going to be able to grant my order, I was already blinking back tears. I just ran out of the courtroom. Luckily, Missa was there with me to support me and give me a shoulder to cry on. She was there to be like, ‘We can do this.’ It was just a matter of taking a moment to let it out and be upset about it but to know that that’s not the end. That we’ll get up and keep going.”

On feeling isolated in the South: “It’s frustrating because I know that other trans people are out there, especially in Meridian. There’s got to be. We’re at least one percent of the population, that’s as many people as there are redheads. It’s just frustrating not to be able to find more people that have, first of all, been through this process and, second of all, gotten it written down and said, ‘This is what you do, this is the first step, this is the second step, this is the third step.’ ”

On being trans in Mississippi: “We’ve been around since the beginning of humanity. It is a little frustrating that it’s taken so long for legislation and general societal knowledge of us to catch up.”

by Sarah Fowler, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Source – Clarion Ledger