Patti Jones has considered herself a typical female since she was a very young boy named Peter. She earned her degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology, joined the family machine and tool design company, taught skiing and snowboarding, raced sailboats, was "happily married to a wonderful woman" for 24 years and had a daughter. It was at the age of 50 - in 2004 - she formally transitioned and has since been dedicated to Western New York's LGBTQ communities as an activist and mentor. Jones shared her journey with WBFO.
Let's talk about your journey from Peter to Patti.
As you know, for many, it starts very early on. Of course, when you're younger, you don't have the wherewithal to know exactly what you're dealing with. I was born in '53 and in the '60s growing up, I really didn't have any references to what I was feeling. I kind of gravitated toward feminine things very early on. I have these memories that have stuck with me that I had these feelings and desires that I was a girl.
There were initially four boys in the family, then my mother had a girl. She said she kept trying until she had a girl, but in the back of my mind I was saying, "Well, you know, you've already had one." And then I had a Goodwill bag my aunt had brought in of girl's clothing. We had a big family and we all would share and see what fits who. I was maybe seven or eight then. So we were goofing around in the basement with my brothers and dressed up in the girl's clothes. We pranced up to the adults and they thought it was pretty funny, but then finally my parents said, "Enough, Peter." But that allowed me to actualize and see myself as how I felt I was.
So for many years I did that, I cross-dressed, in secret. I felt that was very wrong and I was very guilt-ridden associated with it, as something you shouldn't do. When I got to my teenage years, what really made it confusing for me was that I was attracted to women and I wasn't an effeminate boy, but I was always more comfortable around other girls - not that I couldn't stand my own with other boys.
I think my parents saw this and always pushed me to being with other boys. I learned how to sew by watching my mother. One time my father saw me and said," What are you doing? The boys are outside playing. Get outside and play with balls." But I'm watching Mom. That's what gender norms were, so they were just being parents.
There weren't many options at the time.
No, and you didn't know if there were any others like yourself, either. I would see myself in the mirror and pray that I would wake up one day and be a woman, but I realized the fallacy of that. "You're a strapping young man. You need to make the best of your life. You're attracted to women, so why do you want to be one?" So that's what I did. I kept it hidden very well.
So in my college years, I went to RIT and I always had girlfriends. I started to have money, so I started buying some clothes, buying a wig and the like. I was very active in sports. We had a family cottage and did a lot of sailing all across Western New York and Canada, and even ending up going to the North American Championships in Rhode Island and did very well there and made the cover of Sailing Magazine. I didn't realize at the time, but it was a way of keeping all this pushed back, suppressed.
Long story short, my roommate said he was going to go home, left, so I decided to dress in my college room. He forgot a book and came back. Caught me. He literally found me in the closet. "Go away! (laughing)" He didn't say too much. I explained to him what was going on the best I could, but I was so embarrassed, I threw everything away and just beat myself up over it. I was very ashamed of myself to submit to these desires or feelings.
That's the only time I really purged. I had spent $100s of dollars on clothes and makeup and things. Lot of times people will tell you it's a process that they did many times, but I only did it the once. But I came right back to it. I wanted to express this. I had done research on it and I kind of knew where I stood. I finally admitted to myself. I had to say to myself, "This is okay. It's part of who you are. Don't beat yourself up over it and go forward from there." That was the point in time when I accepted myself as a cross-dresser.
And later you married and had a daughter.
So then I met my wife and shared with her before we got married that I cross-dressed, and she was taken aback at first, but she accepted it and said, "Well, I know other men who have other vices that are far worse. If this is all it is, that you dress occasionally," she was okay with it. We married in '81 and had a child in '83, which was one of the best things in my life besides my lovely wife. What I didn't realize was that the identity, the cross-dressing, was a point on a continuum. It took me a long time - to maybe '89 or so - to really realize and accept that I was a transsexual.
My wife was always worried that I would go down this path. But I would say, "No, I love you" and I worked very hard not to fulfill that, for the sake of the marriage. In the end, it became like a computer virus - I couldn't cope, I couldn't function - and I needed to go forward with my journey. Going through support groups, I eventually found myself explaining my cross-dressing and gender identity in terms that described a transsexual and I used that term. That was my revelation, that I started to use that term.
In an explanation to my wife, I used that term once and she said, "Wait a minute. Time out. That's the first time I heard you say that." That was kind of the realization for both of us. At the same time, I wanted to be there for my wife and daughter. I did bring her to a meeting of couples once, but it was just something that was very hard for her to see and harder to be around. She married a man. She's not gay. So I knew that if and when I needed to transition, she could not go with me.
How did you tell your daughter?
In the beginning we didn't. In her early years, we both felt that this was something she shouldn't have to deal with, that this was Dad's issue, not her issue. So we hid it from her. We lied.
We actually told her when she was in her 20s, at college. One time she decided to go to her roommate's place in Ellicottville to go skiing. But on the way down, there was an ice storm and her roommate hit ice, lost control of the car and hit an embankment, and she perished in the accident. My daughter ended up with a severe concussion and bleeding in the brain and was in the ICU for a while. She dealt with short-term memory in the beginning, but she fully recovered. The doctor said she was a miracle, like we won the lottery. She graduated magna cum laude and became a school psychologist.
A week before the accident, my daughter came home from school. My wife was gone, so I had this opportunity to dress and my daughter saw the shoes, saw some of the clothes and the makeup was on the counter. I said, "You okay? Is there anything you want to ask me?" And she said, "No, I'm okay." She didn't want to talk about it.
It wasn't until six or nine months after the accident that things began to turn back on and all of a sudden, she remembered that incident and brought it back up. She said, "What's going on?" and just then, my wife came home and I said, "She asked the question." Early on, we had decided that if she asked us directly, we'll tell her, so that's when we shared with her what was going on. She was upset that we had lied to her, but eventually understood.
With all this, it made me realize that life is too short. I couldn't keep going the way I was going. I was struggling and I knew why. I had conversations with a therapist for perhaps a year to discuss and there was no easy answer how to step out into the light, but to tell everybody. Some were totally against it and others were supersupportive. My daughter ended up very supportive. Same thing with my ex.
How did being in the family business affect telling your parents and siblings?
With my family, it took a lot. I ended up telling my Mom first, in about 2003, and then I told my brothers - which was very difficult, because I was in the family business, a very male-oriented business. And I had been continuing with the feminization process: thinning my eyebrows, growing my hair longer and then dying it when I started going gray. But they had no idea until I came to work as a woman. For over four years, I was removed from any family interaction. I was totally not allowed to go to the family cottage. My sister and brother both had children. They used that as a justification to keep me from visiting the cottage, from Thanksgiving, Christmas. It was until my mother passed away in 2007. There was some talk that I shouldn't be able to go to the wake, but the pastor at the church we were using said it would be okay, so that was the turning point.
There was a lot of hurt during that timeframe, because growing up, we had a very close family. That was a very painful time for me. And I tell others when I speak that, we transition ourselves and come to the understanding and acceptance of it sooner than those around us. It's a grieving process, you're losing somebody. If you talk to my ex, she'll say that she lost her husband and she watched him die. That's sadly the process for those around us.
In addition to your support groups, you've also become an activist.
I'm very passionate about my activism, to raise awareness around transgender issues. I think I inspire by example. I helped form the Buffalo Belles and then worked with Camille Hopkins to form Spectrum, done a lot of LGBTQ panels through the Pride Center and talked to classes. I facilitate a trans support group once a month at Gay & Lesbian Youth Services. There's a younger facilitator for the youth and I facilitate the parents. The stories they tell. I'm moved every time by their courage and their struggle trying to be there for their children while trying to understand. It's an individual process. There are so many variables. Giving them that opportunity to meet with a trans adult who has a pretty normal successful life brings it into perspective for them - that maybe it's a different journey for their child, but it's just that: just a different journey.
I've yet to talk to anyone, even the most staunch advocate against trans, who after talking with me hasn't had a changed view or at least an increased understanding. And that's how you create change, by changing people's minds. One of the biggest things that we fight is ignorance about what the journey means. That's where I've been working behind the scenes: just changing the dialogue. I think we need to slowly change people's minds. Being that pebble in the water, interacting with small groups and bringing the face of what transgender is to people, humanizes it. It's not unlike the coming out days for the gay community. We haven't had that.
I saw the need to fight back in 2003 when SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, was passed. It passed with the transgender and inclusion wording taken out of the bill. The transgender community was, in essense, thrown under the bus. There was a huge outcry. So that's where GENDA, which passed this year, promised to get protections for the trans community. Now we're all equal across the state. I mean, I'm sure people will still be fired. They'll find ways to say they're not doing their job and fire them, but now there'll be recourse and it will make a huge difference for many.
The need to be who you are is strong, but the journey can be very costly, very difficult. If you lose your job, then you may lose their home and your means of financial support, and it truncates your transition. There are sacrifices, but there are less now than there were. The requirements for changing your name, surgeries are covered under health care plans now. We've seen visibility of some dynamic trans people across the country.
We need to speak up for ourselves. We can't expect others to speak up for our rights. We need to be the voice for our own community. There have been numerous bills, I want to say 40 or more, anti-transgender bills proposed in various municipalities across the country, but, fortunately, all of them have been defeated. What it has done, though, is raised awareness of the need for trans protections and raised awareness of what it means to be transgender and all those varieties under that umbrella, wherever you are on the gender spectrum.
This journey from male to female has also enlightened me to the need to keep educating our daughters and sons that women matter, we need more equal rights. I always fought for women's rights, but it's a totally different dynamic when those barriers are put in your face. It makes it real. To be thought of as less, just because of who you are, is wrong.
What advice do you give others thinking about transitioning?
Get as many people on your side as possible. Build up your support structure. Take the steps slowly. I think you need to be thoughtful in your process. I think many struggle with fitting in with the norms. It may sound sexist, but that's the reality we live in. Figure out how to dress and interact appropriately for whatever gender your in. For some people, it's just been pent up for so long they want to just burst out. But I think there can be a lot of missteps that can be avoided if it's a little more thought out.
I think it's important to listen to our youth when they're really young and give them the help they need to move down that path. One of the major growth areas we've seen in recent years is with the youth. The transgender youth have been coming out of the woodwork. The schools have been dealing with it, some better than others. There's still a bathroom controversy, but it's a made-up issue. I think the best advice I and others could give is to be true to yourself. Figure out where you want to be and then you can build from there.
I also tell the youth that being trans is just one component of who you are. As much as it can be taking up the majority of your mind and your desires and wishes, you still have to get a good education, work hard, get a job and have a means to support yourself down your life's path. I sound like a parent, but don't use trans as an excuse to blow off your studies, or as a chip on your shoulder because you're being discriminated against. It's up to you to take the steps forward to make your life what you need to be. Don't be afraid to dream big because I'm here to tell you, dreams do come true. I was able to actualize my dreams. It wasn't an easy journey or path, but - like the old saying - the journey starts with one first step. And if you need help, there's help out there, there are hotlines. Don't hesitate to talk to someone. Pick up that phone and get a conversation started.
How do you figure that out?
It's a process of self-inner-reflecting. A little bit of trial and error. It took me a long time to rationalize and realize where I needed to be. It was difficult. The consequences may be painful. I lost the love of my life because of it, but I couldn't not continue. I'm an advocate of working through with therapy. A placard that was given to me by a friend says, "You can't direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails." Being a sailor that hit home. You may not be able to direct what you were given at birth, but you can make steps to be true to who you are. It's under your control where you take that and how you approach that.
Flats or heels?
Oh, flats. I was a heels girl for a long time - always 3" heels - but that was part of my hyperfeminism. Trying to learn, I overswung that component. But once I was full-time, I don't wear heels very often.
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