film schooled

A new documentary starring a 77-year-old transwoman is a lesson in what courage really means

The Joneses.

There’s something about Jheri Jones. She’s charming, she’s wise, and she loves to dance. At 77, the Mississippi native cuts a rug and quite the figure, which she dresses in a collection of short shorts, leopard jumpsuits, and fur. She’s mother to four sons, two of whom are living with mental disabilities, and a grandmother of two. She’s also trans.

Jones transitioned throughout the 1980s and is the star of The Joneses—a new documentary film examining her relationships with her family—that premiered in New York City this week as part of DOCNYC, a documentary film festival.

The film itself is reminiscent of Grey Gardens, giving an intimate and personal portrayal of a woman and her family through their own lens—but instead of being surrounded by, you know, rubbish and decay, the family is thriving.

the-joneses_still04The Joneses.

The film, which contains footage from over three years of shooting, gives us a loving glimpse into Jones’ life, what it’s like having her sons living with her, what it’s like to support her son through a huge life change of his own, and what it’s like explaining to her grandchildren who she was before her transition. Trans people today face a number of barriers, but in the 1980s in Mississippi, transitioning was almost completely unheard of.

“When I started my transition, it was like dancing in the dark. I had no one to turn to, I didn’t know who to contact,” Jones told me. “In Mississippi at the time, none of the doctors, especially the gynecologists, would even consider hormone therapy. It was just out of the question.”

“It amazes me looking back, that I survived how much I’d been through,” Jones said.

After Jones came out to her then-wife Doris, and began transitioning and living as a woman, Doris barred Jheri from seeing the children. This lasted for over a decade, until 1994, after they were legal adults.

“It was extremely challenging, as you can imagine,” Jones told me of the drive to continue through her transition without much support. She cited pioneering transwoman Christine Jorgensen as an inspiration. “She made the remark one time on a talk show, saying that it’s all about need. It’s something you absolutely need, and that is your true identity. You have to embrace that, and not keep it in the closet, come out, and pay whatever price you have to pay. It was a challenge in every step, and I’ve overcome everyone of them, one by one.”

the-joneses_still03The Joneses.

Jheri Jones didn’t even want to be part of a documentary at first. She worried about broadcasting her story, not only to her community, but to the world. What made her change her mind?

“I started thinking about all of the transgender people out there in different stages of transition,” Jones told me. “I know what they’re going through, the fear, the uncertainty, having to confront that with family and extended family.”

“Many transgender people today will not go through what I had to go through because they have the internet, they have access to information, often times, the parents are supportive. That’s wonderful, I can’t imagine. That’s the way I wish I could have grown up,” she said.

Despite all the special circumstances that surround the Joneses, despite being a transwoman mother to her formerly estranged sons, two of whom are dealing with mental health issues, Jheri hopes that people who see the film will see that the family is just normal.

“I’m hoping the audience will see that we’re just people, a family, at times dysfunctional,” Jones told me. “We had our moments in the film,” she chuckled, “And we still do, but by and large there’s a lot of love and a strong bonds between my children and myself.”

She mentioned that some who have seen the film gush about her being courageous, but she doesn’t see it the exact same way: “Yes, it does take a lot of courage, but in situations like this, failure is not an option. You just have to get up and go back and keep trying.”