Saturday, September 15, 2012

Black Trans History-Jim McHarris

Found another interesting story from our African-American trans past in the fascinating EBONY archives.

Courtesy of a November 1954 issue of EBONY and the books Black Love, Black Resistance and Dr Susan Stryker's The Transgender Studies Reader, I began to read the story about transman Jim McHarris.

It starts in his birthplace of Meridian, MS in 1924.   He was born as Annie Lee Grant and his parents died early during his childhood. 

McHarris was raised by two sets of foster parents and exhibited a distaste for all things feminine except dating the ladies.   The young Jim McHarris would often slip away to Jackson to hang out.  Longtime friend Bishop Smiley Jones noted that young McHarris was not only attracted to women, but preferred mens clothing and living as a man as well.  

He transitioned in his early teens, ditched the female clothing and began in 1939 to move frequently to different cities around the country.   McHarris lived in Memphis, Chicago and other midwestern cities living his transmasculine life.   In that 15 year period as a restless traveler the 5' 5" McHarris worked as a short order cook, cab driver, gas station attendant, auto mechanic, shipyard worker, and preacher.while continuing with his handsome baby face and husky 175 pound frame to draw attention from and enjoy the company of the ladies he was attracted to. 

He moved to Kosciusko, MS in November 1953 and ran into his old friend Bishop Smiley Jones, who was now living there and was the pastor of the True Tabernacle Church of the First Born.  (If that town name sounds familiar, it is the hometown of talk show queen Oprah Winfrey who ironically was born there in January, 1954, but back to the story)

McHarris asked his old friend to keep his gender secret as he set out to build his life in Kosciusko.  He worked at a gas station for almost three months, was living at a local boarding house, was working as a short order cook and was engaged to be married to a young high school girl.  . He was also scheduled to be elevated to deacon at the True Tabernacle church

But the life he was carefully building in that town of 10,000 people at the time unraveled in 1954 when he was pulled over by Kosciusko.police on a traffic stop.  Officers pulled him over for McHarris' car having improper lighting and noted he had a pint of whiskey in the car.   He was arrested and when the officers prepared to do a pat down search on him Jim revealed his birth gender..     
The gender revelation caused drama in the town and subjected Bishop Jones to some criticism from local residents.  The people most upset were the cis women that Jim dated as well as the woman he dated when he was living in Memphis who admitted in the EBONY article she was receiving money from him.  

There was even more drama when Jim in order to 'prove' he was born female, retreated to a closet, stripped off his male clothes and revealed breasts and female genitalia in front of the judge and the arresting officers.

He was quickly fined by Judge (and mayor of Kosciusko) T.V. Rone and given the option of paying a $100 fine or doing 30 days in jail at the prison farm.  While Jim was serving his sentence he was dressed in men's clothes, and worked in the prison kitchen, but housed with a female prisoner.

When he served his time, he stepped out to a Kosciusko that gave him a cool reception and people he once called friends shunning him..  McHarris decided it was time to move once again.  As he gathered his belongings and prepared to move to Jackson, he said in the article "I ain't done nothing wrong and I ain't breaking no laws"

He also made the decision to live his life permanently as a man.  But one thing Jim McHarris didn't do was register as all US men had to do at that time for the draft.

When EBONY asked him why, he quipped, "Man, I ain't crazy."   But in every other respect, Jim McHarris was happy to be treated as one of the boys and made certain he lived his life that way to the best of his ability.

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