Transcending Conversation: Jari Jones
Before we get started, what name do you currently go by?
Has your name changed throughout your life?
Oh, most definitely. This is the biggest change I think I've had so far. The name I previously used just didn't feel right for me anymore. I know a lot of people use that term of a dead-name but, I don't see it as a dead-name. I just feel that I've evolved more into the person I am, so I just choose not to use that anymore.
What are your pronouns?
She/her. Well I use she/her in spaces that are very cis-driven, but in more queer spaces––and as I dig deeper into my queerness––I prefer to refer to myself as transfem. So I still use she/her, it's just in a different context.
How do you identify?
I identify as a transfem or in more uneducated spaces, a trans woman most definitely. But transfem is starting to feel more right for me.
Could you speak to what was your transition process was like?
So I think at a very young age I was definitely more feminine than most people were. I feel like I know I used to come out to my parents when I was younger. Or express that I was not feeling what labels people were putting on me. I never had body dysmorphia as a child, I just thought I was a different little girl. I just had different things; and I've always kinda had that growing up. It wasn't until femininity stopped being cute for everybody else.
As a child I used to be considered a momma's boy, and I used to love wearing long T-shirts and pretending they were dresses. I used to put pillowcases on my head and pretend it was long hair; I loved all those things. Then, like most of us, we start to get policed for our gender. People in your environment, especially older people, start to police those things, so it became less acceptable that I wanted to express myself in a feminine manner.
So that's how it was until I got very policed in and put in a box, and I was like, 'Okay, in order for me to survive this I need to shut it all off.' I was never really masculine. I could never ever be masculine, it just wasn't my thing. So I found ways to be artistic or be nerdy, which can be blurred lines for some people. It wasn't until college when I socially transitioned. I did that for awhile. I came out as non-binary for a little bit, then as I found more and more language I came out as a trans woman maybe a year after that. Now I am living my life as best as I can and packing more of what I think about womanhood, instead of reaching for the goal that society puts on us, and creating it for myself.
Very well said. In your recent Dove commercial you speak on those same issues regarding womanhood. Can you expand on that?
Yes, especially for trans women, we come out and people have already given us this checklist of things we have to check off before we can be a woman, you know? You must be feminine, you must have these body parts, your hair must be this long, you must wear this length of heels. When I detached myself away from that, it freed and liberated me. It made me see my womanhood in such a different way, and how I interact with people, and how I love and how I love myself. Which encompases womanhood more for me than just what you see or what people in society think that you should do or role you should play.
In the film Port Authority that debuted at Cannes earlier this year, you were a cast member, script consultant, acting coach and even a producer. Did you expect to be as involved as you were in the project from the beginning, or was it more organic?
It was a mixture of both. I've known the casting director for a while now. This is actually my second film that I've casted with them. I also did the film Goldie. I casted that as well, so I know there process. They don't normally like to throw people, they like to take care of the people that they find and really make sure our voice is being heard in this film.
The director and writer of this film said she's been following me for awhile before that. So I knew it was gonna be a more collaborative effort, but once I got on that set I saw that community was being represented and celebrated and put into this film. I knew that I had to make sure I was taking care of the people that have taken care of me.
Working with Leyna Bloom who is now my sister, like that's my heart now, and really making sure that she's able to feel safe on set and be able to be vulnerable. This is a story of a lot of us so allowing those emotions to be portrayed onscreen and TV; and then the people that are in it, it’s very important especially for me that black queer men are portrayed in such a beautiful way on film and television. So often they're villainized or made to be the butt of the joke so I wanted to make sure they were taken care of and shown in a beautiful way as well.
That film is a really powerful intersection of the creative work and the activism that you take part in, and you’re an exemplary role model for so many people. Do you have anybody who inspired you to do what you do?
A lot of people. I always have my handful of groups. My wife [Corey Kempster] most definitely, she's also a trans woman and watching her navigate in a world that's not built for us is beautiful and we encourage each other daily. She's doing the same, being a role model for trans and queer folks, and us representing a new kind of queer love and making that more mainstream. There are so many more people that are out there that are like us.
Also my grandfather, who was one of the industry's first black male models. I grew up hearing people in my family close to me breaking barriers so that's always what I wanted to do. He's always told me, 'If you don't see it, go do it.' I didn't see black trans women or black trans plus-size women in the media the way I wanted to see them, so I decided to do it myself.
Whether it's TV or film, magazines or portraits, it's about creating those blueprints that you didn't have. I say this a lot, but the only time I saw trans people was on the 'Maury' show or 'South Park' or stuff like that in such a negative light. So to be able to be those new standards of what success can look like and where you can go beyond, as well, is amazing to me and my community.
I love black people, I love queer people, so much, so much. Literally the life I get by just seeing us win is enough to fuel me for ages to keep doing what I'm doing.
One of our favorite quotes you’ve said in the past is that “We have to affirm each other until it overflows.” How can people affirm other people in their own lives regardless of what they’re going through?
I think showing up and being there. So often society puts us in these lanes that we're not allowed to cross and that's how we all start to compete against each other. I feel like sometimes if you're winning I'm winning. If that door is open for you, it most definitely will be open for me. I stopped the comparison and I stopped this idea that we need to claw or pull each other down in order to get up.
I know one thing that always reminds me of this is every time I'm in a room or walking down the street or in an elevator with another queer person we're always like giving each other the eye instead of saying 'You look fucking great today.' It happens so often. Why are we afraid to tell each other that and uplift each other in public? But it all comes from the idea that I need to be better than you instead of supporting and loving you from across the room,
So if I'm walking down the street and I see somebody looking great I let them know. That's why I lift until it overflows. I give so much love because it's so overwhelming. I pour that into my relationships, into my friendships. I pour it into my family, my chosen family so that's the idea of pouring all this love into everybody else when your filled up so much.
Any parting words for any younger people who are embarking on a similar journey/struggle to understand their identity and where they fit in their lives or in specific industries?
Take your time, it's so important that we know ourselves better than anybody else. I feel like queer and trans folks, we are so self-aware but it takes time to build to that. I think that's why when we come out we're so fierce about who we are, which I love. I think it's so beautiful we know ourselves to the T, and that takes time just brewing. You don't have to adhere to any labels or any one specific category; it's always gonna change. Transition is not from one thing to the other. It's always going, it's always moving; same thing with being queer. Queer allows space for you to move anywhere, not just across or up and down, you can go in a circle if you want to. So take your time and embrace everything that you are living in. Your identity now may not be your identity tomorrow, so don't stick to one thing. Embrace it all.
What scares you the most?
What scares me the most is that I'm not afraid of anything. I think that's what frightens me the most. I'm so headstrong and fiercely loving about my community. So I think there's a fear of me not being able to determine when I need to chill. If I'm in the streets and I see some shit going down with people in my community, I'm going to stick up.
I did a film recently and the set was mainly queer and transfem folk and this guy off the street started bothering one of the people that was with us outside and he continued to bother her, and I stepped and said 'I don't feel like she's feeling it,' and he turned to me and said, 'That's what's wrong with you bitches, you don't know when to shut the fuck up. One, I felt affirmed because he said 'bitch,' and I was like yes. And two, he then threatened us like, 'I should pull my gun out,' and I was standing there like, 'Do it, do it.' People would usually back down. Most of the people on set where white and saying call the cops.
Don't call the cops, then we both dead, but yeah, I'll go toe to toe, bat to bat and that's just how I was raised by my family. if another queer or tans person gets attacked on the streets I feel like I'm getting attacked as well, because I could be the next one or that's gonna hurt me mentally. I try to nip that in the bud as much as possible. It does scare me how off the wall I can be.
How can everybody do their part in helping the trans community?
Support in the most passionate ways. In ways that make you feel uncomfortable. I always say as an ally you have to be willing to be broke, you have to be willing to be hurt physically and mentally. So give your money to support trans people and their endeavors. Support them to gain resources.
When you see us being attacked, be ready to get hit. I think that's a true ally. We are in a state of emergency. We are in a moment in time where people aren't afraid to hurt us and they're doing it publicly, and they're not afraid to do it publicly. So as an ally you have to be willing to stick up for us, you have to be willing to take a punch for us, and do that all the time. It can't just be a Facebook post or an event. It has to be apart of your daily language, vocabulary and your daily actions you know. Stop being surface allys.
In one word, what does the future look like?