Transgenderism has been a hot topic since Chaz Bono joined ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” The controversy is still swirling around the transgender issue as a majority of people still do not grasp the concept of transitioning from one gender to another. Jennifer Leitham, the focus of the new film, “I Stand Corrected,” puts a human face on the transgender community.
“I Stand Corrected” is the real life account of world-famous jazz bassist John Leitham – a Grammy Award recipient as part of Mel Torme’s band who also earned a position with Doc Severinsen, leader of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” Orchestra. One day, years ago, John suddenly disappeared and later re-emerged as Jennifer Leitham. I recently caught up with Jennifer to talk about transgenderism, her music and the film.
Q – Thank you, Jennifer, for talking to me. How difficult was it living as a man when deep down you knew you should be a woman, especially in a time and industry that is much different than now?
A – I was never a man. I always have been the same person. Once I became aware, my gender was never in question.
My presentation then was different from my Gender Identity. It was something that became more difficult to deal with as I grew older. When I was coming up in the music business in the 70’s I was aware that it was highly unusual for women instrumentalists to have careers, especially when they played “masculine” instruments. I have always been driven to improve and succeed, and I did what it took in order to make that happen. As long as my career kept advancing, I could deal with it.
Q – Walk me through the actual decision to get the corrective surgery to become a woman. What was going through your head and what was the actual event that triggered you to get the surgery done?
A – Hmm… decision. I can only speak for me. There’s no template. It’s not something that you just suddenly decide to do. It’s almost as though you evolve to the point that either you try and make yourself whole or you’re going to die. Maybe not die in the literal sense, but your spirit and inner being would just die. It’s really not the surgery that defines you; actually it’s more the transition. That’s when everything changes as far as in how the world perceives and interacts with you.
Most transgender people would not answer this question. I hope that you’ll understand that focusing on the surgery is not something that is pertinent to most TG people. It’s the life we lead that is important.
Q – What particular struggles did you go through after having the surgery?
A – I suffered some complications, a very rare happenstance; I was just unlucky. We cover it in the movie.
Q – Your life is highlighted in a biography/documentary called “I Stand Corrected,” which focuses on your career in music and the decision to have sexual correction surgery. How has the response been so far?
A – It’s been amazing. We’ve won the Audience Award at two festivals. I love sitting in the audience at the screenings and observing the audience react.
Again, I don’t feel that either the film or I focus on a “decision to have sexual correction surgery.” That is not the message of the film.
Q – What message are you hoping to get out to the public with this film?
A – Hopefully people will see the film and interpret as a story of someone who is a vital part of the human experience. My goal was to try and portray a transgender person’s life in a way that focuses on what they do, not a surgical or psychological infomercial. I wanted the focus to be on my art and career and the way that my transition has affected both. I feel that the collaboration between producer/director Andrea Meyerson and me has borne that fruit.
Q – What do you say to those who believe transgenderism and homosexuality are a choice versus being something you’re born with?
A – They are flat wrong.
Q – What advice do you have for young people going through the same issue, living as one sex but thinking about having sexual correction surgery?
A – Not everybody goes through the surgery. It’s a highly personal issue. There’s no right or wrong approach, it’s what works for you that counts. I know in my case it was seeking counseling that helped me sort out a lot of things I wasn’t sure of. I’m very grateful to Marie Keller at the L.A. Gender Center with helping me to overcome my deepest fears. My advice would be to obtain all the information possible, seek out mentors and counselors. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most of all, try and keep your sense of humor and don’t lose your grip on the things you do best.