James Kester carried a secret for more than 40 years.
Through growing up in small-town Alabama to serving 20 years in the military, being married twice, raising three children, and working in the radio business, he kept that secret until the burden became too heavy to carry.
So James became Molly.
“When I finally got my last child out of the house, I started really concentrating on my own happiness and I started realizing I was actually faking being happy,” Kester said. “I started opening that box I had packed away since I was 6 years old and realizing what it would take to make me happy.”
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As a little boy, she made clothes for her G.I. Joe action figure. She learned how to sew by hand and played house and school. She longed to dress in girls’ clothes, but the fear of getting caught by her siblings made that a rare occasion.
Even then, she knew she was different.
“I thought like a female, I felt like a female, I had the same kind of reactions and things as a female does but I had to play it off,” she said.
Kester fought to hide her feelings to the point she could no longer cry.
“I couldn’t make my eyes tear up if I had something in them because I just shut it down so hard,” she said. “But after I started taking hormones and being me, I cry on a daily basis now and it’s good.”
Kester hid the secret for decades.
“I had gotten married and had kids because I wanted kids and the only way I could have kids was to get married and make them myself,” she said. “I went through the motions and did what I had to do.”
In her first marriage, Kester began dressing in the privacy of her home and had her own women’s clothes. She said she did it to feel better, not that she knew what transgender or transitioning even meant.
She had been married for 20 years and in that time had gone to Korea with the Air Force. Things were different when she came back; the couple got a divorce.
“When I got married again, I put myself into being more of a man,” she said. “I started bodybuilding, which made it more difficult to transition because I had so much muscle mass. I went to the gym seven days a week doing two or three hours a day because I was trying to fit that male role.”
Now, she’s embracing her femininity. She’s been transitioning for four years. She began by going out in public in women’s clothing. About a year and a half later, she told her family.
Kester’s family, especially her three kids and mother, have been accepting of James becoming Molly.
“I’ve actually gotten closer to my kids,” she said. “I’ve gotten really good support from all of my family.”
Kester, now director of engineering and IT manager at iHeart Radio in Biloxi, said it’s been the same at work too, with a lot of help from the human resources department.
Her journey has involved visits with a therapist, and doctors from New Orleans to Mobile and Pensacola because of the lack of specialists for transgender people on the Coast.
A new name
Other parts of the process are easier, such as shopping for new clothes or wigs and choosing a new name.
Molly “was really just an inspiration that came to me,” she said.
“I wanted something different. A lot of transgender people start off with, like, a stripper name like Nikki or Jasmine,” she laughed. “I just wanted a normal, everyday name and something that was a little bit unique.”
So Molly it was. She felt like a new person with newfound confidence.
“I wouldn’t speak before,” she said. “If I went into a room, I was against a wall and now I walk into a room like I own it, because I do.”
When starting her transition, she found a group in Pensacola for transgender people. She went to monthly meetings, met people and got helpful information. The leader knew the Mississippi Coast needed a group, and recruited Kester to create it. She obliged, founding a group close to home.
People from the local Rainbow Center, a resource center for LGBT support and education, would eventually adopt Kester into their center. Now she is president.
The Rainbow Center served a need. Kester was constantly answering phone calls and emails for help.
Through her work, Kester’s profile has grown. People in the community recognize her.
“It’s cool because I’m that visible in the community as a transgender woman so it means that many people realize there’s at least one transgender person in the community,” she said. “For so long, we flew under the radar but now we’re visible and someone has to be visible.”
She said an open mind is very important.
“It’s important everyone knows being transgender is not easy but it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s a matter of life and death to us transgender people. It’s not a choice. Why would anyone choose to give up white male privilege?”
She thinks the community’s attitude has softened.
“With marriage equality and all of that, they start thinking of the LGBT people as normal people who lead normal lives and want to be married, want to have kids,” she said.
She said with more LGBT people coming out, people realize they may be family members, co-workers, even siblings. She said it changes some people’s way of thinking. They realize if they can still accept and love one person then they can be OK with another.
Kester knows her work is never done but also knows she’s having an impact.
“It’s rewarding seeing other people have an easier time and get to be their true self and be happy,” Kester said. “It helps them and it’s encouraging that they know other people are like them and have made it and can do something with themselves.”
Lana Ferguson is part of a group of Ole Miss journalism students who spent a weekend on the Coast covering local stories for the Sun Herald.