Trans Woman Sets the Bar as Local Illusion Queen
By Derick Jones
“If I live to see the seven wonders, I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end.”
Watching her spin around like the white witch herself, Jessica Upchurch embodies the heart and spirit of one Ms. Stevie Nicks while on the dancefloor of The Korner Lounge. All eyes are on her as she twirls her way into the crowd wearing black lace, leather, and a signature top hat.
She’s a drag queen, and although her nighttime gigs as Jessica St. James may be part-time, she’s all woman all the time. Jessica Upchurch is a proud trans woman, and at 55 and performing (again), she's finally finding happiness as herself.
Jessica joined The Korner Girls Revue cast last year after being on hiatus from drag for nearly 15 years. She said she did a few guest spot performances here and there, but nothing consistent.
"I’m my most confident when I’m getting ready for a show," she said.
As she should — most of her costumes are made by her and she’s become known as quite the illusionist. She’s not afraid to play with gender and has performed as Boy George, Annie Lennox, and Cher, among others. At the end of the day, though, when she wipes away the makeup, she knows "Jessica St. James" is no longer just a persona anymore, but just her true self.
"There are some days I look in the mirror and think ‘What the hell are were you thinking?’ but there are other days I look in the mirror and think ‘Oh, there you are. Where you been?'"
Jessica was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, and grew up in Queen City, Texas. Brought up by parents of humble backgrounds, she said while her mother didn’t have the language to explain herself, she knew before Jessica that her child was transgender.
"When I was a little, my mom had this thing about recording stuff on a cassette player," said Jessica. "There's a recording of me. I was probably three or four. We were having a conversation — ‘You’re a boy,’ 'No, I’m a girl.' Back and forth, back and forth."
Jessica wouldn’t learn about that conversation until coming to terms with her own gender identity many years later. She said it was shortly after a breakthrough therapy session that her mom gave her the cassette after all those years.
"'I’ve known since you were a baby that you’d be different,'" recounted Jessica of her mother's words, now deceased. Both of her parents are no longer alive, but Jessica says the relationship they had was a beautiful one.
“I’ve always considered myself one of the lucky ones because when I came out as gay to my parents, my dad said ‘I don’t understand, don’t ask me for advice on guys, but I’m here any time you need me.’”
She said she always had a great bond with her father, someone she later found out to be her step-father. She never had the same name as him but decided to ask him if she could take his last name when she decided to do her legal name change in 2011.
"That was the first time I ever saw my father cry," she said.
Jessica had already been living on and off as a woman since the 90s. She said prior to committing to her transition fully, she struggled with her mental health and having to live as her former self, her current self, and the drag version of herself. As a nightclub performer, she said she spent 75 percent of her time in drag as a different persona.
"That’s what got me into drag — toying with the idea of transitioning. It’s also ultimately why I quit doing drag."
Her identity crisis was causing a rift, though. She needed to sort out who she was first before she could dive into entertaining again. She had spent the last 10 years performing on stages around the Ark-La-Tex including our very own, Central Station.
During that time she worked at a metaphysical book store in Texarkana and had a really great support group. She started dating a guy, and while there was plenty of romance, it, unfortunately, didn’t work out. In a surprise twist, Jessica said she thought she’d play the "date-his-best-friend-to-get-back-at-him" card, even though that friend was a woman.
Jessica admitted that even though at the time she knew she was trans (and only interested in men), she remained in a relationship with her. Eventually, the two took things further and consummated their relationship, and after getting her pregnant, they married. Eventually, the two would parent another child. Jessica said she knew this was wrong and was slowly losing herself. She eventually separated from her partner and resumed her life.
Flash forward to 2012 and Jessica Paige Upchurch has officially enrolled in The Art Institute of Dallas. After years of struggling with her identity, this is where she began to hone in her creative skills and explore an environment that was more diverse than the one she was around.
As she put it, she was taught to be racist, a bigot, and to hate anything new or different. Those were her peers growing up, too. It took time, but she came to realize that people her own age or older were just too close-minded.
"The first semester I was extremely shy, reserved, and afraid to speak to anyone. I thought my voice was a dead giveaway I was a dude, so I was paranoid about talking to anyone," she said.
By her second semester, she started an on-campus organization called GLASS (Gay and Lesbian Association for Students and Supporters). She said, for the most part, being a 40-something going back to college was pretty easy. She found solace in her work and support from her younger peers.
"The friends I had who were my age, they weren’t my friends when I came out. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me."
She said she went through minimal bullying or harassment while in school and recanted a story about another girl having something snide to say about her clothing. She said she’s yet to hold a job as Jessica, something she's wrestled with for many years. After being diagnosed with PTSD (and having multiple suicide attempts), her psychiatrist helped her file for disability.
“I feel better. A lot of things changed once I started living full time as Jessica. As corny as it sounds, I was so stressed with trying to pretend I was something I wasn’t."
While her confidence soars, she’s still reminded that living her life solely as a woman does come with its insecurity.
"There are times I’m terrified of going to the store by myself. I travel all the time, but there are some days I’m afraid to go up to the Circle K to get a fountain drink," she said. "It depends on my mindset that day."
Just on May 27, Black trans man Tony McDade was shot and killed by police in Florida. Days later, Iyanna Dior was beaten by a mob of people, mostly cisgender men. Even here, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a trans woman named Vontashia Bell was murdered in 2018. Her killer is still unidentified.
"When you start seeing this trans person has gone missing, or this trans body has been found … it could be 1000 miles away but if you see that on your newsfeed, it makes you go 'OK is today the day I get shot pumping gas? Is today the day I get shot walking back to my car?'"
Derick Jones is a co-creator of Queerport. You can usually find them at their vintage shop or out and about documenting Shreveport's queer history in the making. Photos by Just Winget Media.