Transgender Warrior: The story of Birmingham’s Jody Suzanne Ford

Transgender individuals cross the most fundamental identity boundary: sex. Even transgender warriors like Jody Ford with fashionable hair salons can lead socially marginal lives.

Lou Reed made it seem easy. His 1972 “Walk on the Wild Side” pulled gender conversion out of the closet, on to the open road:

Holly came from Miami, Fla.,

Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A.,

Plucked her eyebrows on the way,

Shaved her legs and then he was a she.

Jody Suzanne Ford was one of Birmingham's first transsexuals and owned a hair salon. She was shot to death in 1977. Photo courtesy Birmingham Post-Herald.

Because Holly was a glam-rock myth, Reed didn’t cover the reality of sex change. Holly went from Miami to New York. In places like Birmingham, going from a he to a she meant more than shaving legs.

Not long after Reed’s song hit Number 16 on the Billboard charts, the Birmingham Post-Herald profiled Sidney McFerrin Ford’s transition to Jody Suzanne Ford. In 1977, local papers covered Ford’s death from a close-range bullet to the chest.

Details about Ford’s life are sketchy. My own memory is like that of many Birmingham residents. I got my first “big girl” haircut at Ford’s popular Five Points South salon, Ms. Sid’s Coiffures. I remember her as media sensation, not as actual person.

Mostly, I remember my mother’s nine words on the subject: “Don’t stare, it’s not polite” and “Ms. Sid looked good.” Indeed she did, as existing photographs of her show.

Salon patrons describe Ford as kind – and as a character. At 6’4” and well over 200 pounds, she commanded the rooms she walked into.

And she enjoyed doing so, says a former client named Michael.

Michael remembers a time that he and Ford ate dinner at the Social Grill after a haircut. The waitress took Michael’s drink order, gestured at Ford and asked, “What does he want?”

Ford stood up, towered over the waitress and screamed, “He, he . . . where do you see a HE?”

Ford then spent the next hour telling Michael all he wanted to know about changing from male to female.

A former Southside resident named Jim recalls passing a pre-transition Ford walking purposefully down 20th street wearing a tailored woman’s suit, high heels, long wavy hair, and a full beard.

Sidney Ford played college basketball in the 1950s before beginning his transition. Photo courtesy David Lipscomb College. Ph

Ford insisted that she be seen as normal, as fully human, during a time that many Americans considered transsexuals and transvestites to be mentally ill or, worse, criminally dangerous. People like Ford risked their lives and livelihoods defending their right to be themselves. Activist Leslie Feinberg calls them “transgender warriors.”

Transgender individuals cross the most fundamental identity boundary: sex. As a result, they are feared and misunderstood. Even transgender warriors with fashionable hair salons can lead socially marginal, nearly forgotten lives.

Reconstructing Jody Ford’s story means relying on news articles, the memories of people willing to talk, public records, and the history of other transsexuals. Ford told the Post-Herald’s Kay Kent that she knew from childhood she was female, even though her body was male. Born in Nashville in 1935, she followed a traditionally male path for a while. As Sid, he married, had a son, and played basketball at David Lipscomb, a faith-based college, during the late 1950s. In 1962, he did a brief stint with the Miami Bombers, a semi-pro football team.

Paralleling Sid’s life was a counter-cultural explosion. In 1952, Christine Jorgensen’s gender reassignment made headline news. Jorgensen travelled to Copenhagen for surgery. By the 1960s, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University and UCLA established clinics in the U.S.

Although “sex change” was a household term, people like Ford could not yet discuss their needs openly. In Crossing: A Memoir (1999), Deirdre McCloskey points to 1960s phenomena such as the magazine Transvestia and the clandestine organization Tri-Ess as lifesaving networks. Finding a niche outside those networks was difficult. Ford’s wife divorced him and would not let him see his son. He sought community among gays and artists.

“I went into the homosexual world and found right away that I didn’t belong,” Ford told the Post-Herald. “I was more of a misfit there than I am in the straight world, even with everyone knowing what I am.”

Jody Ford (L) with a friend in the 1970s. From the memoir, Perry, A Transformed Transsexual (Metamorphosis Books, 1978).

He came to Birmingham via New Orleans, arriving in 1965 with the performer Freada Wallace. He married an understanding woman named Wanda, and set up business in 1968 as “Mr. Sid’s Coiffures.”

He also did a lot of jail time, the Birmingham News reported. Crackdowns on Alabama’s homosexuals and transvestites were particularly harsh during the 1960s. News accounts from the time describe the regular “pervert patrols” that police conducted at local nightspots and public restrooms.

In 1967, then Governor George Wallace appointed a commission to study sex crimes. Among the group’s recommendations was a statewide registry to include those arrested for offenses as varied as rape, child molestation, obscenity, indecent conduct or language, and the more amorphous “disturbing women.”

On the books until 1975 was Alabama’s Criminal Sexual Psychopath Law, which stated that a sex criminal could be confined to a mental hospital until cured. A scary prospect considering that “sex criminal” meant anyone from a murderer to a gay man to a heterosexual cross-dresser.

The brutal catch-22: one needs a mental diagnosis to qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Ford transitioned from Sid to Jody between 1972 and 1974. The official journey began in a psychiatrist’s office, where Sid’s doctor wrote, “mentally a normal woman – but an abnormal man.” (Today’s term, “gender identity disorder,” first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders in 1994.)

The journey did not end, as most non-transsexuals imagine, with Ford’s genital surgery at UCLA Medical Center. As McCloskey points out “The Operation” is one item on a very long to-do list.

Ford’s looked something like this:

See psychiatrist

Take female hormones

Electrolysis to remove unwanted hair on face and chest

Live full-time as a woman for at least two years

Hire attorney (Berkowitz, Lefkovitz, Isom & Kushner)

Change name (Jody Susan? Jody Suzanne?)

Change business name (Ms. Sid’s Coiffures? Ms. Sid’s Supercutters?)

Change business license

Get trans i.d. card (see Trans Liberation Newsletter)

Buy makeup (Dermablend works well on 5 o’clock shadows)

Learn to apply makeup so that you look like a woman, not a drag queen

Replace wardrobe (Cook & Love Shoes in Memphis for size 13)

Buy wigs

Plastic surgery on cheekbones and Adam’s apple

Lose weight

Replace penis with vagina

Dilate new vagina and new urethra daily

Buy lots of pads for bleeding

Get antibiotic Rx for infections

Relearn how to sit

Relearn how to stand

Relearn how to walk

Relearn how to talk (tell stories not jokes, remember details about people, listen)

Relearn manners (let men open doors, pull out your chair, insist on being “ma’am”)

Relearn unconscious gestures (smile at other women, pay attention to children, talk with your hands but not too exaggerated, close your legs when you sit, check your hair often, play casually with your jewelry, sit up straight, take up less space, help clean up when the party is over).

If the first question about transsexuals involves “the operation,” the second centers on costs. The answer gets complicated.

One level is financial. Now, as in Ford’s time, gender reassignment costs about as much as a new car. The more one does on the list, the more expensive it gets – prices can run from used Chevy to new Mercedes. Most insurance companies do not cover any part. Again, transsexuals face a catch-22: they must pay in full for an “elective surgery” that requires a diagnosis.

Other costs are emotional. Both Ford and McCloskey lost family – wife, kids. I tracked down Ford’s son in another state. He said he did not want to talk about the past, and then we did for 20 minutes. He keeps his father’s history a secret from his own family and friends. The pain in his voice was palpable, especially when Ford’s death came up.

The final cost Ford paid was her life. On Monday, April 4, 1977, a day the Birmingham News called “Black Monday” because of extensive tornado damage, she died in an altercation outside the Vestavia Hills Motor Lodge.

Jody and Wanda, still together after the transition, went to the movies at Brookwood Mall that rainy night. After they left the theater, around 11:30 p.m., Jody exchanged harsh words with a man named Larry Maddox, the Motor Lodge’s owner. Some accounts say Maddox started the ruckus by yelling homophobic remarks.

Maddox sped off, and Ford gave chase down the Old Montgomery Highway in her yellow Cadillac. When they reached the Vestavia Motor Lodge, Maddox ran into his office and came out with a .16 gauge automatic shotgun.

District Attorney Ken Gomany said Ford threw up her hands to surrender. Maddox claimed that he feared Ford would attack. Defense attorney Russell McDonald argued that Maddox defended “his home, a man’s highest ground.” The jury sided with Maddox, finding him not guilty of murder.

Ford’s lawyers were shocked. They thought Gomany had a win. Ford’s first wife and son were shocked. They put aside anger and pain to attend the trial, hoping to see justice done. Ford’s son said he continues to hope.

What do words like “justice” really mean? What about “cost”? Jody Ford would not have lost her life that night had Sid Ford remained a closet cross-dresser. Sid Ford would never have truly lived had he not become Jody.

Efforts remain underway to place Jody Suzanne Ford on the National Transgender Day of Remembrance List. Her name can already be found on different local sites across the country.

Larry Maddox never made any lists. Maddox’s peers – people like you and I – found him not guilty.

Does justice equal cost? Can one person’s life pay for another’s?

Sid’s journey to Jody was not easy. Her death challenges us to ask much harder questions.

Julie Buckner Armstrong is a Birmingham native and an English professor at the University of South Florida—St. Petersburg. Armstrong has written or co-edited three books, including The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Racial Reconciliation. She is working on a book of essays about Birmingham. For the full-length version of this article, visit weldbham.com/local.