A trans woman who waged a decades-long battle with her conservative Jewish Orthodox parents to compel them to pay for her gender reassignment surgery has won a multimillion-dollar payout from her deceased father’s estate.
Jessica Joss was awarded $3.225 million by Victorian Supreme Court judge Elizabeth Hollingworth despite not being a named beneficiary in her father’s will and a foiled plot by Ms Joss to kill her father with a crossbow during a bar mitzvah celebration at her parents' synagogue.
Peter Joss.Credit:Fairfax archive
Her father, Peter Solly Joss, a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor and prominent Melbourne industrialist and property developer who died in 2017, had financially supported Ms Joss for most of her life but refused to pay for her gender reassignment surgery.
After a series of disputes that took place over several decades and spanned several continents, their relationship finally deteriorated in August 1999, when Ms Joss devised a plan to kill her father with a crossbow at a bar mitzvah.
It came after Ms Joss' return from Tajikistan, where she had failed in an attempt to join the Northern Alliance in the fight against the Taliban and a purported offer to work for the Iranian government’s foreign affairs department.
In her judgment, Justice Hollingworth found it was her father’s ongoing financial support of Ms Joss, 60, that meant he had a "moral obligation" to make allowances for her under his estate even though she was not a named beneficiary in his will.
“Notwithstanding Jessica’s behaviour, including her plans to kill him, Peter continued to support her financially. The weekly allowance that he provided from 1999 onwards was generous enough that she did not need to go and look for work,” Justice Hollingworth said.
“By continuing to support Jessica for all those years, Peter allowed her to become financially dependent on him, and to lose much, if not all, of her capacity for employment,” she said.
Justice Hollingworth also made specific provision in her judgment that the estate will provide $100,000 for Ms Joss' gender reassignment surgery, the procedure her father had refused to fund his entire life. She also pointed out that some of Ms Joss’ behaviour seemed to be motivated by, or at least indifferent to, the hurt it caused her parents.
“She wanted to embarrass her family, publicly and privately, to punish them for not accepting that she was transgender,” Justice Hollingworth said. "She said in evidence that it was not her obligation to pay for her own surgery. This belief that her parents must pay for her surgery has become the obsession of her life for the past two decades,” she said.
Ms Joss, born Jeffrey Joss, said she had experienced gender dysphoria as a child. She told the court she had a depressing and isolated childhood, never directly talking about her condition with her parents, but insisted that they were aware. It was her parents' unwillingness to accept her gender identity that underpinned their disagreement.
Notwithstanding Jessica’s behaviour, including her plans to kill him, Peter continued to support her financially.
At 28, Jessica moved to Germany which she admitted may have hurt her father who remained deeply traumatised by the Holocaust. At 30, she moved to the US and attempted to join the marines, but was unable to complete basic training due to a back injury. She married and subsequently divorced a woman who was not Jewish. On both occasions her parents paid for many of her expenses and flew her home. By 1999, aged 40, Ms Joss had grown unhappy with her life.
The court heard that on one occasion, Ms Joss went to her parent's Orthodox synagogue on a Saturday morning, stood up, and told the congregation that she was transgender.
“This publicly embarrassed her conservative parents, as it was no doubt intended to do,” Justice Hollingworth said.
That June she travelled to Tajikistan, via India, to join the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban. She went there, in the words of Justice Hollingworth, “with very little money, no relevant skills, and no concrete plans”.
“[Her mother] Judith disapproved because Jessica was proposing to go and fight for Muslims,” Justice Hollingworth said.
When Ms Joss met with the Northern Alliance in the mountains of Tajikistan, they suggested she work teaching English instead of fighting with them. Within a month of arriving she had run out of money.
Ms Joss told a friend of her parents that she had offered to work for the Iranian government in foreign affairs, apparently motivated by her disdain for “the bloody Americans”.
“I told them I was willing to work for their government in foreign affairs helping them pursue their national interest,” the letter, tendered in court, said.
“It got very close, with Tehran saying no at the last moment. The Iranian ambassador was in favour.”
In August 1999, not long after she returned from overseas, her parents organised for Ms Joss to receive $800 per week, plus personal expenses including healthcare. It was on the condition, however, that she not contact her parents and cease “denigrating” her parents in a manner that would “undermine their standing in the Jewish community”.
“Peter and Judith did not want their private affairs talked about, and were no doubt embarrassed by the way Jessica had behaved,” Justice Hollingworth said.
On August 13, 1999, Ms Joss’s neighbour called her mother, Judith, to warn her that Jessica was planning on killing Peter with a crossbow the next day. Peter and Judith contacted a lawyer friend, and their family doctor, before calling the police.
The police went to Jessica’s flat, where they arrested her and seized a crossbow. No charges were laid, because Peter asked the police not to. Instead, Ms Joss was admitted to The Alfred hospital psychiatric unit as an involuntary patient. The court said that apart from this one incident, Ms Joss has no other psychiatric history.
Justice Hollingworth said Jessica’s gender dysphoria was something that was very difficult for her Orthodox family to accept, and that even 20 years after being told her mother still does not accept that Jessica identifies as a woman.
“Judith continues to refer to Jessica as Jeffrey, and to use male pronouns when speaking of her. That rejection of her identity has, understandably, been very painful for Jessica,” Justice Hollingworth said.
“But even though Peter and Judith did not understand the implications of Jessica being transgender, they continued to support her financially.
“The only thing Peter was not prepared to pay for was the gender reassignment surgery … even though she still had reasonable earning capacity after her discharge from hospital in 1999, Jessica chose not to seek employment for more than 20 years,” she said.
She had originally sought 100 per cent of the $12.4 million estate but later reduced her claim to an amount between $3.7 million and $5.56 million. She continues to receive a $1600 weekly stipend from her family.
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