An identity to call their own: Part I

Jessica McGuinness, a 38-year-old transgender woman living in Dormont, attends and participates in an LGBTQIA charity date auction benefitting the Garden of Peace Project held at Cruze Bar in the Strip District.
Jessica McGuinness tells her life story as a transgendered person for the video show TWIG (This Week in Gender), with Nancy Evelyn Gold, executive director of Gender Dances Project.

A practical joke that nearly killed Jessica McGuinness ultimately saved her life.

It happened in 2005 when Jesse, as she was then known, was on a camping trip with some friends in West Virginia. As they were walking across a bridge at night, Jesse tried to hide behind a shack at the other end to jump out and scare them as they approached.

Just step into position around the side of the shack and ... Wait, what's going on? There's nothing here!

Now in feet-first free fall, nothing registers but dropping into a black abyss. Fifteen feet later and SLAM! — a crash into rocks and then an out-of-control tumble down another 15 feet of rocky hillside until, finally, it ends with a jarring THUMP! onto a large boulder halfway submerged in water.

Against all odds, not least of which was being a hemophiliac, Jesse survived and contemplated the near-death experience while recuperating at home in Dormont from a broken ankle, dozens of facial and head wounds and internal bleeding.

There was physical pain from those injuries, to be sure, but also flaring were psychic wounds Jesse had held close for 30 years — the wounds of living as a man while being a woman at her essence.

"I should have died under that bridge," Jesse realized. "And if I had, I wouldn't have liked the person I was."

Jessica McGuinness is auctioned off by Mahogany La PiranHa, right, during an LGBTQIA charity date auction benefitting the Garden of Peace Project held at Cruze, Bar in the Strip District.

Coming so close to losing an intolerable life spurred a realization: Jesse had to die in the darkness of that night so Jessica could be born in the light of day.

With that 2005 epiphany, Jessica McGuinness began her transition from male to female, from self-loathing to self-actualization. Now, 38, she is gregarious, self-deprecating and self-assured — the polar opposite of the shy, depressed, confused Jesse.

No photographs remain of that life — both she and her mother threw out all of reminders of Jesse, choosing instead to focus solely on Jessica. But raw memories remain of the gender confusion that began at age 5, of the pain and isolation, of the prayers to "make this go away" while watching the freak-show mistreatment of transgender persons on TV shows such as "Geraldo" and "Sally Jesse Raphael."

Adrift, alienated and alone, Jesse barely graduated from high school, last in a class of 181. And then began the self-medicating to stop the emotional pain — marijuana, LSD and alcohol until age 22 and then solely alcohol. In Jesse's mid-20s, he became an emergency medical technician, working for a South Hills EMS agency, but continued to drink alone on off days.

Related: The trangender community is finally getting its turn in the spotlight culturally and politically.

After the accident, counseling and hormone therapy brought stability. Jessica's bleeding disorder and the prohibitive cost made sex assignment surgery virtually impossible, but she nevertheless found an "inner peace" that Jesse had never experienced.

She came out to family and friends, who were accepting and supportive, but for four years hid Jessica from her EMS co-workers, finding many of them unsympathetic to transgender patients. Mortified that she had stood silent so long, she wrote an impassioned four-page post for a work Facebook page, laying bare her heart, her hurt and her rebirth while addressing the "ignorance" of those who had referred to transgender patients by dehumanizing terms such as " 'freaks,' 'it,' or 'he/she.' "

"We call you for help, not judgment. And most of all, we are your friends, your co-workers, your siblings and your children. If you do not accept me and feel that you can't talk to me anymore, that's fine. All I ask is that you respect me as a co-worker and a fellow EMT."

Jessica McGuinness looks at a comic book about Ms. Marvel, her favorite super hero, at Geekadrome shop in Brookline.

She was happily shocked by the response — overwhelmingly apologetic, supportive and admiring of her courage. "To lay it all bare like this is an incredible testament to your desire to be appreciated for who you really are. Bravo," one wrote.

Her post became a chapter in the 2010 book "American Heroes: Coming Out from Behind the Badge: Stories From Police, Fire, And EMS Professionals 'Out' On The Job." She became a transgender advocate, regularly working for transgender groups, telling her story and serving on discussion panels, including those for second-year medical students. Her message: Treat everyone with dignity, respect, human kindness.

"Some people see us as mentally ill. I was mentally ill; I'm cured now. I don't have those gender issues anymore," she said. "Now I'm just a regular, boring person with everyday life problems like everyone else."

Unable to work now as an EMT because of ankle problems, she is a clinical specialist at the Pitt Men's Study, a 30-year-old cohort study at the University of Pittsburgh. In her off hours, she is a self-proclaimed "geek girl" obsessed with super hero comics — Ms. Marvel's lightning bolt is tattooed on her ankle — and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Sarah Parlow, a 38-year-old transgender woman from Shadyside, gets on stage during an LGBTQIA charity date auction benefitting the Garden of Peace Project held at Cruze Bar in the Strip District.
Jessica McGuinness, left, and Sarah Parlow share a moment while trying to be heard over the music at an LGBTQIA fundraiser for the Garden of Peace Project.
From left, Jessica McGuinness, Sarah Parlow and Michael David Battle chat before the Garden of Peace Project fundraiser.

Other transgender people seek her company and counsel. Among them last year was Sarah Parlow, also 38 and a transgender female whose journey was as different from Jessica's as it was similar.

Sarah had a fulfilling life in Austin, Texas, with a good job in the medical field and good friends. But last fall, wanting to be nearer to family, she moved to Pittsburgh, landed a job at a local hospital and sought out members of the transgender community so she could do some advocacy work.

She Googled "Transgender Pittsburgh" and one of the first results to appear was Jessica, whose activism had gained her prominence. They met for coffee at Crazy Mocha in Shadyside in October and quickly hit it off as friends.

For two hours the women discussed transgender issues, advocacy and their individual paths to transitioning.

Like Jessica, Sarah had known from a very young age she was female-gendered and felt isolated and alone. But unlike Jessica, she acted to affirm her true gender at a much younger age and now has been post-transition for more than half her life.

To affirm her true gender identity, Sarah knew she had to leave her hometown of Erie where life for a gender non-conforming person in a relatively small town was intolerable because of bullying. Moreover, her family was ill-equipped to deal with her obvious yet unspoken assertions of femininity, choosing instead to overlook them.

So it was off to the University of Pittsburgh. In her freshman year she sought out the Persad Center, which serves the region's LGBT community. There, amid tears, she verbalized for the first time she was female-gendered. Finally, she had the resources to help her claim that.

Counseling and hormone replacement followed. Being young and androgynous to begin with, blending in with other females her age was fairly easy.

"Unfortunately, in society blending is considered a better sign of success," the Shadyside resident notes, sunglasses perched atop her copper red hair.

"Blending can be a blessing. Twenty years ago, the environment was different for transpeople. Safety and access to certain privileges could be compromised if you were openly trans. Some of that persists today, but it only changes by people coming forward, being visible and demanding change."

Friends and family couldn't believe how much she had "blossomed" from a socially awkward, isolated soul, but Sarah realized that physically transitioning was only the beginning. There was no guidebook for the path that awaited.

"Now you're navigating the nuances of life, navigating relationships, the social situations, what you might run into at work, how much do you disclose, to whom and when. It's so far-reaching."

Sarah took a break from studies in 1997 to move out West with a friend to focus on and complete her transition. Living away from home afforded her anonymity and a much more liberal environment.

Following sex reassignment surgery, she went on to earn two bachelor degrees and a master's degree in nursing.

She moved back to Shadyside to see how she could give back by supporting and sharing with others in the trans community. Educating the general public is key.

Sarah Parlow reads on her laptop as her cat Mischka roams their Shadyside apartment.

"You have to connect with the person, not the perception," she noted. "It's too easy to stop at the word transgender and tune out.

"We're your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, your sisters, your brothers and we have our own place in existence. Honor the person and see the glory in everybody. I think people will be surprised by how much we can add to their existence by adjusting their ideas of what gender is."

Moreover, she said, the paradigm that gender is defined primarily by body parts is antiquated and "the new paradigm is that, we, as people, define who we are. We manifest our destinies."

To that end, she told Jessica that she wanted to get involved in transgender advocacy in Pittsburgh. And that's how Jessica introduced her to Rayden Sorock.

Rayden Sorock, 27, community garden coordinator for Grow Pittsburgh and a transgender man, pulls weeds in the yard of his Lawrenceville home.
Rayden Sorock, right, brunches with his boyfriend Zoe Mizuho, who likewise is a transgender man, at Rayden's Lawrenceville apartment.

Perhaps it's fitting that someone who promotes gardens in non-traditional spaces as Rayden Sorock does would also be someone who plants seeds of understanding and acceptance of transgender people.

As community garden coordinator for Grow Pittsburgh, Rayden demonstrates, teaches and promotes sustainable urban agriculture. And as a transgender man and activist, Rayden demonstrates, teaches and promotes the fact there is nothing mystifying about someone identifying with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

"Gender stereotypes hurt everyone, including non-trans people," said Rayden, 27, of Lawrenceville. "We need people to know there are trans folks with families and we are in all levels of society and come from all kinds of backgrounds. I also feel personally kind of rankled sometimes by the idea that the whole point of trans-activism is to kind of show that we are normal."

Growing up in suburban Boston, Rayden felt anything but normal as a teenager. "I was a big tomboy, kind of a weirdo, shy and awkward and really depressed and hated myself. I knew I was different and wanted to change things. By the end of high school I really knew that being gay and being a girl really wasn't everything I needed to be."

Rayden transitioned while at Purchase College in New York, taking testosterone and eventually had chest reconstruction surgery, known in the transgender community as "top surgery," paid for by his parents. "I'm slowly paying it forward making donations to other folks getting chest surgery," he said.

A 2008 magna cum laude literature graduate, Rayden speaks with passion, intensity and insight about transgender and related causes but is not devoid of a sense of humor. Engage him in a conversation and there's no getting around the fact he thinks deeply about many issues, resolved and otherwise.

For example, he feels the strength of transgender advocacy is allying itself with "many other causes around economics and racial disparities and sex-worker rights and the prison-industrial system. I think we need a lot of different issue areas to come together so it's not just about identity politics in order to make sure we do not leave people behind because the gay rights movement has often left trans people behind in moving forward."

Moreover, he seems conflicted about "passing," or blending in, as a man.

"It's a major privilege to pass. It's also alienating and confusing and it's great and it's challenging," he said. Being transgender "is my life and my story, and I can choose how I want to share and to whom, but there are a lot of people who don't have the luxury of passing."

Brunch concluded, Rayden Soroch, left, kisses good-bye to his boyfriend.

He ended up in Pittsburgh at the invitation of a friend and worked on a farm. Before his current employment he was a fellow for the Initiative for Transgender Leadership, which provides professional and leadership development of transgender youth in Pittsburgh. He continues to work with the group, as do Jessica and Sarah.

On a philosophical level, he wonders if the changes and growth he's experienced over the last decade were solely because of his transition or because of the human experiences of 10 more years of living life.

"One of the biggest changes I've experienced over the past 10 years is I'm continually transitioning. I don't hold myself to rigid standards of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a trans person.

"I don't think I've crossed over and am on this other side. I think there's this myth that people transition and then they're like another person. We are all changing."


Text: Michael A. Fuoco

Michael A. Fuoco is an enterprise reporter whose previous projects examined suicide, heroin addiction and post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries among returning war veterans. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from John Carroll University, a master's degree in journalism from Penn State University and is a fellow of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland. He joined the Post-Gazette in 1984 and has won national, state and regional awards for his writing.

Photography: Michael Henniger

Michael Henninger is a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He was named the 2011 National Press Photographers Association region 3 Photographer of the Year. His work has been recognized by the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, the Northern Short Course in Photojournalism, the White House News Photographers Association, and the Society for News Design.

Other credits

Design: Andrew McGill
Editing: Virginia Linn