An identity to call their own: Part II

Michael David Battle, right, 26, an intersex man of trans experience, fist bumps his fiance, Evelyn Pavlova, 32, while hanging out at the Barnes and Noble cafe at the Waterfront.
Michael David Battle heartily laughs while organizing participants in an LGBTQIA charity date auction at Cruze Bar in the Strip District benefiting the Garden of Peace Project. He founded and is executive director of the non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of the LGBTQIA population.
A card from Michael David Battle's mother and a framed picture of him and his fiance, Evelyn Pavlova, adorn a desk in the couple's residence.

It's a weekday night at Cruze Bar in the Strip District and Michael David Battle is rushing from room to room, creating a blur as he scurries through the crowd like a football running back avoiding tacklers. As founder and executive director of the Garden of Peace Project, he's attending to myriad details to make this fundraiser successful and fun, but he's also making certain everyone there feels appreciated and welcome.

That's his nature, caring for others. And that's why the Munhall resident started the nonprofit project in September 2012 to improve the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and financial wellness of the communities comprising LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, invisible minority, asexual and allies).

"We want to increase the health and wellness among all marginalized people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression," Michael says.

Such an organization is necessary, particularly for the trans community, "which really needs resources," noted Michael, 26, who identifies as an intersex man, meaning his anatomy or chromosomes don't fit the typical definitions of either male or female. He transitioned to male at age 21.

He holds a bachelor's degree from Chatham University and a master's degree in public administration with a focus on LGBTQIA disparities from Barry University in Miami, which notes it "inspires students to foster positive change in the local and global community."

That would apply to Michael, who in addition to his work with the Garden of Peace Project, is a nonprofit consultant, writer and a local and national speaker on LGBTQIA issues.

A Brighton Heights native, he lived in Virginia and Florida before returning here. He's pleased to report the Pittsburgh region is relatively progressive when it comes to marginalized people.

"Of all the places I've been, I think Pittsburgh is definitely ahead of the curve. When I think of Pittsburgh in relation to Philly, L.A., Milwaukee, Cleveland, we don't have the same rates and levels of harassment and discrimination issues or the murders [of transgender people] happening here.

"When you look at the LGBTQIA community, there is so much progress in this area. There are 27 colleges and universities in the region and when you have that, it changes the culture."

Related: All the medical facts about being transgender and the changes underway.

Culture change has been a goal of his since he was a child and was raised female.

"I always knew I was male my whole life. When I got potty trained, I stood. I knew I wanted to play football, not be the cheerleader. My mother, a single mom, let me be myself. When I was 6, I started wearing boys' clothes."

"Of all the places I've been, I think Pittsburgh is definitely ahead of the curve." Michael David Battle

Initially, Michael didn't want medical intervention as part of his transition, choosing binding and wearing up to seven shirts to hide breasts. But on New Year's Eve 2010, he changed his mind when he couldn't find a gender-neutral bathroom.

Hormone replacement therapy and chest reconstruction surgery followed. "You changed my life," he told his surgeon.

Michael David Battle injects a hormone shot into his leg inside his home. He injects himself with testosterone weekly.
Michael David Battle jokingly pulls his fiance Evelyn Pavlova off the couch so they can continue packing for their move from a Dormont apartment to a Munhall house.

His life also has been changed by his fiance, Evelyn Pavlova, 32, a native of Estonia who holds a master's degree in mental health counseling. The two met before Michael's transition, but Evelyn recalls, "I thought he was a guy, but later I found out he wasn't biologically a guy."

When Michael said a few months later he planned to transition, Evelyn said, "OK, cool. That makes sense. Awesome."

Evelyn said their relationship works because "we're more dedicated to work on ourselves and our relationship. A lot of people are not willing to look into themselves and change, and that's regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

Like most people, Michael says with a laugh, "I have a very boring male life. I take the garbage out, I have to fix things around the house and my fiance definitely has a 'honey-do' list."

The couple is open about Michael's transition, but it's not something they broadcast.

"I almost never out myself," Michael says. "It has nothing to do with who I am as a person. I feel this is my medical history. We don't ask people if they have cholesterol or high blood pressure."

That said, Michael realizes people are curious and "ask questions all the time [like], 'When did you know?' 'How about your family?' I'm very open. You can ask me anything. I've not only lived the experience, but also have studied it."

To frenetic response, Jezebel, a transgender female, performs her lip-sync routine at The Link Nite Club in Herminie, Westmoreland County.

Jezebel Bebbington D'Opulence doesn't just appear on a drag-queen stage, she owns it — and the audience.

Bejeweled with perfect makeup and hair, wearing a formal gown or something much skimpier, she flirts and emotes whether lip syncing pop, R&B, show tunes or some other genre. The frenzied audience cheers, applauds and holds out dollar bills to show their appreciation.

She regularly performs at the The Link Nite Club in Herminie and OUTrageous Bingo at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland, but also plays New York; Washington, D.C.; Morgantown, W.Va.; the Laurel Highlands; Johnstown; and anywhere a skilled entertainer is in demand.

On June 14 she will be among those opening for Pride in the Street headliner Chaka Khan, part of Pittsburgh Pride 2014.

But offstage, Jezebel, who transitioned to female with hormones eight years ago, lives a much more subdued life. Without makeup, jewelry and wearing gender neutral-clothing, she works as a hairstylist in Charleroi where she is generally known as Orlando, preferring a low-key approach in an area less progressive than Pittsburgh.

Jezebel looks over her wardrobe in her Charleroi apartment while getting ready for a performance later in the evening. A long-time drag queen, Jezebel is more subdued in her hometown where she wears gender-neutral clothing and goes by the name Orlando.
Almost ready to leave for her show, Jezebel puts on her high heels.
Jezebel walks down the steps at her apartment en route for her performance at The Link Nite Club in Herminie.
At The Link Nite Club, Jezebel warmly greets friends and regulars before the show.

"You have to ease into it. You don't want anyone to be rude or mean. The reason I stay like this, kind of half and half, is for the cisgender," she says, referring to people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

She says her numerous transgender friends in Pittsburgh have a support system she lacks in Washington County and because of that "I'm more cautious who I let in, who I associate with."

Nonetheless, she says, transitioning to female gender had transformed her life.

"I am so happy at this point in my life," Jezebel says in her apartment decorated with more than a dozen posters and photographs of Marilyn Monroe, the first drag queen persona she used. "Once I started hormone treatment eight years ago, things became more real, more solid, and I became happier. Before transition, I was mad, I was a mad little queen."

She flashes a smile and chuckles, displaying the funny, self-deprecating side of a personality that also is serious and thoughtful.

Born in the Bronx, Jezebel lived there until age 2 when her family moved to its native Puerto Rico where her father was a police officer.

"I did everything opposite of what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to play sports and I didn't. He wanted me to get a German shepherd and I got a Lhasa apso. Since I was 4 years old, I understood what I was and what I was feeling."

She gravitated to her mother who was "beautiful and the life of the party." She lovingly shows a picture of her late mother. There is a striking resemblance.

At 18, she moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where after two years she began a relationship with a man who originally was from Charleroi. Two years later they moved to his hometown.

"I was doing drag a lot and was heavy into drugs. I know it was the '80s, but still. … I couldn't take it anymore so we got in a Pontiac Firebird and drove north," Jezebel recalled.

"It was culture shock. Imagine it's about 1990 and we arrive in a car with tinted windows and Florida plates and I get out. My hair was longer, I was skinnier and younger and a lot prettier. Everybody in the neighborhood was saying, 'Is that a boy or a girl?' "

She started cutting hair and "trying to please everyone else, trying to situate in this crazy world. So there goes another 10 more years."

She began doing drag shows in Pittsburgh and Greensburg in 1993 and began going by Jezebel, taking the name of the Biblical seductress. She remembers as a child reading a Bible study book in which all the women were dressed plainly except for Jezebel "and I was like, 'I want to be her.' "

She advises young people who, like her, know they were assigned the wrong gender at birth to transition as soon as they can.

"Do it, do it, do it. Whatever you can do to possibly achieve what you're feeling, do it. I should have said at 16, 'This is what I am and this is what I'm going to be.' "

Shane Collins, a transgender man from Lawrenceville, talks about caring for transgender patients during a panel discussion for second-year medical students at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.
Collins, center, and Naomi Miller, a transgender female of Swissvale, right, listen while Jessica McGuinness speaks to students at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School on a panel addressing LGBT medical issues with a focus on those involving transgender people.

Shane Collins, who is a friend and a fan of Jezebel, knows full well how frustrating it can be for her to live in a provincial area.

"I'm lucky to live in Allegheny County [where discrimination against transgender people is illegal] but the rest of Pennsylvania isn't there yet. People are more closed-minded outside of this county."

Shane, 24, experienced the close-mindedness himself. He grew up in Clearfield and considered transitioning from female to male when he was 14, "but I was growing up in the small town where they have a hard enough time dealing with anyone who is lesbian or gay. No one there knows the word transgender."

He moved here to attend the Pittsburgh Technical Institute and transitioned from female to male with hormones in late 2009 after turning 20. The Lawrenceville resident, who has worked in the medical field, says he plans to have chest surgery when he can afford it. Until then, he binds his breasts "to pass as male. It's not great for the chest or the back and the respiratory system and if you wear a binder for more than 12 hours you run the risk of getting pneumonia."

Regardless, he says, "I'm a lot happier now.

"Just in the five years I've been out there have been so many changes, so many insurances covering surgeries for trans people, more businesses becoming open-minded and changing their forms where you have to identify gender and the medical field is much more open as well."

Still, there remain hurdles in American society that education could help eliminate, he says, estimating it will take another generation for widespread understanding and acceptance of transgender people.

"It was great when Chaz Bono came out and that people are becoming more aware there are trans people out there, a lot more than they realize. But there still needs to be more education because when Chaz Bono was on 'Dancing With the Stars' so many people were saying, 'This is family television. We shouldn't have people like this on there.' He's a human being," Shane says.

He longs for there to be understanding that being transgender relates to identity and has nothing to do with sex, which is orientation.

"The question I've faced when coming out as a gay man is, 'If you're going to be into men, why didn't you just stay a girl?' The answer is, 'Because I never was a girl!' It's not about who I'm attracted to, it's about who I am."

If progress is to continue, Shane says, it's crucial that transgender people advocate for themselves.

"We're making strides, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done."


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