An identity to call their own

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 watches a "Lord of the Rings" movie on her laptop at her Dormont apartment.
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."

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 Henninger

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