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."
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.
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."
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.