The NEPA Rainbow Alliance sponsors two groups of interest to trans people and their families:
• A monthly trans discussion group tackles issues ranging from mental and emotional health to physical health and peer support. For more information, email [email protected] or call the NEPA Rainbow Line at 570-972-2523.
• A confidential support group for parents or guardians of transgender children of any age. Contact Karen M. Foley at 570-290-7166 or by emailing [email protected].
Chelsea Anaïs Nepenthe expected to be dead by now.
“I accepted that my life was going to end in suicide,” Chelsea, 26, said of her teenage years.
Assigned male gender at birth, as the Plains Township native puts it, puberty brought her struggle with gender identity into painful focus. She tried to kill herself twice.
Today, Chelsea is a transgender woman, one full year into “finally living my truth.”
It was not an easy journey, but in that respect Chelsea is hardly unique.
Her big leap toward self-fulfillment came at a time when trans Americans were achieving new-found visibility and acceptance, finally being represented on television, gracing magazine covers and being honored with awards for courage.
In January, the word transgender was mentioned in a State of the Union address, when President Barack Obama spoke out against persecution against trans people and other minorities.
Bruce Jenner’s coming out as Caitlyn Jenner this year was another watershed, highlighting the former Olympian’s decades-long struggle with gender identity. That’s an internal struggle which everyday trans Americans such as Chelsea, as well as Dominique Walker, 25, of Wilkes-Barre, echoed in interviews with the Times Leader.
But the backlash against Jenner in some quarters also highlights the struggle for public acceptance still felt by trans Americans living their lives far from the media spotlight.
“I want people to know that I’m not a confused person. I know who I am. I’m a woman,” Dominique said. “I don’t need Jesus in my life, either. I don’t need help. I need society to accept me for me — not judge me.”
‘I was never a boy’
Chelsea grew up as Justin Jon Ostrowski, serving as a lector and usher at Ss. Peter and Paul’s Church in Plains Township, playing Little League at Tokach Field and heading to states twice as a member of the Coughlin High School debate team. From 2008 to 2012, she served as a Republican committee person representing the township’s first ward.
At odds with a life that was in so many ways conventional for the Wyoming Valley was the tension in Chelsea’s soul.
“Something I want to make very clear: I was never a boy,” Chelsea said.
“At 8 or 10 years old, I was very aware of this, but I didn’t have words for it.”
Dominique’s story begins in the fourth grade, when she and her classmates dressed up as historic figures they wanted to report on for Black History Month.
Dominique arrived at school dressed as Harriet Tubman, wearing her step-mother’s scarf and nightgown.
“The kids all made fun of me,” she says. “They were calling me gay. I didn’t know what homosexuality was, what transgender was. I just knew I wanted to be a girl.”
Chelsea, meanwhile, enjoyed the company of the girls who were her friends — until nature and society intervened.
“Then puberty happened, and I wasn’t allowed in the club anymore,” she said.
“The changes to my body felt alien,” Chelsea added. “By 12, I knew I was a girl.”
Misunderstood and bullied by her peers and plagued by a rocky relationship with her parents, Dominique moved from Pleasantville, New Jersey, to Wilkes-Barre in October 2010.
Chelsea’s relationship with her family was, perhaps, more complex.
“By 14, I tried to come out to my family. That did not go so well,” she said. “I told them that I was a girl. I told them that was why I was frustrated and sad all the time.”
When Chelsea told one of her older brothers, “he just didn’t see it.”
When Chelsea told her older sister, “she viewed me as someone who was broken.”
Chelsea said her brother has since become one of her biggest advocates and defenders. Her relationship with her sister, she concedes, has never been the same.
The two people Chelsea didn’t tell in those early years were her adoptive parents.
Dad Joseph died when Chelsea was 13. There were some “close calls,” as when he nearly walked in as Chelsea was trying on her sister’s clothing, but words were never exchanged.
“He never knew,” Chelsea said.
Either way, “I just assumed he always loved me.”
It was only in the past year that Chelsea told her mother, Dorothy. The reaction was life-affirming.
“She wishes I had told her when I was 13,” Chelsea said.
In turn, Chelsea acknowledges that Dorothy, who became legally blind when Chelsea was young, “is a woman I looked up to.”
“She is a strong woman from whom I learned a lot about becoming a woman.”
Seeking a safe place
Dominique came to Luzerne County to find a place where she could build a new life. Chelsea would leave the region for the same reason.
“Nobody knew who I was here,” Dominique said. “I wanted to get away to somewhere I could be free to live as a woman.”
She soon felt Northeastern Pennsylvania wouldn’t understand her any better. Most people here think she’s either a freak or confused, Dominique said.
Building bridges with family members still lay in the future for Chelsea — then still Justin — when she graduated from Luzerne County Community College in 2012 after studying journalism. She believed she would find more acceptance and trans resources in Philadelphia, where she enrolled at Temple University to study rhetoric and public advocacy.
On June 16, 2014, Chelsea took her first injection of hormone replacement therapy. She began dressing in female clothing — “as myself,” as she explained it.
Those were major steps.
“I haven’t worn any men’s clothing for nine months,” she said.
Other elements of Chelsea’s life took a darker turn.
She began to experience subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, saying she has been jumped once in Philadelphia, and faced death threats from drug-dealing neighbors who “wanted to let me know who’s boss.”
She left school due to lack of funding. She was homeless for several months and couldn’t find work.
Chelsea believes that once potential employers saw records bearing her birth name, “the position suddenly had been filled.”
Back to NEPA
That sort of discrimination led Chelsea temporarily back to Luzerne County this year, so she could have her school records changed to reflect her new name. What she encountered here may have led her to a fresh perspective on the place where she was raised.
Chelsea headed to the Wilkes-Barre Area School District headquarters, where she met with two female employees.
“I said I was a graduate and I needed to have my name changed on my records,” Chelsea recalled.
The employees’ cheerful response?
“Oh, you got married?”
Then, as Chelsea recalled it, came the “moment of truth,” when she explained the reason for her request.
The employees didn’t miss a beat.
“The one said, ‘Honey, God bless you! Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Live your life and be happy,’” Chelsea said.
She found her reception at LCCC similarly welcoming, the process similarly painless.
Those moves proved to be Chelsea’s first step toward finding her way home.
A recent family gathering also underscored the changing dynamic — for the better, Chelsea said.
“When the boys huddled together over screen shots of deer and tree stands, I sat with the women as we talked about babies,” Chelsea said. “For the first time in my life, I felt seen. I felt at home.”
“For a long time, I didn’t think I could reconnect with my family, reconnect with friends, reclaim a past that was mine,” Chelsea said.
On Friday, Chelsea packed up a U-Haul truck bound for Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“I feel strong enough in my womanhood to come home and reclaim my life,” Chelsea said.
She also came home armed with plans: Returning to LCCC to study social work and working to promote awareness of trans people and issues in the Wyoming Valley.
Health and wellness
Chelsea is not alone in her vision.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Karen M. Foley has collaborated with The Rainbow Alliance to create a support group for parents of transgender children. The group started in January, and now serves nearly 20 families, Foley said, directing them to mental health and medical providers as well as educating them on current standards of care in transgender health.
The alliance also sponsors a separate monthly trans discussion group.
“While many of our members encounter few challenges, the majority all deal with family members who are not supportive, difficulty navigating the school system and the challenge of traveling to Philadelphia and other major cities for appropriate medical care,” Foley told the Times Leader.
Foley also discussed the difficulty some group participants have experienced with the health care system.
“Most families struggle with feeling isolated, lack of education on the topic and uncertainty on how and where to find supportive treatment options,” Foley said. “However, I will say that the families are thriving, the children are thriving and all maintain a positive and healthy outlook for themselves and their future.”
Trans health and wellness is an issue which Chelsea and Dominique both addressed in their interviews with reporters.
Dominique believes society would accept her if the government supported her gender reassignment surgery, a transition she is unable to afford at the moment.
“The government allowed gay marriage and people are starting to accept gay marriage more. Everybody goes by what government and religion accepts. That’s where people get their judgment and opinions from,” she said. “So, if we get more acceptance from the government and religion, we’d probably get more acceptance from society.”
For Dominique, not feeling like a prisoner trapped in the wrong body is a prerequisite to finding happiness.
“I feel like a princess that’s stuck in a castle and wants to come out but can’t,” she said.
Chelsea, who has not met Dominique, believes Dominique is right in believing that undergoing gender reassignment surgery can lead to greater self-confidence, and in turn, acceptance for those who struggle with what is known as gender dysphoria, the type of internal conflict both women described.
“Living with dysphoria causes a lot of anxiety, stress, depression,” Chelsea said.
Chelsea declined to discuss the status of her physical transition from male to female, but did say that there is now a letter “F” on her driver’s license.
“I don’t want to make this about my genitals,” she said.
Chelsea did say she experienced discrimination at a Philadelphia hospital where she went to be treated for a dislocated shoulder. She said the treatment she received from some staffers showed obvious discomfort.
“It was like they forgot how to even give an IV,” Chelsea said.
Chelsea was much happier discussing a different kind of change. Saying goodbye to her birth names troubled her “not at all,” she explained.
“To me, Justin was an identity that I had to put on every day; it was a costume that I didn’t want to wear every day.”
Her new first name was inspired by a friend, whose mother described how Chelsea was derived from a word referring to a port or harbor.
“It was a place of safety. I want to be a refuge. I want to create a safe space for those around me,” she said.
Middle name Anaïs was inspired by two powerful women: the author Anaïs Nin and singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
Nepenthe, she explained, was a potion described by ancient Greek and Latin writers as having the power to erase memories of pain and sorrow.
With a chuckle, Chelsea pointed out the positive word formed by her new initials: C.A.N.
“I like this, because you know, I can have it all,” Chelsea laughed. “I’m a can-do kind of person.”
Admittedly, both Chelsea and Dominique are working toward figuring out just what they want next from life. Like Chelsea, Dominique also is eyeing a return to the classroom.
“I dream of going back to school and finishing my associates degree in business. I’d like to open a business in the fashion industry that everybody can feel comfortable going to — people of different sizes,” Dominique said. “We’re in this big world together. I want to do something that we all could share.”
Fashion is an escape for Dominique. Shopping and trying on clothes gives her a break from reality, a chance to feel beautiful.
When Dominique exited a dressing room wearing a navy blue dress and long silver necklace, her best friend commented on how beautiful she looked.
She felt beautiful. In that moment, away from the people who judge her and don’t understand her, she was free to be the woman she wants to be. The princess was out of her castle.
Chelsea, meanwhile, said she feels like she is going through “second puberty.”
“I have to re-learn my emotions, my sex, my body,” she said. “I have to re-learn my place in society.”
Reach Roger DuPuis at 570-991-6113 or on Twitter @rogerdupuis2.