From Suicidal Girl to Powerful Dad: Transgender Advocate Jay Pryor Opens Up About His Emotional Journey

"We all have the same feelings, the same longings, the same desire to be loved," Jay Pryor tells PEOPLE

Photo: Courtesy ay Pryor

It’s football season in the Midwest and, like any dad, Jay Pryor often gets the question, “Did you play football in high school?”

And Jay’s answer is always the same: “No, I was a girl in high school.”

Jay was born Janet in rural Scammon, Kansas, on June 1, 1966.

That he’s now a sought-after speaker, a coach to executive women and a happily married father of two 5-year-olds could explain why his “It Gets Better” story, performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, recently brought tears to Caitlyn Jenner’s eyes.

As an LGBT activist, Jay Pryor, 49, has spent the last 30 years proving that beautiful, life-changing things happen when you stand in the truth of who you really are.

And he understands exactly what Jenner, 65, is going through.

“That she’s doing it in front of God and everybody is extremely generous,” Pryor tells PEOPLE. “Any trans person can tell you that during the first year when your whole body is changing, you’re a big, hot mess. Caitlyn is exceedingly brave to do it in front of the whole world.”

A Difficult Childhood

Pryor’s journey started in small town Kansas, far from the Hollywood glare.

“My upbringing was like Opie Taylor in Mayberry. My dad was the mayor. He owned the grocery store. If someone called at dinner, needing a loaf of bread, I’d hop on my bike and ride it over,” says Pryor, the youngest of 9 kids, all of whom sang together in the church choir.

But while it looked idyllic on the outside, Pryor was miserable on the inside.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” he says. “By sixth grade, when all my friends started wearing training bras, it became even more apparent. I was mortified having to wear one. I refused to take off my jacket. Even in the summer. Even when I was sweating profusely.”

Pryor had never heard the word “gay,” but when he was 13, a girl visiting from Oklahoma, kissed him. It turned his whole life upside down.

“I knew I couldn’t tell a soul,” he says.

Instead, he hung out with his dog, Bandit, and started drinking, skipping school and sleeping with any guy who would have him.

“I was doing everything I could to convince everybody else – and especially myself – that I was normal. I didn’t mind being called a slut. Just don’t call me gay,” he says.

By Pryor’s junior year, he mustered the nerve to tell his best friend, who proceeded to shun him completely. Even though he tried to recant and told his friend he was just kidding, the friend refused to take his calls, refused to even acknowledge him in the hallways at school.

Pryor, convinced there was no hope, drove his parents car into a tree at 100 miles per hour.

That was the first of several suicide attempts.

When he was 18 and about to join the military, he stole a rifle from his dad’s gun cabinet and decided to run away.

“I decided I would either kill myself or someone else,” Pryor says. “I pawned all my cassette tapes. I bought a big giant bowie knife and I wrote a long dramatic goodbye note to a friend.”

The Path to Self-Discovery

Pryor left Scammon, allegedly to deliver a painting to his sister in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas. The friend who received the note called Pryors’ parents, and by the time he got to the Conception Abbey to say goodbye to his brother, who was enrolled in seminary there, an alert had been sent. Pryor needed help. But he still hadn’t come out to his close-knit Catholic family.

Finally, three weeks into a six-week stay in the psychiatric wing of a Kansas City hospital, Pryor admitted to an art therapist that he was gay.

“One of the other patients had a butch girlfriend and the minute I saw her, I knew – I could carve out a life that way,” he says.

From that point on, Pryor has gone by the name Jay and has dressed like a man.

But it wasn’t until 1995, when he read the book, Stone Butch Blues, a novel written by transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, that he found a working description for who he knew he was.

“This was 20 years ago – before transgender was a household word. I knew at a very young age that something was wrong, but it wasn t until reading that book that I found languaging for what I was going through,” Pryor says.

After getting a degree in speech communication at the University of Kansas, Pryor devoted his life to gay rights. He served on panels, spoke about equality and even challenged Fred Phelps, the infamous gay protestor, to public debates.

“I was very clear my mission was to change paradigms, to let the world know that we’re all the same. We all have the same feelings, the same longings, the same desire to be loved,” Pryor says. “I was committed 100 percent to living in personal integrity.”

Which is why, on April 1, 2001, when he was 34, Pryor began taking testosterone and started the journey to become the person he knew he really was.

“I was done compromising. I had to be true to myself,” says Pryor, who was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. “My main concern was my family back home. I committed to going home every couple months, so my family could see me going through the changes. I didn’t want to shock them.”

“But I also didn’t want to live a double life anymore. One of my biggest regrets is my father died before I was able to tell him,” Pryor says.

“What I’ve learned is that if you don’t come at people as if you’re a freak, no one else will either,” Pryor adds.

Finding Love

Pryor met his wife Jessica when he was still Janet. They lived in a big house in D.C. with several friends.

“We were both new to D.C., so we became best friends exploring the city together,” Jessica tells PEOPLE.

Eventually, it became apparent they were in love.

“We had the most amazing conversations,” Jessica says. “I started to notice how he responded to questions, how he reflected on things. I began to look at him differently.”

They bought a condo together and, on her 25th birthday, Jay got down on his knees and proposed.

They were married (although not legally since Jay’s birth certificate said he was a female) on October 11, 2003. In 2013, on their 10-year-anniversary they flew to New York, which had recently approved gay marriage, and made it legal.

By that time, they’d moved to Kansas to be near Jay’s mom while she was dying. It was during that time that the couple began a five-year heart-wrenching odyssey to become parents.

Today, Jay and Jessica are the proud parents of Rose and Emmett, both 5, whom they adopted separately after taking them in as foster children at age 2 and 13 months, respectively.

To a stranger, the Pryor family looks as normal as any other. Anybody watching them drop off the kids at school would think, “what a sweet little family.” And indeed, Jay and Jessica deal with all the same parenting issues, the same discipline challenges, the same bedtime battles as any other parent.

A lot of trans couples are more than happy to leave it at that.

“Lots of trans couples have no desire to let people know their back story,” Jessica says. “But that’s not Jay. He has a huge commitment to being out and educating people. He has such a kindness and generosity about him. He’s an activist. He always has been. And that’s part of what I admire and respect about him. He has a great commitment to young people. And knowing how much he struggled when he was young, I get it. I understand why he can’t sit quiet and let well enough alone.”

A Life of Purpose

Pryor regularly gives workshops (Wal-Mart is among his clients) on transgender issues, serves on boards and gets emails from school counselors and desperate parents worried about their confused and troubled children. He always takes time to talk to them.

“Because I look like a regular guy, I’m very approachable,” Pryor says. “Most people think of RuPaul when they think of transgender. When I mention I used to be girl, people look at me with blank stares. They just just don’t get it. They’ll say, ‘You mean, you WANT to be a girl. And I’ll say, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

“I guess because I am so “normal,” people feel comfortable asking questions. Young people, just coming to terms with their sexuality and gender, are often sensitive and uncomfortable. It’s better to talk to someone like me who doesn’t get offended. My job, as I see it, is to love trans-phobia right out of people.”

As a coach to executive women, Pryor is also committed to empowering straight women to lift each other up, to form alliances, something he learned in the lesbian community when he was in his 20’s and 30’s, before he became a parent.

“Women are trained to trash each other, to climb on the backs of each other,” Pryor says. “I coach women to hold space for each other.

Pryor became a coach in 2005.

“Women love it that I used to be a woman – that I know what it’s like to walk through the world as a woman and as a man. Many of the women I coach are high up executives. They’re often the only woman in the boardroom. They appreciate that I know how difficult it can sometimes be to speak up, to be the odd one out.

“Thanks to my journey, I’ve learned how to talk to anybody about pretty much anything. I’m fully committed to making a shift in the LGBT conversation and in the conversation of women in general. In the end, it’s all about getting real with each other,” Pryor says.

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