Janelle Crossley

Janelle Crossley of Newville was recently named the winner of the inaugural Keira Kristine DeSantis Award for Transgender Advocacy in the state of Pennsylvania.

 

Janelle Kayla Crossley of Newville knows the pain that can be associated with identifying as transgender. She hid her identity for 51 years before coming out to the world and transitioning to her true self. 

Since she has embraced her identity, she has focused much of her volunteer work in helping others in the transgender community to be comfortable with being their true selves, as well as advocating to increase awareness and education in today’s society to help communities embrace members of the transgender community.

Her tireless efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She received six of the nine nominations for the inaugural Keira Kristine DeSantis Award for Transgender Advocacy in Pennsylvania, which is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Human Services, the Pennsylvania LGBTQIA Health Conference, the Health Promotion Council, Adagio Health, the Northwestern Pennsylvania Tobacco Control Program and the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.

According to the award nomination information, “Keira announced herself to the world as a transgender woman in Spring of 2017 after years of internal struggle, and quickly found her voice as an advocate for the transgender community in her hometown of Erie. Keira was employed as a Customer Service Representative and Transgender Liaison at UPMC Health Plan and served on the UPMC Transgender Task Force. Keira was a visible fixture in the community, fighting for the rights of trans communities. Keira joined the board of TransFamily of NWPA and advocated for improvements in trans healthcare in the NW PA region, including proudly serving on the first planning committee for the Erie County LGBTQ Health Conference in 2019.

“Keira was a poet, as well as a prolific and very talented writer,” the form continues. “She documented her journey through articles written for the website ‘Medium and The Transition Transmission,’ videos on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and any other medium she could find. Through this, she helped many people in the community through their gender journey. In the Spring of 2019, during recovery from gender affirmation surgery, Keira suffered unexpected complications and passed away. Her sudden passing was greatly felt by her family, friends, and a global community she developed. In honor of the tireless efforts of Keira to illustrate the societal barrier experienced by trans communities and advocate for advancements in the social and human rights of the trans community, the KEIRA KRISTINE DESANTIS AWARD was created. This award is meant to recognize others like Keira who do whatever it takes, without question, to make the path easier for those who follow a similar journey.”

Crossley’s journey

Crossley explained her journey in becoming a transgender woman.

“Our journeys usually start when we are about 6 years old,” she explained. “That’s when we realize we appear different from everyone else. We don’t really know why or what to do with it, except to hide it. When I was younger, I played with my sister’s dolls and hung out with the girls. I had no desire to hang out with the males. When I was about 10 or 11, my Dad got upset about that and told me I needed to get some guy friends. You have to understand, this was in the mid-1960s. ‘Transgender’ wasn’t even a word then. We could not come out to our parents  because they wouldn’t have had any idea what we were talking about anyway.”

Crossley said she did end up becoming very close with two guy friends who taught her how to fish, hunt and work on cars.

“I couldn’t stand it,” she recalled. “I did it because I needed to prove to myself that that was not me. I couldn’t prove to my parents that that was not me.”

She said she remained close with her male friends until she was about 18 or 19, but then distanced herself from them, and later began distancing herself from her family.

Crossley said this continued until she was about 22, when she met her now wife of 41 years. 

“Two or three months after we were married, I tried to tell my wife that I liked wearing women’s clothes. But, she didn’t want to be involved in it or see it. She didn’t want any part of it,” Crossley recalled. “So, I had to hide it. We had our daughter in 1981. With our journeys comes a lot of good and a lot of bad. Mental abuse is part of our journeys. This went on for many years until I was in my late 20s. Things mellowed out. But, I would purge. When we get caught by someone, we purge. That would throw me into a frenzy where I would throw away my clothes and I would promise her that I wouldn’t do it again. However, every time you purge, it comes back stronger and stronger each time. That happened about 10 times. When you can’t purge anymore, you end up in gender dysphoria when you cannot deal with who you are as your birth self. At that point in time, you have to do something about it.”

Crossley said when her wife worked full-time in a prominent position, she would not allow her to wear dresses, heels or to get her nails done. She said she and her wife finally went to therapy and the therapist asked her what was wrong with her.

“I said, ‘I don’t know. That’s why I’m here,’” she said. “We figured out that I was jealous that she could leave the house and look pretty, and I couldn’t.”

Crossley said she and her wife worked through it with counseling, and toward the middle of her journey, she said her wife became more and more accepting of who she was. But, they were still afraid of what people would think if they saw each other together.

“For a long time, if we were out shopping, I would sort of hang back away from her, or move somewhere else if she saw someone she knew,” Crossley said. “But, then she educated herself and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This is our life, and this is how we are going to live it.’”

Crossley said it took a lot of work, and she even wanted to take her own life to keep from hurting her wife any longer.

“It was about eight or nine years ago, we had a fight over the phone while she was away for work. I said, ‘I can’t keep putting her through this,’ so I went to a spot on the mountain where I could look over the valley. We found this spot while my Mother was ill. My Mother passed away in 2006. I took my four-wheeler to this spot, and pointed a pistol to my head. I was all but ready to pull the trigger, and I heard the word, ‘No! Don’t do it!’ Those were my Mother’s words. People think I’m crazy, but I know what I heard.”

Crossley said she spoke with her wife about her suicide attempt, and they both began working hard at fixing their communication.

“Communication is key,” she added. “Communication builds honesty, trust and respect. In our conversation about my attempted suicide, she told me it’s time you go on hormonal therapy. The day before the appointment, I canceled it. But she called and got the appointment back and I started my hormonal therapy.”

Crossley said that is when she started becoming comfortable with herself and was able to talk about her true identity with her daughter, other family members, friends and coworkers, who were all very accepting.

“I didn’t lose any people, I actually gained a lot of people,” she said. “Because it was at that point that I wanted to bring visibility, education and awareness on transgender issues. I started volunteering with Community Cares, and I am employed with them today. I also became a Big Sister with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and am still with the same child four years later. I have a seat on the Cumberland County Round Table, won the Keira Kristine DeSantis Award, and am a top four finalist for abc27’s Remarkable Women contest.”

Greatest achievements

Crossley said she wanted to reach haters and bigots, and educate state legislators on the transgender community. She is also still busy advocating against bullying and harassment of children in schools.

In her biography, she notes, “My career path has always been in facility management/property management for various commercial, residential and healthcare enterprises throughout central Pennsylvania. Currently, I am semi-retired and employed by Community Cares, a nonprofit for the homeless shelter and more. Being a down-to-earth real person throughout my life has enlightened my days and nights beyond belief. I honestly believe in ‘equity, equality, and justice for all people,’ and will continue to be a huge part of that every day. As a caring, loving, dedicated parent to my family I will go above and beyond the normal duties of parenting not only for my child, grandchildren, family, friends, but for all of mankind, as well. My family consists of my spouse of 41 years, daughter, son-in-law, two wonderful grandchildren and loving furry pets and is the best thing that ever happened in my life. I have four siblings -- one brother, and three sisters. My parents are both deceased.” 

“I am a 10-year advocate for Gender Identity in central Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas. It is and has been my goal to bring visibility, awareness, and education to society on Gender Identity issues and to work with those within the gender identity spectrum, as well as offer presentations to colleges, universities, schools, businesses, families, and individuals alike. The most rewarding (not that all my advocacy is not rewarding) is working with an Amish individual who was in the gender identity spectrum (Transgender) and wanting to transition and remain with her family as well as remain in the Amish community of which she so loved. We were able to make her dream come true, and she is now and has been living as her true self for over two years with her family and in the Amish community. My advocacy has extended into advocating for harassed, bullied, and discriminated students of all ages in our schools, as well as within our society. I am a person that has always been involved in giving, either to my family, friends, or my community. I had volunteered at the then Carlisle Cares Homeless Shelter in Carlisle (now Community Cares More Than Shelter) for 3 years before becoming an employee two years ago. As a volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, I have been given the privilege of becoming a Big Sister for an awesome young girl in need of a mentor, but more importantly, a friend they can count on throughout their everyday lives. Becoming involved with the CASA Organization (Court Appointed Special Advocate) of Cumberland and Perry Counties and Children and Youth Services of Cumberland and Perry Counties as a liaison for working with children and/or parents on gender identity issues has been an especially important turning point in my life and career of community service in so many ways. The rewards are just astounding.

CASA appointed me a seat on their advisory board where I can assist staff and clients in any way I can on issues with the gender spectrum. Three years ago, I was appointed a seat at the Cumberland County Round Table and I also hold a seat on the Citizens Advisory Board of Safe Harbour, another Carlisle homeless shelter, and a seat on the board of the Amani Festival a festival held every year of diversity. I am also the Southeastern, South-Central Pennsylvania Representative for Trans Advocacy of Pennsylvania, the only statewide advocacy organization inclusive to the transgender community in the State of Pennsylvania. My most recent venture in serving my community was running for Pennsylvania State Representative of the 199th District of Cumberland County. Although unsuccessful in the election, we had made history in the State of Pennsylvania as the first openly transgender woman to run for a state elected office in Pennsylvania and was inducted into the Rainbow Wave of The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.”

Crossley said one of her greatest achievements in her advocacy work with the transgender community was helping the Amish individual with her transition that allowed her to stay within the Amish community. 

“It took a year and a half to make it happen,” Crossley noted. “I had meetings with the bishop and other leaders in the community. All-in-all, I met with about 300 people. She came out to everyone at the church and I was there when she did it. The bishop even rewrote their ordungs to reflect that trans people are accepted in their congregation. If the Amish community can accept us, why can’t all of society?”

Crossley even helped DeSantis with her transition.

“Keira was from Erie, and she reached out to me three years ago and asked me to help with her transition. I got her to the point where she wasn’t afraid to go out of her front door. I helped her with her work and insurance coverage. Her mother didn’t want to talk to her at all, as well as her ex-wife and children. I went there and talked to her mother and children, and we all became one big happy family,” Crossley said. “However, six months later, Keira was going in for gender surgeries and wanted to do three surgeries at once. I told her that was too much, but she said she only wanted to go through the pain and recovery once. She went in, and later ended up passing away. This is hard for me to talk about because she was like a daughter to me.”

Crossley said her biggest goal in her advocacy work is still to bring education and visibility to society.

“We’re hated. We’re called names. We get fire from our jobs. That’s my vision is to work hard to fight for the equality act. One of my biggest goals is to get more involved with the kids, especially in the foster system. The suicide rate in trans kids is very, very high. I really need to focus on that, as well. My overall goal is pretty big, but if I take it step-by-step, I can reach that goal eventually.”

Jamie Magee of the Health Promotion Council of Southeastern Pa. said, “Keira was a member of our Pennsylvania LGBTQIA advisory committee. We hold an annual conference that helps us to stay on track and to make sure we are being inclusive in the voices we are bringing to the table. It was a devastating loss when Keira passed away, and we wanted to do something in her honor.”

Magee said 2020 was the inaugural year of the award, and all nominees were friends of Keira’s. She said all nominees were voted on by the advisory board, and Crossley was chosen as the winner. DeSantis’ family was able to call Crossley in January and congratulate her on winning the award.

“They were very excited to be part of that process,” Magee said. “It was very moving for everyone involved. I’m a member of the LGBTQIA community, and I see just how much the trans community is discriminated against and mistreated. It’s truly unfair. The more the LGBTQIA community can get behind the trans community as a whole, the stronger our voice is united. For us, it’s important for us to highlight stories of transgender individuals, and bring transgender voices to the table in so many settings, not just the conference. The nomination of Dr. Levine by President Biden is a big deal. Representation matters, and standing up for what’s right, and giving them the freedom to be who they truly are.”

Magee said Crossley’s advocacy work has been incredible.

“Janelle is truly an outstanding human being, and we are just so thrilled for her and all that she has accomplished, and we are excited to be able to highlight all of her work within the transgender community,” she added.

Be yourself

Crossley said she is here for anyone who may need help in their journey to their transition. 

“The biggest message I can give to the community is treat others the way you want to be treated. We are all people. We all walk the same earth, we breathe the same air. We are all human beings. When I look at people, I don’t see color, I don’t see male or female. I don’t see different religions. Gay or straight. I am a true believer that if people started doing that, looking at people as human beings, the world would be a much better place. Don’t look at people as a label. Labels belong on a can or a box on a shelf.”

She noted she feels the media casts the trans community in a bad light, and feels there is not enough education out there, and not enough people out there to educate society.

She said anyone struggling with their own transition journey can contact a trans support group, an LGBTQ+ Center, or better yet, try to find an advocate that is willing to work with you and/or your family, friends, etc. “Advocates are in short supply, but we are out there. I personally will not say no to anyone who requests information and/or help, nor will I ever turn my back on anyone wanting to be educated. Also, there are groups and organizations on the internet (some good, some not so good) and you have the NCTE -- the National Center for Transgender Education. There is NO better form of education than that from someone who lives it. One can learn so much from another’s story.”

Those in need of help may email Crossley at: jcrossley4510@gmail.com.

Another piece of advice she has for those going through a similar journey: “Do not be afraid to stand up for what’s right; do not be afraid to reach out for help. You are not the only ones out there. There are people out there that can help you. I encourage people to do that, and above all and anything else, just be you. Just be yourself.”

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