OUTstanding Virginians 2019

Jay Corprew

Husband, Martial Artist, Organizer

Jay Corprew

People whose lives have been touched by Jay Corprew use phrases like “strong heart” and “shining light” to describe him. Yet Jay, a board member with the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia (TAPVA), doesn’t seek attention. “I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” he says.

He isn’t suggesting that he and other trans people should be silent and invisible. As TAPVA’s Director of Organizing, Jay is the face of TAPVA at events all over Virginia, including Virginia Pride, Black Pride RVA, Transgender Day of Visibility, and the Transgender Day of Remembrance/Resilience. By saying he doesn’t want the spotlight, Jay wants people to focus on meeting the needs of the trans community rather than celebrating one person’s accomplishments.

To understand Jay’s ability to give others confidence and strength it helps to know about his personal journey. “I know what it’s like to be trans and homeless.” In fact, Jay was homeless three times in the space of seven years. “I survived that time of my life,” he says. “This is my way of giving back and helping my community.”

The first time Jay experienced homelessness, he was 17 and fleeing a toxic home environment. Jay was desperate. As he tells it, the anger he carried at that time got him off the streets and into a muay thai martial arts studio. “The dysphoria issues I had bottled up inside went into becoming a really good fighter,” he explains.

“In the dojo, all that matters is to do your best,” his trainer told him. The sensei soon recognized that Jay, who had not yet transitioned, was a man. All he said about it was, “What should I call you?” After that, he trained and treated Jay as male. “He was the first person I could be out to,” Jay recalls. “The martial arts saved me.”

By the time Jay was 27, he was enjoying success. He had a house, a car, and a fiancée. “Finally everything was great,” he says. But Jay’s fortunes took a turn one night in Nebraska: “My fiancée and I were arguing about my desire to transition, I hit some black ice, lost control of the car and hit some trees.” Jay spent over a week in a coma. When he awoke, he couldn’t walk: his knees had been shattered in the crash. Then Jay’s fiancée left him while he was still in the hospital.

“That took me back to that dark place” where he had been ten years earlier. He lost the desire to do anything. “I gained weight and went to an even darker place.” And once again, Jay found himself homeless. This time, at least, he was not all alone. His trainer helped, and Jay acquired an unexpected new ally as well. The mother of his ex-fiancée taught him to walk again and encouraged him to live out his true identity as a man. “She got me on the road to really transitioning,” Jay says.

Insurance issues kept him from completing his transition, unfortunately, and PTSD from the accident kept him from driving. He could no longer hold a job and did not qualify for disability payments. This time, the homelessness lasted three and a half years.

Then Jay came to Virginia and found a chosen sister who encouraged him to go back to school. “School was a different route for me,” says Jay: “I had to get out there, learn new skills, talk to people, and take tests.” His depression tried to stop him from doing all of these things, however. What brought him fully back into the world was the realization that he had to complete his gender transition. “I thought, ‘I could die and die a woman,’” he says. “That got to me more than anything—that I could die without getting to do what I want to do in the identity I really am.”

After that revelation, Jay learned to love himself more than he ever had before. He bought nice clothes, which he put on in public men’s rooms. He went to events and mingled with people in the role of a “proud, happy man.” “I was faking it,” Jay says, “But after a little while it wasn’t fake.” He got respect. A result of this new confidence was that Jay lost his fear of being alone: “If I have to be alone,” he concluded, “I’ll be awesome and alone.”

Leaving behind the fear of rejection, Jay started looking for situations that would put him in a place of responsibility. He started mentoring others. Some of those people turned out to be trans, and Jay saw that they were suffering too. Jay was horrified to think that “someone could end their life before they even started to live it.” Love, he realized, could save people: “The idea that there is somebody who loves you because they want to love you.” Jay decided he would be that somebody.

TAPVA proved to be the setting where Jay could save others. “I told them I wanted to be a board member, not a volunteer,” he said. They recognized instantly that as a person of color with homelessness and depression in his past, he had unique insights to offer. They took him up on his offer, and Jay quickly found himself mentoring people, joining panels, giving speeches, and organizing events. “The work grew from board service to all I do now.”

Jay took up writing poetry and drawing and met his soon to be wife, Shawnon. “She is the one,” Jay says. In the end, he believes that love and service to others have “saved me from ever giving up on life again.”

One of Jay’s poems ends with a poignant look back on his journey:

When the day comes I take my last breath,                   

First, I will thank my body for getting me this far.

And then I will smile,

Because I lived in my truth.