The Magnificent Life Of Trans Activist PJ Two Ravens

courtesy of Lorence Hyler

Remembering the beautiful spirit who offered hope to many generations of trans people.

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of queer poet and my personal friend PJ Two Ravens. After a lifetime rich with giving, PJ left this world at the age of 57, his “spirit bounding fleetly, coursing with energy no longer contained.”

In a time when words did not exist to adequately describe the spectrum of gender identity, PJ forged his own path. While his own journey was not short of hardship and trauma, he created space for others to bond, question, and take steps toward transitioning to their authentic selves.

PJ at cabin in Oscada, MI Photo by (Susan) Hope Dundas

PJ was a poet, artist, social worker, and advocate to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti/Metro-Detroit trans community and patients with HIV/AIDS.  The details around how I came to know of PJ’s immense impact came through unlikely and remarkable circumstances. I don’t usually accept Friend requests on Facebook from people I don’t know. When PJ Two Ravens sent a request a few years ago, despite not recognizing this bearded middle-aged self-described “woodland trans leatherbearboy” from Ypsilanti, MI, something prompted me to accept the request. Over time, he would ‘like’ some of my posts – often involving adventures with my daughter.  I ‘liked’ his posts – often celebrating the natural world, or sporting a smile in pictures with friends or one of his many fur babies (usually a Chihuahua). He had mobility challenges and I observed his health decline for two years through a computer screen. 

One Throwback Thursday in July 2021, he posted a bunch of old photos. He was reminiscing about finally graduating from college at the age of 26. I don’t know what possessed me, but I clicked the box that said “13 more photos.” I scrolled back in time, to his early 20’s. My jaw dropped.  One picture looked exactly like a friend from my college days. We had lost touch, and I had always wondered what happened to this person I had known to be a lesbian, slender in build, with long, brown Joan Baez-type hair. A gentle spirit of Native American heritage. We spent many evenings together during the summer between Sophomore and Junior years at UofM.  In later years, I occasionally googled but nothing came up. I had heard years back that my friend had cancer, and assumed perhaps this person had passed.  Three decades later, was it possible that this was the friend I had known? I took a deep breath and got on Messenger.

July 29, 2021: Hi PJ – I saw your photos today from earlier years and one was very familiar to me from my Ann Arbor days and I am wondering if you went to UofM when I was there? Best! Margaret

I didn’t hear back. But I could see it in the eyes and the smile. I knew for sure.

July 31, 2021: Hey PJ – I’m circling back to say that I now realize with certainty that we do have a personal connection from the UofM days, though I didn’t place it until I saw those early-years photos you posted. I’ve thought about you from time to time. Funny, quite recently, I came upon the Moody Blues song, “Higher and Higher” – added it to my playlist. I distinctly remember asking you to play that tune over and over on your turntable back when you were renting that room off campus. Only now, have I made the connection that you are this person I knew from those early days of discovery and knowing. Thank you for being part of that. And if you’re up for a “hello”, please feel free to reach out by phone or write…

Hey Margaret! Glad you were able to piece things together about our past. I’ve enjoyed seeing your exploits online, and your daughter sure takes after you!  I believe you were a fan of this one too? PJ included a link to CSNY, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.

I had forgotten! It was a gift to be reminded of the things that mattered once.

Per his own written account, PJ came out as a lesbian in 1983. We met in 1984 at the library in our dorm, where I also met his then-girlfriend. Soon after, PJ’s family “disowned” him; his girlfriend faced a similar family battle, and without money, they struggled to stay in school. UofM refused to give them access to housing as a same-sex couple. 

“Somewhere in there I came out as kinky and butch. I had poly relationships, but we (or at least I) didn’t have the terms to describe ourselves at the time,” PJ documented his journey in a Coming Out Day blog in 2019.  “I came to be more and more butch, I started to wonder what was beyond butch. I started to examine how my particular gender identity interacted with my particular sexual orientation. I was butch enough to be called faggot on the street and get cruised by men at The Flame (how I miss the Flame!).”

His car was graffitied in the school parking lot. He was gay-bashed with queer friends by frat boys who kicked the car window into his face. His friends chased down the stalkers and held them until the police showed; the cops didn’t consider it a hate crime. “I still have scars from where the glass cut me, but I love to think what we must have looked like: bleeding, chasing after them in our boots and leathers… and how surprised they were when we fought back.”

For a time, he was homeless, I learned. He also shared a house and dungeon with a pro Dom, a tattoo artist, and a few others. “Some crazy shit went down there,” he wrote.

In 1987, he “married” his same sex partner though it wasn’t legally binding. I was there for the wedding. They wore tuxedos and mohawks and had a “wedding party ritual” in the Michigan Union – believed to be the first same-sex / lesbian union held at the university. I remember the DJ spinning Stephen Duffy’s classic 80’s “Kiss Me.”

Although his family cut funds, PJ continued to attend UofM as an honor student, while working overnight shifts in a sleep lab full time. It took him a little longer to graduate than his peers. He eventually graduated in 1990, only to be stricken one year later with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. He continued working overnights, through the period of surgery, chemo and radiation.  By his own account, he lost the attributes that helped define his butchness – his beloved mohawk, and most of his muscle mass. Always the optimist: “Thankfully, I still had leather and boots.”

 PJ described growing “beyond butch” but wasn’t sure what that meant. “I was out as trans-something to friends, and using male pronouns here and there.”

Not having the support he was looking for, he founded support group Gender Explorers in 1995. He got top surgery in 1996.  There was no group like that in the area, and he facilitated it for 15 years.  

Friends gather at PJ’s house before it is sold – Ypsilanti, MI Aug 2023 Photo by Bryan Adato

Bryan Adato, 44, attended Gender Explorers and ultimately became friends with PJ. He recalls a calm and safe space, how PJ made it a welcome and comfortable environment for people who were questioning or going through transition.

“He was validating and open minded and he provided wonderful guidance and mentorship,” Bryan tells GO. “He was an excellent role model as well – as a trans person who had transitioned a long time ago, and being a little bit older than me, too.”

Bryan recalls that “Despite the trauma, hardship and terrible things PJ had to endure, he remained deeply committed to helping others… [even as] life just kept throwing him curveballs.”  PJ provided a lifeline in a time long before the internet became a thing – offering support and understanding, and resources that people needed back when there were few. Bryan recalls that people came from far away, from the outskirts of the city, some battling depression and on the verge of taking their own lives.

 “The void that he has left is just enormous,” Bryan says, adding that PJ had quietly made huge changes that impacted a lot of people “with an endless amount of love and support.”

PJ and family at his last Pride – Ypsilanti Pride, 2022 Photo by Jay Sean

PJ’s chosen uncle Lorence Hyler, age 66, transitioned 25 years ago. He attended Gender Explorers several times and recalls PJ’s generous spirit.  PJ had carefully but honestly reached out to Lorence. “I have a question to ask you,” he had said. “Would you permit me to lend you the money to get top surgery?”

“My immediate reaction was, I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to pay you back,” Lorence tells GO. “And I stopped myself and took a deep breath, and said, ‘that would be wonderful. Thank you.'”

PJ’s mark was widespread in the trans community. But his light reached many spaces. He earned a Master of Social Work in 1999 from Eastern Michigan University, and spent 14 years working as a therapist, test counselor, safer sex educator and advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS at UofM. He was the first queer person hired into the clinic.

“He absolutely loved what he did. He created a lot of support groups to assist individuals with acceptance of their status and connection with the community,” says Jay Sean, his partner at the time of his passing. “One of the groups he created is still connected twenty years later. He made an incredible impact on anyone that he was around. He was able to give hope and love to people that felt that they were unworthy of it.”

PJ and partner Jay Sean

PJ Two Ravens Facebook post: April 23, 2022

Jay managed to get me out in the sunlight today. First I’ve gotten out this week. We did a scooter ride thru the neighborhood… 80 degrees in April. Didn’t bring my phone/camera with me, but forsythia were popping everywhere!

I’ve had a rough couple weeks lately, and continue to stay on the steroids even though I’m not getting quite the same benefits from them. They definitely help ease my breathing, however I’m not getting the same kind of energy or appetite boosts I was getting before.

Alexis Zirpoli, a resident of Ypsilanti, MI, was PJ’s partner for six years. Now 52, they remember their first date in November 2013. They met on OKCupid. Both had cats named Calliope. On their second date, PJ told them he had congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy.  PJ was told he had a handful of years at most, but he went on to beat the metrics, as he had done with cancer.

PJ’s artwork Photo by courtesy of Robert Hughes

“He was there for [trans people] during a very crucial time,” Alexis says, noting that the consequences can be dire if a trans person doesn’t feel supported. His AIDS/HIV patients felt similarly, Alexis tells GO. 

Years before his partnerships with Jay and Alexis, PJ had found love with a woman named Rion. Together for ten years, they had bought a house and were engaged. Then the unthinkable happened: PJ’s fiancé lost her life to gun violence. She was believed to be the love of PJ’s life, and he hoped to reunite with her in the afterlife.

PJ Two Ravens Facebook Post April 29, 2022

Bittersweet trip to land I grew up with, saying goodbye to trees, places, and things I have such a connection to. Scattering the last of Rion’s ashes, remembering many sweet times together and letting go to return to the elements still full of our love.

In 2016, laws changed in Michigan allowing someone other than a surviving spouse and next of kin to take on funerary affairs. PJ designated Alexis with this role. The year before PJ died, he had crafted the regalia that he wanted to be dressed in for cremation. His Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee heritage was tremendously important to him, and he drew upon indigenous details throughout his life, and to see him into death and whatever waited in the beyond that he often contemplated.

PJ spoke to friends about his impending death with honesty.  As he got older, he attended some trans groups in the Detroit area. Alexis remembers that he felt it was important to show up as an elder for the younger folks in transition. “It was important for PJ to show these young trans people that you can live a long life and become a trans elder – even as his health was really deteriorating.”

“He had the heart of an advocate,” they say of PJ, who also ran Gays and Lesbians Older and Wiser (GLOW) from from 1998-2003. “An endless flow of compassion, and kindness. And he was just always wanting to give to this community.”

His last Facebook posts spoke to his love of nature. A blue bird’s egg in a nest, a tulip tree in bloom. Cedar and stones gathered at Sturgeon Point and Lumberman’s Monument.

PJ Two Ravens Facebook Post June 15, 2022

Made it down to the beach, though there was a moment climbing the dune I thought might be my last. Got to put my hands in the water one more time though!

In June 2022, I reached out to PJ see if we might connect in person, as I was planning a trip to Michigan. Our schedules wouldn’t match – he was booked, on his way to one of his happy places up north to Oscoda, MI.  “So curious what you have been up to in life though! I’d like to catch up sometime!” he had written. 

Two months later, PJ Two Ravens passed away in his sleep on Sunday, August 21, 2022. His chosen family gathered at his side, to see him through his final earthly transition. He gave the proceeds from the sale of his house to local LGBTQ+ organizations. He gave the land he owned in Oscoda back to the tribal nation of the region. And to us all, wisdom and musings, that implore us to embody the sacred, and breathe our best life.

PJ’s artwork PJ writing about his artwork Photo by courtesy of Robert Hughes

Flying Embers

by PJ Two Ravens May 31, 2021

I imagine you

Skipping across the cosmos

Comet tail glittering in your wake,

Free and laughing with amazement,

Curiosity pulling you

Into the next adventure

The ordinary now far behind you.

So boldly you stepped away

The air left the room,

The light and sense

Leaving with you,

Searching the stars and

Seeing how far Beyond

Might stretch.

Unfolding like a wing, or seed,

Or newborn,

Spirit bounding fleetly

Coursing with energy no longer contained.

What Do You Think?

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