Neil Massey, an 18-year-old transgender man, stood proudly before his first work of art to ever be displayed in a gallery: a portrait of Pope Joan.
"It's the story of being who you are and going after your dreams," said Massey, standing at the art exhibit Saturday at Trans Pride Los Angeles as he recounted the fable of the 9th century woman who disguised herself as a man and ascended clerical ranks to become pope.
The tale of the gender-bending pontiff — whose actual existence has never been verified — resonated for Massey. The Downey native leaned on his Catholic faith when he was kicked out of his parents' home last year and had to rebuild a new life in a homeless shelter.
"I was raised that God wants everyone to be straight. But I wanted to be happy for who I am, and I did that by coming out," said Massey, adding that now, in the shelter, he has started hormone therapy to begin his transition. "God has no gender. We just put him as a man because we feel more comfortable that way."
Massey was among more than 1,000 people expected to participate in the celebration of transgender pride at the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood.
The two-day festival, now in its 17th year, has long served as a haven for the transgender community in Southern California to celebrate their resilience and share the struggles encountered on the path of gender identity.
This year, the mood was more buoyant than ever, attendees said, as the transgender community has seen rising visibility: Amazon's series "Transparent" gained critical acclaim with its tale of a retired father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, coming out as a transgender woman. Transgender actress Laverne Cox was nominated for an Emmy for her role on Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."
"People are learning the narrative of what it means to be trans — I'm thrilled," said organizer Gina Bigham, 49. The rising profile of the trans community — long at the back of the bus in the wider LGBT world — meant more attendees than ever, she said. "I think we're going to outgrow this space."
The transgender community recently gained one of its most famous members: Caitlyn Jenner, who graced the cover of Vanity Fair in a satin corset to declare her chosen name.
"When Caitlyn came out on the cover, a bunch of us made our own covers," said Faith Bryan, a 61-year-old transgender woman from Long Beach. Sitting under the palm trees in the courtyard of the LGBT Center, where health organizations and nonprofits had set up information booths, Bryan whipped out her phone and tapped her lacquered fingernails on the screen.
"I couldn't have done this 40 years ago," said Bryan, holding up the portrait of herself as a smiling woman with red lipstick and a black blouse. Before coming out as transgender about three years ago, Bryan was a married father who worked as a professor and sports journalist. Her weight ballooned to 450 pounds as she fought the urge to dress as a woman.
"All my life I told people I was a lesbian trapped in a man's body. People laughed, but it was true," said Bryan, who now works as an activist.
Yet the joy of the festival — which included discussions by Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein — was tempered by the awareness that transgender people face myriad challenges in daily life, such as obtaining healthcare and finding jobs.
"We're still seeing people who are being harassed at their apartment buildings or who lose their job because of discrimination," said Mariana Marroquin, 34, who helps transgender people obtain legal services at the LGBT Center.
Untold numbers of transgender people remain in the shadows. They're afraid to come to a daytime celebration out of fear that they might be hit or harassed, Marroquin said, speaking from experience. Marroquin fled Guatemala after she was targeted in a hate crime; she was granted political asylum in the U.S. Once in L.A., she landed a job in a sewing factory and later learned of support groups for people with questions about their gender identity.
Sporting glasses and purple hair, Marroquin picked at a cup of gelato as she reflected back on her first group session: "I didn't know the word 'transgender,'" she said, "and I hadn't known there were people like me."