A man who spent 11 years living as a trans woman – having treatment including hormone therapy and breast implants – has trained as a counselor to help people accept their gender, after 'detransitioning' back to being male.
Constantly mistaken for a girl, from childhood onwards, Brian Belovitch, 63, decided to transition to a woman when he was just 19 years old, instead of embracing his "effeminate gay identity" as he does today.
Brian, of Brooklyn, New York, said:
"I was so uncomfortable as an effeminate, chubby gay boy I thought it would be easier just to be female. Looking back now, I realize I never felt like a woman."
"It was more that my gender had always been in question and the idea that something wasn't quite right was forced on me."
"It was like, 'Well, if people think I'm a girl, I'll be a girl.'"
Brian is speaking out about his extraordinary life, which has seen him battle addiction as he tried to fathom who he really was, just as a British woman has been given the go-ahead to pursue legal action against an NHS gender clinic, saying they should have challenged her more ardently before allowing her to transition from female to male.
Brian aged three in 1959 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Known as a 'detransitioner' – a trans person who has reverted back to the sex they were assigned at birth – Brian believes we are seeing "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to people making the decision to change gender in this way.
"You'd be shocked by how many people are already coming out in the community to talk about this."
"I think people have this idea that transitioning is a great fix all and end up doing it for the wrong reasons."
"People like myself have a duty to speak out and be vocal – it's the only way to stop the same mistakes being made again."
Brian certainly enjoyed a colorful existence after transitioning – living as the showgirl Natalia 'Tish' Gervais, through the late 70s and early 80s and performing in legendary New York nightspots like Dancetaria, the Limelight Club, and Studio 54, made famous by artist Andy Warhol.
But beneath the glamorous surface was a seedy underbelly that saw Brian, who is now happily married to horticulturist Jim Russell, 61, develop crippling drug and alcohol addictions.
Hitting rock bottom in the 1980s and seeking therapy, in 1986 Brian decided he was fundamentally unhappy in his own skin and decided to transition back to being male.
"It was such a relief," he said. "I finally felt at peace in myself for the first time."
"It felt like my world had become a lot simpler by the decision and I could finally live the life I wanted to."
Brian aged five, with his parents Dolores and Isadore (PA Real Life/Collect)
Brian became confused about his gender as a tiny child, when he remembers strangers mistaking him for a girl – to his mother's chagrin.
"One of my first memories is being out shopping with my mother and a group of women gathering around and saying, 'Oh how cute, how sweet. Where does she get those curls and thick eyelashes from?'" he said.
"My mom didn't deal with it very well and pulled me away shouting that I was a boy."
"My father, Isadore, who passed away when he was 80, would say, 'Why are you walking that way? Stop shaking your a** like that.'"
Targeted by his peers throughout his childhood and into his teenage years, Brian says he was lucky to have survived the experience.
"Kids would follow me home and throw rocks at me," he recalled. "They'd call me 'f***** and queer.'"
"I was scared for my life and I was even more scared my father would hear what they were calling me."
"You have to remember this was the 60s. It was pre-Stonewall – a series of demonstrations that spearheaded gay liberation – and there were only the rumblings of the gay rights movement."
Exploring the local gay scene at age 16 brought Brian some solace, especially when he made a like-minded friend in Paul Bricker, then 17, who tragically passed away from an aneurysm, aged just 27.
Brian in 1972 (PA Real Life/Collect)
Describing Paul as his 'mentor,' Brian said:
"We were like two peas in a pod from the night we met."
"He took me home that night – it wasn't sexual – and he taught me everything I know. He was like a mentor to me."
Soon after, Brian moved in with Paul and his mother, Gloria Walker, now 93.
In the bohemian household, he could be open about his sexuality and he and Paul began dabbling in the world of drag.
"By today's standards, I was what would be called a 'gender non-conformist,' meaning that I trod the line between what is seen as male and female," Brian explained.
"It was a mixed bag. We called it 'scare drag,' because we were scaring the straight people that couldn't put us into one of their boxes."
Outgrowing his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, Brian moved to New York City with $100 in his pocket and started performing with drag queens to "earn an extra buck," alongside working in a thrift store.
Taken under the wing of a group of trans women, Brian was still struggling with his own gender identity and began to question if transitioning from male to female might be the answer to his problems.
So, less than a year after arriving in New York, aged just 19, he was given the name of a "no questions asked" doctor who could help him to transition.
Brian and Paul Bicker in 1973 (PA Real Life/Collect)
"I turned up at this doctor's office – no questions asked – and handed over $10," he recalled.
"It was pretty much, 'Come in, drop your pants, I'll stick you with a needle.'"
Describing how the hormone therapy worked "very effectively," within a matter of months Brian developed small breasts, had a "softened" appearance and his voice sounded more feminine.
Changing his name legally that year, Brian officially became Natalia – going on to spend the next 11 years living as Tish.
In 1979, four years into his hormone therapy and still not feeling like his "authentic self," Brian took the next step in his transition, spending $500 having silicone breast implants fitted.
"It felt like the right thing to do at the time," he said. "In hindsight, it wasn't very well thought out, but none of my decisions were back then."
"I would just react to the situations around me. I was never 100 percent committed to being female – there was always this niggling question."
"I was never assessed. They didn't really do that kind of thing back then."
"I just saw the breast implants as another quick fix."
Natalia in a 1977 beauty pageant (PA Real Life/Collect)
Although struggling personally, Brian's professional life – as Tish – went from strength to strength.
Working seven nights a week, he would run the gauntlet of New York's hottest clubs, performing as a "big, busty showgirl."
"At the height of the 80s, I was a club personality," Brian said. "I had a band and would do a live show with a mix of comedy and musical numbers."
"I met some famous faces and was hanging out at VIP parties – it was a very exciting time to be alive."
Living both as a man and then as a woman also gave Brian a rare insight into the way society treats people based on their gender.
Discussing the downside of life as a woman, he said:
"The worst part of living as female was the endless exploitation by men."
"The misogyny and attitude that because I looked like a beautiful, sexy woman, I couldn't possibly have a thought in my head."
"And men were constantly trying to have sex with me."
"Also, it took much longer to get ready to go out – leaving time for hair, make-up etc."
Natalia performing at Dancetaria in 1986 (PA Real Life/Collect)
But life as a member of the 'gentler sex' also had benefits, according to Brian.
"The best thing about living as a female was the power of beauty in itself."
"I used it to my best advantage and believe I got as far as I did because of my looks."
"I had a lot of fun with make-up and costumes and experiencing life fully in the role of a woman gave me a unique perspective. I know what it's like to be a man and a woman in a way in which not many people can understand. "
But the party scene – and life as a showgirl – eventually took its toll on Brian's physical and mental health and, in 1986, he hit an all time low.
"I was relying on drugs and alcohol to get through each day," he said.
"I was broke, had spent all my money and ended up living on a friend's couch."
Putting his life back together, with the help of friends, he kicked his alcohol and drug addiction.
But being stone cold sober meant he could no longer ignore what was staring him in the face – that he was not happy living as Tish.
Brian at Miami Beach in 1990 (PA Real Life/Collect)
"I was as sober as a judge and that really was the beginning of the end for Tish," Brian said.
"I always wanted to be my authentic, true self – and I realized I wasn't."
After having therapy in which he discussed gender issues and what constitutes a male and a female identity, Brian felt his only option was to revert back to the gender he was assigned at birth.
"I was beautiful and young, but I wasn't happy as that person," he said. "I was at a crossroads. I knew I had to have surgery on my genitalia – or go back to being Brian."
"There was no question which path to take. Times had changed a lot since I'd made the transition and there were more gay men embracing their effeminate side."
"I was in the gym one day and saw a fellow who reminded me of myself before I transitioned."
"He was very effeminate, but he was muscly and buff and I thought – that could be me."
So, Brian decided after much consideration, to make the transition back to being male, stopping his hormone therapy and cutting off his shoulder-length hair.
Then, six months later, in February 1987, he spent $750 having his silicone implants removed.
Brian and his husband, Jim, in 2002 (PA Real Life/Collect)
"I felt a great sense of relief after the operation," he said. "I woke up crying – not from the pain – but because it felt like a huge burden had been lifted."
Visiting the gym up to five times a week, Brian slowly built up his muscles and, with his hormone replacement "out of the window," he started growing more body hair and his shape filled out.
He also 'came out' for the third time.
"I've come out as gay, I've come out as a trans woman and now I was coming out as a detransitioner," he said.
"People would come up to me in the street and say, 'Hi Tish,' and I'd have to tell them, 'No – it's Brian now.'"
"The whole thing just clicked – this was who I was always meant to be."
Saying goodbye to Tish meant leaving the glitz and glamour of the New York drag scene, after which Brian established himself as a successful photography agent and editor.
But, after the economic crash of 2008, he decided to re-train again as a counselor, specializing in drug and alcohol addiction.
Describing his "second time around" at being Brian as the "the best years of his life," recently he has become alarmed about the amount of trans people following in his footsteps, by reverting back to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Brian now (Jay Mathews Photography/PA Real Life)
Hoping to shine a light on the issue, Brian released his autobiography, Trans Figured: My Journey from Boy to Girl to Woman to Man, in 2018.
"I wanted to break the stigma of people who have detransitioned and to provide some insight to anyone struggling with gender confusion."
"I hoped to add my voice to the ever expanding understanding of gender and identity."
Now, Brian – who met his husband while walking his Jack Russell Terrier, Bricker, 18 years ago and married in 2013 – is hoping to specialize in gender identity counseling, to help other detransitioners with their journey.
"We need to make sure people are definitely happy with the idea of transitioning and properly inform them of the pros and cons."
"I want to help people do that. I'm the perfect man for the job."
Brian now (Jay Mathews Photography/PA Real Life)
"Just look at the life I've lived – I'm a self-proclaimed expert."