This is the text of a talk I gave to Bloomington High School South’s gay-straight alliance in Indiana on April 24, 2013.
This is a combination of my prep notes and my own memory of what I said. It’s not a word-for-word transcript, but it’s pretty close.
Thanks for having me! So as Mrs. Gardner alluded to, I’m from here originally and I went to South. I’ll be honest, it’s a little weird being here; this is the first time I’ve been here since I was a student. And now I’m in charge of the class. Weird. But fun.
So, what I want to do first is, let’s take a look at our favorite acronym. L, G, B, T, Q. [writing “LGBTQ” on chalkboard] Who can tell me what this stands for? [student: “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning”; argument ensues among students about whether the Q is for “questioning” or “queer”] Alright, alright; Q for controversy I guess! For the purposes of my talk today, the Q is for questioning. [underline Q on the chalkboard] That’s what I’m going to be talking about for most of today. We’re gonna get into the B a little bit, [underline B] and then finally the T, which I imagine you’re probably less familiar with than the others. [underline T]
One thing that’s important to note up front is that I’m transgender; I was born male, now I’m a woman. So for a lot of these stories you’re going to have to imagine me as a boy, otherwise it gets really confusing trying to figure out who’s gay, who’s not, so on and so forth.
When I was growing up I had a friend named Greg. We’d known each other our whole lives. We went to preschool together, our parents were really good friends, we were at each other’s houses all the time, sleepovers, family dinners, you name it. And as we got a little older—right around sixth or seventh grade, maybe? I don’t remember exactly, but around that time, we started to get a little affectionate. I didn’t think about it very much at the time; we weren’t “together” in any way, and I don’t think I even had any understanding of “gay” or “queer” as identities that existed in the world. We were just friends and we really liked each other and that was that. It was pretty innocent.
As we continued to grow up I started to realize that people really did not like it when people do things like what Greg and I were doing. I started to sort of locate it in society and I realized that people would think we were gross or sick. We never talked about it with each other. (In fact, we still haven’t.) And over time we started spending less and less time together. Rather than face this thing that we’d realized was gross (so we thought), we just drifted apart. There’s that whole self-hating thing, right? After a while we just weren’t speaking at all. And not because we were mad at each other or because we got into a fight; we just didn’t want to face this thing between us and we were scared.
I didn’t know what to make of my relationship with Greg and I struggled with it for years. It wasn’t something I thought about constantly, but it was kind of always there lurking in the back of my mind. Was I just experimenting? Was this just a thing kids do, a phase that they go through? Or was it something more, something that ran deep, something about who I am? I had nobody I could ask these questions of and I certainly didn’t know how to find the answers on my own.
A couple years after Greg and I drifted apart—I’m 15 or 16 I think, and going to school here—I’m out with a bunch of friends, we’re just roaming around the neighborhood talking about this new band we were really into—I’m not going to say who because it’ll just make me sound old—but we were talking about them: “Dude the bassist is amazing!” “I know, and the whole album is so good!” And then out of nowhere I just blurt out, “I THINK I’M BISEXUAL!” Everybody freezes. They turn and look at me like, whaaaat? [pantomiming heads turning towards me] A car drives by, slams on the brakes, the driver rolls down the window and points and is like “WHAT!?” I mean no one had any idea what to say. They were just speechless. And we moved on to something else and that was that.
Some people will tell you coming out is a profound act of courage, and it can be. It can also be an act of poor impulse control. Very important to know the difference.
A few days later, things started to get weird. I’m walking to the bus with some neighborhood kids, there’s two of them, and they start talking about me like I’m not even there. “Did you know [my old name] is bisexual?” He put this stank on the word like I was an alien or some kind of medical accident. And I’m like, “Hey guys! I’m right here!” But it didn’t make a difference.
I remember another time, I was walking through the halls here on my way to class and I hear these two guys behind me. Total strangers, I have no idea who these guys are. They’re talking about me, again like I’m not even there: “He’s bisexual! Look at him, he’s got the earrings, the hair, everything!”
Things really came to a head though in driver’s ed. We were taking a quiz or something, I don’t remember but I’ve got a sheet of paper in front of me anyway, and I’m sitting next to my best friend. He leans over and writes “fag” on the top of my paper. Now I am not a violent person. I have never seriously wanted to hurt anyone, except at that moment. Fire ran through my veins. It was pure adrenaline fight-or-flight response, and I was in for a fight.
We didn’t fight, thankfully, but I did say to him, “if you ever do anything like that again, I will hit you in the face.” Now, I tell this story not because I think this is how you should handle these things. Please don’t do it this way! But I am trying to illustrate how bad things got. I mean this guy was supposed to be my best friend. How screwed up is that?
So things were pretty bad. And I’ll be honest, I was never a great student, but now my grades really started to slip. I was skipping classes; some days I just didn’t go to school at all. In my junior year it got so bad that my parents didn’t know what to do with me and they were like, “you’re going to boarding school.” This is every teenager’s nightmare, right?
So they sent me to a boarding school in Massachusetts, an “emotional reform school.” It was based on this gestalt therapy thing that I still don’t really understand; we had group therapy every night where we would talk about feelings and communication and honesty and whatnot. And I mean it was weird. But in spite of the weirdness it seemed like this might be a safe place for me to talk about my sexuality. I mean, there were kids there with serious, serious problems: drug addicts, bulimics, anorexics, even some kids with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. When you put bisexuality on that list it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Near the end of my first year there I’d worked my way up into a good dorm—the dorms were organized by how good your behavior was, so at the bottom were all the really bad kids who were fighting or running away, and then above that were kids who weren’t getting violent but were still big jerks, and then above that was a sort of “good behavior” dorm, and I’d gotten into that one. So, lots of smart, good kids. One night we’re doing our group therapy thing, going around in a circle and talking about our day, and when it gets to me I decide this is the time. I tell the group, “you guys, I think I’m bisexual.” And one of the other kids say, “Why does it matter? We don’t need to talk about that. It doesn’t matter.” And we moved on.
Now, in a literal sense, he was right: it didn’t really matter to my day-to-day life because dating was strictly forbidden, so it wasn’t like I needed to figure out right then and there whether I was going to date boys or girls or both. But the thing is, it did matter to me. It mattered a lot. Who I am matters! And being able to talk openly about who I am matters.
That summer I came back home, here in Bloomington, and I got a job working with an old friend of mine named Andrew. We’d known each other for a long time but hadn’t been super close; we weren’t hanging out every day, but we knew each other. That summer we got to know each other really really well. I mean we’re working full time so we’ve got eight hours a day, five days a week together. And one day we’re out for lunch, and I can’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but at one point he says he’s bisexual. And the way he said it was just so matter-of-fact, so nonchalant; like I said, I can’t remember exactly what we were talking about but I distinctly remember that it was a totally natural thing to say at that point in the conversation. Oh, you know what? I think we were talking about the X Files. Do you guys know what that is? [girl in the back row shows off her “I want to believe” t-shirt] Oh, awesome, I love it. Yeah, so, we were talking about something like, [hands making weighing motion] “Mulder or Scully?” And Andrew’s like, “uh, both!” It really struck me just how little effort went into him saying that.
I also got to know another old friend of mine that summer named Sina. Same sort of thing as Andrew: we knew each other, but not really well. That summer Andrew and Sina were dating and the three of us were inseparable. We would sit in the park and talk until midnight, we’d go to Rockits for pizza—is Rockits still around? Yes? Excellent—we just got to be really good friends. And I realized that I’d found some amazing allies. Here were two people who were obviously comfortable talking about this stuff, Andrew is openly identifying as bisexual and he’s obviously got a head start on working through these things, much farther along than I am anyway, and so I finally had a place where I could talk about my sexuality.
The weird thing though is that I didn’t talk about it very much. I realized that I’d never felt safe even thinking about my sexuality until then. It was more than just not being able to talk about it. Somehow people had gotten inside my head and made it impossible for me to even entertain the notion. But now I was free to think about it; I could ask myself some of these questions, and I had a chance to sort of “try on” being queer. And I don’t even mean dating or anything; I mean I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, think “I’m queer,” and then just see how it feels to wear that identity.
In the fall I went back to boarding school—a normal one this time, as a reward for doing well in the crazy school. My parents didn’t want me to come back to South after all the badness. I kicked serious butt that year. I was taking like a gazillion math classes all at once and got straight As; I needed another computer credit but they couldn’t find a class for me, so my “computer class” was me spending an hour a day helping one of the teachers with his computer homework from night school. I went from failing out to getting the highest SAT scores in my class in just two years. A lot of that was just discipline: sucking it up and sitting down and getting the work done. But it’s hard to have discipline when you’ve got a bunch of noise in your head and you don’t feel safe and you don’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t even do much more thinking about my sexuality that year but I knew I had Andrew and Sina back home and that made all the difference.
The next summer I was back in Bloomington, and Andrew and Sina and I lived together. It was awesome. I was feeling pretty comfortable with myself at this point—or, as comfortable as I can without really having worked much of this out. I mean I’d kind of thought about it and found some great friends but I still had a lot of unanswered questions.
There was this other feeling I started to have around this time too, this really vague sense that I wasn’t quite part of the world, that I was walking through the world but not really there, this sense of being disconnected. These feelings came and went and they weren’t very strong so I just ignored them. But they started getting worse.
I had no way of knowing this at the time but I recognize now that this was the beginning of questioning my gender, because as time went on these feelings started to get more specific. Before long I knew full-on that this was about my gender. I tried to find relief where I could, secretly. I’d shave my legs but wear long pants, for example, or I’d adopt a female identity online; that sort of thing. Eventually I found a group of crossdessers—so, crossdressers are people who dress in drag every now and then just for fun, transsexuals are people who do it permanently [this is a gross oversimplification for the sake of expedience]—I found this group of crossdessers that would hang out a lot, they’d have dinners, or they’d go to this gay club in Indy. So I had a place where I could feel okay, and it was a lot of fun.
Eventually though even that wasn’t enough. I remember—and this might sound silly—but I remember one Sunday night, I have to go to work on Monday in my stupid boy suit, and as I’m scrubbing my nail polish off I’m just sobbing that I can’t keep it on. I hated having to put on a clown suit five days a week just to go to work. And nowadays I don’t even wear nail polish all that much—I’m wearing it now but I usually don’t because it’s a pain—but it symbolized something important. And that’s when I knew I had to transition. I had to make this permanent.
This was a terrifying realization: if being bi was weird, being trans was weird times a thousand. We’ve come a long way in America with the L, the G, and the B, but the T is always a little behind, and it’s still kind of okay to make fun of us, right? I mean, it’s not okay, but you can get away with it.
The other thing that’s scary about transition is that it’s unpredictable. There’s just no way to tell going into it whether you’re totally going to screw it up. And it’s permanent, so if you get to the other side and it doesn’t work out, you’re screwed.
And it takes forever. You don’t just go to the doctor and get a “sex change operation” (that’s not even a real thing) and then three days later you walk outside and have a brand new life. No. My transition took nearly a year. And there’s a long period during that time where you’re sort of in-between, not clearly male or female. Now, I like to screw with people, so this part was actually kind of fun. When someone can’t tell whether you’re a man or a woman—even if you’re just going to the deli counter or something—you have so much power over them. You can see it in their eyes, their brain is going, “no previous information here, no information about how to deal with this at all—um do something do something do something arrange all the brochures into a diorama. Okay. What can I do for you? YOU EAT GRILLED CHICKEN SANDWICHES??” They just lose their minds. I love it. [apologies to Eddie Izzard]
And then there was this time at work, near the end of my transition but it wasn’t official yet so I’m still using the men’s room, and I’m in the men’s room and this guy walks in and stops dead in his tracks and says, “Oh my god. I’m in the women’s room.” Wall-to-wall urinals and this guy thinks he’s in the women’s room.
This can be dangerous though. That bathroom story would’ve ended a lot differently if it had been at a truck stop in rural Indiana. And never in my life have I had so many people yell at me on the street. Mostly homeless people, weirdly—I still don’t understand what that’s about—but they would just say the worst things to me.
But, you know, I got through that, and it came time to come out at work. My boss was gay so I had a great ally there, transition was not mysterious to him, and I’d made a reputation for myself as a good worker. They had a staff meeting to announce it. I wasn’t there, and I specifically wanted it that way so people would feel comfortable asking questions they might be embarrassed to ask in front of me; I don’t know if anyone actually did ask any questions like that, but I wanted to make sure they had the space to do that.
The next day I come into work and it’s like any other day. That’s the other thing about transition taking forever: it’s very gradual; it’s sort of like a boiling-the-frog-slowly thing. So the difference between that day and the day before was practically zero. All that really changed is that people’s suspicions were confirmed. So that went well. The thing about work, right, is that all they want to know is whether you’re going to be a good worker. Everything else is superfluous. “Oh, so you’re turning into a woman? Cool. Is that going to make you a better programmer?”
Then there were my parents. This is the hard part, right? When people talk about coming out, this is like the thing you have to do. I made two major mistakes when I came out to my parents. First, and I didn’t realize this, but it was April Fool’s Day. I know, I know. Really stupid. The second mistake—and I’m sure this will shock you—is that I wasn’t prepared. I hadn’t taken the time to sit down and write out even one sentence that I might say, to think about what they might say, what their reactions might be, what kind of questions they might have.
And my parents were pissed. My mom said, in not so many words, “I’m too old for this crap.” They said it was just a stupid, crazy, irresponsible thing and that I was going to screw up my life forever and end up in the gutter. It was awful. But they didn’t disown me, they didn’t tell me to stop coming to their house—a lot of trans people lose their families—so I still had parents, I just had parents who were super pissed off. And the thing is, I couldn’t really say anything to reassure them, because a lot of trans people do end up in the gutter. Our lives get screwed up, people hurt us or kill us. So there was nothing I could say. All I could do was show them that I was going to succeed by actually doing it. And I think I’ve done that now.
That was seven years ago and today they’re fine with it. My dad still has a little trouble calling me Dana but it’s not out of spite; it just really is hard for him and I respect that and I give him that space. I have a 16-year-old stepson, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for a parent to see a child completely transform like that, against everything you’d imagined they would be. My mom embraces it completely and introduces me as her daughter. That’s like the gold standard for trans people’s parents. A lot of my trans friends are like, [pounding the lectern] I will! get! my mom! to call me! her daughter!
So, work, parents—I’m done coming out, right? No! Turns out you’re never done coming out. You’ve got to keep doing it all the time. You’re going to get new jobs, go to different schools, make new friends, and you’re going to have to come out to all these people. My first week at Twitter—I was moving to San Francisco at the same time I started my job there—my team took me out to dinner to welcome me to the company. One of my teammates asked if my husband was moving out here, and I’m like, “uhhhh, well, my wife is.” He was so embarrassed. We’re good friends now though and I tease him about it. I thought it was funny, even at the time.
I came out in print, in The Advocate, the oldest, largest LGBT magazine in America, and I thought, “okay now I’m really done. I never have to come out ever again!” Turns out not everyone in the world read that article. So I still have to come out a lot. But each one of these little coming-outs is a little smaller than the one before it. And eventually they’re not coming-outs at all; they’re just facts about your life that happen to be relevant to whatever it is you’re talking about.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here—20 years in about 40 minutes. It’s been a long road for me and I really only just recently started to feel like I’ve got this stuff figured out. That’s one of the reasons I agreed to do the article in The Advocate: I finally got to a place where I was comfortable and I wanted to get out there and be loud and proud. And life is good. I’ve got an amazing job that’s exactly what I’d always dreamed of doing, my wife and I have been married for six years, I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I have so many amazing friends. And you know those two guys who were walking behind me in the hall, talking about me like I wasn’t there? You know where they are now?