Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Interview with Dallas Denny


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Dallas Denny, a writer, editor, behavior analyst, pioneer and leader in the transgender rights movement in the USA, recipient of IFGE's Trinity and Virginia Prince Lifetime Achievement Awards and Real Life Experience's Transgender Pioneer Award. Hello Dallas!
Dallas: Hi, Monika, and thanks so much for having me!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Dallas: Let’s see, what do I want to say about myself… I live in a tiny town called Pine Lake, population 800, which happens to be in the middle of Metropolitan Atlanta, just 10 miles from downtown. It was started in the 1930s as a lake community resort so Atlantans could vacation in the country.
Today Pine Lake still looks like a girl scout camp, heavily wooded with cabins and cottages and of course a lake, but the city extends 50 miles past it! My house is mere feet from the lake, and all of the lake is a park. The town is filled with artists and interesting people of all sorts—and several other transpeople live here.


I spend four months a year, five or six weeks at a time, in Rockland County, some 30 miles from New York City, with my fiancee. I can be in the theater district in Manhattan in an hour by bus, train, or car, and on top of a mountain in the deep woods in five minutes. Of course it’s colder in New York than in Georgia!
When I retired from my day job five years ago (I worked for the state government as an applied behavior analyst; my clients were adults with developmental delays) I bought a used Mazda Miata and 40-year-old Honda motorcycle as presents to myself. I had a little Isuzu pickup truck which I intended to keep, but the engine promptly blew up and I gave it away.
I can often be seen driving with large objects sticking out of the passenger seat of my Miata. Just a week ago I bought a huge antique cedar blanket trunk and barely managed to get it inside the car. I had to put the top down, of course. It was about 5 degrees Celsius and I drove 45 km at 100 km/hour on the freeway with my hair blowing in the wind, but I didn’t mind much. I almost always have the top down anyway.
I’ve been in a relationship for the past eight years with a woman I met in the virtual world Second Life. In real life I almost never need to disclose my transsexualism because my name is all over the internet and sometimes in the newspapers. With my girlfriend I did need to tell her, and it was difficult because I was out of practice. When I told her, she said, “But you’re such a girl!” We met in real life four months after our avatars met, and have been together as much as possible ever since.
If we can find a house we can afford in New York I’ll relocate, for she is doing well in her career there and I can be retired anywhere. We are very silly when we’re together. Last night we went on a tear about the trend for flavored vodkas, making up ridiculous combinations for infusions.
Dallas, age 27.
Monika: Why do you describe yourself f as an accidental activist?
Dallas: When I was a teen, and later as a young adult, I found information about transsexualism almost impossible to obtain. I knew no one else who was transsexual and never found a thing in print that had anything positive to say about transsexualism.
A few days ago I gave a keynote at the Moving Trans* History Forward conference in Victoria, B.C., in which I talked at length about being unable to find information. I talked about it also in November 2013 at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The Missouri talk was called “Not Screwed Up Enough.” 
I focused on my applying, in 1979, to the gender identity clinic at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. After they took my money and gave me psychological tests I had myself been trained to administer, they refused to give me medical help because I was, in the words of Dr. Embry McKee, “ functional in the male role.” I was employed, had two college degrees, and had been married. In other words, I wasn’t screwed up enough to be transsexual.
I spent the next six months at the Vanderbilt medical library, where the professional literature told me Dr. McKee was right: transsexualism was a mental illness, and transsexuals had character and personality disorders and were irrational, unreliable, and histrionic. I thought I must not be transsexual—after all, how could all those doctors be wrong? But then why did I so want to be a woman? I forged a prescription for estrogen and transitioned anyway.
My talk in British Columbia focused on my mostly unsuccessful search for literature to help me learn more about myself and thus make informed decisions about my future.
I transitioned shortly after my fortieth birthday, after having been on hormones since age 29. Seeing an issue of IFGE’s Transgender Tapestry, with its listing of organizations and helping professionals, gave me the tiny amount of information I needed to move forward. 
My goal all along had been to make some sense of my life. When I was finally able to do that, I found myself unable to disappear and live in stealth, as I had been told I should. I could have—I passed easily—but it just didn’t feel right.
Perhaps it was because I was a mental health provider, but I also didn’t feel I was adequately described under the medical model that prescribed stealth. In an era in which information was still difficult to obtain, I set out to help others like me. That’s why I call myself an accidental activist. It was never my intention to become politically involved. I just wouldn’t have felt right not helping others. 
Monika: For five years you were Director of the transgender conference Fantasia Fair. Could you name some of your achievements during that term?
Dallas: Fantasia Fair is the trans community’s oldest event. It’s a full week long and is held in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. Unlike other trans conferences, it’s not limited to a hotel; rather, the event spills through the entire town and the townspeople don’t even seem to notice the many transsexuals and crossdressers. It’s a small event, and a good place to make friends, since many people come every year. I’ve been involved in the planning for more than 20 years, including five as director.
When I first came, Fantasia Fair was known as an event for well-to-do heterosexual crossdressers, and that was pretty much a true statement—but there were quite a few transsexuals there, including myself, and not all of us were heterosexual. I pushed, as did others, including one of the founders, Ariadne Kane, for a more open event, one at which anyone could feel comfortable.
The planning committee worked hard to make the event less expensive—successfully, first by shortening the Fair from ten days to seven, second by letting attendees make their own lodging arrangements, and third by trimming costs. Today the entire week is only $450 with early registration, and that covers all costs, including many meals.
Let’s see: there are two brunches, five lunches, two banquets, two suppers, and assorted small meals here and there. The food is fabulous; there’s no hotel fare at all. I get my annual quota of fresh-caught seafood every year at Fantasia Fair. I feel unfulfilled if I don’t get lobster, mussels, clams, cod, shrimp, and both bay and sea scallops, and to balance things out, prime rib. Vegetarians and vegans do well, too.
Dallas, 1991.
I worked hard to improve the quality of the programs, but my biggest contribution as director was to bring financial accountability. That required firing a couple of people who had been siphoning money away from the event for years. It wasn’t at all pretty, but I walked away from my first year as director with control of the checkbook and with ten thousand dollars in a Fantasia Fair CD account.
That CD money is still there to be used in the event of a disaster like an early season hurricane that would require us to cancel the event after we had incurred obligations to restaurants and vendors. It ensures our ability to refund every penny to those who register, no matter what. I’m proud of that accomplishment.
I’ll be in Provincetown this October for Fantasia Fair’s 40th anniversary. I hope some of you who are reading this will be there, too!
Monika: You were also a founder of Atlanta's transgender Southern Comfort Conference… 
Dallas: I was one of many, I should say. In 1990 a trans woman named Sabrina Marcus asked IFGE to hold a trans conference in the southern United States. IFGE Executive Director Merissa Sherrill Lynn told her, “We won’t do that, but we will come to Atlanta and show the southern groups how to create a conference.”
And IFGE did. We had a meeting one weekend in which more than 20 regional and local groups from the South met with a team from IFGE and hammered out all the details: what would the event be called, when and where would it be held, what would the format be, who would the audience be, how much would it cost, from where would we get the start-up money? By the time the weekend was over, we had a name and a plan. I sent my registration money—I believe it was $200, which was a lot for me—as seed money. That fall we had the first SCC, and it was magical.
Political tensions among groups led to an independent SCC after the first year, but as far as the creation of the event, the primary forces were Sabrina and Merissa. Those who attended that start-up meeting, however, and the groups they represented, should all be credited as founders. 
Monika: In 1990 you launched the print journal Chrysalis Quarterly. Today you publish its online version. What is the content of the journal?
Dallas: My way of reaching out to transsexuals was to found a 501©(3) nonprofit called The American Educational Gender Information Service. Our services included, among other things, one-on-one assistance, a telephone help line, a mail order book store, papers presented at conferences, and printed material of all types, including reprints of the booklets of the Erickson Educational Association.
AEGIS immediately launched the journal Chrysalis, which I edited—and after three issues we lost our art department and I had to learn the page layout program Quark XPress in a hurry! We also issued advisories and medical bulletins to alert the community about dangers like injected silicone and overdosages of hormones.
The issues of Chrysalis were themed, with much of the material reflecting that issue’s focus. I and the various contributors took serious and often critical looks at the matters under discussion. Issue three, for instance, concerned the medical model of transsexualism; issue six took on the issue of trans spirituality; and there was an all-FTM issue edited by anthropologist Jason Cromwell.
Contributors were high-powered, many names with which your readers will be familiar - for instance, Jamison Green, Stephen Whittle, Virginia Prince, anthropologist Anne Bolin, Riki Anne Wilchins, Martine Rothblatt, and many others.
Partially because of its serious content, partially because of its professional appearance in a time of photocopied newsletters, and partially because it was fun and easy to read, Chrysalis had a huge impact. Some of the articles, like Holly Boswell’s The Transgender Alternative (which appeared simultaneously in TV-TS Tapestry) and my own The Politics of Diagnosis and a Diagnosis of Politics have been widely cited in the years since.
Dallas Performing at Fantasia Fair, early 1990s.
Monika: In 1993 you founded the National Transgender Library & Archive, which now resides in the Labadie Collection at The University of Michigan Library System. How big is the library? How does it collect and archive transgender related information?
Dallas: When I finally hooked up with the trans community I began to find the literature I had been searching for in vain until then.
AEGIS was soon in a newsletter exchange with more than 100 support groups around the world, and I was buying anything I could locate through bookstores and vendors at conferences. I also had two big four-drawer filing cabinets filled with journal articles I had copied at Vanderbilt and later at Atlanta’s Emory University.
Before long two rooms of my house were filled with my private collection. Some of my most prized items were a 1955 program book from Madame Arthur’s cabaret in Paris and two pairs of Virginia Prince shoes from the 1960s. In 1993 or 1994 I donated the collection to AEGIS—and dumb me, I didn’t even think about getting a tax write-off—and in 1995 I announced the formation of the National Transgender Library & Archive and the Transgender Historical Society.
The latter didn’t go very far—there wasn’t nearly as much interest in trans history in those days as there is today (I think we were mostly struggling to survive)—but we did get some donations of materials and small amounts of money, which I used to acquire more materials.
By 1995 I was realizing the internet and the rise of trans political organizations like GenderPac, which immediately began sucking up monies that had until then be used for education, meant the end of small brick-and-mortar trans nonprofits. By brick-and-mortar I mean the model under which someone would read or otherwise learn about an organization, send in a letter pouring out their heart and hopefully a stamped envelope, and two weeks later receive as much printed information as the nonprofit could afford to send.
Contrast this to the internet, where for a tiny percentage of the money needed for postage, copies, and maintenance of a physical plant, an almost infinite amount of information could reach an almost infinite number of people instantly. In 1996 AEGIS’ board began to wind down AEGIS’ services in preparation for a relaunch as a web-based organization (Today’s Gender Education & Advocacy, Inc.)
Maintaining a home for several tons of printed and film material made little sense for an organization which would be primarily virtual, so in 2000 GEA began a search for a place where the collection would be physically safe, would be intellectually safe, would be promptly catalogued, would be available to researchers and the general public, and would have ongoing funding.
After a careful search, we awarded the collection to the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library System in Ann Arbor. Within two years the voluminous materials had all been catalogued and the collection was being used on a daily basis by dozens of visitors. I was deliriously happy about this, if occasional sad when I would need to look something up and realize it was a thousand miles away!
In preparation for my talk in B.C. last weekend, I entered the term transgender in the Mirlyn search engine at the U. of Michigan, and found more than 7000 hard hits. Each hit was either a book or a run of a journal or a set of newsletters; some of the hits for magazines and newsletters, when selected, contained dozens or even hundreds of issues. 
There is far more material at Michigan now than when I made my donation—the collection arrived in 2000 and yet there are many works from this century—so clearly the university is taking its custody of the NTL&A seriously! I said in my recent talk in B.C. that collections like those at the universities of Michigan and Victoria encourage donations of money and material and enhance the prestige of the schools.
Dallas, Virginia Prince, and Ari Kane, 1st Intl. Congress, 1993.
Monika: From 1999 to 2008 you were the editor of Transgender Tapestry Journal, published by the International Foundation for Gender Education. How do you recollect those years?
Dallas: Before my tenure, IFGE had two on-site employees— an editor and an art director—who were responsible for producing the magazine. To cope with declining revenues and increasing costs (remember my predictions back in the mid-1990s about declining revenues for nonprofits? They were coming true.) the IFGE Board decided to lay off their personnel and contract for the editing and layout services.
I was asked to be the editor, and accepted. I was able to work from home and do correspondence entirely by computer. It was delightful to solicit materials and prepare the magazines. Getting paid was problematic, and became more so as the organization deteriorated. I eventually resigned over Executive Director Denise Leclair’s decision to run an article to placate an author whose piece I had declined to run because she had already web-published it.
I wasn’t interested in running content practically everyone in the community had seen, and I certainly wasn’t interested in having my name associated with a magazine that ran material for political rather than journalistic purposes—and hence my resignation. It was the end of the magazine, and of IFGE. Denise managed to put out two issues which to me seemed primarily about whomever she was having lunch with, but IFGE was doomed. Still, the extra income was great while it lasted. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in the community that paid. Usually I have to subsidize my activism!
Monika: Among dozens of articles for transgender community magazines and newsletters, your book “Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research” (1994) was the first book-length contribution to the scientific literature of transsexualism produced by a transsexual person...
Dallas: Viviane Namaste mentioned my book in her keynote at the Moving Trans* History Forward conference last weekend. I talked about it too.
Let me say 1994 was a remarkable year for trans authors. Until then, transsexuals, in particular, had been locked out of the medical and psychological literature. The only writing which would be accepted by mainstream publishers were our autobiographies. 
Sandy Stone’s essay “The Transsexual Empire Strikes Back,” which was written in 1987 and published in 1991, was a reaction to separatist feminist attacks on transsexualism and to the medical model of transsexualism; it was arguably the opening salvo in the still emerging field of trans studies, and yet it appeared in a book few if any helping professionals even knew about.
Virginia Prince had written and co-written studies on crossdressers in journals in the 1960s and 1970s, but no transsexual—or out of the closet transsexual, anyway, had ever published a book-length contribution to the medical and psychological literature of transsexualism.
I do wonder about Max Hirschfeld, the early twentieth century sexologist. He is said to have been at least a crossdresser, and he was certainly out. If he were transsexual (a term not in common use in his time), his work Das Transvestiten would certainly trump mine.
The dam broke, as I mentioned, in 1994. That year saw Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, Martine Rothblatt’s The Apartheid of Sex, and other books by transsexuals, Stephen Whittle co-wrote a book on law, and Phyllis Frye in Houston was publishing book-length proceedings of her law conference, but none of these were particularly likely to be read by the clinicians of the day.
So lots of transsexuals were publishing material about transsexualism by 1994, but Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research, was published by Garland and aimed squarely at clinicians (in that it listed practically every paper and book written by clinicians about transsexualism). It was a comprehensive bibliography printed in hardback on acid-free paper by a prestigious publisher of science books, and it contained thousands of entries that covered everything I had managed to find—and by then that was a lot!
At the 1998 HBIGDA symposium in Vancouver none other than Richard Green told me he kept a copy on his desk. So I do make the claim of my book being the first book-length contribution to the scientific and medical literature of transsexualism by a transsexual.
Dallas and Anne Bolin, 2nd Intl. Congress, 1995.
I began compiling the bibliography as soon as I began finding books and articles about transsexualism—in 1990. I added material every day, and it soon grew to be huge in size. I sent a copy to the late Dr. Vern Bullough and he spoke with an editor at Garland Publishers, who immediately sent me a contract. I signed it in late 1991 or early 1992. 
When I was compiling the bibliography in 1990 and 1991 and 1992, the descriptive term transgender had not yet come into common use. By the time the book was published in 1994 the term gender dysphoria made me wince.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? 
Dallas: I wanted to transition at age 12. I didn’t know the term transition, but I knew I wanted to be a girl. At age 19 I found myself kicked out of my parents’ home and living in a SRO hotel in downtown Nashville. I wanted to find work as a young woman, but it just seemed overwhelming. I was frightened—rightfully so—of being murdered or imprisoned just for being myself. And so despite a lot of going out in public crossdressed, I never made the leap.
When I was in my late twenties I found work as a woman, but my body made it difficult. My facial hair had finally come in and my hair was beginning to thin and for the first time I was readable upon close examination. Again I didn’t make the jump—but I did start hormones.
It took me a long time to find support—ten more years, but the instant I did I began to prepare for transition. In December 1989 I left my old clothing behind and moved to Atlanta. I have never since made a public presentation as a male.
By that time my features had softened, my hair had regrown, and I had completed electrolysis. Transitioning cost me dearly in interpersonal relationships—I lost the woman I loved and didn’t see my family for more than a dozen years, but I otherwise did well. I passed easily and found a professional job immediately.
I worked at the same place for twenty years. No one in the workplace knew until they began to see my name in the newspapers and my face on television. Even then, it was a non-issue. No one ever said a word about my transsexualism. Mostly I didn’t know who knew and who didn’t—and if that were the case, there was no problem, so far as I was concerned.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Dallas: In the late 1970s Jan Morris, Renée Richards, and Canary Conn had all written (what else?) autobiographies and were appearing on television. I admired Jan for her accomplishments as a travel writer and for trekking up Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
I admired Renée Richards for her courage under fire. And I admired Canary Conn because to me she looked like and sounded like any other woman. She made me think, “Maybe I, too, can do this.” I was perhaps 29 years old.
Back then I didn’t know much about Christine Jorgensen. If I had, she would have no doubt have been my role model, for she lived a difficult life with dignity. Mostly I was without role models because I had so very little information.
Dallas and her Truck, 2006.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Dallas: Losing my lover of ten years was by far the most difficult. She was unable to accept me for who I was—even if I hadn’t transitioned. She wanted me to not be transsexual.
I told her, “What I do with my feelings is under my control, but these feelings are part of me. I can’t make them go away, nor would I want to.” I’ve not seen her since I moved to Atlanta.
I did send a copy of my 1998 book Current Concepts in Transgender Identity to her by way of a mutual acquaintance. It was dedicated to her. I hope she received it.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Dallas: Things are better for us than ever before. Having said that, things are still terrible. There’s a great deal of animosity toward us. We are still being murdered in countries all over the world. We still have problems finding and keeping jobs. We still are denied access to bathrooms.
We are still without basic rights in many places. People are rude to us on the streets. People are hateful toward us in the media. We still have a long way to go. I’m hopeful, because now there are many of us standing up for ourselves.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Dallas: I think it has been for a long time and remains so. I have to say, though, the rights of intersexed people are equally important. The intersexed are still often ignored and many are given needless surgeries during their childhoods.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Dallas: In the early 1990s there was a lot of discussion in the largely separate GLB and trans communities about working together, with arguments for and against. I was firmly in the for camp, and still am. While our needs are distinct, we have made great strides because of our GLB allies, and they because of us.
And now, of course, we are not the last in the acronym. Letters are perpetually added. GLBTQI and counting! Many of us have leadership rolls in organizations in which we are minority members—for instance, Jennifer Boylan is the first openly trans co-chair of GLAAD’s Board of Directors.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Dallas: I’m not a person who absolutely has to be in a relationship. I’m fine on my own, but I prefer having a partner—and more than a partner, a soul mate. I’m a monogamous person by nature and I like to share life with someone I love and admire and above all, laugh with. I’ve been lucky enough to have been deeply in love three times.
The first time we were both young and we grew in separate directions. The second time we were a great match except for her hatred of my trans feelings. The third time might be the charm. We’re in our eighth year and our main problem is trying to find a way to live together.
Small Portion of NTL&A.
Houses and property taxes are expensive in New York, and we’re trying to find a place within commuting distance of her job that we can afford. Nuclear family is not so important to me as it is to many people.
My parents are both dead now and I have little in common with my brother and sisters. I wish them well, but have little need to visit or keep up with them. I expect they feel likewise. They’re all fine people. It’s a shame my nuclear family was as it was. I have to say, though, my extended family is cool. I adored my grandmother.
I’m more interested in being seen as a person with integrity and a sense of fair play than I am being loved. The only one I really really hope loves me (and she does) is Heather, my partner.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Dallas: I seem to do better writing about myself in an oblique fashion. In my various writing and talks I reveal a lot about myself, but when it comes to straightforward autobiography (“I was born in Asheville, North Carolina on a dark and stormy night.”) I just lose interest.
I have in mind a memoir that attempts to explain the particular challenges of transsexualism and even wrote a chapter, but it may or may not ever become a book. If it does it will be called “Trapped in My Own Body.” I can say with some confidence that in my other work I will continue to talk about myself when appropriate.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Dallas: Conquer the fear and the shame. It sucks the energy and strength out of us and makes us vulnerable. This applies to transsexual men as well as we women.
Getting rid of our negative emotions, is, of course, monstrously hard to do—but if we can manage—if we can stop our sporadic desires to purge, make unfortunate decisions, and harm ourselves—things can start to look up.
Alas, I have no great advice about how to do that. In my own case, I belatedly realized it was okay to be me. That sounds easy. It wasn’t.
Monika: Dallas, thank you for the interview!
Dallas: I’d like to say all my work is available at the Body of Work portion of my personal website: dallasdenny.com. That includes the various issues of Chrysalis in their entirety and my contributions to Transgender Tapestry. There are book chapters, journal articles, editorials, columns, fiction, poetry, plays, and songs.
Thank you for asking me to do this, Monika!

All the photos: courtesy of Dallas Denny.
Done on 1 April 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

2 comments:

  1. A wonderful article on a wonderful person. Dallas Denny appears to have been an accidental activist but has always been a woman with a purpose. Well written article, timely in its content to highlight a transgendered pioneer.

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  2. I enjoyed this interview. I love perspectives on trans politics and communities that came before us. Denny does awesome work. I can't imagine being in her place, the fog of isolation and alienating literature. I've been thinking a lot about access to information about sexual orientation and transness. As a young person on the Internet, I've taken it for granted. Denny's perspective certainly reminded me.

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