Tuesday 1 April 2014

Interview with Dallas Denny

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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 fiancĂ©e. 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.
Monika: And your personal life?
Dallas: 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.
Monika: So what did you do?
Dallas: 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.

Monika: Did you like the job?
Dallas: 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 a 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 helpline, 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, the 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.).


All the photos: courtesy of Dallas Denny.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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