Transgender woman shares stories
2004 Indiana Daily Student - April 14, 2004
Debra Davis, Executive Director
Gender Education Center in Maple Grove, Minnesota,
speaking Tuesday at Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana.
Opening Keynote Address for the "National Day of Silence" observation.
The retired media director changed genders at age 51 in 1998.
By Rick Newkirk
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
Debra Davis told her story to a group of fascinated audience members Tuesday in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center Grand Hall. In the past, this person may have been inconceivable to all but her closest friends: Davis lived her first 51 years as David Nielsen. As part of the National Day of Silence events, Davis spoke to more than 40 people about the life of a transgender person.
For Davis, it officially began in the spring of 1998 when she left Southwest High School in Minneapolis one Friday as Nielsen, the school's popular librarian, and returned Monday to the school staff as Davis. Tuesday, she reintroduced herself to students as a woman. "The students were pretty awesome," Davis said. "They wanted to come to the library and see their new and improved librarian."
Davis said until that moment, most people never really knew her. "I'm not sure 'he' really existed in the first place," Davis said. "The people that only knew the man, that part of me, knew a lie because that wasn't who I really was."
Debra Davis is one of the most famous transgender people in secondary education in the U.S. When her story broke in 1998, she said, people from all over the country came out to support her -- and to hate her. "The extreme right is very upset with me," Davis said. "They tell me so on 'The 700 Club' and on their radio and television programs. They write four-page letters using me as an example of everything that's wrong with transgender folks in education."
Still, the issue of the day was not hatred but acceptance. Davis said the National Day of Silence was an appropriate way for transgender people to quietly sound out against oppression. "We've been kept quiet, and we're not going to keep quiet anymore," she said. "We're going to say we're proud of who we are and that we know we're OK."
Sophomore Beth Levy said she was taken with Davis' optimistic outlook. "A lot of the time, people from the transgender community tend to be negative," Levy said. "It's a minority within a minority. A lot of the people don't get to see a lot of positive role models."
Former IU faculty member Randi Pearson said Davis is that role model. "She's a great mentor for other transgender people like me," Pearson said. "That's why I traveled from North Vernon (Ind.) to see her."
Graduate student Daniel Zeno said he came to see Davis out of curiosity and confusion. "I have a lot to think about after this," Zeno said. "This is an issue I've never thought about, never had to confront, which is 'what is gender?'"
Davis defined a transgender person as anyone who has questions about his or her gender. She emphasized that a person's gender is not the same as that person's sexual preference. "Sexual orientation is about who you love," Davis said. "Gender identity is who you are."
Davis wrapped up her presentation with a story about her
transformation and her granddaughter Victoria. Victoria was playing a
counting game with her grandmother when she decided to count girls. Victoria
successfully identified herself and her mother as female. Then she came to Davis.
And Victoria quipped, "Grandpa, you're a girl."