Article appearing in
Living OUT Newspaper
October 20, 2004
By Michelle Tschida
transgender icon shares her story
over coffee in her Twin Cities' home
As a new L member of the GLBT community, I realized
I wasnt knowledgeable about the Ts. So I went
in search of a T to educate me. My search led me to
Debra Davis. Many of you may remember Debra as the Southwest High
School librarian who made national headlines when she left school
on Friday as David and returned on Monday as Debra.
That was 1998. Since then Debra has won awards and been nationally
recognized for educating the public on gender identity. And
she is in her 15th year of running The Gender Education Center
(see sidebar). She has given presentations to over 30,000 people.
Last year alone she conducted 87 presentations to schools,
colleges, and businesses around the nation educating on GLBT issues.
My job as an educator is to touch your heart and soul,
says Debra. She shares her story in the hopes of
changing the world, one person at a time.
Debra invited me to her beautiful home nestled on Cedar Island Lake,
a peninsula in Maple Grove, to share her story with me. We sat at
Debras black marble kitchen counter and sipped coffee as we
- "Did you know as a child that you were transgender?"
- "I knew I was different, but I didnt know how to define it.
One of my first memories was going to church with my family. I wore
what all the little boys had to wear: A white button-up shirt with
a bow tie. I would sit and watch the little girls come in wearing
frilly clothes and barrettes in their hair. And I would envy them
because that was how I wanted to look."
How did you finally realize you were transgender?"
- "Actually it wasnt until many years later, when
I saw a talk show featuring two cross-dressers from Chicago.
Watching them, it clicked. Thats me. "
Did you run out and buy a dress that day?"
- "Not until a few years later. My then wife had to go out of
town for a few days. That gave me the opportunity. But I realized
early on that I had to get my own 'stuff.' It was a matter
of respect. Her things were her property. So I started collecting
my own wardrobe. At first I could fit everything I bought into a
Did your wife discover the clothes?"
- "Oh no! You become an expert at hiding things. Not all my
tool boxes in the garage had tools in them, if you know what I mean.
You learn to cherish times home alone. It was a wonderful time to
be together with myself, learning who I was and expressing that. I
used to rent cheap motel rooms to change clothes on nights I was
free to be Debra and go out. Thats how I lived for many years. Its a
tough way to live. And it was hard to go back into the male role,
pretending to be this 'guy' around the house and teaching
at school. It was an emotional time."
How did your wife handle it when you finally did tell her?"
- "She was very supportive. We hugged and cried and talked about it.
We actually laughed about some of it too.
decided to find out more information together. We went to a national
transgender conference in Boston."
Did you go as Debra or David?"
- "I went as Debra. Actually that was when I got my new name.
At the conference there was a space to fill in your female name, and
I didnt have one yet. My wife and I did what new parents do: We
went to our old baby book. When we had our girls, we used a four-star
method to choose names, with four stars being our favorites. Only three
names in the book had four stars. Two of the names we had used for
our daughters. The third name was Debra. So Debra was born. I picked
Davis because I liked the sound of Debbie Davis, not realizing at
the time that Davis is close to David. I must have done
So you began living two lives. What was the hardest part
of living in that duality?"
- "After the divorce in 1994, I was out everywhere except for work.
Debra had a closet and so did David. Having to pretend to be David at
work was the hardest part for me. I literally felt like I had to act
and cross-dress as a man. I didnt want to live a lie anymore."
Speaking of coming out at work, what do you think made that
- "A lot of planning, for one. I had a team of about six safe
staff, and for months we talked about my coming out and planned it.
The next step was coming out to all of the school personnel. I had a
meeting as Debra and told them who I was and why I was doing this. The
whole staff applauded. Then I asked for their help in how to prepare
the students. We decided to tell the students the next day in their
homeroom classes. We had information sheets along with question and
answer sheets prepared for the students."
In order to pull this off, I would think David would
have had to have been an incredible person and well respected by the
staff and students."
- "Thats true. They liked David. But it shouldnt have to matter,
it shouldnt make a difference. But I think it made a difference for me."
How did the students respond?"
- "The students rocked. There was one female student who stood at
my desk and just stared at me for a long time. Finally she
said Youre the same person you were before.
I smiled back at her and said Yes I am." She hought for a moment,
smiled back at me and said "Well, You Go Girl!"
What about your two daughters. Did they know by this
- "Yes. My wife and I told them a few years before. We had
a family meeting, and they knew it was serious. We never had
family meetings. My wife, who was very involved in the GLBT
community, did most of the talking. The girls, then in junior
high and high school, asked to see a picture. So I showed
them a Glamour Shots picture I had taken as Debra. My youngest
daughter said, Wow, and my oldest daughter said,
I dont believe it. I took that as
compliments. But you know what Glamour Shots can do.
They can make anyone look pretty."
- "How do you define transgender?"
- "I see transgender as a huge umbrella that covers anyone
who feels different about their gender. Transgender ranges from
one extreme of a man or woman who wears clothing of the opposite
geneder once in a while, to
full-time crossdressers, to a transsexual person who changes their body
parts through hormones or surgery or both."
What pulls someone to be transsexual versus a
- "Its just a matter of how far you need to go to
for your soul to be comfortable in your own skin. Changing
your body parts is pretty radical. The vast majority of
transgender people are not transsexual. In fact, if you go by the
statistics, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of transgender
people want to change their physical bodies."
Well, what about butch dykes, who are very masculine.
Do you consider them to be transgender?"
- "I wouldnt consider them that. I dont define
anybody. But they could easily fall under that umbrella. People
are afraid of the term. Its sometimes okay to be a lesbian, but not
a transgender lesbian. If you decide you are transgender within
the lesbian community, traditionally speaking, you may lose most of
your friends. Because now you are not "really" a lesbian, you are
crossing over. But that is changing now. Most F to M (female to male) folks, do
come out of the lesbian community. They first identified themselves
as lesbians, then realize thats not who they really are."
So if you feel like a woman trapped in a mans body,
how do you deal with your male form?"
- "For me, the physical aspect of who I was did not exist
for me. I did not accept my physical form. I had a moustache
for a time. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw a girl
looking back at me."
I believe that part of our being-ness is to balance
our masculine and feminine aspects. I think we are both. In
your core, do you see yourself as a woman?"
- "Physically we are both. We all have male and female
hormones. But there is the core of a woman here. And now that I
fully accept and love that part of me, I wonder if its time
for me to look back at David and incorporate the best parts of him back
into Debra. Because David was a nice, gentle man - - if he ever really was
With all the introspection you have had to do in your
life, I bet you have a well developed spiritual side. Can you
comment on that?"
- "I believe there is some sprit that guides us. We have
to make our own choices, but there is something out there. I know
that it guides and directs me. I am not too concerned if you call
it God, Jesus, Buddha or whatever. I also believe that spirit is
kind and loving. This is where I separate from organized religion.
I also believe that spirit created me as a transgender person and
gave me the self-esteem to know Im okay. And when you think
about it, thats pretty awesome."
How to find out more
Contact these centers to learn more about gender identity.
Gender Education Center:
A Minnesota based non-profit organization that works toward understanding,
acceptance and support for the GLBT community. Debra Davis is the founder and
Executive Director. The Centers mission is social change through
awareness of differently gendered people. It provides information,
resources, advocacy, presentations, workshops, training, and consulting
on transgender workplace issues. For more information, contact The Gender
Education Center, www.debradavis.org, P.O. Box 1861, Maple Grove,
MN 55311 or email at: gec at debradavis.org.
Other resources for transgender include:
Tri-Ess: An international social and support group for
heterosexual cross-dressers, their partners and families. Contact
Tri-Ess at www.tri-ess.org.
City of Lakes Crossgender Community: A support and social
group. Contact 651.229.3613
Tmen: A group for people assigned female at birth who no
longer feel that is complete or accurate. Contact 612.264.4749
LINKS TO MORE INFORMATION