Article appearing in
San Francisco Bay Times Newspaper
July 5, 2007
One Thousand Times & Counting
By Jacob Anderson-Minshall
Published: July 5, 2007
Retired high school librarian Debra Davis has done it a thousand times.
Over the last two decades, the trans woman has done it in hospitals, police stations, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, business meetings, and on campuses across the county. Shes even done it on television and in front of elementary students!
Shes so proud of what shes doing Davis says she has no plans to stop. After all, she is the executive director of the Gender Education Centera Minnesota organization dedicated to support, advocacy and education for differently gendered peopleand its part of her job.
Davis travels the country speaking on transgender issues. When she reached the thousand-presentation mark earlier this year, Davis didnt really celebrate. Still, she admits, Its kind of a neat milestone for me. I feel really really good about it.
Minnesota included basic protection for transgender people in its Human Rights Act in 1993, but the Gender Education Center began a decade earlier, as the City of Lakes Crossgender Communitys educational outreach program. It became an independent non-profit organization in 1994.
With the support of school administration, Davis came out as transgender and transitioned from male to female in 1998. In one of the first successful on-the-job transitions of a high school educator Davis says she left work on a Friday as David and returned on the following Monday as Debra.
The award-winning educator, activist and speaker now specializes in helping other trans employees transition at work. You dont need to change jobs, Davis says. But, she insists, you do need someone like herto educate your bosses and co-workers.
Thats so important and it doesnt take
days and days of workshops. Ill go and work with the group for an hour and a half and thats all they need. Just so somebody can
take the mystery out of it. And they can ask somebody like me the questions that they really want to ask the person who is transitioningand its not appropriate to ask that person. But [they] can ask me.
Davis (debradavis.org) credits her success with workplace transitions to operating within the companys existing power structure. You work from the top down. You get the CEO
on board. And then you work your way down and everyone sees it is coming from the top. And every time weve done that its worked really, really well.
She also speaks a language business owners understand: Paying someone like me to do that training
is much cheaper then a couple of lawyers going after each other. And, Davis contends, post-transition employees are more valuable. Theyre going to work better, because now they dont have to hide anything. Now they dont have a secret
theyll become better employees, so the bottom line is going to increase.
Davis believes that American businesses are already equipped to deal with trans workers. Absolutely every company knows how to deal with discrimination. Theyve been doing it for years. Its exactly the same thing; if there is discrimination going on, you deal with it the same way. They have those skills, they just have to use them and apply them to this particular issue.
Not all of her presentations are given to employers. She speaks to schools, doctors and human resource departments and she tailors her material for each. What I do for a counseling group
is different from what Id do for a college, which is different from what I do for a high school. When Im talking to a bunch of forensic nurses were talking about surgery, talking about good and bad surgery and
were filling the screens with vaginas. Were not doing that at high school.
Shes never really sure what shell be asked. Thats the most fun for me. It keeps me sharp. Ive heard some really crazy, wild stuff. One of the strangest was [when] a doctor
said, How do you walk in those shoes? I had heels on and I said, I just walk in them. And [he asked], Would you show me? So I got up and I walked across the room and walked back. It was just unbelievable. This is some medical doctor, Ph.D. or psychologist; it was just funny, especially coming from that group.
She says the most common questions she gets are about restrooms and body parts. To the first she says, I'm an advocate of neutral gender bathrooms--because the people who are uncomfortable with me being in the women's restroom, they need a place to go.
To the second, Davis says, I talk about transgender as being a place in the middle, where body parts are immaterial. My doctor needs to know, my sweetheart needs to know and thats about it. When were looking at trans folks, we need to de-focus on body parts. Thats not what its about. Its about who you believe you arethe internal soul of who you are.
Davis is a parent, grandmother and friend. Oh, yes, I also happen to be transgender. Its not a huge piece of who I am, but it is something that will always be a part of who I am. And sometimes when people look at me, thats all that they can see.
Living in an area Davis contends has the highest percentage of conservative Republican voters of any district in the country, shes often asked why she stays.
Thats where I have to live. We have to be the face of diversity wherever we are.
And she plans to keep on doing it.