Personal narrative - Transgender / Debra Davis
"Can I see your Student ID please?", the Southwest High school librarian David Nielsen asked. I dug clumsily through my pockets until I fumbled into my purple and white ID card. I handed it to David Nielsen as he flashed a smile. "These books are due back in a week." He than proceeded to inform me. I watched him briskly type my information into the computer. I could hear and observe his exceptionally long fingernails tap steadily on the keys. At the time I was a sophomore at a fairly large Minneapolis public School. Little did I know that school staff member David Nielsen would one day cause a bold and abrupt commotion within Southwest High, the community, and in turn, an entire nation. He would no longer take his name or masculine pronouns. Spring of my junior year, David Nielsen would become Debra Davis. Transgenderism is an all too often mislabeled and misconceived lifestyle; however, through both the press and daily contact with students, Debra Davis has not only clarified my own personal misunderstandings, but has also shed light upon her incessant struggle and perpetual hope.
According to Debra, she was "scared to death" on Tuesday May 5, 1998. After weeks of collaboration with the Minneapolis public School district and officials, she was finally going to emerge from hiding permanently. She was to live as Debra Davis, her true self, full time. "I am in fact a woman," Davis told me in a recent interview. "As David Nielsen, I felt like I was crossdressing as a man."
I can still remember the first day she worked as Debra. In first period, each student was given a handout regarding the change that pertained to David Nielsen. We discussed use of correct pronouns and respect for a persons choices and decisions. After that, I realized that gawking and staring were imminent; I was proven correct. Absolutely everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to at least catch a glimpse of our new and improved librarian. Crowds formed outside the door of the library as people stopped to see Debras blond wig, blouse, skirt and high heals. And I have to be perfectly honest, even I peered through the window to take a peek. Curiosity got the best of everyone that day, however, Debra went on as usual, despite the hundreds of eyes resting upon her. I admired her poise and confidence.
The following day, gazing and scrutinizing ceased. Of course there were the few that were absent the previous day; otherwise, school went on as usual. Debras business was Debras business. "Whatever floats your boat," a friend confirmed during our lunch period. "I really dont see what the big deal is." The importance of diversity in every aspect was underway, and the majority of students and parents were proud to support and be a part of it.
The staff of Southwest was both commending and encouraging as well. An organization known as Safe Staff had been established with in the school system. It consists of teachers and faculty members who embrace and act as advocates for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and Transgender population (GLBT). They applauded Debra's transformation. Principal, Dr. McCauley, also respects and appreciates Debra's need for sensitivity and support.
Not to say that the entire population of Southwest was all for Debra's drastic change of appearance, voice and disposition, There was a minority of students whom were passive acceptors. They didn't necessarily agree with Debra's decision, however they rarely voiced their opinion. To my understanding, active oppressors existed also, yet they were an extremely small percent. I myself didn't know of any directly.
October of 1998, an article titled Southwest High Pushes Political Correctness was published in Pro-Family News. It featured an anonymous Southwest teacher displaying her disagreement and low tolerance of Debra Davis. "I don't think it's a healthy environment. . . What message does it send to our children? That just anything goes? It's not healthy for our children. It's anti-family." Just recently last November, Southwest teacher Carla Cruzan filed a suit against Davis with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Claiming her rights to privacy had been infringed upon after an encounter with Debra Davis in the school's public restroom, she demanded action be taken. The case was dismissed, ruling there was "no probable cause." It is now circulating through an appeals process along with a new accusation provided by Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Institute. He declares Davis's use of female lavatories directly violated a Minneapolis City Ordinance. What will become of these complaints? Debra patiently waits for answers that lie in the future.
Minnesota is the only state in the country to protect transgenders against discrimination. A human rights law gives them protection and defense in areas of housing, employment, education and business. These circumstances provide a safe haven for exposed transgenders, allowing them to reside under a sense of guardianship.
Despite efforts to maintain a minimal amount of disturbance within Southwest high school, Debra's transition was a highly publicized one. She was on CNN news, while her picture and brief history were splashed over newspapers. Articles are incessantly written to this vary day regarding Debra's life style and the obstacles she must still confront. In December of 1999, Davis was featured on a GLBT magazine, Lavender, as person of the year. Overall, she was received a positive response.
Exactly when did Davis first discover her genuine feelings? Debra informed me that at a very young age she new she was "different". As an immature David Nielsen, she attended church with her parents. It was there she could stare at the pretty girls in their petticoats and ribboned hair, knowing she wanted to be them. David Nielsen did all he could to hide these feelings a vast majority of his entire life. As stated in a Viewpoint commentary written by Davis herself, "fear and trepidation are what we [transgenders] continually live with." It took years until David Nielsen gave himself permission to explore and express his true self. In fact, it was a marriage and two teenage daughters later. In a 1998 Star Tribune interview, just prior to her workplace transition, Debra voiced the difficulty of being in an "in-between stage." She had lived a split life for years.
These days, Davis has a fully aware and supportive family. Her daughters,parents, partner, and two grandchildren are loving and approving. As far as those who oppose are concerned, "Nothing anyone says can make me hate," Debra told me. "I won't give them that power."
The Minnesota Human Rights Act defines transgendered people as: "having or being perceived as having a self image or identity not traditionally associated with one's biological maleness or femaleness." Information provided by the Gender Education Center divides one's sexual makeup into four categories. First there is your genetic or biological sex. Are you male or female? Second, there is who you think you are, your gender. Are you a man or woman? Next, sexual orientation comes into play. Who are you romantically attracted to? Are you heterosexual or gay/lesbian? Finally, a presentation or social role exists. Are you masculine of feminine within social character and personification? For example, I myself am biologically a heterosexual female. I identify as a woman and exemplify femininity ion both public and private.
"I happen to be transgender," Debra said to me. "I'm not a crossdresser or Drag queen, but it would be ok if I was." The term Drag Queen should be used when referring to those who dress as the opposite gender, frequently in an extreme and overdone fashion. On the other hand, the term crossdresser should be applied to those who enjoy dressing as the opposite sex as a way of exploration. This is usually done as a part time activity. Davis is a male to female transgender. Namely, although born a male, she recognizes and distinguishes herself as a women.
Experiencing the diversity of Southwest was a four year eye opening escapade. I was enveloped by differences in race, class, religion, region, nation, ability, disability, sexuality, and the ever so prominent gender distinctions. How many people can say they had a transgender librarian in high school? I guarantee you not many. In truth, only a select group of Southwest students. A group that continually grows, as the new batch of freshman arrive, each year. Even a smaller collection can say they knew David Nielsen and Debra Davis within their four years of attending Southwest. I was fortunate enough to be apart of this elite cluster. Exposure to Southwest's diversity has provided me with an enlightening education in areas of respect, integrity and virtue. One of which I can not thank them enough.
The exceptionally long fingernails of Debra Davis can still be found today, tapping away at the Southwest computer card catalog. Only now, they're painted hot pink to match her lipstick. According to Lavender journalist Ellen Lansky, "In the midst of it all, Davis has maintained a sense of dignity, grace, and perseverance while continuing to educate; she's served as an inspiration, role model, trailblazer, and unbridled leader in the struggle for the rights of all people to receive their just treatment as human beings." These are wisely spoken words deserving of recognition and remembrance.