Article appearing in Lavender Magazine
August 5, 2005
Gender Education Center Marks 10 Years
by Heidi Fellner
Issue 266 August 5-18, 2005
Debra Davis with her grandchildren
at TwinCities Pride 05
Photo by Sophia Hantzes
Debra Davis welcomed me into her beautiful lakeside home in Maple Grove, Minnesota, a sanctuary from the stagnant heat of a late July morning.
"I'd tell you it was the beige house with the big garage, but they're all like that," Davis had chuckled over the phone when giving me directions.
Initially expecting to find a war room of sortsthis also being the site of Davis's award-winning Gender Education Center (GEC)I relaxed immediately in her homey kitchen, enjoying the scent of her flavored coffee.
In fact, the only clue that Davis's home served as GEC headquarters was her frequently ringing phone.
I must admit that I felt so comfortable, I began spilling my guts about my own issues with gender, our culture's rigid viewpoints on it, and its effect on my life.
I think Davis must get that a lot. She exudes pure empathy.
"I've just got to think there have to be so many people that have some extent of gender dysphoria," I said, flopping the term out after having done loads of research on the American Psychological Association's official stance on the transgender community.
"Most of us call it euphoria, but whatever," Davis smiled playfully.
As Davis later would tell me on the phone, "It is estimated that 1 to 5 percent of the population could be differently gendered.
"Considering there are two and a half million people in the Twin Cities, that amount is anywhere between 25,000 and 125,000.
"But the vast majority of us are closeted. If you do find us, we won't tell you who we are and where."
Not without good reason: Every year, the transgender community is a frequent target of hate crimes, prejudice, and discrimination.
Because of these problems, Davis, a member of the transgender community herself, saw a need for greater public education about gender and transgender issues.
Quickly overwhelmed by that growing demand for information, Davis and some of her colleagues organized GEC as a nonprofit corporation some 10 years ago.
Now serving as Executive Director of GEC, Davis gives around 90 presentations a year. Last year, she traveled to 18 states to talk to government agencies, private companies, and schools.
"In the last 15 years, we've done over 840 presentations," Davis enthused. "Usually, they're interested in Gender 101what gender's all about.
"It involves scales of sexuality where we talk about who people arewhat are the different pieces that make you you."
Davis continues, "Your sexual orientation is one of those, your gender identity is one of those, your physical aspect of who you are is another, your presentation is another, [and yet another is] your social role you assume when you're out there.
"So, I take all those pieces apart, and I put them together in different ways that are a little bit backwards to make people think."
Depending on the organization and its needs, Davis will talk about going through life as a transgender person, and how to be respectful to that community.
On any given day, Davis could be serving as an expert witness in a discrimination case, or talking to employees at a construction company where one of their coworkers is transitioning.
Davis explained, "I go in there to soften it, to answer the questions, to tell the employees this is going to happenwith the management standing right next to me.
"And if you have any questions about that, even embarrassing ones that you really want to know, you ask me, and I'll answer them.
"I won't answer them for that person, but I'll answer them for my community. If you want to know about surgery, I can describe it to you in detail. I'll make you squirm!"
Surprisingly, the issue that seems to give coworkers the greatest amount of trouble is, as Davis called it, "the poop-and-potty issuebecause that's the kind of respect I give it.
"It's so bizarre that people are worried about what someone's doing in the stall next to them. We're doing the same thing, you know!
"If someone's peeking under a stall, then you do something about that. But if they're sitting in there, what's it to you?"
At a Bloomington office where Davis recently was answering questions in anticipation of an employee's transition, sparks flew.
Davis recounted, "Some of the women were really upset that this person was going to use the women's restroom.
"In fact, they were really upset when they found out that I was using the women's restroom when I was down there doing the training and the meeting with managers!
"They were so upset. They were just livid."
Management eventually solved the problem by building an additional unisex single-stall bathroom in a different area of the building where a restroom was needed anyway.
Davis added, "And if those women had a problem, they could go use that one. People struggle so much with people that are different. They see us as sexual perverts, and that's a problem."
Even in resources specifically tailored to the transgender community, misperceptions like that are common.
According to Davis, "You know, if I go out and date as a transgender person, I go on a Web site, and say, 'OK, I'm transgender.'
"Then, you look for options as to what are you looking for, and on any of those sites that you can put transgender on, there are just sex acts that are listed. Never does it say long-term. Never does it say marriage. Anything. Not even dating!
"So, there's always this perception that we're different, or there's something wrong with us, or we're mentally ill."
A quick Internet tour of transgender dating sites confirms Davis's statement.
Despite frustrations and misconceptions like these, Davis is optimistic about the next generation.
In Davis's words, "There are younger folksI'm talking about younger than 30 or 35and the fluidity of gender is becoming much easier, because it isn't the binary that us old folks have grown up with. Now, it's everything in between, and that's wonderful!"
And even though children can be hopelessly cruel to those who appear different in any way, Davis and her message are consistently received very well.
Davis related, "I talk about respect with kids in school, and how we need to treat kids with respect, and have safe places to live and love and be yourself. And you can be whoever you want to be."
After doing this work for 15 years, Davis has received hundreds of letters and e-mails of thanks, in addition to many awards from the GLBT community.
"I save lives," Davis stated, matter-of-factly. "I want to change the worldthat's my overall goal. Everybody kind of laughs when I say that, but that's my goal."
"I'll do it one person at a time, or one company at a time, or one school at a time, and I'm patient."
"I may never see itI may never see the world changebut I can be a part of the start of that."
Davis's eyes softly sparkled as she spoke that last phrase. Not for the first time during our interview, I felt a small lump in my throat that I had to push aside.
Switching gears, Davis slapped her hands down on the table joyfully, and invited, "So, I can show you the Gender Education Center. Would you like to see it?"
"Actually, there are two offices here in the house: upstairs, where I do the paperwork and the phone work; and downstairs, where all the 'stuff' is."
Davis led me down the stairs to show me a small office with Mickey Mouse wallpaper containing stacks and stacks of materials and Pride Festival booth decor.
"They should really give a prize for best-decorated booth!" Davis quipped.
I found myself thinking of the amazing volume of work that is done in such a small office.
Then again, perhaps it's a fitting analogy: It doesn't take a huge corporate office or lots of money to inspire change.
It just takes someone like Debra Davis.
If your organization would like to book Debra Davis as a speaker, she can be contacted through the Gender Education Center at (763) 424-5445, or visit Davis's Web site for more information at www.debradavis.org.