Students to learn of
librarian's gender journey

Rosalind Bentley

Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 5, 1998
425 Portland Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 55408
(Fax 612/673-4359)


This is an important week for Debra Davis.

On Wednesday, Davis will get up, put on makeup, hose, skirt and blouse and head to the media center of Southwest High School in Minneapolis. Davis will greet students, help them with Internet searches and suggest reference materials for late-term homework.

Davis also will be answering a lot of questions, some pointed, some vague, from students, teachers and, perhaps, parents. Most likely, they will want to know how is it that up until last week, Debra Davis, the woman who runs the library, was known to them as David Nielsen, the man who ran the library.

Quietly, over the past six weeks, Davis and officials of the Minneapolis public schools and other advisers have been putting together a plan to help make the transition from Nielsen to Davis in the workplace. It has not been easy. Their hope is that the change will be minimally disruptive to students, faculty and parents. Davis, a 51-year-old parent of two and grandparent of two, has been teaching and working in Minneapolis public schools for almost 28 years -- all of them as Nielsen.

But gradually, over those years, Davis began dressing and living as a woman in all other aspects of life. In late March, Davis felt the time had come for the duality to end. It was time for people at work to know what Davis believes to be a personal truth -- that Davis is transgender, male to female.
In other words, Davis, born a male, identifies as a woman.

"The only things that will change about this employee are how she looks, her name and the pronouns that are used when referring to her," school officials tell parents in a letter being sent today.

No more shame

"One of the hardest things for me is being in this in-between stage," Davis said. "After a while, you get tired of hiding in shame, and I just won't live in shame anymore. I like who I am, I'm proud of who I am, and unless you meet Debra, you aren't gonna know that."

The topic is not an easy one for many people to understand. Davis is not a cross-dresser, which usually is defined as a person who merely enjoys dressing as the opposite sex. Nor does Davis identify as transsexual -- people who decide to have their body surgically altered to correspond with the gender they identify with.

Davis falls under the broader term "transgender," applied to people who live as the opposite gender in appearance and behavior but may or may not have their bodies surgically altered. The gender identity of a transgender person usually has no bearing on sexual orientation.

"We tend to defer someone's gender to their genitals and we socialize them that way, according to their genitals," said Dr. Walter Bockting, coordinator of the transgender services for the Program in Human Sexuality. "It's really about our feeling about ourselves."

Although Davis is not the first educator nationally or locally to come out as transgender, it appears that she is the first secondary school educator in the state -- and possibly the nation -- to have direct, daily contact with students. Nationally, there are several transgender college and university professors and at least one secondary school administrator. And throughout the state there have been students who have grappled with their gender identity, say counselors who work with school districts. But with such a sensitive issue, designing a successful on-the-job transition has been taxing both for Davis and the district.

Sharing the news

Last week in a special meeting, Davis came out to the school's Safe Staff, a group of teachers and faculty members with whom students and employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) or questioning their identities or attractions can talk with confidentiality. Out of a school of 1,440 students and about 150 faculty and staff members, Southwest has the largest Safe Staff of any high school in the district, said Southwest Principal Robert McCauley. He said Davis' revelation was met with applause by the 40 Safe Staff members.

On Monday, Davis came out to the rest of the staff during a special meeting. Students were not in the building because it was a parent-teacher conference day, and parents were not told of Davis' presentation.

A letter from McCauley, Minneapolis schools Superintendent Carol Johnson and Southwest Area Superintendent JoAnn Heryla addressing the issue will be sent home with students today. On Wednesday, in their first-period class, students will talk about Davis' transformation, about the broader issues of transgenderism and how to handle hate speech. The district's letter advises parents that they have the right to determine whether their children should participate in the discussions.

"We expect students to continue to treat her as the valued, experienced educator she has proved to be," the letter says.

"We support Debra 100 percent," McCauley said. "People have responded very well to the strength and courage that she's showing. We recognize her right to respect, and we want to be supportive and sensitive of that, but we want to maintain the educational process as well."

McCauley said he has received no complaints or opposition within the school so far.

Johnson issued a statement Monday saying that the "district fully supports the human and civil rights of all our employees and students and this is an opportunity for the adults of the community to set the tone for students and to model the value of tolerance."

Today, Davis will be out of the building, doing training at the district headquarters. She'll appear before the school's Parent/ Teacher/Student/Association meeting tonight. And her first day back in the library will be Wednesday.

She fully expects a line of gawkers through the library and is prepared for the barrage of questions that will come.

"I think they'll be taking a look and wanting to see. Hey, I would," she said. "But I think it's important for people to understand that it's OK to be uncomfortable, because we've all been socialized with certain ideas about gender. All I can ask is that people treat me as a human being and understand that I'm just expressing who I really am."

A female identity

Davis was born and raised in Minneapolis and graduated from Southwest High. Since childhood, she has always felt "different." Eagle Scouts, president of the church youth group, college fraternity president at the University of Wisconsin were all parts of Davis' history as David Nielsen. But the feeling that her identity truly was female never disappeared.

Over the years, Davis slowly became more public with a transgender identity and eventually began doing public speaking and training on transgender issues for agencies as diverse as the Chrysalis Center for Women, churches, the University of Minnesota and Hennepin County offices.

But Davis still went to work each day as Nielsen.

This year, however, she decided that had to end. One by one, she brought all aspects of her life into alignment.

Her driver's license was changed to read Debra Davis, female. School district records, personnel and payroll records were changed to read Debra Davis.

Though many may disagree with Davis' decision to go public, adolescent psychologists say that students probably will adjust well.

"Minneapolis public high schools have support for GLBT students, so it's not as if kids in high schools don't know about this stuff," said Kathleen Jacobson, adolescent psychologist with Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. "Kids will buzz about it and talk. But will it affect their own gender identity? Probably not."

Jacobson acknowledged that some parents may be concerned, but she cautioned that they should be careful in their response to children because many young people struggle with the issue of orientation and identity but may not reveal it to their parents.

Under the 1993 Minnesota Human Rights Act, transgender people -- along with lesbians, gays and bisexuals -- are afforded antidiscrimination protection. Although nine other states have such amendments, Minnesota is the only one that includes those who identify as transgender.

Neither the national PTSA, National School Boards Association or the National Education Association has resolutions or policies that address the issues of employment of GLBT educators, but the NEA does include a provision that addresses students questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Still, Davis is not alone. More than a decade ago, former St. Paul City Council member Susan Kimberly underwent a very public sex change. Davis said Kimberly was one of several people from whom Davis sought advice when making the decision to come out at work.

Easing transitions

In February, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a lengthy article about transgender people in academe. Jacob Hale is philosophy professor at California State University at Northridge. Hale's transition was female-to-male and was made during his tenure process. At first, Hale was afraid of destroying his career, but he found that by talking openly with faculty, staff and students the transition was easier.

"A lot of their questions were based on assumptions that I found problematic, but at least they weren't malicious," Hale said.

Perhaps the closest parallel to Davis' situation, however, is Rhonda Hoyman, supervisor of technical programs for Baltimore (Md.) County Schools. The job doesn't require day-to-day contact with students, but Hoyman is regularly in schools working with teachers in her program.

Hoyman is a male-to-female transsexual who underwent gender reassignment surgery two years ago. The process of coming out at work took a year, and Hoyman took her plans through the district's chain of command. She said throughout the process the most sensitive issue was which restroom she was to use at work between the time she announced that she would be having surgery and the time the procedure was complete.

For one year, she said, she used a women's bathroom in a building a block away from where she worked.

"I think it's best to make as fast and as permanent a transition as possible," Hoyman said. "If you do it over a long period of time, you're creating an image of someone who's not comfortable with themself."

Don Mohler is communications director for Baltimore County public schools. He said Hoyman's transition got very little reaction from parents, teachers or students.

"Along with teaching students to read and write, we want to try to create a community of caring learners, people who understand differences and understand diversity," Mohler said. "If your sister, brother, aunt, uncle or child were dealing with these issues, would you want them to be judged? Or responded to in a humane, accepting manner?"


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