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We Eat Our Leaders (1999)

We Eat Our Leaders (1999)

 ©1999, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1999, March). We eat our leaders. Transgender Forum. Reprinted in Tennessee Vals, April 1999, pp. 6-9.

This column, first published on the Transgender Forum web magazine, has been cited and reprinted often.

The illustration is a detail from Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823.



We Eat Our Leaders

By Dallas Denny


In the transgender community, we eat our leaders. I know this because I was nearly consumed myself.

What do I mean, we eat our leaders? I’m saying that the leaders of the transgender community, whether hired, elected, or self-appointed, tend to give so much of themselves and get so little in return that they eventually have nothing left—no vitality, no patience, no partners, no money, no careers, no homes, no futures.

First Generation

Consider the first generation of community leaders. Three who come to mind are Virginia Prince, Merissa Sherrill Lynn, and Ari Kane. Virginia, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, once owned her own company. Then she became active in promoting heterosexual crossdressing. These days she’s living hand-to-mouth, making it only because of a reverse mortgage on her home. The bank gives her a payment every month while allowing her to continue to live in her house. When she dies, it will belong to the bank.

Merissa was once a ski instructor, but didn’t pursue that line of work after becoming involved with Fantasia Fair and the Tiffany Club in the early ’80s. In 1985, she was instrumental in the founding of IFGE, which gave her a full-time salaried position—whenever IFGE could afford to pay her. She and IFGE went their separate ways in the mid-nineties and she thereafter eked out an existence of sorts by allowing an assortment of rent-payers and freeloaders to share her home in Waltham. Last year she had a stroke and subsequently lost her house. These days she is off the streets only because a friend was kind enough to take her in and give her a room.

For many years Ari made if not a living at least the rent payments by running the Outreach Institute and by taking occasional counseling clients. Although she almost singlehandedly brought professional sexology organizations up to speed on transgender issues in those scary early days, Ari had neither the time nor the money to pursue a degree beyond the master’s. As income from Outreach dwindled, Ari, with the encouragement of the board, looked at her options and decided to go back to school. She recently completed her Ph.D. in sexology and is currently looking for a job.

For decades these three individuals spent their time and energy looking after the community’s interests rather than their own. Had they been less steadfast, they would have pursued their educations and careers and relationships just like the rest of humanity. But they didn’t. They neglected their own interests. And what is their payback? How has the community awarded them for a lifetime of service? These days all three are financially insecure and two are without partners.

The Next Generation

The second generation of leaders seems to be heading down the same road. Jessica Xavier, who has a congenital heart condition, gives so much of herself that her health suffers. Her friends, myself included, constantly caution her to slow down. Riki Anne Wilchins channels most of her money, time, and energy into GenderPAC. Attorney Phyllis Randolph Frye long neglected her career, passing up more lucrative work in favor of low-fee but precedent-making gender cases. James Green, a freelance writer, has turned down many jobs because of his commitment to the community in general and FTM International in particular. Who knows how much more these talented, intelligent, and industrious individuals and the many others I haven’t mentioned might have accomplished for themselves had they not spent the last decade and more so immersed in gender work?

And Then There’s Me

And then there’s me. I was headed down a similar road.

Throughout the nineties, my time and energy and much of my money were dedicated to the community. I gave everything I had to give, and then I gave more and kept giving more until finally I began to fall apart on every level. Things started to turn around only in 1996, after I underwent a health crisis.

Understanding that I would die in the saddle unless I started to look after myself, I began making arrangements to do so. For the past year things have slowly been getting better, but the work I was doing is going undone and will remain undone until one of two things happens: 1) someone else is foolish enough to step into the traces; or 2) the community decides to take responsibility for itself and begins to set up sensible mechanisms of leadership.

I don’t consider myself much of an icon, but I do think my story is typical of transgender community “leaders,” and I offer it here, for what it’s worth.

A Survivor’s Tale

I made my transition in December 1989. My prospects were good. I was still relatively young, at 39 years of age, and I had lots of advantages—a good education, valuable job skills, a passable appearance thanks to ten years on hormones, and a circle of friends who would not let me starve if worst came to worst. I had worked hard, losing weight, getting rid of my facial hair with electrolysis, and otherwise laying the foundation for a new life. I had no thought other than to move successfully from the male role to the female and disappear into society like all self-respecting transsexuals did in those days. My highest aspiration was to get a job—any job.

I didn’t volunteer to do community work; I wuz drafted. I was asked and then begged to run a local support group. I finally agreed, and after a few months found I rather liked it. I am, after all, a helping professional by training. The work was familiar and was certainly much needed, for there were few resources for transsexuals in those days. It gave me a great deal of gratification, too. I really liked giving people the information they needed to make major changes in their lives and then watching them make those changes.

Within a year I had founded AEGIS and the Atlanta Gender Explorations support group and launched the journal Chrysalis. Feedback was immediate and positive, and the demand for services overwhelming. The phone was ringing off the hook and the mailbox was choked with requests for referrals and information. Without having really thought about what I might be getting into and how it might affect my life, I found I had a tiger by the tail. I could hold on or I could let go; there were problems with either choice. If I let go, the work wouldn’t get done. If I held on—well, I was unsure what would happen, but it would certainly require some self-sacrifice.

I held on. For the next seven years I spent every possible moment trying to meet the needs of AEGIS’ many correspondents. It nearly destroyed me.

The logistics of running AEGIS were enormous. The phone rang at all hours with calls from reporters, therapists, and transmen and women in crisis. Requests for information poured in by mail and fax, and, after 1994, by e-mail. Most were desperate pleas for help and required immediate, individual attention. I was also editor and publisher of Chrysalis and AEGIS News, which meant I had to do everything from scaring up articles to laying out the copy to hand-assembling and stapling thousands of copies to toting bags of outgoing mail to the post office. Book orders came in daily and had to be filled at least twice a week. There were inventory lists, a database, and financial records to maintain. Daily, there was library material to index. And of course there were all the little tasks necessary in running an office—buying supplies, licking stamps, keeping up with the sales tax, going to the bank. Two or three times a year I would be off to one gender conference of another, with phone calls and mail piling up while I was away. And of course there was local transgender community work, which included attending support group meetings and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender events, ministering to those in crisis, serving on various committees, and putting up visitors from out of town.

The Kicker

But here’s the kicker. Throughout all this, I had a day job, eight hours a day, five days a week. AEGIS provided me with no income, and in fact would have never existed had I not been employed.

I had been lucky enough to land a position within a month of arriving inAtlanta. It was a good one, too, a nine-to-five professional spot equal in every way to the one I had left, a job where absolutely nobody “knew,” a good starting point for someone who was on the verge of completing her doctorate. Such a job was every transsexual’s dream—but it quickly turned not into a career, but an AEGIS asset, as it gave me evenings and weekends free and the financial resources to provide AEGIS with office space and stamps.

I’ve held my job for nearly ten years. Although my performance has been satisfactory, I haven’t advanced as I did in earlier positions—nor did I complete my Ph.D. After AEGIS, I had little left to give either my job or my education. Work was not the focus of my initiative. It was merely the place to which I had to go in order to pay AEGIS’ rent.

I have stayed in the same position with the same salary, as I’ve not vied for promotions or otherwise aspired to advance within my agency or move to a better-paying position at another agency. After all, a higher salary would have required that I give the job more time and energy, and those were resources I couldn’t spare. AEGIS needed all I was giving, and more.

Managing AEGIS was more than a full-time job; it was neverending. For years I didn’t go to bed before1:30 am. I was up beforeseven a.m.five days a week so I could make it to work by eight; on weekends, the phone began ringing early, driving me out of bed. It also rang frequently in the middle of the night, and I usually answered it, for I found it difficult to ignore the ringing phone, knowing there was a living, hurting—and usually, at 3:00 am, drunk—human being on the other end.

I would go straight home after work and immediately start returning phone calls and answering mail. If I worked straight through until the early hours five days a week and all weekend, I could stay almost caught up. Relaxing or entertaining in my home weren’t options, for it wasn’t possible to prepare and eat a meal or watch a television show without interruption. My food would grow cold on the plate in the kitchen while I made referrals downstairs at AEGIS world headquarters.

Did I have help with AEGIS? Certainly, I did. AEGIS would not have been possible without monetary donations and time given by those who helped assemble Chrysalis and process orders, or without direction from the Board of Directors. Perhaps, had I inherited some social organizing gene, I could have rustled enough free help to get all the jobs done. But ultimately, the buck stopped with me. If it had to be done, and there was no one else available—and usually there wasn’t—it was up to me to do it.

With a day job that kept me at my desk and with AEGIS keeping me on the phone at home, my weight ballooned. I began eating high-calorie, high-fat convenience foods and gave up my daily walks, which made things even worse. Gender work had become not just something which I did to help people. It had become my life.

But great things were happening with AEGIS, and great things were happening in the community. My work was making a difference in the lives of thousands of people. I was a cog in the transgender revolution. I couldn’t stop.

By late 1995 I had grown so heavy I was having difficulty tying my shoes. I had undiagnosed sleep apnea, and I was beginning to have trouble staying awake at work. I was also developing a niggling sense of doom, as if my days were numbered. Gradually, and don’t ask me how or why, I came to understand that I would have a major health event in mid-1996, about the time of the Summer Olympics. I was certain I was going to die.

But I didn’t die. I broke my foot, and right on schedule, in July, 1996, three days before the Olympics. I wasn’t sure whether I was relieved or disappointed. I had been cheated out of martyrdom, but I had been given another chance at life.

While sitting at home for six weeks with my foot in a cast, I did a lot of thinking. When I went back to work in September, I began to slowly take control of my life.

Assuming Control

I went to the doctor for treatment for the sleep apnea. I started walking to strengthen muscles weak from inactivity. I began going to bed earlier and making an effort to eat more sensibly. And I gave the AEGIS board a year’s notice. I would be resigning as director at the end of 1997.

The board of directors began to look to AEGIS’ future. Our options were limited. It was clear we didn’t have the financial wherewithal to open an office and hire an Executive Director, and we were unlikely to find anyone foolish enough to work full-time for free and run AEGIS out of their own home. Our best option seemed to be a merger with one or more other national transgender organizations; this was an idea the board had had been under consideration for years. Now it was on the front burner.

The AEGIS board stepped up merger negotiations with other organizations, including Renaissance and IFGE, but politics-as-usual precluded any real move toward merger. Talks with It’s Time, America! showed promise, but by the end of 1997, we were still a long way from a merger.

At the request of the AEGIS board, I remained three additional months as Executive Director, resigning effective the end of March, 1998. I’m not sure how I made it those three extra months, for I was weary in body and spirit.

A New Life

Since my resignation I’ve been making slow progress in rebuilding my life. I contacted Vanderbilt University to see what would be required to finish my degree. I show more initiative at work. I see a lot of movies. I bought a house—my first—and have been fixing it up. I’m enjoying simple pleasures denied me for nearly a decade. I relish quiet evenings at home, where I still amazed that I am able to watch a prime-time television program without being interrupted by the ringing phone. I enjoy having friends over for dinner. I find I’m cooking more healthy foods and eating more wisely. I walk daily around the lake near my house. I feel better, both physically and spiritually, and I expect to feel better yet as I continue to rebuild a life too-long neglected.

That’s my story. I’m stickin’ to it.

No Stinkin’ Burnout

I’d like to point out that I was not and am not burned out. That is, I did not grow physically, spiritually, or emotionally tired of what I was doing. I loved what I was doing, and still do. But I did grow tired of my life being so one-sided, so unbalanced, of working all day every day without rest, and I decided to do what was necessary in order to regain the balance I lacked in my life. Like Susan Powter, the exercise queen, I called a halt to the insanity.

Once I got a few months’ rest, I bounced back like a rubber ball. My health has returned and so has my energy. I’m still full of plans and schemes. I’m still here for the community. The difference is, now I’m here for myself, too.

Please, Let’s Not Eat Our Leaders

It’s time for the transgender community to take responsibility for its leadership. We must stop relying on the heroic efforts of the few. We must stop using them up, sucking out their juices, and then kicking the dry husks aside.

We should honor those who have seen the community’s needs and stepped into the breech, and we should understand that every hour they have spent on the community is an hour less they have spent meeting their own needs. When they retire, we should assist them as they transition into private lives—but ultimately, we must stop relying on those who are noble or foolish or egotistical enough to step into leadership roles. We must begin to select our leaders, rather than them selecting us—and we must stop freeloading.

We must all learn to pull together to accomplish our common ends. We must devise methods to train and select our leaders, and we must work harder to support them emotionally and financially.

The day of the charismatic ruler is past. It’s time for us to start hiring, electing, or appointing our leaders and paying them a living wage and giving them a retirement plan. Those who lead the community should be its duly designated, compensated representatives rather than its willing slaves. Our leaders should be given jobs, paid for doing them, and held accountable for doing them properly.

Please, let’s stop eating our leaders.