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My Three Transitions (1996)

My Three Transitions (1996)

©1996, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1996-1997, Winter). The third time’s the charm: My three transitions. Chrysalis: The Journal of Transgressive Gender Identities, 2(4), pp. 43-45.






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The Third Time’s the Charm:

My Three Transitions

By Dallas Denny


In the summer of 1968 I came very close to transitioning. I was living in the Ross Fireproof Hotel, a crumbling residential hotel on the corner of 4th Avenue and Union Street in downtown Nashville. I was eighteen years old.

I was working six days a week as a busboy at Shoney’s restaurant. In the evenings, and on my day off, I would leave my eight-dollar-a-week basement room at the Ross, crossdressed, sneak out the back door of the Ross, emerging on Printer’s Alley in the heart of the city. Sometimes I would walk up the hill to Church Street and window shop at Cain Sloan, Castner Knott, and Harvey’s, the three big department stores; eat at one of the restaurants; or go to the movies. Other days I would go down the hill to seedy Broadway. I was not of age to go into the taverns, but I would enjoy the come-ons of drugstore cowboys and other bar denizens as I strolled past on my way to the Ernest Tubb Record Store.

My hair was cut boy-short, but when blended into a fall, it reached to my back. My face was hairless and my features delicate; in miniskirt and makeup, I made an attractive and believable girl. Women smiled and were kind to me, and men tried to make me; no one had any idea I wasn’t what I seemed to be. Sometimes I almost forgot so myself.

I was only eight dollars a week away from being able to live full-time as a woman, but without some sort of guidance from my nonexistent (or so it would seem) peers, and especially without a job, the difficulties in making such a transition seemed insurmountable. Although my name (Dallas) was quite workable, there was no one to tell me so and I didn’t realize it on my own. I would fantasize about finding (or even stealing) a female ID. In fact, once on the street I came across a female driver’s license, but as the birth year of the legitimate owner was 1914, I was afraid to use it. I feared—probably quite rightly—what would happen should I find myself at the police station.

But even more, I was disgusted and horrified by what was happening to my body. I was starting to find hairs in the sink, and for the first time, more than a few scattered dark whiskers on my face. I hated the changes, but I saw no way, short of self-emasculation, to stop them—and I wasn’t quite ready to castrate myself in a hotel room.

My terror and my desire and my despair counterbalanced each other, and I never made that transition. Eventually, my fate was decided for me. I was spotted leaving my room by the hotel clerk, and promptly evicted for having a woman in my room. I tried later, in boy mode, to explain that it had been me, but he refused to believe it.

I wound up once again living at home with my parents in the country, my forays to Nashville limited to those few times when I could save enough money to rent a motel room for a night or two. Eventually, my life and my changing body led me to adulthood, and not as the young woman I would rather have been. Certainly, I never got the chance to experience whichever life might have been waiting for a trans girl named Dallas.

Ten years later, in 1978, I had been married and divorced. A beard of nearly ten years was gone, and the long-buried feelings were stronger than ever after years of keeping myself too tightly scheduled to allow time to crossdress. As I unpacked after moving back to Nashville from Knoxville, where I had attended graduate school, I started to shove the secret box containing my female identity under my bed, but then stopped and did my first little bit of coming out. “Face it,” I said to myself, although probably more crudely than I remember. “This is a big part and maybe the biggest part of who you are, and it’s not going to go away. It’s time to stop pretending it didn’t exist and integrate it into your life.”

And so I did. I put my clothes in the closet, my wigs on the dresser, and my makeup on the nightstand for all to see. I informed my friends that I crossdressed; they didn’t seem to care much one way or another. And then I asked myself the Big Question: Did I want to be a woman? The answer, of course, was yes.

Those were the days of Renée Richards and Canary Cohn and Jan Morris and Wendy Carlos, and I had acquired a bit of knowledge about how to go about making such a change. Looking in the mirror at the 30-year-old man I had somehow become, I asked myself the hard question: considering the limits of medical technology, would I, with the help of hormones and surgery, ever be able to achieve an appearance that would not get me instantly clocked everywhere I went? I decided that if the answer was no, I wouldn’t transition.

Ten years earlier, at age 18, the answer to the question “Will I someday pass?” would have been an unequivocal yes. Ten years in the future, at age 38, the answer would have been an unequivocal no. Looking at my thinning hair and hardening features, the best answer I could come up with was an unequivocal maybe.

Gaining access to the medical technology I needed wasn’t easy, but eventually I managed, starting hormones in January, 1980. But in 1978, successful crossdressing was becoming somewhat of a challenge. My hair was long, but I was balding; even with teasing there just wasn’t enough of it to allow me to appear in public without a wig. My beard had come in dark, and covering it required lots of makeup. I found that I passed casual inspection, but when I was around people for long, at least one of them would suspect me. Nevertheless, I ventured out with an illicitly obtained social security card and applied for—and got—a job as a Kelly girl.

The first placement was purely temporary, but at the second, I came to realize that as a woman, I might be able to have something that resembled a life. I had been called to fill in between semesters as secretary at the English department at Fisk University. No one questioned my identity, and in fact, everyone except the head of the department, who seemed to hate everyone, seemed to like me. Some of the professors flirted with me, and the other secretary taught me how to play the numbers and took me to lunch. The department head would stare holes in me, but others seemed to receive the same glare. I didn’t think she had clocked me, but it still made me nervous, and I spent a great deal of my considerable free time looking in the mirror and touching up my makeup and making sure my wig wasn’t awry. I felt insecure because I was so high-maintenance. I could make myself look like a woman, but it no longer felt natural. Putting myself together in hopes I would pass required a lot of work, more than I could keep up, for my neck was chafed from close shaving and my wig was beginning to suffer from daily wear. So when I learned the position I was filling was open and that I was a shoe-in, I didn’t apply—nor, when I got a call to tell me I had a permanent job as a keypunch operator, did I go. It wasn’t that I didn’t desperately want to live as a woman; it wasn’t that I didn’t want the jobs; it wasn’t that there were any relationships or entanglements in my male life that would have made it difficult to transition; it was because something didn’t feel right. I wasn’t even sure what it was. With an opportunity to live full-time and make enough money to keep a roof over my head while doing so, I walked away form the very thing I wanted most in the world. I didn’t understand until years later that it had been because my body had not been prepared and I had felt at some level like an imposter.

Another ten years passed. It was 1988. Except for a couple of six-week drug holidays, I had been on estrogens for an entire decade. I had changed physically, profoundly so. Certainly, I was more comfortable in my own skin, for my hair had grown back, my body hair had diminished, and my skin and features had grown softer. I was in an exasperating and unfulfilling relationship that was going nowhere. My life had stalled, even if my feminization had not.

In January, I confronted my lover and told her the relationship must improve. We were wasting our lives; if we were to remain together, we must start working on our mutually unsatisfactory relationship. I pleaded with her to go with me to a therapist. She refused. I told her I loved her and that as painful as I found it, I would be willing to remain in the male role for her sake—but that if things didn’t change for the better, I was going to look into my other life options. Things of course didn’t change.

In September I joined Tri-Ess, and in February of the next year, I made the decision to complete my transition and began taking steps (like electrolysis and coming out to family and friends) to enable me to do so. Predictably, my lover said, “I knew you were going to do this!”

And so on 17 December, 1989, I found myself on the road in a U-Haul truck that contained everything I owned. I had changed out of my old clothes (jeans and sweatshirt was about as “male” as I got) and put on a skirt and blouse before leaving my apartment in Tennessee. I was bound for Georgia, and, hopefully, a new life.

I had friends in Atlanta, and I had some savings, and a place to stay for a while, and I had a graduate degree and a variety of marketable job skills, so I knew I wasn’t likely to wind up on the street. Although ten years of hormones have made me as passable as I had been in my days at the Ross Hotel, I found myself wondering if by changing my gender role I had consigned myself to a future of marginal jobs and temp work. I had taken considerable pains with my paper trail, but would my new identity as female hold up or would my former “M” status pop up on a computer screen or in a letter and cost me jobs I might otherwise have gotten? I wondered if I would ever have a professional position, and if so, how long it would take me to work my way up to a paycheck that equaled the one I had just walked away from. It was, after all, a time when practically all transsexuals were in stealth mode.

By the time the truck was unloaded and my belongings were squared away, it was Christmas. I began my job search just after New Year’s Day. I surprised myself by being at perfect ease at interviews; it was the very opposite of my 1978 experience. This time I was for real; my femininity was, or at least felt to me, bone deep, and not just an artifact of clothing and makeup.

The second job I interviewed for was perfect, the analog of my former position in Tennessee, with a salary close to the one I had before, and only three miles from where I was living. I wanted the position, and told the Director so, and about ten days later, she called me and told me the position was mine. I started on 5 February, 1990, less than two months after leaving Tennessee. Twelve years later, I’m still on the job.

Having a professional position did wonders for my self-confidence. From the beginning, I was conducting meetings, communicating with other professionals, and dealing with clients and their families. My transsexual status was and is neither known nor suspected, and that fact helps me keep my life in balance. As editor of this journal and Executive Director of AEGIS, my gender work is a major theme in my life—but not during the forty hours a week when I’m at my job. There, people make assumptions about my gender based on my appearance, dress,and behavior, and I don’t disabuse them of their notions.

When I transitioned I had been led to believe I would be unsuccessful as a transsexual if I didn’t blend anonymously into the greater society. That was, after all, the zeitgeist of the time. I quickly realized that being an activist was incompatible with woodworking. I made a compromise: I would do my job as director of AEGIS; if that led to the need to disclose, so be it—I would let matters take their natural course.

It’s been amazing. Despite the frequent appearance of my name and photo in local and national gay, lesbian, and transgender community publications, despite having been interviewed for local TV news on five separate occasions, despite having been quoted in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution and having my name mentioned on the Rush Limbaugh Show, despite articles and letters with my name appearing in popular magazines like Esquire and Playboy and Utne Reader, my transsexual status is not known at work. My supervisor found out in 1992 when I was outed by a phone call from someone in the community who was angry with me, but no one else has ever acted as if they might suspect. I’m quite sure they don’t. One of my co-workers saw me on television in the 1995 Pride parade and awkwardly broached the subject. “Yes, that was me,” I said. I imagine she thinks I’m lesbian, although she might have figured out I’m transsexual from the sign I was carrying and the company I was keeping. She’s somewhat less friendly than she was before, but has apparently decided (as did my supervisor) to keep the matter to herself.

Of course, the shoe might drop at any time. I’m prepared for it if and when it happens, and even blasé about it. My supervisor and her supervisor have officially known since 1992; it’s unlikely my transsexualism will suddenly become an issue after seven years on the job and five years after disclosure to my higher-ups;. Perhaps my co-workers would be surprised, and perhaps they would say, “Oh, we’ve known all along.” In either case, I can’t imagine things would change very much.

At no time in my life have I deliberated moved away from transition, but I’ve tried to make wise decisions about moving toward it. At all three of my transition points, I wanted to and was psychologically ready to make the big move. At all three times, employment, or lack of same, played a big role in the decision. In 1968, I didn’t think I could get a job, as I had no credentials. In 1978, having the appropriate paperwork, but a body that was not in my opinion ready for transition, I didn’t think I could hold a job without my transsexualism becoming an issue. Ten years later, the porridge was just right, and I made the decision to go ahead.

Occasionally I resent the loss of 20 years in role, but most of the time I pat myself on the back for going with my feelings and not jumping into situations which didn’t feel right. I can’t know intellectually what would have happened had I transitioned in 1968 or 1978, but in my heart, I know I would have been physically or psychologically damaged (or both) by transitioning at either of those times. But the third time was the charm; it’s been marvelous since 1989, and I have absolutely no regrets.

Having a job is not only an important part of my personal identity; as I have no source of private income, it’s necessary that I work in order to stay off the street. If I had had money in the bank in 1968 or 1978, I would undoubtedly have transitioned. Even if I had physical characteristics that would have made me unlikely that I would ever pass, I would perhaps have transitioned if I had had a guaranteed income. Had I had peer or family support in 1968 or 1978, I would perhaps have made the decision to transition. I made what seemed the wisest choice under the circumstances. Had my life or body been different, my decisions might have been different.

We each of us must chart our own course based on our own circumstances and hope in the absence of any assurance that we are doing what is right for us. And then we must live with the consequences of those decisions. In an imperfect and in fact scary world, what is right for one person may be the worst thing for another. The better we educate ourselves about our options and the better we pave the way beforehand for our transitions, the better our change of surviving them.