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Debra Davis discusses her life as a transgender male to female

The final leg of Debra Davis' journey into public life happened in the spring of 1998. As a high school librarian, she left work one Friday as a man and returned the following week as herself, a woman.

"The man (was) never to be seen again - if he ever existed," Davis said.

Davis, a librarian at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, is transgender male to female, which means she was born a male but identifies herself as female. She is believed to be the first secondary educator who has direct, daily contact with students to come out as transgender and transition successfully while on the job.

She spoke twice on Wednesday at Bemidji State University and attended Thursday's quarterly meeting of the Rural AIDS Action Network.

During her presentations at BSU she offered definitions about transgender, described her transition, and spoke about compassion and being comfortable with a person's own self.

Transgender, according to Davis, is a broad term used to encompass all manifestations of crossing gender barriers. It includes all who cross-dress or otherwise transgress gender norms and all others who wish to belong. It includes those who have and have not undergone gender reassignment surgery.

While transgender can include the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, Davis said gender identity is not equivalent to sexual orientation.

Gender identification is "who you believe you are," she said. Sexual orientation refers to the sex to which a person is attracted.

"Even though they are similar, they're very different," she said.

Identity confusion

But they do share some commonalities in that both groups of people have "always felt different," Davis said.

Davis, the executive director of the Gender Education Center, knew she was different even as a young boy. While attending church, where boys wore white shirts and bow ties, she would see the girls in frilly dresses and was jealous. Growing up, the boys played baseball and football and kick-the-can in the front yard while the girls would play house in the back. Davis participated in both sets of activities.

"The other little boys didn't do that," she said.

In high school, she was president of her youth church group and an Eagle Scout. In college, she was president of a fraternity.

After college, she married and had two daughters. The marriage lasted for 28 years, Davis said, and ended amicably.

Her wife "just realized that she didn't want to married to another woman," Davis said.

Having married as David Nielsen, Davis struggled with her identity years ago. She started buying makeup and women's clothing and hiding it in her home. She would then "purge" and throw everything away, only to begin to replace everything she had tossed.

"Some of us have done this more than once," Davis said, explaining that most transgender people feel guilty and ashamed for feeling different.

Davis began living two sets of lives. At work, she was David Nielsen, the librarian and educator. But at home and to the rest of the world, she was Debra Davis. She attended conferences and gave presentations about what it means to be transgender.

In 1997, Davis decided she didn't want to live a dual life any longer. Late that year, she approached the Minneapolis School District and came out as a transgender person and told officials of her plans to be Debra Davis at work in the position she had held for 28 years.

"I want to work with young people, because I adore working with young people," Davis said, explaining that she didn't want to be moved into an administrative position away from her students.

Similar transitions had been attempted throughout the nation. It never had been done successfully, Davis said.

But she had the law on her side: Minnesota was the first state in the country to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination through the 1993 Minnesota Human Rights Act.

General support

The Minneapolis School District also supported Davis. A plan was developed and on Friday, May 1, 1998, David Nielsen walked out of Southwest High and ceased to exist.

"For the first time in my life, I never had to lie again," Davis said.

Monday was a staff-development day and students were not in school. For the first time, Debra Davis introduced herself to her colleagues. She also addressed the staff during a special meeting.

A letter had previously been sent home with students, so when they returned to school on Tuesday, they knew what to expect.

There were some gawkers, Davis said, including one girl who leaned her elbows on the counter, placed her chin in her hands and stared at the new woman in the library.

"You know, you're the same person," the girl told Davis.

"Yes, I am the same person," Davis replied.

After a slight pause, the student grinned, "You go, girl."

Another student, a football player, offered to walk her to her car, if she felt she needed the protection.

Davis didn't. The administration, faculty, students and parents were very supportive, she said.

"I got very little flak from anybody," she said. "The vast majority of the staff supported me."

At least 97 percent anyway, she said.

Lawsuit filed

Davis had to defend herself in court after a co-worker, Carla Cruzan, filed a federal lawsuit after she saw Davis in the women's restroom. Cruzan previously filed a lawsuit with the Minnesota Human Rights Department, but it was dismissed. Cruzan then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the school asking the federal court to block Davis from being able to use the women's restroom. Cruzan lost, and appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit also ruled in Davis' favor; Cruzan did not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Family response

The workplace was the site of Davis' final transition. She previously had come out as transgender to her family and friends.

Her two daughters handled her news "very well," Davis said. The younger of the two responded exceptionally well, she said, and Davis once asked her why she was so comfortable with Davis' new identity.

Her daughter replied, 'When we were growing up, we never knew who was coming to dinner,'" Davis said.

As a family, Davis said, they had an eclectic mix of guests and friends.

"(The children) learned diversity by experiencing it," Davis said.

Between 1 and 5 percent of the population is transgender, Davis said. If BSU has a population of about 5,000, that means 50 to 250 students on campus are transgender, she said.

Those who do "come out of the closet" as transgender often struggle with who to tell, when to tell and how often to tell, she said.

For instance, Davis said, she doesn't tell the check-out woman at the grocery store that she is transgender.

"Am I closeted? Oh no, I'm very, very out, but I don't wear it on my forehead," she said.

When introducing herself, Davis says she is a friend, neighbor, parent and a grandmother.

"And, oh yes, I also happen to be transgender," she said. "It's not a huge piece of who I am. But, sometimes, when people look at me, that's all they see."

All people have their own secrets, their own closets, she said, but the key to acceptance is to get involved and form allies.

"This is how we're going to change the world - by getting to know each other," she said.