Unbeknownst to me, around the time I was a pre-teen, a term was established in my family; "the fortress of... (insert my old male name here)." At first, when I came out as gay, my parents thought, 'oh that was it! Maybe now he'll be more open!' However, nothing changed. My mom would always say how I could talk at length about things: politics, music or my friends, but I would never talk about my feelings, or what was going on in my head. Many years later, when I came out as trans, unsurprisingly a slew of friends offered up trans friends of theirs for me to talk to. Even though it was kind of problematic in that, 'oh you're gay? I have a gay friend! You two should be friends!' way, I desperately needed it. Via this moment, I met Shakina Nayfack, director, writer, actress, founder of the Musical Theatre Factory and all around snazzy person (you can check out Shakina's story at www.shakina.nyc).
Until that day, I hadn't met a single other trans person in person. I was nervous as hell. I was wearing what I thought was my best androgynous-femme as if I had something to prove. I arrived at her theater, took the elevator up and when the doors opened, there she was sitting at her desk. Her hair was red and spiky. She was wearing grey leggings, winter boots and a spaghetti strap top that showed off her myriad of tattoos. She was, and is, the kind of person that radiates an energy that only comes from knowing exactly who you are. She was the person I needed to meet that day. She and I went to a nearby Starbucks. She had tea. I had a latte. We talked about our respective backgrounds. We talked about how we came to making the decision to transition. Then she said these words to me: "your transition is your own. No one can tell you how it is or isn't going to go. Only you can define your journey." Shakina has a way of dispensing Yoda-like pearls of wisdom at a moment's notice, just with better grammar.
A few days later, I posted happily on social media about my success with laser hair removal. I quickly got a message from another trans friend I had recently met, who I adore and has been another major rock for me during my transition, telling me I shouldn't talk publicly about my transition. She told me, 'people say they're supportive, but when you get into the nitty gritty they get uncomfortable.' She said "I'm just looking out for you girl." She truly was and continues to. For some people, she is nearly certainly right about that discomfort. But the next question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you care. I still don't necessarily know if I know the answer to that for myself.
Defining my transition is a constant challenge. I have to acknowledge that I am a trans-woman of privilege. I am perceived as white. I am most often perceived as cis. I work in the arts, perhaps the most open field possible to trans identity. These things allow me the luxury of disclosing when I want to, or not disclosing if I don't have to. But more importantly, these things afford me the luxury of being able to be open about my trans identity. Not everyone has that choice. Too many people at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, workplace and geography are still at risk of being ostracized, thrown out, fired, murdered and erased for being out and proud about who they are. Then can you blame the ones who, like me, have the same privileges, but choose to live a quieter more 'stealthy' life? The idea of complete assimilation and invisibility is palpably attractive. Furthermore, because of these privileges I sometimes wonder if my voice is even one worth elevating? However, I am a big believer in the idea that the more a minority group is humanized, the harder it is for people to 'other' us. Once someone knows someone who is trans, and sees that we are flesh and blood people just like anyone else, public opinion starts to change. But at the same time, I remember another Shakina pearl of wisdom; "it is not our job to educate every cis person on the planet." You have to find the balance between being in this moment, and living your life.
Nearly exactly a year after my first meeting with Shakina, she asked me to join her and sit on a panel on gender diversity at Broadway Con, along with other trans artists; Sawyer A DeVuyst, Em Grosland, Jax Jackson and Pooya Mohseni. It was a wonderful afternoon. Towards the end of the discussion, the topic of disclosure and openness came up, and how much we want or should define ourselves as trans. Sawyer said, "Until there's not a single kid who's kicked out, or who kills themselves because of who they are, I will happily wear the trans label." That struck me. Of course this new openness helps cis people understand us better. However, it also provides role models and a base of support for our own community. Suddenly, and I cannot remember who said it first, but collectively the entire panel realized, we are all now at the front line. We are at the front line of visibility and therefore at the front line of providing positive examples and role models for the kids like us. That is why as someone with the privilege of being able to speak out, I cannot stay silent.
Sixteen years ago, when my fortress was first erected, my only examples of trans people were on Jerry Springer or salacious "sex change" stories emblazoned on tabloid magazines. Then I was exposed to the 'tragic trans heroine' in Soldier's Girl, which I furtively watched while my parents were sleeping, knowing deep down that I was like the character of Calpernia from the film (who I want to differentiate from the true life Calpernia). That fortress was erected because I had no positive role models who were like me. I thought I was shameful. I thought if anyone knew my secret that I would have no future. The grand irony is that living authentically has opened doors I never thought possible. In this new era of trans visibility, no kid should ever have to erect their own fortress to hide who they are. I refuse to live in my fortress any longer. During my transition I have torn it down stone by stone and stopped compartmentalizing the past and the present. "The fortress of David" no longer exists. Now I am simply Dana, the sum of all my parts. And as a complete person, if, in my openness I can just be one voice of many that provides a positive example for some kid out there, it will all be worth it.
You can check out more of Dana's writing at www.identifyblog.com