New tolerance emerging as transsexual fights for job

But discrimination is still widespread for transgendered

(published in the San Jose Mercury News, 10/31/1999)


THE EVOLUTION of morality is often like a slow-motion movie, with changes in attitudes barely perceptible from one year to the next. Occasionally, however, something happens to signal the beginning of a brand new scene.

One such event is unfolding in Antelope, near Sacramento, where transsexual teacher Dana Rivers is battling to keep her job. Her story is like that of most transsexuals, except for one thing: the remarkable level of support she is receiving from her community.

Dana's students have rallied to demand her reinstatement. The media, including national television shows like ``Today'' and ``Good Morning America,'' have warmed to her cause. Supporters have launched a campaign to recall the trustees who want to fire her.

Widespread support

Her fight for justice has drawn the support of a wide spectrum of her community, far outside the safe havens of liberal San Francisco and Silicon Valley. That, to me, is a hopeful sign that America is changing.

I met Dana at an electrolysis center in San Jose. We were both having our beards removed, a 300-hour process. Dana was coming in every day -- she wanted to be done by September.

As I got to know her, I learned she was an award-winning teacher at a high school near Sacramento. In her spare time she set up a sophisticated video production lab and helped win an $800,000 grant to rewire her school with a state-of-the-art multimedia network.

Until the end of last school year, everyone knew her as David. As she was planning her transition from male to female this September, she wrote to her colleagues and superiors, announcing her plans.

The Center Unified School District board then sent a letter to parents. When a small group of four conservative parents complained, the school board placed Dana on administrative leave pending dismissal. Her alleged transgression: explaining to her questioning students why she was undergoing her change, which was portrayed as discussing matters of ``human sexuality'' without parental consent.

For this, school officials will discard one of their best teachers, the video lab and the network. Why?

There is no simple answer. What is clear is that the rigid policing of the boundary between male and female begins very early.

Like Dana, I realized I was different about the time I began kindergarten. I had many girls as friends, and soon other children and adults were noticing that I was acting like one. Through a host of pressures, I was steered away and encouraged to act like a boy.

Life of danger

As I grew older, I learned that acting like a girl in a boy's body places you in great emotional and physical danger. I became a master of evasion and focused my interest on science and technology. Gradually, I constructed an illusion of masculinity, for others and myself. I became a counterculture maven, a video game engineer and a married man.

Lurking deep within my fantasies was an image of a woman inside. Sometimes, at the extremes of experience, I would let her out briefly, scrounging some female clothes and wearing them for a few hours. Overwhelmed by guilt, I would then discard the clothing in a dumpster somewhere far from where I lived.

While differing in detail, Dana's story is the same as mine. Her path included a stint in the Navy, three marriages and fatherhood. Eventually we both came to the same realizations.

Six years ago, I discovered a bulletin board on the Internet for transgendered people. One article described the author's experience of going to a Halloween party dressed as a woman and thoroughly enjoying it. It struck me that such happiness was possible for me, too. I joined our local support group and came out, and the walls fell quickly. Misanthropy and paranoia receded; I became a leader in the transgender community, taking on volunteer jobs and becoming an activist.

As layers of illusion washed away, I sensed a strong current, a force, pulling me toward femininity. Resisting it brought deep depression and anxiety. I too began the transition process, undergoing therapy, undoing damage and learning new ways of being.

I began taking hormones and undergoing electrolysis. While these developments are extremely dismaying to my wife, this remarkable woman has stayed with me.

In September, I began coming to work in my feminine persona, and the reception has been good.

Silicon Valley is a transgender haven. We're tolerated, often accepted here because of our creative gifts.

Significant inventions in new media, internetworking, biotechnology, aerospace and electronic entertainment industries have come from us. I know more than 15 of us working in the video game industry alone. Almost every larger high-tech company has had someone make a transition on the job, and the process is often smooth and supportive.

Discrimination, violence

But as Dana's case shows, other parts of the state and country are less tolerant. Even here in the valley, we face discrimination and the threat of harassment and violence. Nationally, one of us is murdered every month, and 60 percent have been assaulted at some time in our lives.

Even in its subtler forms, the oppressive force crumples many of us: We are cast into a callous world, often losing the support of family and friends. More than a few of us, like noted transsexual psychiatrist Shoshanna Gillick in San Mateo, have chosen suicide over loneliness and despair.

There is still no answer as to why. Culture theorists delight in deconstructing gender -- arguing various explanations of why such intolerance has evolved. The answers do not matter as much as the realization that the situation must change: Discrimination must end, violence must be prevented.

Dana will land on her feet. The campaign on her behalf is strong. Even if the school board fires her, she surely can find work here in the valley, from companies who would value her ability to implement new technologies.

But her story marks only the beginning of this shift in American morality. How the scene plays out is up to all of us. There are many new women like Dana, with great gifts to share. We must stop throwing them away.

Jamie Faye Fenton ( is a transsexual software engineer in Silicon Valley and an activist with the Transgender Forum (http: //