Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Stockbroker to Streets to Publisher: A Transgender Odyssey
Interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Photos: Dana Rea, top; and Dana with her fiancée Timothea, bottom
I met Dana Rea on November 20, 2008, when she and her partner Timothea showed up to do the march and rally for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual worldwide commemoration of all victims of Transgender-related murders during the year. I was immediately struck by her calm self-assurance and self-control. The bits and pieces of her story she told me that night made me want to interview her — and when she mentioned that she and Timothea intend to launch a new independent magazine, Changing Times in San Diego, next summer I felt like we were kindred spirits. So, since she tells her story far better than I could, here’s Dana Rea.
Zenger’s: Dana, just tell me about your life, how you grew up and how old were you when you first realized you were Transgender.
Dana Rea: I first realized I liked being a girl when I was three years old, when my mother dressed me up as a girl for Hallowe’en. I don’t know if I was confused or anything at that age. It just felt more natural as a girl. When I was of age, 18, I sought out help and I got on hormones. I told my mother and my sister, and they immediately hit the roof. They went ballistic, so to speak, and they had enough power for them literally to close the doctor’s office down for putting me on hormones.
So I grew up essentially as a boy. I wasn’t really dysfunctional, but I started running away from home at the age of 12. I had to to put myself through school, because I couldn’t take the way they wanted me to be. They wanted me to be like everybody else. I had regular jobs, and grew up the way society dictates somebody in a male body should grow up.
I wouldn’t say that my life was “normal” at all. I made very good money. I was a stockbroker, and very good at it, and to hide my feelings and what was inside of me, I became a workaholic. That’s why I was one of the best: I was one of the ones willing to put in 16 hours a day, until I was just literally exhausted.
A lot of [Transgender] people dull their minds with drugs and alcohol; I dulled my mind with working 16 hours a day, on call 24 hours a day, and that’s pretty much how I dealt with not being who I knew I was. I really didn’t know the ins and outs of Transgenderism, and it kind of scared me. I remember thinking, “Well, here I am. I know I want to be a girl, a woman.” I couldn’t relate it to the word “Transgender.”
Zenger’s: Are you saying you thought you were the only one?
Rea: Yes. I never knew there was a society of Transgender people. In today’s world, you have probably five or six programs on TV that have to do with Transgenders. Five or six years ago, when they’d bring a Transgender on Jerry Springer or something like that, it was considered a novelty, a novelty enough to bring them on Jerry Springer or other shows. You don’t see anybody bring a Gay man on to Jerry Springer and ask them why they’re Gay, but it’s pretty much the same. Scientific evidence has proved that it’s not something that’s a choice.
In my earlier years I took psychotropic medications to control my panic disorders and my depression, which were a direct result of being Transgender. Yet I still was not dealing I didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t deal with not being able to get out of this body. I had gender dysphoria very badly throughout my life, and I hid it very well from people, mainly with the panic disorders. They prescribed me Xanax and Klonapin, which controls your anxiety to a deeper level than the anti-depressants. I mean, they pretty much take over your life. But it still didn’t do much good. I mean, the pills just allowed me to work more hours. And I did.
But I always knew that I wanted to be female. Take that back — I always knew that I was female, and I couldn’t understand why I was in this deformed body. I don’t see my body as male, and back then I didn’t see it as female. I felt like I was in a deformed body, and I guess that’s why they say, when you’re going to have a sex change, they call it “corrective surgery.” They don’t say “sex-change surgery,” it’s “corrective surgery.” That’s what I set out to do quite a ways back: that eventually I would have the operation that would correct the body that I’m in.
In the meantime, I could not just continue to hide behind a façade of being a guy, because it was very, very painful mentally. It ended up being painful for a lot of other people in my life. Before transition, before you start to realize that you have to change or suffer anxiety for the rest of your life, and depression. You do things that you’re not too proud of. To define myself, or to bury my feelings and live as society dictated, I ended up getting married and divorced a total of seven times. One doctor, a psychiatrist, told me that I was basically marrying my perception of a woman, because I wanted to be like that.
Zenger’s: So you were looking for partners that were really yourself, that were really what you aspired to be, to transform yourself into?
Rea: Yes, it was my fantasy to be them. That’s how I would be if I were born in the right body. I wouldn’t be overweight. I would be pretty. My last wife was a Budweiser girl. They were strictly top-of-the-line girls as far as I was concerned. But as far as romance and love, there was none. I was a very good salesperson — that’s what I had to be to be a successful stockbroker — I sold myself very well to those women. My regret is that I broke a lot of hearts, and a lot of dreams and hopes for these girls.
I think I’ve paid the price over the years. I’ve paid more than the price. The last five or six years, I’ve been having the worst streak of bad luck, and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Now I think that’s what it was: I was paying for what I had done in my life, using people, using their femininity to bring it inside me, until I would have it. I would never marry out of love again if I wasn’t absolutely sure, because breaking somebody’s heart and dreams must be the worst thing in the world.
Zenger’s: How did you handle this in other respects? You’re a stockbroker, you’re good at it, you’re presumably making a lot of money. To the rest of the world, you were presenting the image of a successful, dedicated, together young man. How did you handle the gap between what you presented and what you are?
Rea: It got to the point where I could not hide it any longer. I don’t think I could hide it in the first place. didn’t act feminine, as the person I grew up being, but four out of the seven wives, without any encouragement, without [me] mentioning a word, wanted to dress me up as a female. That doesn’t include when my mother did it. How they grabbed that, I don’t know. They just one day said, “I want to dress you up as a girl.” And of course I was game!
The first time I dressed up as a female in my teens, it was like most Transgenders. It’s not like you can just start living your life, especially in my household. Mine had to be a fantasy world in which I hid a lot of emotions, and the more you hide these things, the more it comes out in other ways, such as remarrying and remarrying and having panic disorder and having your disorders get worse, and having phobias. Stress is going to come out, no matter what. And it’s going to evolve in different ways.
But after that, when I had my own place, then I started dressing up at home and going out. And it wasn’t like a scary thing to go out. I felt so comfortable with myself, and so much at ease. I simply got ready and walked out the door.
Zenger’s: I understand your financial position took a nosedive as a result of this. How did you handle that?
Rea: I always wondered how people became homeless. My last wife died about six years ago now. She was O.K. with me being Transgender, and we were best friends. She was the only person I had loved in my life, and she died. She was only 29 at the time, and up until last year, she’s the only one I’ve been with in the last six years until just recently, when I got engaged. After her death, I mourned for about a year and then I moved to Mexico.
Zenger’s: How did she die?
Rea: She killed herself. She had a twin sister, and she blamed herself for her sister’s death. I had talked to her parents, knowing that in this span before I knew her she had tried to commit suicide many time. She tried about six times during our two-year marriage. And though she was unsuccessful, it wasn’t one of these cries for help. I mean, each time the doctors in the emergency rooms were surprised she lived.
One time, they came out and told me to start making arrangements, that there was no way she was going to live, and that they were pronouncing her dead. I had gone out to the car and cried, until I fell asleep, and the next thing I know there are people pounding on my car, telling me that she was alive, and once again she escaped from the suicide. So when she tried again, she made sure that she used enough drugs to fall asleep immediately and never wake up again.
After that, and after burying her next to her twin sister, I decided I wanted to go to a place that was going to be easier for me to be Transgender and get the things that I needed, and that was Mexico. I think back on this and it was very, very stupid, but I did, and I moved to Mexico and I transferred what portion of my business I needed down there.
I lived in Mexico for four years, and the entire time I was there I would meet people, and they would become my friends. Little did I know that this was a syndicated group that sets these things up. When they see that you’re an American and you’ve got a lot of money, they do checks on you and find out who you are, how much money you have. Well, the time came. I was about three days away from my operation, my final operation, something I’d been waiting for my entire life, and they stole everything from me.
They were able to get into my bank accounts and steal all the cash. I had four vehicles. I had a $187,000 motor home. It’s all gone. They took everything: all my clothing. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I was lucky to make it back to the United States alive. But, you know, they probably didn’t even give it a second thought that it was not only my financial assets, but they were stripping me of my identity, because when I left Mexico and I finally got to San Diego I didn’t know anybody.
I didn’t know anybody in the country. I didn’t know anybody out of the country, anyone in the world. I didn’t have a dime to my name, and I really had no clue what to do to get out of this. I had suffered such a massive blow — I mean, then and the years prior, with all the suicides, with my dead wife and best friend, and prior to that my previous wife had sold our kids to the Mormons in Utah by signing my name, and so my three kids are lost to me forever.
All these have caused me a great deal of depression. It has exacerbated my depression, my anxiety, and my faith in humankind. And when I got here, I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I started blaming everybody: blaming myself, blaming my deceased wife, blaming God for [my] being Transgender, to losing my kids, to losing my identity. I had no hope for the future. I tried to kill myself six times. Today, I’m really glad I didn’t succeed in killing myself, because I see a lot of pluses today instead of minuses.
Zenger’s: How did you pull out of it?
Rea: It wasn’t easy. I think it was about eight attempts of getting out of it, trying to utilize the system. I had filed for disability because of my depression and my anxiety were more than I could handle anymore. I couldn’t deal with people. I couldn’t face the world. And yet I was homeless! I had to deal with people and face the world, even as a homeless person.
Being homeless and Transgender is not easy. I hid between three and four jackets, and an Ace bandage strapped around my chest — my breasts — and a ball cap, and I tried to do everything I could to survive. I’d never been homeless before. I’d always been employed, and I just couldn’t do a thing.
But I went through the system, and each time I thought I was going to get out of this, something happened that ruined my plans, and everything I had worked on for months to get out of it. After it failed and I was still homeless, I would come up with another plan, approach it again, acquire more resources. Then I’d attack it again, but I noticed that each time I attacked it I was weaker. More had happened to me, more negative stuff, more losses had occurred each time. My doctor even wrote a letter saying that if this continues I would continue to deteriorate, physically and mentally.
Zenger’s: So how did you finally get out of it?
Rea: I felt a mental breakdown coming on, and I had finished trying to kill myself. I didn’t want to die. The whole thing is I wanted to live, and I made arrangements to get into a crisis house and get myself back at least to a certain level where I felt good about myself again. I knew that I had to focus on my self-esteem, and that was the most important thing. So that’s what I began doing. That was where I started.
Then, through MAI, which is my case-management, and through Consumer Health Advocacy of San Diego, I was able to put together a new plan and get to the point where I was in a semi-stable living situation, and going out and meeting people and basically networking with people. But it was very, very difficult, because at this point, after years of just being abused mentally and physically, I had no trust for anybody. Trusting anybody was very, very hard. I still don’t trust most people. But with time it brought me to a new level, as far as getting out of the circle.
Then a friend of mine who had a two-bedroom apartment, with one room that wasn’t being utilized, let me move in there, which made a big difference in my life. This was the first help I’d ever received from an individual. I’d received some help from some agencies and been able to get off the street for two weeks at a time, with a voucher here and a voucher there. But this was the first time I’d been helped by an individual, a friend.
Then, things happened and I ended up getting engaged. I feel I was already out of the circle, that I’d never again be homeless. I mean, just hard work and keep doing it, never give up. I felt that I was finally out of it, and then getting engaged brought a whole new light to everything. I mean, I am not somebody that uses somebody for money, I’m the last person that you’ll know to ever do something like that, but my fiancée’s not rich, but well off, and she helps me a great deal financially. I don’t ever have to worry about being on the street again, and that’s all I wanted.
I cannot do what I used to do any longer. I cannot be a stockbroker, I am not the same person. For eight years I’ve lived my life as a woman, but I’ve never worked as a woman. My depression is currently under control. My anxiety is controlled by medication, but that’s what it takes sometimes. Because of my distrust for a lot of things, it’s going to take a little bit to get back to where I was mentally. I’m hoping that in a couple of years, between the California Department of Rehabilitation and a group called Able-Disabled Advocacy [www.abledisabledadvocacy.org], I will be back in the workforce, and I will have made enough money to pay for my surgery, which I’m scheduling to have January of 2011.
Zenger’s: What would your advice be to someone, based on your own experience, someone in their late teens, 18 or 19, with a mind-set like yours at that age?
Rea: Well, it’s different now. They have organizations that deal with young adults and even children as low as age 3, 4 or 5, that have been diagnosed as Transgender. So they have a lot more at hand than most people or myself in getting help in those areas. That’s one of the things that I’ll be addressing in the magazine that my partner and I are starting, which is called Changing Times in San Diego. It’s being set up by a non-profit organization called TEAM, an acronym for Transgender Education And Management. That’s to help people like myself who have been caught homeless, because there’s nothing worse than being both homeless and Transgender.
You can’t even get a shower when you’re homeless. A man can get a shower, and a woman can get a shower, but a Transgender can’t get a shower, because unless you’ve had your full surgery, you can’t shower with the women and you can’t shower with the men. And even for those who are true Transgender, you wouldn’t want to shower with all the men. You’d be horrifically embarrassed to shower with all the women. I bumped into just too much, and when I got a shower offered to me I was very, very grateful. It’s horrible being dirty all the time, no matter how clean you try to keep yourself. But you’ve just got to be very, very careful who you ask for a free shower. You have to be careful whom you deal with on the streets.
For younger adults, there’s a lot of help. And there’s a lot of help even for the middle-aged adult who comes out of the closet at a late age because of circumstances. There are so many support groups these days that I didn’t even know existed. I didn’t even know groups for Gays and Lesbians existed. When I came out as Transgender, I simply changed and that was it. I didn’t worry about what people thought, what people said. It was an easy transition for me in that manner.
But now I need to ramp things up, and I still need to look for help. I need to get a car somehow and get into the Department of Rehab, who’ve already got me on file and have put me in Category 1, so they’re willing to do a lot for me. But I’ve got to be able to pull my weight, too. There’s nothing more satisfying than working — and it’s the only way I’ll be able to pay for my surgery. That’s not covered by any plan that I know of. Even though it’s corrective surgery, there’s no county or government agency that’s going to pay for it.
Zenger’s: Tell me a little more about the magazine: what kinds of help you have besides the two of you, and what kinds of articles you will publish.
Rea: Well, the target group we have for this particular magazine is broader than other Transgender magazines that I’ve seen. That’s because we’re going after educating the general public, and support. It’ll be more of a geographical target, rather than a target to a specific group.
The articles will deal all the way from political news and fundraising, because the Transgender arena needs help raising money, to specific health issues, focusing on Transgenders that are using hormones or female-to-male Transgenders that are using testosterone, and the specific things that can be affected by them: where to get them, how much, how you can get them at a lesser cost. Some people can’t afford them.
When I got here, I had been on hormones for five years, and I could not get my hormones, and it’s not something that you want to go off of cold turkey. It’s only by chance that I came here with a pretty good supply, but as the supply was dwindling I didn’t know what to do. I had hit every LGBT organization, and they were unable to help me until I got hold of somebody at the Center, and because I am a woman, they were able to help me through the Toni Atkins Breast Awareness Foundation.
But this is not something that could be done all the time. It was done for an emergency a couple of times, and now, because I get such a psychological benefit from the hormones, aside from the physical, Medi-Cal pays for my hormones. Otherwise I’d be in a very, very bad situation mentally. I might be dead!
Zenger’s: Who do you expect will advertise in it? Are you going to support it without ad revenue, or do you want to build an ad base?
Rea: You have to understand that the education part of the magazine is not really the magazine itself. The support groups and education, both for Transgender people and the general public will be coming from the non-profit organization TEAM, which in turn will fund the magazine. We don’t expect to make money off the magazine. Playboy loses $10 million a year on its magazine. It makes its money on all the other things that it does. That’s what I’m looking to fashion it after, only utilizing a nonprofit organization that’s going to help people out, and that would be mainly Transgenders that are in a problem area.
I know many girls that are on the streets as prostitutes because that’s the only choice they have to put a roof over their heads. And that’s a sad choice. I’ve talked to some of these girls, and they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to start their lives that way, but they have no other way to pay for their hormones. They don’t have an education, and they can’t go to school or they wouldn’t have a place to live. And, unfortunately, they end up getting into drugs and becoming alcoholics and partying all the time, and pretty soon they’re lost. Pretty soon it’s five, six, seven years later, and in their face they look 20 years older because the streets are a hard place to be.
If I thought I was going to be able to fund the magazine through advertisers, I’d be kidding myself. I’ve opened and operated a lot of businesses. Most magazines do lose money. But to use that magazine for other purposes, rather than a revenue stream, the magazine could take off like a rocket.