Five Questions With… Dallas Denny

dallas dennyDallas Denny, M.A., is founder and was for ten years Executive Director of the American Educational Gender Information Service, Inc. (AEGIS), a national clearinghouse on transsexual and transgender issues. She is currently on the board of Gender Education & Advocacy, Inc., AEGIS’ successor organization, which lives at www.gender.org. She is Director of Fantasia Fair and editor of Transgender Tapestry magazine and was editor and publisher of the late Chrysalis: The Journal of Transgressive Gender Identities. Dallas is a prolific writer with hundreds of articles and three books to her credit. She recently decided to retire her license to practice psychology in Tennessee, since she seems to have found a permanent home in Pine Lake, Georgia, pop. 650, the world’s smallest municipality with a transgender nondiscrimination ordinance.

1) You’ve been a trans educator/activist for a long time now: what do you see as the biggest development in terms of trans politics since you’ve been doing this?

When I began my activism in 1989, the community was almost entirely about education– outreach to the general public and information to other transpeople. There wasn’t much information available, and much of that wasn’t very good or was outdated– and even the bad information could be almost impossible to find. The rapid growth of the community in the 1990s and especially the explosion of the internet made information much easier to find.

Somewhere around 1993, the community had reached a point at which political activism had become possible. Of course, some of us had always been doing that, but it hadn’t been a prime focus of the community, and what had been done had been sporadic and short-lived, often was done by a single individual or a small group, and tended to happen in places like San Francisco and New York City. This activism did give us some political gains– most notably in Minnesota, which adopted state-wide protections as early as, I believe, the early 1970s, but around 1993 there was a growing political consciousness in the community, and things just began to take off.

I can identify some important events of the 1990s– when Nancy Burkholder, a post-op transsexual woman, was kicked out of the Michigan Womyn’s conference, when people began to come together in Texas at Phyllis Randolph Frye’s ICTLEP law conference, when the March on Washington turned out to be non-transinclusive, when a bunch of us got together to form GenderPac (an organization which was promptly hijacked by the Executive Director)– but there were two biggies, in my opinion. The first was the first transgender lobbying, which was done by Phyllis Frye and Jane Fee. They couldn’t believe they had actually done it, then wondered why they hadn’t done it before. When HRCF (as it was then called) promptly went behind their backs and removed the transgender inclusions Phyllis and Jane had convinced lawmakers to put into the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, there was a sense of outrage. The news broke when Sarah DePalma got an e-mail.at the law conference. It happened to be the only ICTLEP I attended. We had a coule of strategy sessions and went back home and the next week did actions at at least six Pride events, including Atlanta, which I coordinated. You should have seen the jaws drop when I handed leaflets to the folks at the HRCF booth. The organization has, of course, done a complete turnaround since then, or so we hope.

The other big event was the muder of Brandon Teena; in the aftermath, we began to get media coverage that concentrated on our political issues and not just our individual psychologies or transition histories.

After that, things just exploded. Today many of us– as many as one in three– have some sort of legal protections– anti-discrimination, hate crimes, or both. My little town of Pine Lake, Georgia, population 650, even has trans protections– and I didn’t even have to ask for them. They were already in place when I moved here in the late 1990s.
2) What was your single best/most important contribution, do you think?

It had to be the American Educational Gender Information Service, Inc. That was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which I founded in 1990 and ran through 1998. AEGIS did a lot of things– maintained a huge database of support groups and helping professionals, which we used for purposes of referrals by mail, over the phone, by FAX,, and later by e-mail; we published the journal Chrysalis and a variety of newsletters, pamphlets, flyers, and books; maintained a mail-order bookstore; and were principals in the founding of Southern Comfort and the FTM Conference of the Americas. I saw “we,” but it was mostly me. A number of folks supported the organization with their sweat and with their money, but when it came down to it, I was the one who had to lug 1200 copies of Chrysalis to the post office for mailing.

In 1990, AEGIS’ statement was revolutionary: “AEGIS actively supports the professionalization and standardization of services for transgendered and transsexual persons. We promote their rights to dignity, nonjudgemental and nondiscriminatory treatment, and free expression of their gender identity.” By 1996, that was a no-brainer because of the hard work by so many in the community. I wound AEGIS down, closing it in 1998. In 2000, the organization was re-defined as Gender Education & Advocacy, thankfully, with me now not having total responsibility. I’m just another member of the board.

AEGIS did a lot of things, and I did a lot of things outside AEGIS, but what makes it all worth it, what justifies all the times I lost sleep and used my own money to pay the bills, is that through the helpline and mail referrals thousands of transsexual and transgendered people got the information they needed to make good choices about their lives and how they wanted to live them. Many of them are community leaders today. I’m really proud of that work, of helping other transfolks along in their journeys.

3) Your piece on “eating our own” reverberated with Betty and I. Do you think there are any ways the trans community might stop “eating its own”?

I hope so, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that it will.

Having said that, I’d like to explain it.

Once in a phone conversation, you and I were talking about that essay. I remember saying, “Most activists in the transgender community do only as much activism as they can afford.” By that I meant that not only are there practically no paid positions in the transgender community, but that it’s difficult to even raise money to cover hard expenses like copying and postage, or travel. Most of the activists I know subsidize their own activism. I know I did for many years. Some activists give and give, neglecting their own lives, until they are sucked dry. Thus, we eat our leaders.

I don’t think that’s an indictment of our community so much as it is a reflection of how our community is structured. Transsexuals tend to initially be in the closet, then out and active for four or five years of transition, and then they either purposefully go into the woodwork (fairly rare these days, actually) or more likely just get involved in living their lives. Crossdressers tend to start in the closet, come out through support groups and going to conferences, and eventually become comfortable enough to go pretty much wherever they want without need of a shield. They get invovled with their own lives, too. In both cases, the period in which they are active in the community is limited. It tends to be longer on average for crossdressers, and of course some crossdressers remain active in support groups and conferences for decades, but many more get educated and move on. Affer someone moves on, they’re less likely to provide financial support for trans organizations.

All of this limits the size of the community, and thus the resources of the community. There just aren’t enough people active at one time to support organizations with paid positions. Pretty much everything that happens in the community happens because of love, or, in my case, because we are pissed of by the difficulties we have had finding information. Well, maybe there was some love involved as well, in my case. Most of us want to give something back. We do, and when that need is filled, we move on.

4) What’s the state of Transgender Tapestry?

Actually, there are two states– Massachusetts, where IFGE is headquartered, and Georgia, where the editor lives. What? Oh, I see what you mean!

Please consider that I’m speaking as the editor, and not the publisher of the magazine. The publisher is the International Foundation for Gender Education. I’m speaking entirely from my own experience as editor from1999 to the present.

IFGE is like most of the community’s orgs. It does as much as it can afford. Times are hard for nonprofits– for the entire country. Atlanta lost 1500 jobs just today. When there’s not enough money to produce the magazine, the schedule is delayed. For the past year or so, the magazine has been more or less a bi-annual, but that’s entirely a money thing. The Executive Director– one of the few “paid” positions in the community– and I use quotation marks because I know that not only she but every one of the previous directors has walked around with a half-dozen or more uncashed paychecks in their pockets so the lights could stay on– does what she can to keep things rollong along. And IFGE is, believe it or not, one of the better-funded of the community’s organizations.

It wouild be great to see Tapestry on a bi-monthly or even monthly schedule. I could keep up that pace indefinitely, until my health fails or the board of IFGE decides it wants a new editor. The schedule is pretty much a reflection of the community itself. The more financial support IFGE receives, they more they can do, the more frequently the magazine appears. So hey, make a contribution earmarked specifically for Transgender Tapestry. It’s about the only magazine that’s left. Oh, wait, there’s National Geographic.

5) In terms of your own life, what caused you to get involved? Why do you keep on, and where do you find the energy?

When I was younger, I was unable to make informed deicsions about my own live because there was no information. Everyone to whom I should have been able to turn for information and support– my parents, clergy, teachers, social service agencies, mental health professionals– were uninformed and at least mildly malevolent. I was ready to transition in 1963, but just didn’t understand how I could go about it.

In 1979, I took myself to the gender identity program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where I paid my money and took my chances and was told that I was not dysfunctional enough for their program. In other words, I wasn’t screwed up enough to change my sex. I took myself to Vandy’s medical library, where I researched transsexualism and found that the literature confirmed what I had been told. I thought I wasn’t a proper transsexual, or maybe not even a transsexual at all– but if so, why did I so badly want to change my sex? I could find no physicians in Nashville for hormonal therapy– the drag bars wouldn’t even let me or anyone else in dressed– so I stole the top third of a prescription pad from one of the unhelpful physicians and wrote my own script for Diethylstilbestrol. It wasn’t a bad drug in those days. It changed my life, as my body feminized over the next 10 years. When I transitioned in 1989, it was about as difficult as falling off a log. I just had electrolysis, and I went from being a social man to a social woman. Lucky me.

It was my sense of outrage that prompted me to start AEGIS and which fueled my activism, at least for the first four or five years. By 1996, a half-dozen years of 20-hour days had worn me down. I had developed health problems– diabetes and sleep apnea– and I knew I had to slow down. Since then, I have channeled my activism, focusing on a few things. I edit Tapestry, I am involved with Fantasia Fair, a week-long transgender event held every October on Cape Cod– I’m off for Provincetown in just one more week– and I am on the board of GEA. These days, I say no on occasion, and I do almost anything to avoid taking meetings. I never liked meetings anyway. I don’t remember a single world-shaking thing that came out of any meeting I attended. I speak on occasion, attend the occasional conference, continue my day job as an applied behavior analyst (I’m now in my 16th year at my agency), and play around with my house, which began its life in 1936 as a one-room cottage.

I see now that I was supposed to keep my answers short. Sorry, gentle readers, these were not questions for which I had short answers.

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.

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