I didn’t know him well, not really. I’d run into him from time to time at our LGBTQ committee meetings. He was kind of effeminate, and I figured he was gay. We worked together at a hospital — I wrote grant applications and he fixed things. “Gotta go save the world,” he’d say after our meetings concluded, having received numerous pages about a leaky toilet or a broken door handle.
Earlier this year, he made an appointment with me to talk about our LGBTQ committee work, or so his email said. We were both active participants on this committee, but he was new and had been sort of quiet. Typically, our committee did most of its business during the meeting or immediately after, so my curiosity was piqued.
He came into my office, and asked me if he could shut the door. I said yes. He sat down, crossed his legs, and with a slight stutter, said, “I’m going to be transitioning from male to female, and I wanted you to know about it.”
I think my jaw dropped on the floor.
He had worked for our company for about a year. In September 2018, our company instituted a new policy and announced they would be including transgender healthcare services in our benefits package. This was his chance, he explained, to make things right. Still completely flabbergasted, I stammered, and asked him to tell me more about his plans.
As a child, he’d known something was wrong. He was raised in a military family and they lived in many different places throughout his childhood. He had been in therapy as long as he could remember, and just knew he was meant to be a girl. As an adult, he was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which is a kind of distress a person feels due to their birth-assigned sex and gender not matching their gender identity.
He’d already told our HR department and asked for their support leading up to and through his official transition from male to female. He’d investigated all of the hormonal and surgical options and found a doctor in our tiny state willing to do the hormone therapies and referrals for surgical procedures. He was married to a woman, so there would be other big changes on the horizon for his personal life.
After he told me all of this, I had questions. A lot of them. But first: the most important one: “Can I ask you questions?”
“Sure, you can ask me anything,” he said.
So I did. I asked about his plans for his two children. I asked about his living arrangement with his wife. I asked how he was so sure he wanted to be a woman. I ruefully asked why anyone would ever choose to be a woman. I asked how the hormone treatments and surgeries would work. I asked him what his new name would be. “I’ll go by ‘Danielle,’” he said, “And I might shorten it to ‘Dani’ as I’m going through the transition, to make it easier for people.”
At the end of the conversation, I saluted her for her bravery and thanked her for entrusting me with this news. I was honored that she came to see me and tell me such personal details. I saved her cell phone number in my phone under the name “Danielle.” I showed her. She smiled.
A month later, Dani was ready to make her announcement to her department. From our very first discussion I told Dani I would be proud to stand with her as she made the announcement. Our coworker, Donna, met me halfway and we traipsed into the bowels of the hospital. With Dani’s department leaders standing beside her, the HR liaison informed Dani’s nearly all-male department she would be transitioning from male to female. Dani decided to say a few words, letting her department know that she wasn’t asking them for their approval — only the respect they’d always given her as a coworker. She said she was open to questions and was happy to talk about her decision.
There was a moment of silence before one man raised his hand. He told Dani he was going to make mistakes with her name and pronouns from time to time and he hoped she’d be patient with him. Then he raised his fist and said, “Welcome to the team, Danielle.” I nearly burst into tears.
After the announcement, Dani allowed her team to absorb this announcement and pulled me through a series of tunnels that ultimately led to the cafeteria. She was visibly shaken, but excited.
I asked her, “How do you feel?”
With a big smile, she replied, “Awesome.”
I am a Unitarian Universalist, which means we welcome people of all faiths who seek the truth in love. A few years back, our congregation went through a group training to become what’s called a Welcoming Congregation, which means our services are a safe place for people of all gender identities and orientation. I decided to invite Dani to our church.
Dani came to her first service soon after her announcement to her department, and she was visibly nervous. I could see her hands shaking as she stood up to introduce herself. I had given some fellow church members the heads up to ask them to help welcome her that morning. In a bizarre coincidence, one of our fellow church members lit a candle to remember her beloved daughter who had committed suicide one year ago that day. “She was transgender,” said the woman, “And we had been working on repairing our relationship before she died.” I had heard of her daughter’s death but knew nothing of the circumstances. Later, the church member introduced herself to Dani and they had a conversation about her daughter. Dani left the church service feeling like she was meant to be there that morning.
Whether it was a coincidence or because of some work routine, Dani wound up in my office every other Thursday afternoon. She came in to say hello or to drop off information she’d picked up about transgender rights or programs for people who were transitioning. She stopped by to tell me about her hormone treatments or how her body was developing. She gave me the rundown on her mood changes she was experiencing and told me about her relationship with her wife.
When she was preparing to serve as a panelist for a local nursing school hosting an event on transgender health, she stopped in and I helped her write her biography. I realized then that we were both 39, born just one month apart — she in July and I in June.
So many times I thought how difficult it must have been for Dani to live 39 years as a male, knowing full well since she was 8 years old that nothing felt right. Being pushed into therapy as a child, continuing into adulthood. Even going as far as getting married, and having children, because that’s what’s considered “normal.” Conforming. Holding back. For fear of losing everything.
Not long after her announcement, Dani started hormone treatments. It’s an interesting thing, witnessing someone going through such a drastic, gradual change. She told me about everything — from the new sensitivity in her budding breasts to the first time she had premenstrual syndrome, texting me one evening in tears for “no good reason.” She began changing out of her uniform into a dress at the end of each day. She regularly wore women’s clothes and loved to shop. She went to makeup and skin care demonstrations and loved every second of it.
I noticed slight changes in the shape of Dani’s face and appearance of her skin. One day while I was standing behind her, I noticed that her hips were getting wider, and said, “Dani, you’re getting HIPS!” Not long afterward, she sent me a photo of her rear end in stretch pants with the accompanying text: “I think I’m growing a BUTT!” I laughed hysterically.
One Thursday, Dani came over to my office, having changed out of her work uniform (a drab, brushed-cotton maintenance uniform) into a colorful empire waist dress that hit just above her knees. I had been looking down at my phone when she stepped through my office door, and my jaw dropped when I realized how long her legs were. She’s 6’3" after all. I screeched out loud, “Holy shit, Dani, you’ve got legs for days!!” She laughed, and I promised I wasn’t hitting on her, but “Damn, girl!” With the right shoes and some sequins, she could have been a Rockette.
A few weeks ago, I resigned from my job to pursue a new career path. When I told her I was leaving, she looked sad. “We won’t have our Thursday afternoons anymore.” In truth, I was sad to leave her right in the midst of her transition, but I told her I’d keep in touch and that we’d catch up in church.
On June 1, the Pride Festival was held in Dover, Delaware. Dani had promised to staff the table, but first she marched in the parade with our colleague Kathy Carpenter and the Rehoboth TransLiance, an emerging group focusing on wellness for the transgender community in Delaware. Dani wore a pink, white, and blue tank dress with blank and pink leggings and was literally glowing with pride. Later, she sent me a text that had me in stitches: “I learned today that boob sweat is a THING and it STINKS!”
Dani has since come out to her family and the local fire company where she volunteers, as well as to her children’s schools and the parent-teacher organization. She has gracefully dealt with the challenges that come along with these “reveals.” Many people have surprised her with their acceptance; others with their ignorance or betrayal. She is a quick learner.
When she’s wearing a dress or new makeup or putting little barrettes in her hair, I make it a point to ask her how those things make her feel. She raises one eyebrow, smiles with her entire face, and says, “Awesome.”
It hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorn poop. There have been some definitive bumps in the road. Marital separation is a reality for many people who choose a mid-life transition, and hormones wreak havoc on a person’s body and moods. She is also father to two young boys, who are weathering the storm because Dani has chosen to be clear about her intentions, if protective in her delivery of this information. Another challenge is finding physicians that care for transgender patients.
Dani still comes to our church and has made friends with many of the members. After each service, the members gather for coffee and conversation in the rear of the church. As I talk to other people, I watch Dani out of the corner of my eye and relish the fact that she looks so at ease with herself and her surroundings. I am grateful that my fellow members have extended the love and acceptance to Dani and her family. She wears dresses and uses the ladies’ bathroom without a second thought.
Dani and I have discussed how odd it is that in a company with 3,500 employees, I was one of only two non-HR employees with whom she shared her choice to transition. I’m also the only UU member at my company. Sure, we were on the same committee together, but she didn’t tell everyone in our group until later. She tells me she just had a hunch I’d be accepting of her, but I think it’s more than that. I think the universe — or God, if that’s your cup of tea — brings people together based on what they need in that moment.
I’ve known transgender people before, but Dani is the first I’ve met and befriended before her official transition. She’s also the first biological male I’ve met with such overwhelmingly obvious female traits. Sometimes she ruminates on her own behavior or comments from other people, and I tell her, “Dani, it’s because you’re such a girl.” At this, she beams.
Dani’s transition is ongoing, and I suspect we will remain friends for a long time to come. She is kind and compassionate and brave. Every day, I learn more about the science behind the gender transition process and am so glad she’s finally able to access the medical services she needs to be herself.
There is something else I need to say. Dani is a member of an incredibly vulnerable group of people. Transgender people endure intense scrutiny in our society, and the suicide rate among transgender adults hovers around 50 percent.
If someone comes to you — your friend, colleague, loved one, or family member — and entrusts their secrets with you, it’s okay to be shocked and not know what to say at first. But when you recover from your surprise, please choose to be kind. Please choose to be gentle. Please choose to be supportive. I can absolutely guarantee that the path they’ve had to navigate to get to this point has been difficult. They’re rolling the dice and hoping you’ll be an ally as they embark upon the most consequential journey of their life.
Don’t let them down.
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA is a freelance writer in Dover, Delaware. She is a member of the Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware (www.uucd.org) and is passionate about LGBTQ affairs. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/.