What are you willing to give up?

What are you willing to give up to get what you want? Imagine you have a diamond in one hand and a fist full of gold in the other. You’re sitting in the sun on the hottest day of the summer, you haven’t had anything to drink all day, there’s a glass of water right in front of you, and you’re surrounded by people who each have a glass of water. Are you willing to drop the diamond to pick up the glass? What about the fist full of gold? You can sit there until you die of thirst; until the others around you lose hope or get bored and move along; or until you can give up something to save yourself.

In some ways, life really boils down to making choices of this sort. At some point, you have to make a choice about what you’re willing to give up or how long you’re willing to wait for circumstances to change, before you can move forward. Maybe it’s a compromise with a spouse, or time spent learning to make yourself more marketable in your career. Something has to change before other things can happen. The glass isn’t going to raise itself to your lips, unless you know some magic I don’t. Yes, you can wait to see if the circumstances change, but there’s no guarantee anything will.

I’m sure you can imagine your own scenario. Maybe you want a promotion, but aren’t sure what to do to get it. You won’t get promoted until you figure out what you need for the promotion, and then devote the time to improving a skill or learning something new. Of course you can simply wait for a new position to open up, but there is no guarantee a better candidate won’t come along and leave you sitting in the same salary bracket.

Maybe you’re stuck living somewhere you don’t like because of a job or family. If you don’t want to wait for some change in your circumstances, you either need to make some choices or you will sit there until someone else makes the choices for you.

For me, the glass of water was transitioning from male to female. Throughout years of conditioning from society and and me repeatedly confirming my own fears, I convinced myself I would lose everything if I transitioned — my children, parents, sister, job, career, home, then end up on the street, forced to do horrible things to survive. For me, this was reality. They were myths, but they were my truths. I wasn’t about to let go of any of those valuable things to pick up my glass of water! They were all too valuable to me. A chain of events had to take place for me to get into a different mindset where I was willing to risk those things to transition.

One of those events in the chain was me hitting rock bottom. I was in a dangerous place. I began to flirt with the idea of ending my suffering in the most selfish of ways. I never attempted suicide, but there were times when it seemed like a viable option. Ending my life, I reasoned, would be easier on my family and friends than for them to see me as miserable as I was. I was guided into counseling by my physician, and I decided to be honest with my therapist during my first appointment. The actual therapy, the process by which I began to see the elements of my life from a different perspective, was the next logical event in the chain.

Another set of events were me seeking out other transgender people. I didn’t know any in Atlanta, so I reached out to the ones I was exposed to through media. One was Kristin Beck, the retired Navy SEAL. CNN aired a documentary on her and I read her book. Another trans person was comedian, actor and all-around renaissance man, Ian Harvie. I began to read about Kristin, Ian and others. I began to see these people, like the incomparable Lavern Cox, as success stories. Transition hadn’t been easy for any of them, but they each did it and were still living, with families, successful in their careers and in life. Learning about these people began to chip away at the wall of excuses I had built around myself like a protective shell. They were excuses I made thousands and thousands of times over, each time I thought about the possibility of transition.

Last night, I told a friend that I estimated there were tens of thousands of times when the possibility of transition popped into my head, but would then remind myself of all the reasons I couldn’t, not the least of which were my kids. I knew I could never forgive myself if I lost my kids by making, what I saw at the time to be, a very selfish decision to transition. My friend asked if I’d ever written about it. I’ve alluded to this before in writing, but I’ve never explicitly written about how tough it was to know I needed to transition, yet would consistently convince myself it wasn’t an option. It was a near-daily occurrence, and some days more than once. I was tortured by having to live a lie, but I thought my only other option was to lose everything.

There were other events in the chain, but I finally got to a point in December 2014, where I had debunked enough of the lies I used as excuses, to pull the trigger. I had begun a few months prior to seriously consider a transition. The more I chipped away at the wall of excuses, the faster the wall seemed to crumble. By the end of that December, I was willing to risk it all. I was finally in a place where the possibility of risk was dwarfed by the positives of living an authentic life. I began to have an increasing faith in the people who loved me — my kids, other family members and friends. I began to believe, even though there was a chance I would lose them at first, they would eventually come around.

I wish I could say it was completely perfect. There were hiccups. It was so incredibly difficult to tell my loved ones about the changes ahead of us. I was terrified of hurting, disappointing and alienating them. Some of them were surprised, some confused, some had questions I could easily answer, while a couple are still left questioning.

I was also still afraid of losing my job. Turner Communications, which owns CNN, has a non-discrimination policy. While there was a lot of comfort in having that policy in place, there is no law in Georgia that would have kept them from firing me for being transgender. Most people believe lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are protected from being discriminated against or fired for being LGB or T. Most people are wrong. While there are some local protections in larger metropolitan centers and a handful of states, no such protection exists on a national basis. The law is different in each state. In most states, an employer can look you in the eye and say, “We don’t employ people who are gay or transgender.”

I was lucky enough to have support around me in the form of amazing coworkers who accepted me and all the changes that came along with my transition. I was lucky enough to have a direct manager with whom I felt comfortable to confide in before coming out, and who helped me to prepare how we would tell my coworkers, other managers and clients about my transition. She also helped with emotional support and encouragement during the time when I was very scared about how everyone would react. She made it clear that she was in my corner. I’m eternally grateful for her efforts, leading up to the big step.

Finally, I had an amazing support system around me. I’ve often said, “I have many friends who are fiercely-loyal and protective.” It’s not an understatement. Most people are lucky to have one fiercely-loyal friend in their lifetime. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and lucky to have many, many close friends upon whom I can lean and rely. They helped me through the thousands of times I bounced off my wall of excuses, only to pick up my bruised and wounded body and flail myself against the wall again. I hope they feel I’m there for them when they need me.

In my case, I only became willing to drop the gold and diamonds when my optics changed. In December 2014, when I looked at the contents in my hands, then at the glass of water and the circle of people around me with their own glasses of water, I saw something different than I had for years. It was as if I were seeing with a new pair of glasses. The pair of glasses I now wore represented all the things I had learned. They were the experiences I’d had as I went through life, learning how pointless it was to keep that wall of excuses around me.

I made the decision to transition, only after I looked at my surroundings with the new glasses and saw the faces of the people around me and recognized my friends. My fiercely-loyal friends were gathered around me to make sure my glass didn’t stay empty when I drank the water. I let go of the objects that no longer held the same value and took a long, quenching drink of the waters of transition. It tastes so good!

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How to compliment a transgender person

How do you compliment a transgender person? On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve found there’s more psychology involved that you might think. Recently, my close friend told me about a conversation she ahd with someone we both work with, who said I was looking very pretty lately. My friend told the coworker, “You should tell her.” Our coworker’s response initially surprised my friend. When my friend told me, I was surprised as well.

The coworker confided to my friend that she hadn’t been sure if she should compliment me on my dress, because she thought it might make me uncomfortable, or make me feel singled out. Our coworker was on to something. It is true, that most trans people just want to blend in. When we first begin transitioning, we feel we already stick out enough. We’re self-conscious about our appearance. We feel the stares of people who have clocked us (realized we some features that are inconsistent with the gender we’re presenting), and it’s uncomfortable when we feel their eyes from across a dining room at a restaurant or other public place. Sometimes, I’m tempted to turn to them and say something immature, like “Why don’t you take a picture next time?”

Our coworker’s instinct was based in reality, although I didn’t understand it until my friend also passed on our coworker’s explanation. It got me thinking about the fact that many people are afraid to say the wrong thing to — or ask the wrong question from — a transgender individual.

I definitely understand that. When I first began to meet other transgender people, long before I even considered a transition, I felt uncomfortable speaking with them and didn’t know if I was saying something insulting or embarrassing. Most people are afraid of overstepping boundaries, in general. I asked a couple coworkers to pretend they didn’t know me as well as they do, then tell me what they might want to know about me, but be afraid to ask. The responses were enlightening:

  • “What’s the process of your transition, like how long does it take?” (I’ve been asked “How do you know you’re done?”)
  • “We’re reporting on bathroom laws and policies every day now. How do you navigate the bathroom issue, and which bathroom do you use?”
  • “Why did you wait until this point in your life to transition and what triggered it?”
  • “Have you had surgery…you know, down there?”
  • “You were married to women. Are you attracted to guys now?”
  • “When did you know you were transgender?”
  • “What steps did you have to take to get your name and driver’s license changed?”

When I first came out to my tight-knit group of coworkers, word spread pretty quickly around the company. I think people were very proud of me, and wanted to share the news with others. Several people with whom I’d never had a conversation, wrote emails or came to me in person to say how brave and courageous I must be, or wish me well. A couple people prefaced their encouragement with, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but…”

I’m forced to be more open than some transgender individuals. Because I’m a journalist with my name on stories that live on the internet, and because I deal with some of CNN’s 1,000+ affiliates every day, I realized long ago that I didn’t have the luxury of transitioning under the radar. I understood early-on that I would have a public transition, and that I would never live in “stealth mode,” under the radar of most people. Some transgender people are able to have very private transitions, where only the people closest to them see the process.

Because of my very public transition, I felt I had a responsibility to be as open as possible, and to help educate others about what it means to be transgender and what’s involved. I told people when I came out to them that I understood they would have questions, and I hoped they would feel comfortable is asking me to learn more. I also decided I would write about being transgender, what it means, and about my transition. I feel it is my responsibility to be a source of information for the public, and a source of information and encouragement to other LGBTQ people. This public role isn’t for everyone, and not every trans person should feel obligated to fill it. But I have the gift of communication, and I can explain things in a way, at least I hope so, that puts others at ease, and allows them to feel safe asking me things they wouldn’t someone else.

Since my own CNN story published, I’ve had many people reach out to tell me their own stories of transition, of still being closeted, or simply to say thank you for writing it. I’ve been helping a few of them by giving them guidance, counsel and encouragement. I’ve shared my own detailed experiences and stories with them. I’ve answered many questions, about nearly everything you can imagine a person would want to know. Being able to help these people has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve felt more gratitude the past few weeks, than in the entire sum of my life up to this point. I’ve always found it rewarding to help others, and and when I can put smiles on faces. I’ve been able to do that on an industrial scale, and I’m forever thankful for this experience.

My first reaction when my friend told me about her conversation with our coworker, was feeling flattered. It made me feel really good for someone to notice that I had begun to wear dresses, and appear more feminine by getting better at applying makeup and matching outfits. The surprise of hearing her hesitance was followed by flattery. It made me feel more secure in how I appear to others, and of course I understand her not wanting to offend me, or even make me feel uncomfortable. But I was very happy, when just a few days later she looked at me and said, “Wow, you’re really looking great, Dani! Look at you, all dressed up and fancy!” That’s how you complement a transgender person. You just do it.