Woman hopes story of change helps others
In a hot pink floral dress, Donna Rose is a commanding presence as she stands in front of a room filled with dozens of managers and human-resources leaders with Eastman Kodak Co.
She has her laptop queued up, filled with pictures that illustrate the message she has been asked to deliver to the Fortune 500 company.
The 46-year-old Scottsdale woman is nearly 6 feet, taller with her chunky wooden sandals. Along with her golden hair and shimmering green eyes, a set of permanent laugh lines make her look as if she's always smiling.
The blinds are drawn to darken the room. A photo of a napping newborn with a shock of black hair pops up in the center of the white screen.
"Look how cute that is," Donna says as her audience responds with laughter. "I bet you I was in a blue blanket at this point."
Donna was born David Guy Rosen on Feb. 22, 1959. The first son of a theoretical biophysicist and a nurse, David never failed to meet expectations.
As a child and then a teenager, he excelled as an athlete. He later started a career in the booming high-tech industry and married. A son soon followed.
Then, 40 years after living his life as a man, David decided he could no longer ignore the gender issues that he had done his best to hide and repress since his youth. He began to embark upon the path that would lead him to Donna, his true self.
That's what Donna was at Kodak's headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., to talk about.
Corporations across the country are working to extend workplace protections to transgender employees, and Donna often shares her personal story to help managers understand the new challenges that many know nothing about. Transgender workers are becoming more visible at all employment levels. While companies don't keep such statistics, it is estimated that 1,000 people seek sexual-reassignment surgery every year and as many as 40,000 postoperative transsexuals are living in the United States. Experts believe there are at least three to five times as many transsexuals who don't have surgery.
When Donna was growing up as David, or Dave as everyone called him, inside she wasn't sure what she was. She thought there was no one else like her.
It was a lonely existence, trying to find others like herself who couldn't understand what was going on inside. There were no resources.
By personalizing her story to audiences across the country, she is doing for others what would have helped her decades ago.
Donna underwent extensive facial feminization surgery to reshape the masculine features of her skull and face, hundreds of hours of painful electrolysis, intensive hormone-replacement therapy, voice therapy and sexual-reassignment surgery.
She could have lived her life as a female, as a successful manager for a leading high-tech company, keeping her identity as a postoperative male-to-female transsexual a secret. Instead, after enduring so much physical and emotional pain, she feels a deep sense of obligation to demystify transsexualism.
Donna began by bearing witness on her own life. She captured it all in her journal, which was eventually published as a memoir, Wrapped in Blue.
Numerous speaking engagements followed the publication of the book, which she inscribed with one of her favorite quotations from the French Nobel Prize author Andre Gide:
"It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not."
On the screen, Donna replaces the baby photograph with one showing a boy standing with his hands clasped behind his back, dressed up in a suit with short pants and bow tie.
It was Dave's first day of school.
"This was kindergarten in Chicago, Illinois," Donna says. "As you can tell, I'm looking very smart."
Donna compiled all kinds of pictures of herself from different ages in her life. Together, they show the progression from boy, to man, to husband, to father, through her transition to Donna. They are a dramatic visual representation of her journey.
Kodak is a homecoming of sorts for Donna. She lived in Rochester for 15 years. Her brother, Jay, and her sister, Judy, still live here. Before moving to Scottsdale, Donna spent a few of those years - as Dave - working for Kodak as an information technology consultant.
There are some familiar faces in the crowd. The women tell her how fabulous she looks. For the most part, the men keep themselves at a distance.
It's a breezy summer day in upstate New York, and Donna's younger sister sent along a sweater in case Donna gets a chill. Even in the last-minute rush to drive Donna downtown, she grabbed a thin, crocheted sweater, and Donna knew what the gesture meant.
Judy is always trying to protect Donna.
It wasn't always this way. When they were little, Dave was the protector.
"Next one," Donna says, "Oh, this is my prom picture, again, another nice bow tie."
Donna gets many of the same questions. When did you know? When did you really know something was wrong?
Early, she says. She knew something more powerful was going on inside her, something more than typical adolescence.
As Dave's voice became deeper, as the hair on his body began to grow, his physical transformation to manhood did not match how he felt on the inside.
If he could have shaved the hair growing on his legs, he would have. If his mother had allowed him to dress as a girl for Halloween, he would have.
By 13, his confusion about his gender seemed inescapable. At the same time he was playing football and hockey and building World War II airplanes, Dave began waking up in the middle of the night and tiptoeing into the bathroom to put on his mother's makeup.
By the time he posed for the high school prom picture, like most teenage boys he had a girlfriend.
In high school and college, there were two seasons for David: wrestling season and getting ready for wrestling season.
Donna switches to a wrestling photo: Dave at the center of a wrestling mat, the referee lifting his arm in victory. Dave was a wrestling champion, bench-pressing over 300 pounds, obsessively measuring his 22-inch biceps.
Wrestling embodied how he looked at life: Everything was a competition, and he was out to win. By letting out his aggression on the wrestling mat, he could conquer what he was suppressing beneath his masculine exterior.
It was a foolproof disguise.
None of his family members or close friends knew of the struggle raging inside the young man posing in his back yard, wearing a sleeveless undershirt to show off his beefcake biceps and chest. Or the young, bearded husband in the following photograph, lying on a bed, bouncing his baby boy on his chest.
Dave met his future wife at Syracuse University. Within six months they were engaged. They married two years later in 1981. Dave was 22. He became a father at 26.
He worked hard to be Dave, the successful husband and father.
His sister, Judy, thought Dave had so much machismo it seemed as if he had testosterone poisoning.
Dave was aggressive, fearless, ultra-conservative and homophobic. To his brother, Jay, Dave was a very what's-in-it-for-me, self-centered, profit-driven, conscious-of-appearances kind of man.
Dave had the two-story colonial house in the upscale Rochester suburb of Pittsford, a Corvette and a boat. Judy bought him one of those bumper stickers that read: He who has the most toys wins.
But Dave continued to battle his demons, trying to fight what he thought was wrong and sick.
About the time his son, Andrew, turned 1, Dave needed to find out if anyone else felt like he did. This was in the old days, the mid-1980s, before the Internet. But he remembered reading something about gender research at Stanford University. He called, and they steered him to a New Jersey psychologist.
He needed someone to validate his feelings or tell him he was wrong. He had spent his whole life trying to prove to himself that "it" wasn't true. But his feminine side never left him.
Each day, he saved money from lunch so the cash wouldn't be missed at home. When he had enough for a ticket, he flew to meet the doctor and returned at the end of the day as if he had been at work.
The doctor agreed with Dave's self-diagnosis, that he was someone who strongly felt that he might be the opposite sex - or transsexual. The medical diagnosis is gender dysphoria.
But he cautioned Dave. Dave would have to be ready to risk everything he knew and loved. The road is hard, he said. People lose their spouses. They face discrimination everywhere, where they live, where they work, with their families, friends and society as a whole.
The fear of rejection and loss is so great that many transsexuals decided to lead double lives.
Dave's greatest source of pain was hiding it from his wife. For his own sanity, he needed to tell her something.
He gathered the courage to tell her one night in bed. He told her that he had a very strong feminine side to his personality. He told her that a part of his mind was feminine in thoughts and needs.
Her response, which is typical of spouses in this situation, was to ask whether he was gay. But transsexualism is not about sexual behavior or sexual orientation. It's about gender identity. For transsexuals, they have an overwhelming awareness that their mind and body do not match.
Dave's wife made it clear that she didn't want to know anything about his feminine side.
He felt like an imposter.
Dave found a way to let the steam out when he joined a local transgender support group he spotted in an alternative newspaper.
People in the group told him about a makeup studio in Rochester.
The pressure inside Dave came in waves. There were times that Dave didn't give "Donna" a second thought. But every couple of months, he felt as if he would explode if he didn't let his feelings out.
For nearly a decade, Dave visited the studio during his lunch break.
That was it. No one knew. Only Dave and the makeup artist. She accepted him.
For one hour, every couple of months, Dave expressed his feminine side.
The quintessential Arizona newcomer photo pops up on the screen. It's Dave and his son floating in their sparkling backyard pool, smiling, balancing their golden retriever Molly on a float.
At this time, Dave was at the breaking point.
By holding everything in, he thought he had been doing the right thing, being what everyone wanted. But he was falling apart.
By moving his family to Scottsdale in 1996, all the years of pressure of building a reputation to match the expectations of friends and family were gone.
He had a fresh start. He needed to prove to himself that his life was going to be better. His goal wasn't to become a woman. His goal was to become himself.
The Internet opened up a whole new world. Dave discovered there were a lot of people like him.
He found a local psychologist who specialized in gender issues. He was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, again.
This time, he began taking hormones.
The new picture on the screen shows the audience how the hormones changed Dave's face. It became less husky, more narrowed.
In the Valley, Dave found a transgender support group.
First, he picked out his new name. He wanted to keep the same initials. He tried a few names like Diane, Debbie and Denise. But they didn't seem to fit. Donna seemed to imply a certain strength. Donna also means " lady."
For a year, this was Donna: a shoulder-length wig, a little bit of makeup, a fluffy sweater tucked into a pair of jeans.
Donna lived folded up in a bag in Dave's desk drawer at work.
Dave hid Donna so well that his wife didn't know. His close friends and neighbors, Sally and Ray Williams, had no inkling. They thought Dave and his wife were the perfect couple.
The couples lived so close they could pass a football between the fences that separated their north Scottsdale homes. They enjoyed watching Dave's favorite team, the Buffalo Bills, play Ray's favorite team, the New England Patriots. They partied together in the cul-de-sac. Every year at Christmas, Dave would hide his son's presents at Sally and Ray's house. Ray always admired how Dave could pick out such wonderful presents for his wife. Ray envied Dave. He'd tell Dave: "You're making me look bad."
Dave continued with the hormone-replacement therapy and meeting with his psychologist during lunch. Once again, his psychologist prepared him for the loss that most transsexuals experience.
You could lose everyone, the psychologist warned.
He could never seem to find the right words to tell his wife. He had tried once, nearly a decade earlier.
This time he knew that once he spoke the words, he could never "unspeak" them.
He followed the gender-change process quietly, trying to figure out if he wanted to live his life as a woman. Then it got too expensive to hide.
When his wife found a check for $3,000 he had written out of their brokerage account, she wanted to know where it had gone.
He told her. It was for the hormone therapy.
She wanted her husband back. But Dave couldn't come back.
He moved out.
Sally and Ray noticed that Dave disappeared. But they thought he was away on business trips.
Instead, Dave was getting ready to become Donna at work. His workplace hired a human-resources consultant to talk to Dave's coworkers. He reshaped his nose and had a breast augmentation.
But the ball was rolling too fast. Dave panicked. He had been married 17 years. He missed his home life.
He told his workplace to hold off in telling employees. He had his breast augmentation reversed. He asked his wife if he could come home. He assured her he was through with his self-discovery.
She welcomed him with open arms.
He was thinner. His hair seemed longer. He was jogging around the neighborhood.
His neighbor Ray shrugged off the changes as a mid-life crisis.
By moving back home, Dave hoped that he and his wife could integrate a new Dave into their lives. His wife wanted the old Dave. But Dave couldn't put "Donna" away.
After a few weeks, Dave moved out again and started to transition to Donna full time.
But the "Donna-in-the-desk-drawer look" mortified Dave.
No matter what he did, the estrogen, another breast augmentation, the hundreds of hours of electrolysis, hiring a coach to unlearn masculine ways of walking and talking, when he looked in the mirror, he still saw Dave.
He looked like a man dressing up as a woman.
If Dave had to live looking like this out in public and at work for a year before he was allowed to have sexual-reassignment surgery, he wouldn't make it. So before returning to work as Donna, Dave took one more step.
He changed his face.
This is what people see first, he thought. This is what people judge you on.
Letters from medical professionals are required for sexual-reassignment surgery but not for facial reconstruction.
It took 13 hours for a San Francisco surgeon who specializes in feminizing faces to peel the skin off Dave's face, reduce his brow bone, shorten his chin and shave his Adam's apple.
Donna pushes forward to a photo taken after facial surgery. Several feet of white bandages are wrapped around her head. Her eyes are shut. Her nostrils are sealed with gauze. She is breathing through swollen lips.
With the facial feminization surgery there would be no turning back.
He was now vulnerable. He was now dependent. He needed people. And being needy was a scary thing for Dave.
Ever since moving to Scottsdale, Dave's invulnerable facade had been peeling off.
During this time, Dave's father had died, his mother, Patsy, was living in Texas, and Dave's sister, Judy, and brother, Jay, stayed in Rochester.
Judy, in charge of settling their father's estate, tried getting in touch with Dave. When she finally got an answer at home, Dave's wife answered and cried uncontrollably when asked about Dave.
"He'll have to tell you," Judy recalls her saying.
What could it be? Judy thought. Is he having an affair? Is he sick?
Dave called Judy. He told her that from his earliest memory he knew there was something wrong.
He had spent years trying to figure out that he was born female.
He described the conflict: the ebb and flow through his life, the utter panic after long periods when "Donna" seemed to be in a deep coma.
Judy wondered how he could have survived dealing with this alone. She loved her brother, and this made no difference.
Still, Dave was afraid to tell their mother.
He had every reason to worry that she would not love him as Donna.
He knew the countless stories of families, who, once they found out their son or daughter was transsexual, treated their child as if he or she no longer existed, as if he or she were dead.
Dave had heard how, after experiencing so much hatred and loss, the transsexual son or daughter committed suicide.
And how, even then, the parents would not come forward to claim the body.
But Dave and his mother were close, perhaps closer than his dad, an introverted scientist.
In the beginning, Patsy Rosen had a hard time with the news. She grieved for the loss of her son, a step in her gradual acceptance that took place over a year.
Each family member adjusted in his or her own way. Together they shared the same conclusion that Donna is family and they weren't about to throw her away.
The woman on the screen sports a short, stylish haircut and earrings. Her beige dress is nondescript; a heart-shaped gold pendant falls on her chest.
It was the only necklace Donna owned, purchased especially for that day.
"This is my first day of work, Day 1 as Donna. I closed my eyes and did it," Donna tells her audience. "It was terrifying and exciting at the same time."
"I still look back on those days and wonder how or where I found the courage to walk in that day because I don't think anyone of us can understand how terrifying it can be."
After Dave returned to work as Donna, his wife called Sally and just blurted it out: "Dave feels he is a female trapped in a male's body and he has a separate key to the restroom at work."
Sally and Ray were shocked. All they could think of was how selfish Dave was, doing this to his child, to his wife.
A couple of days passed. Dave, who was now living as Donna, called and talked to Sally. She couldn't understand how this could be happening, it was so foreign to her and Ray.
Donna told Sally to buy the book True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism for Families, Friends, Coworkers and Helping Professionals.
Afraid of being spotted at the bookstore, Sally ordered it online.
Donna and Sally decided to meet, but not in public.
They arranged to meet in the Safeway parking lot. Ray refused to go.
Ray viewed it as a choice, that one could choose to do this or not do this. Being a male, a husband, a father, and rejecting who you are, did not compute for Ray.
But Sally was on a journey to understand. That's why she agreed to meet Donna in that parking lot.
Sally fidgeted inside her car. She couldn't make eye contact with Donna. The meeting was awkward for Donna, too. Sally was the closest friend who knew her as Dave and who was now seeing Donna for the first time.
Laughter broke the tension. The two giggled inside Sally's car over the fact that Sally's hair was shorter than Donna's.
During this time, Sally had been taking a Bible study class at her Presbyterian church. She mustered up the courage to ask the minister if he ever knew anyone who had gone through "this" and what should she do?
Yes, he said.
"I will tell you if you could find it in yourself to remain his friend, that would be a very good thing because not many people will stand beside him," the minister said.
Sally and Donna began to talk on the phone and trade e-mails.
That year at Christmas, Donna had bought a new computer for her son. She called and talked to Sally to see if she could hide the gift at their house.
Then Donna asked to talk to Ray.
She asked Ray if it was OK if she came over.
Ray had been going on the journey too, in his own way, vicariously through Sally.
When Donna came to the front door, Ray walked out of his office and gave her a big hug.
The three sat in Sally and Ray's living room and talked.
The couple saw a difference that was more than skin deep.
The Dave they knew could never sit still when he visited. He could never sit down and just talk.
Dave always fidgeted.
Donna had a calmness about her. A purpose.
Like she knew who she really was.
Dave and his wife divorced. Andy was 13. He accepted the news that his father wanted to be a woman, but when he actually saw Donna, he had a difficult time.
The two didn't see or speak to each other for a year.
Donna's transition at work continued to be awkward. Her friends stopped inviting her to lunch. She was asked to quit the office fantasy football league.
And the M&M's that Dave couldn't stock fast enough now sat untouched in the candy jar on Donna's desk.
Her co-workers were uncomfortable. Donna wasn't comfortable with their discomfort.
With the support of her family, Donna made it through that first year.
She had her sexual-reassignment surgery in Neenah, Wis., with Dr. Eugene Schrang, one of the top reassignment surgeons. It cost approximately $30,000.
When Donna woke up after surgery, her mother waited with a pack of pink bubble gum cigars to celebrate her rebirth.
She moved to Texas to work at Dell Inc. and start a new life. Fifteen-year-old Andy decided to join her.
Donna wanted to live anonymously. She wanted to be the co-worker you have lunch with or the woman who lives next door with the teenage son.
As Donna brings up one of the last photos on the screen, the one with her stylish blonde hair, makeup and natural smile, it's easy to see how she blended in.
But what she realized is that in Texas, she created just another place to hide. Just like Dave.
The safe world she created brought her little comfort, she told her Kodak audience.
People like her are losing their jobs, their homes and their families just because they're revealing something about themselves. They are discriminated against. Ridiculed. They're victims of hate crimes. In the worst-case scenarios, they are getting killed.
She couldn't emphasize enough how critical it is to be supportive, that when a transsexual decides to begin living as the other gender at work, a good transition is when no one dies.
Donna used a story of how one company did nothing to help a transitioning employee. They told her to just show up at work.
A month later the person slit her wrists.
Donna no longer feared the rejection that she had experienced when she left Scottsdale for Texas.
She began to consider her life in a new way.
Last year, she moved back to Scottsdale to be near some of her closest friends, like Sally and Ray, and to use her personal experience to support Valley transsexuals.
She stopped running. She stopped hiding.
Surviving such a dramatic physical change made her reconsider her life.
Donna knew she could help. There weren't two people living inside anymore.