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The Scarlet & Black

Trans advocate Rose mixes humor and gender awareness

As a transgender activist, advocate, and speaker, Donna Rose has been a prominent face of the transgender community ever since her book “Wrapped In Blue: A Journey of Discovery” came out in 2003. She was the first and only transgender member on the boards of the Human Rights Campaign, where she resigned after the HRC supported an equal-rights amendment without protections for those with of any gender identification. She still serves on both the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. In her work, Rose focuses on issues of equality and has helped to craft guidelines for corporate America on how to treat transsexuals in the workplace. She was Thursday’s speaker as a part of the symposium of gender variance that brought diversity trainer and educator Jessica Pettitt on Wednesday and will be hosting gender theorist Heather Love at 4:15 this afternoon.

I guess I think the first question should be something you mentioned a lot in your talk. What role does humor play in your life, not just as a trans person but as a person in general?

Well my favorite trait about me is my sense of humor. This particular topic can make people uncomfortable. I think humor sometimes helps to lower the discomfort level. It lets people see things clearer. My sense of humor is an integral part of who I am, of how I see things every day. It makes me smile.

Does it play a role in your advocacy and activism?

My activism has any number of different shapes. Coming to events like this and talking to them is one of them but sitting in a boardroom and making decisions about money is another. Making decisions about politics and about leadership is not the place for humor. I think it’s really important to use humor, or to be wise enough to know in what context it will help, but there are also times that it’s really serious business, and that’s just what it is.

Does it break down barriers? Does humor play a social function?

I think it does. As a trans community, we’re very uptight. There are those in the trans community who will see a drag show, and they’ll get offended. There are those in the trans community who don’t see any entertainment value, any community value, in that. But when you look at the folks who go to these things, they’re a lot of fun. There’s no one thing that makes something humorous or not, but I do think that it plays an important role, especially in these kind of discussions, because there were some people today who felt that some of the things I said were humorous and some who didn’t, and that’s just the way it goes.

I guess I’d like to add on to that. You had a lot of support during your transition and maybe the people who are very serious about these issues are thinking of the people who had no support. Do you feel like you’ve had a lot of privilege or gifts in your life?

I am the first to admit that I still living in the world of privilege. That being white in this culture carries some privilege, that having a skill and a career especially given the current economy, are things that you really appreciate. Having the money to go through some of these expensive procedures that some of us have to go through; it’s just a very expensive thing. I’ve been privileged in many ways, and I think I continue to be privileged, because I’ve been able to continue my relationship with my son, I’ve been able to maintain my relationship with my family. So I don’t think any of us needs to apologize for those things, but they have been key aspects to why or how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

I thought it was interesting when you said that you loved to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Sometimes in these minority communities, some feel that a sense of strength needs to be projected to show the oppressive forces that they have their own strength. You were a wrestler and a football player, and you did talk about how estrogen therapy opened you up, but when did this idea of leading a life which would have a “legacy’ of vulnerability come around?

It’s not an easy answer. My approach to being a guy was a pretty simple one, and one of the main tenets was avoid being perceived as vulnerable. When I felt I was being attacked, my response was one of anger. When you hurt me, my response was one of anger. When any number of things happened, it was really easy for me to turn them into anger. But the key to life for me these days, the key to just being human, is that we are vulnerable, and vulnerability is not a trait is not a trait we need to apologize for. For the longest time, I was concerned that those were walls I could not take down, that I had been conditioned over the course of my life to be that strong person, to allow yourself to be put in that position where you could be hurt would not be something I could do. But I have been hurt, and I have grown from it, and I have grown to appreciate it.

Do you feel like you’re still in a process of discovering? There’s male/female, but also this idea that you mentioned, “I find myself to be a mutt.”

I think we’re all are. To me life is a constant process of growth and change. Many transsexual people are of the opinion that the transition ends at some point, and too often, that’s with the surgery. One of the questions that I’m often asked is did I have a mental picture of what Donna would be like, or what life as Donna would be like. It’s light years away, and that’s just based on the fantasy, or making assumptions based on your own head instead of your life experience. I find that I’m very much David sometimes. The discipline that I learned as a wrestler was something I would have had trouble gaining as Donna. At the same time, it’s the blending that makes the difference.

At the same time, I wonder about what was brought up as a critique of your work in the talk- the naturalizing ways of talking. I’m wondering if you think that living your life and discovering is a kind of experiential counter to these ways of thinking, because what you say and how you talk about your identity is a controversial issue in many of these queer communities.

It is a controversial issue. To me, the fact that it’s complicated, that can’t keep people from having the discussion or respecting that there are many people whose realities are different than your own. As one of the questions tonight talked about gender as a construct, and I answered that I’m not out to break down gender as a construct, I’m not out to rationalize feminism, or other very important things. At the same time, the key isn’t how you feel about your gender, it’s getting people to respect how you make decisions about yourself. That’s not the same topic.

So you would support the work of feminists and theorists, and then say “that’s not my thing, my thing’s political activism and speaking”?

When I first started to get involved in advocacy, someone told me, “Don’t be a martyr for your cause”. And I don’t even know, necessarily, what the cause is. Part of the problem is that my cause is equality. I’m reviewing a book written by a trans woman that defines trans gender as being contrary to traditional gender norms, but realistically, I fit into traditional gender norms for women. I believe in the construct of gender so much that I’ve gone through a lot to fit myself into it. It would be disingenuous to say that gender doesn’t matter to me, because I like who I am, today, inside the construct of gender. I never planned to be an activist, and at some point I think I’ll eventually fade away, and settle down with my partner, and do the things that other people take for granted. Right now, there have been too many opportunities to be involved and to be in the workplace not to take them.

Can you speak specifically to how men have difficulty expressing themselves in society as feminine, to how narrow masculinity really is as a paradigm? Is it more or less difficult as a man, or is that kind of eluding the question of what it means to be either one?

Each of expresses our gender, and feels our gender, in unique ways. That’s why I said if we had five people up here, each one of us would express a different reality. Each of those realities would be true. We’re looking for easy answers to really complicated questions and some things other trans people think may not affect them, like same-sex marriage, or AIDS [matter to me]. I live in a world that is interconnected. What happens in this broader LBGT spectrum matters to all of us, and we have to see how the rest of society looks at us. They don’t make the distinctions we do.

Kelsey Morse-Brown '09, Nikke Jameson '11, Donna Rose and Margie Scribner '10 discuss Alexis Arquette, West Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight in the SRC during a reception organized by Erin Duran '09 who coordinated the week's Gender Symposium.
Kelsey Morse-Brown '09, Nikke Jameson '11, Donna Rose and Margie Scribner '10 discuss Alexis Arquette, West Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight in the SRC during a reception organized by Erin Duran '09 who coordinated the week's Gender Symposium.

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