One transgender woman's long road to finding herself

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    Living with a 'mask of masculinity'

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Story highlights

  • Dani Stewart began her transition to living publicly as a woman in 2015
  • The CNN news editor had lived nearly 50 years wearing "the mask of masculinity"
  • Revealing her transition to family and colleagues weighed heavily on Stewart

First Person is a series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. The latest contributor is Dani Stewart, a CNN news editor.

(CNN)It was September 2015 and I was about to tell my co-workers something huge. I was filled with tremendous anxiety, as I had been before telling my sister, my dad and my kids. "Where do I start? What do I say first? What will they think it means for them?" Questions so loud in my head, I had trouble walking, focusing on sounds and things around me.

I decided to start at the beginning.

    The early messages

    "Congratulations, it's a boy!"
    With four words, my trauma began. The concept of my gender was the first thing my mother learned about me, likely only a second after hearing my first cry. When doctors speak those words, they're correct for most babies. They weren't, in my case.
    Dani Stewart
    From my earliest memories, I received little messages that told me I was different: I didn't like getting dirty. I wanted to be inside listening to music, or with my sister and mother. I was fascinated by Barbie. But I was constantly steered outdoors, "where boys belong." My parents dressed me like a boy, so I wasn't a girl, right?
    I didn't know why I was different, but whatever it was, it wasn't acceptable. I learned to fake acting like other boys so I wasn't shunned or beaten at school. I knew my thoughts and emotions resembled those I saw displayed by other girls, but I didn't have the language to explain what was different or why.
    We moved from San Francisco to rural Missouri when I was 10, and the bullying turned to gay bashing with horrible names and frequent beatings.
    As a preteen, I made friendships with boys I didn't know were gay. We played like girls played, pretending to be old Hollywood actresses like Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn. We were as fabulous as we imagined their lives had been, showing up to a Hollywood premier in a Bugatti Royale, complete with chauffeur.
    I found comfort in these friendships, but not because I was gay. I had huge crushes on girls, never once on a boy. We were bonded by our mutual "otherness."

    Wearing the mask of masculinity

    As I grew older, I got better at making the "mask of masculinity" fit. I continually improved my public and private façade, but even that created anxiety.
    I was 27 or 28 when I was first exposed to the concept of transgenderism. I think it was a PBS documentary. I didn't understand the difference between cross-dressing, drag queens and being transgender at the time.
    A couple of years later, I better understood the differences, but "transgender" still didn't quite fit. I had seen only transgender women who were attracted to men. I felt like I was the only person like me in the entire world.
    It was another few years before I disclosed my secret to anyone. I met a lesbian who described feeling different from a young age. I shared my story, with which she identified. This chance disclosure to a stranger repeated itself a couple of times, but I still hid it from anyone close.
    By my early 30s, I had two failed marriages and four sons. "Are you sure you aren't gay?" a girlfriend asked one day. I froze -- was I caught? "Why would you think that?" I asked. It was true that I was the one crying at the end of the movie while she sat on the other end of the couch, dry-eyed. It wasn't the only time she asked me. Women see subtle social clues that men don't, especially when they're intimately close. She knew something was different, but I still wasn't ready for honesty.
    I was 37 and working as an assignment editor at an Oklahoma TV station when I came out to a lesbian photographer at work. We became instant friends. She introduced me to her friends, and I felt like I had finally found my people! "My girls," as I called them, would eventually grow from a small group of lesbians in Oklahoma to both lesbians and straight women around the world. These women loved me fiercely. With them, I could be myself, unmasked. I began experimenting with light makeup and going to lesbian bars. It was incredibly freeing to be seen as a woman, but I still wore the mask of masculinity in public.
    For casual friends and co-workers -- the ones who saw the mask -- I was a source of negativity. I was living miserably, and just a few months after arriving at CNN in June 2013, I was ready to crack.
    I saw a doctor in the summer of 2014 because I wasn't sleeping, and was referred to a psychiatrist, and later a therapist. Up to this point, I had buried my dysphoria, terrified that acknowledging it automatically meant a transition, which meant losing my job, family and becoming homeless. I felt trapped, without options.
    I'd never created a plan or attempted suicide, but I was very aware of the pills on my counter, enough of which would send me off to a never-ending slumber. According to a 2014 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, a whopping 41% of transgender people admitted to attempting suicide. It's astronomical, compared to the 1.6% of the overall U.S. population who report a suicide attempt.
    Through therapy, I realized that those frightening things weren't automatic, and that I really did have options. By the beginning of 2015, I took the first step. I gave myself permission, and began working on the second step, a timeline.

    Coming out to family

    When I came out to my dad in August 2015, I was 48 and had started hormones four months before. We lost my mother in April. My sister had known for years, and we were both worried about how dad would handle the news. I began by telling him that I hoped the difficult news would bring us closer together. Fear of being a disappointment had fueled my secrecy since childhood, which had put a wall of separation between us.
    Dad's response was something I never expected, but now realize I should have. I should have given him credit for all the loving things he had done for his family, all the sacrifices he had made. He told me he was shocked, but that he loves me and that wouldn't change. "Everyone is different," he said. "I know that, and I only want you to be happy." He instantly accepted me, without condition, and told me -- showed me -- just how much he loves me.
    My sons, now 17, 19, 26 and 28, have each had different reactions. What would they think it meant for them? I didn't want them to wonder if my being transgender was hereditary. Two aren't sure what to think yet, the other two are incredibly supportive. One close family member told me she didn't think she could call me Dani. Despite knowing her love for me, it stung a little.
    I don't speak to my first ex-wife. My second was shocked, but very supportive, much like my ex-girlfriends. One joked, "That explains a lot," when I told her. My fear was that they would each look back on our intimacy and either be disgusted or wonder what it meant -- did this make them gay?

    Coming out at work

    A few weeks later, I walked into a huddle of my co-workers and asked them to stay as their meeting came to a close. I was trembling, but reminded myself of how I'd felt before telling Dad.
    In the middle of the main newsroom at CNN headquarters I began, "I'm transgender and I've decided to medically transition." I gave them a shortened version of this story. I told them I'd decided months before to transition, and that they had probably noticed I was now less stressed and easier to be around. That brought a chuckle. It was obvious to them, how trapped and bottled-up I used to be. I told them how hormones had, and would, change me.
    I asked that on October 5 they begin using my new name and referring to me with female pronouns. I explained that I understood how difficult it is to begin thinking differently about someone else's gender, that they would make mistakes, but that there would be no scolding. That was a conscious departure from the shaming I see often on Twitter from some transgender people. While it's appropriate to have boundaries and not use a trans person's "dead name" or misgender them on purpose, mistakes are inevitable when you already know someone as a particular gender and name. I wanted my co-workers to see this as a positive, not as a "gotcha" opportunity.
    Finally, I told them that I didn't want them to feel pressured to have questions or responses right away. "That's it. I'm just going to walk away now," I ended. But they stopped me, some with tears in their eyes. They immediately showed me their unconditional love with hugs, and in doing so, gave me relief, love, acceptance. Word spread throughout CNN and I began getting words of encouragement from co-workers I'd never met.

    The road ahead

    The same day I came out to co-workers, I paid the several hundred dollars to file a petition to change my name. As I walked out of the courthouse, I thought of the privilege I'd just experienced. Having the money to pay for a name change isn't something available to all trans folk. Many are involved in sex work and other dangerous activities in order to get hormones or even feed themselves. In a survey of 500 transgender people by the D.C. Trans Coalition, the group found that transgender people experience 10-20 times the rate of poverty, homelessness and assault as the average American.
    Currently, I feel like a 12-year-old girl. I'm awkward and I don't "pass" as a woman. Half the time people "sir" me, half "ma'am" me. Some even double-take or correct themselves. Awkward!
    Hormones don't make me cry any more or less, but now my emotions feel normal -- unmuted, not suppressed. My health insurance covers the cost of hormones and sex reassignment surgery, if I choose that. It doesn't cover facial feminization surgery, which some say is even more important to mental health, and even physical safety.
    I avoid using the restroom in public, when I can. It's a touchy subject. Many parents are concerned about their daughters using the restroom at school with a trans girl who has male anatomy. Many parents are concerned about their girls using the same restroom with an adult trans woman in public. I understand the source of the fear. We want children to be safe from danger, perceived or real, but I know of no trans woman who has ever attacked anyone in a restroom. Sadly, transgender folks get attacked, plenty.
    So why did I do it? Why would I give up male privilege? The gender pay gap is very real. I don't want to be patronized by men. I place myself in danger by simply walking down the street or opting to use the ladies room. Public awareness of transgender individuals has risen with TV shows like the award-winning Amazon show "Transparent" and from Caitlyn Jenner coming out.
    You might think the increased awareness would decrease the number of assaults against trans women, but transgender activists say assaults, especially against trans women of color, increased a whopping 62% in 2015 over the year before. Some 21 transgender people were killed in 2015, the most deadly year for transgender women since advocacy groups began keeping track. That's nearly double the 13 slain in 2014, but those numbers could be even higher.
    In a report from the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, researchers said, "These totals represent only the known victims; there may very well be countless other victims of fatal anti-transgender violence whose deaths we will never know about because police, the press or family members have consistently misidentified them based on their assigned sex and name at birth."
    I did it because it was either transition or lose my life. If I hadn't eventually attempted suicide, I'm sure the anxiety would have taken its toll. I did it because I no longer wanted to put on the mask of masculinity.
    The relationships I have with my family and friends have dramatically improved. I recently told a co-worker that I used to say, "If I died tomorrow, I would die the most fortunate and loved person I know." I asked her what was missing from that statement. It sounded pretty good, but there was one word missing. If I die tomorrow, I will die the most fortunate, most loved and happiest person I know.