Family Portraits: Dionne Stallworth

“I’m not the spitfire activist I once was, but I still get out there.” That’s what you’d call an understatement. If this is her slow mode, I can see why Dionne Stallworth has been hailed as a pioneer in the LGBT movement. As one of the founding members of GenderPAC, the first transgender political action committee, a founding member and original co-chair of the Transgender Health Action Coalition and a former officer and board member of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association, Stallworth has been on the frontlines. Currently, she is the resident activities coordinator for Project H.O.M.E.’s In Community, a housing program. Her responsibilities include developing educational and entertainment activities for program residents. She is also a part-time hostess at Project H.O.M.E.’s Home Page Café and a public grant reviewer for the National Institute of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control. She recently has designed and is working on funding a transgender-specific shelter project. She’s definitely still out there.

PGN: Where are you originally from? DS: I was born in Dumfries, Va., in what you’d call a “blink town,” the kind of place that you drive through at about 10-15 miles an hour and if you blink, you miss it.

PGN: Were you an only child? DS: I grew up with my father and my kid brother. My father had a child with another woman before he married my mother. He later married again and my stepmother already had three kids, plus they had a child together. We lived a stone’s throw away from Jerry Falwell’s stomping grounds, so it was a very conservative area and it was just after we’d come out of segregation in the South. If fact, I’m the first in my family to go to a desegregated school. I remember being the only black person in my class. One day the principal came by and asked if there were any colored children in the room. I raised my hand and they escorted me out of the class that I was originally assigned to and put me in a room with another black girl who lived down the street from me. I’ll be 51 in February, so I’ve seen a lot of change over the years. PGN: What did your father do? DS: His last job, he was a prison guard at Lorton Reformatory prison. Before that, he was a police officer and the first black police chief for the town of Quantico, Va. Quantico is famous for the FBI training academy, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Adminstration] training academy and the largest Marine Corps base in the U.S.

PGN: Your father must be a tough guy: What traits do you think you inherited from him? DS: One of the biggest things I credit him for is my intellectual development. He firmly believed, as did most black families, that education was the key to everything. So he used to tell us, “You may miss the bus, but you may not miss school.” So if we woke up late, we would find ourselves walking, riding our bikes or hitchhiking, but we would have to find a way to make it there. Now that he’s gone, I think about a lesson he taught, which was never to take the easy answer. As kids writing a paper, we would have to look everything up, which at the time I thought was unfair, but now I appreciate the thoroughness and I’m an information junkie. It was a great gift.

PGN: So what were you like as a kid? DS: Unmistakably a nerd. I didn’t wear glasses until much later but I was a band geek — marching band, stage band, brass ensemble, drama club, chess club, science club, Future Homemakers of America, you name it.

PGN: What instruments did you play? DS: If it was brass, I played it at one time or another, but my favorites were the trumpet and the baritone horn. Occasionally I played the Miraphone, sometimes known as a tenor tuba. It’s a very mellow instrument.

PGN: My last boyfriend — years ago — played the tuba. He was an oversized band geek who loved to dance and wear shiny shirts. DS: That’s funny. Well, as you know, I spent most of my time growing up as a boy. Thinking I was a boy until my body changed. During puberty, my hips became curvy and my boobs started to grow. I had a lot of questions and nobody had answers, so I spent a lot of time in the library studying sex and sexuality. My standard joke when I do “Trans 101” training is that I learned enough about sex to Master the Johnson and Johnson the Master. At about 48 or 49, I thought I’d finally gotten a handle on things and was comfortable within my skin as a trans woman when my paternal half-sister dropped a bomb. It turns out that I was born with both sets of genitalia and that my father chose for me to be a boy. She and my father had heated debates about when he was going to tell me. To have a hypothesis that one is intersexed and then to have the reality and the implications of it is another thing. Especially when my dad was no longer around to answer questions. We were very close, but that was one subject that he didn’t speak to me about. It’s been very difficult to process.

PGN: When did you transition? DS: As I mentioned, my body didn’t mature as an adolescent boy’s normally would have. In 1987, I had my doctor run some blood tests on me. I was in the office wearing jeans and sweats and had a Jheri curl like Michael Jackson, as was the style then. I had a very androgynous appearance and his assistant came in and asked if I had children. She thought I was a girl until I said that, yes, I’d fathered two children. Then she asked who Aubrey Dionne Stallworth was. I told her it was me. My parents named me Aubrey after my mother, which is funny since I was supposed to be the first-born male. The doctor looked at the blood-work results and said, “I don’t believe it!” It’s never fun when a doctor says that. He looked up and said, “Did you really father two kids? Because your testosterone levels are so low, I would have sworn in court that it would be impossible. Your estrogen is slightly high too, but your testosterone is so low, it’s amazing you have functioning genitalia. I don’t know what that means.” I said, “I do: It means it’s time to start the transition to the Dianna Prince stage of my life.” PGN: Are you still close to your kids? DS: Unfortunately my transition has cost me my relationship with them and their mother. It’s been difficult. We don’t talk much but I’m very proud of them. Their mother and I were both dealing with something over our heads when we were together. She knew I had gender issues, but we did not know that it would lead to transitioning and certainly didn’t know that it had roots in biology. I only have had contact with them through their digital presence online, which is hard for me.

PGN: So when you went to the doctor, how were you living? DS: I thought I was supposed to be a straight man and so I was living as one, but after receiving hormone therapy, I found myself being attracted to men as well as women, which is something that I find queer people have problems with. Bisexuality is one of those things that no one wants to talk about and, if someone is bisexual and gender variant, it really is perceived as wrong.

PGN: You’ve been part of the trans-activist movement for a while now. DS: I never wished it, I really would have preferred just to be, but I found it was like that poem by Martin Niemöller, “Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak out for me.” Most of us didn’t have Internet access yet so we didn’t have the resources that are out there now. I didn’t see people of color who were gender variant other than what you saw on Jerry Springer or in drag shows or portrayed as drug users and hookers on police dramas. You never saw everyday people like me trying to lead normal lives. It’s changing, but there’s still reluctance in the LGB community to recognize us. We’re not where we need to be, but thank God, we’re not where we were.

PGN: It seems like a movement that’s starting to come into its own. DS: Yes, but I think part of the problem that we have with the gender movement is that we have never established our own identity. There are gender-variant people who are rich, there are gender-variant people who are poor, there are gender-variant people who are liberal, there are gender-variant people who are bigoted assholes and there are those who are just trying to live their lives with no fanfare or runway walking. It’s what makes us great and what makes it so difficult to come together. If you don’t know who you are, someone else will dictate a label for you. I define myself with the term gender variant as opposed to transgender because that’s what I embrace. But we are a huge microcosm of people.

PGN: You mentioned poems; what is a favorite? DS: The first thing that comes to mind is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” It’s corny, but it’s so romantic.

PGN: Something you would like to learn to do? DS: Speak a different language. My top two would be Spanish and Japanese, because I would love to visit Japan.

PGN: What did you get into trouble for the most when you were young? DS: Speaking the truth. I had a teacher for my first-grade reading circle who commented on how fast I was growing and said that I was getting fat. She was a substantially sized woman herslf, so I called her a fat piggie in return. She threw a reading primer at me. Do you know how thick those things were? I cried and she failed me at reading. I’m still getting in trouble for it. Like the movie line, people want the truth, but they can’t handle the truth.

PGN: What would the theme song to your life be? DS: “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger.

PGN: What historical figure do you most identify with? DS: Maya Angelou. Through her writing and her interviews and the way she conducts herself, she sets the definition of what it means to be a black woman. She has really influenced my pursuit of femininity.

PGN: A happy thought? DS: I recently joined the Philadelphia Community Fellowship church and it has become a bright spot in my life. I spent a good deal of time trying to find a church, even before transition, and this is a place that espouses the best of what Christianity or any religious dogma represents: tolerance and acceptance for everyone and everybody’s path. They meet at William Way on Sundays at noon, but the most important part is the potluck fellowship dinners that follow. We eat and talk, we have a youth group. It’s really amazing.

PGN: What’s your best dish? DS: Honey, I make cheesecake that makes pastors fight. I also do a mean Southern fried catfish.

PGN: The best thing you ever won? DS: A compliment from Mark Segal. When they were deciding what to call the community center, there was a lot of debate about including bisexual and transgender into the name. They thought it would be too unwieldy to say and too costly to print the whole thing on stationary, yada, yada, yada. I was among a group of bi and trans activists who were opposed to the name having gay and lesbian only. Some members were very animated and angry, and because they were upset they weren’t very constructive in the process. I wrote a statement that was read into the record about what the inclusive nature of the community center represented. I simply said that if we’re to leave a legacy for our kids and our kids’ kids, we want to leave a message of inclusiveness and tolerance, especially if that’s what we’re asking of other people. Mark told me that it was that statement that persuaded most of the board to include bisexual and transgender in the official title. It showed me the power of words. I think it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done or won.

PGN: For people who want to be trans-inclusive, what advice do you give? DS: No. 1, use common sense. If someone is presenting clearly in a traditional male or female gender identity, respect that as such. If you’re unclear, address them by name; if that fails, just ask. I would rather have someone ask me how I would like to be addressed than have them make clumsy assumptions.

PGN: What’s the worst thing people do? DS: The worst thing — and it never fails — is asking someone what bathroom they use. People will assume that we’re sexual predators trying to get in the women’s room. But if I’m wearing a dress and have my hair done, I’m not going to go into a men’s room, and if I do, I probably won’t come out of it unharmed. It’s a stupid and obnoxious question, but it seems to be a big issue.

PGN: Your most unusual job? DS: I worked in a bowling-ball pro shop drilling holes in the balls and sold bowling shoes.

PGN: A beautiful childhood memory? DS: There weren’t too many of those. We had a dysfunctional family like everybody else, but when the theme song to Perry Mason came on, all was right with the world. We would all sit and watch and try to figure out the mystery. It was a great time.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].