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Trans veteran on frontlines of hometown human rights efforts

February 3, 2019
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In this Sunday Jan. 27, 2019 photo Danielle Stewart smiles in Beckley, W.Va. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald via AP)
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In this Sunday Jan. 27, 2019 photo Danielle Stewart smiles in Beckley, W.Va. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald via AP)

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — In 2014 U.S. Army Maj. David Stewart was stationed at Jalalabad Airfield in Afghanistan as he and other members of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division fought in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Back home in his native Beckley, members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) community were in their own fight as they attempted and failed to pass an ordinance that would add gender identity and sexual orientation to a list of protected minorities in city limits.

Stewart didn’t know it at the time, but a few years later, he would find himself at the frontlines of his hometown’s re-energized efforts.

But when Stewart approached the microphone on Jan. 22, 2019, to implore the Beckley Common Council to vote yes one final time on the LGBTQ ordinance, it wasn’t in military-issued camouflage, but jeans and a simple blazer.

And instead of combat boots, Stewart opted for pink Converse sneakers.

Long, wavy hair replaced the Army-mandated buzzcut and a gold necklace with the letter “D″ hung from Stewart’s neck.

But the “D″ these days doesn’t stand for David.

“It’s Danielle,” Stewart says. “Danielle Renee.”

“I felt different as early as first grade,” Stewart says. “There was no language to put words to my feelings. I just felt different.”

Although she now understands why she felt like she did at 7 years old, even at 48 she still struggles to explain just what “different” means.

She says she and another boy in her class played with the girls instead of the boys without repercussion. But that lasted only a year.

“In second grade I couldn’t hang out with the girls anymore,” she recalls. “I remember wishing I could be a baby doll so I could play with the girls again.”

Instead, she says, she began to adapt.

Stewart, a middle child with two sisters, one 10 years older and one two years younger, made friends and had what she says she considers a normal childhood.

But she says she always suppressed her true emotions in an effort to be what society wanted and expected.

Except in the rare instances when she was alone. The first moment of finding her true self, she says, began when she took her sister’s Barbies so she could dress them up. And then stole one of her sister’s shirts.

Finally, when she was 13, she began experiencing moments of what she would later realize were the only times she was being truly “authentic.”

“I started wearing my mom’s and my sister’s clothes and makeup,” she says. “I’d skip school every chance I’d get so I could dress (up).”

But Stewart never left her house. She just liked to experience moments of comfort. It was when she was dressed in female clothing, she says, that she felt like herself.

Afterward, however, was a different story.

“When it came time to change back into my normal clothes, I’d beat myself up,” she says. ”(I’d say) ‘I can’t believe I did that again. I’m not going to do that again. I’m a horrible person. I’m so bad for wanting this.’

I’d go a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be an issue and then it would build back up again.”

Stewart led an active life, playing sports — baseball, because all the other kids did, basketball, because she enjoyed it and was good at it, and football mostly because it was masculine.

Yet no one knew what she did when she was alone.

And it was during this time she began struggling with her faith.

“I grew up in church and always loved going to church,” she says. “But the churches we went to were very rigid in their interpretations of the Bible.”

She says she struggled with what she viewed as hypocrisy among church members and at a time when she was desperate to find her own inner happiness, she found none at church.

“I saw the people not following the teachings and it pulled me away from the church and I stopped going,” she says. “The times I did go I was combative. There was no peace at all.”

When she graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1989, she planned to join the Marines, but her mother had other plans.

“Mom made me go to college,” she says, adding the original plan was to enlist after she graduated.

But three years into her geography degree at what was then Concord College, she decided to join the Army Reserves.

After graduation, she took a job at a local business, but soon opted to sign up for active duty. And she didn’t leave for her post at Fort Polk, La., alone as she was married the day before she left town.

Stewart’s wife had to return to Beckley for a short time soon after, though, as she says they quickly struggled with money, not realizing it took several months for Reserve pay to turn over to active duty pay.

And while she was gone, it allowed Stewart to experience alone time she hadn’t before.

“As soon as she was gone, I started dressing in her stuff,” she recalls.

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Stewart says the struggle to be authentic became more difficult after she was married and because she was in the military.

Yet although she and her wife had two young daughters, she says the only time she felt like she was truly herself was when she could dress as herself.

“Being able to be authentic at that time, even for just a little bit, gave me a burst of happiness,” she says. “Even if I beat myself up later.”

She had her own secret stash of clothing in the attic and only ran into trouble once, when her wife, who never checked the credit card receipt, decided to do so.

“She had taken the kids back to West Virginia from Georgia and I ordered a wig, 24-hour delivery,” she recalls. “She called and checked (on the receipt) and she said, ‘You ordered a wig?’”

Stewart says she denied it and it was never mentioned again.

But she says there were cracks in their relationship and when she returned from her second deployment in Iraq in 2011, she moved into the basement bedroom, locked the door and began dressing freely.

Her next tour was a solo year in Korea. She says she also used her downtime that year as a chance to find herself.

“It was so freeing and liberating,” she says, adding she wore a pair of women’s jeans in public for the first time.

But it was not without worry as she says the fear of being found out by the military was always on her mind.

“At that time I had a little bit of rank and I was always worried about my security clearance,” she says. “But I was done at that point. Once I had the freedom to be authentic, I made the decision that I would retire as soon as I could and start transitioning.”

With the decision made, she realized she needed a name.

“I refused to give myself a name for a long time because if I named myself, it made it real,” she says. “I always felt if I didn’t name myself, I could keep it in the background. So I finally decided if I’m doing this, I need a name.”

She recalled her mom saying if she had been a girl, her name would have been Danielle.

“However, she tells me now she actually said my name would have been Daniel if it had been her choice,” Stewart says laughing. “My dad wanted David.”

But Danielle stuck.

And so did the plan.

After a tour in Afghanistan, Stewart returned to the States and began her transition.

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Stewart returned to Beckley in 2015 after leaving the military and started her physical transformation.

The first week she was home, she went to a local beauty supply store and purchased an ear piercing kit, as pierced ears were something she hadn’t been allowed to have in the military.

“This ear went well and this (left) ear I flinched just a little so it’s off a little,” she says. “Most people don’t know though. I was just too scared to go out and have it done.”

In addition to piercing her ears, Stewart stopped cutting her hair, only having one trim from July 2015 until late 2017.

“I always thought I had straight hair,” she says, running her hands through her wavy locks. “It was really shocking to me to have curly hair, but Mom said when I was a kid it was curly.”

Stewart is close to her mother and told her she was transgender and intended to transition sometime around 2013.

“She saw pictures of me dressed in my wig and everything,” she says. “She was supportive. Surprisingly supportive.”

So much so that Danielle and her mother celebrated two birthdays and Christmases before she came out.

“I had the public birthday where there were male gifts and then we had the private birthday with just me and Mom when I would get feminine gifts with jewelry and clothing.”

But the plan was always to live that long-awaited “authentic” life.

And in November 2017, Stewart began taking hormone therapy through the VA in Washington, D.C., to help suppress her testosterone levels and also grow breasts.

Stewart says the VA is the leading organization for transgender health care.

“They’re writing the standards,” she says, adding her counseling services in Beckley have been first-rate.

At the end of the year, she made a list of resolutions for 2018.

“One of them was something along the lines of ‘be authentic July 1,’” she says, of her plans to publicly come out and announce her transition.

“When I started all this, I fully expected to be run out of town,” she says, adding some friends and even her counselor at the VA agreed.

Yet she went forward with her plan.

Stewart serves as the executive director of the Piney Creek Watershed and had told her board of directors of her transition.

“I expected to be fired,” she says. “Although they did discuss how the community would respond, they had no doubt they wanted to keep me.”

And Stewart told her priest at St. Francis de Sales.

She has found a church since returning home.

“I finally realized the issue I was having wasn’t with God or with religion,” she says. “It was with the people using God and religion as a weapon to do what they want. I realized the people were keeping me away. Now I try to go every Sunday and I go to daily Mass as often as I can because it’s a place I find a lot of peace and a lot of comfort and I feel closer to God.”

And then, unexpectedly at the end of January 2018, a friend posted something on Facebook about a military veteran who had come out.

“It struck me in such a way that ‘this is me,’” Stewart says.

So five months ahead of her July 1 schedule, she wrote a long post and publicly came out.

“I was met primarily with support,” she says. “Not a lot of anger or hate. I’ve had a few people who have unfriended me but I’ve gained a lot more friends.”

She says she’s gained an entire community.

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It was a busy 2018 for Stewart as she juggled her job with the Piney Creek Watershed, served and continues to serve on the Beckley Human Rights Commission, is a board member for Fairness West Virginia and Friends of the New River Gorge and volunteers for other organizations such as the Beckley Events Committee and the Beckley Area Foundation.

Finally, on Dec. 1, she traveled to Charlotte to undergo an orchiectomy (testicle removal), breast augmentation, and have her eyebrows shaved down and shaped.

“That’s one of the defining features is that women have boobs and men do not,” she says. “That was very important to me as part of my self-acceptance.”

The orchiectomy, she says, has eliminated the testosterone in her body, which means she no longer has to take a blocker.

“The medication they give you is not healthy for you,” she says. “That was a big driver and there’s mental benefits, too.”

Her surgeries were not through the VA but instead through a doctor who specializes in transgender procedures. Stewart says all three took five hours and cost a combined $13,000, for which she makes payments.

She says she has no other surgeries in her future unless she opts for a vaginoplasty — complete sexual reassignment surgery — but it’s not something she’s considering at the moment, and if she would change her mind, doctors require patients wait two years after hormone treatment.

Nearly two months out from the surgery, she says she’s feeling good and looking forward to wearing makeup — foundation, mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow and blush — just as soon as she’s completely healed.

“I miss the makeup,” she says, adding it had become part of her new daily routine.

Stewart, who says she’s equally attracted to women and men, also found love in 2018 and is seven months into a relationship with her girlfriend Christina Baisden.

But she says they’re on a five-year plan as she discovers who she is now that she’s free to be herself.

“I’m 48 going on probably 13,” she says, laughing. “It’s kind of a running joke with me and my counselor. The way things have developed, it’s almost like I’m 13. I’m still figuring myself out and the world out. I’m redefining my entire life at this point so I’m kind of a tween.”

She knows a lot more about herself than she realizes. It’s just a matter of expressing it freely. She knows her favorite color is pink.

She always has.

“For 47 years if you asked me what my favorite color was, it was black or gray or red or yellow,” she says. “So a lot of this is not only learning to be honest with others but also learning to be honest with myself and that I can express what my favorite color is and what I really like without the fear that I always had of, ‘OK, if I tell people I like pink, they’re going to know. They’re going to find out my big secret. It’s going to be bad.’”

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Sometimes she wears her big secret around her neck in the form of a necklace that simply reads “Pink.”

During the final reading of the LGBTQ ordinance, it was her pink size 11 Chuck Taylors.

The meeting didn’t begin until 6:30 p.m., but Stewart arrived at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center at 10 a.m. She wanted to be there if she needed to rally the troops or in case she was needed for anything.

When she wasn’t pacing — she has a lot of energy — she sat off to the side at a table, answering emails, phone calls and text messages, one from a transgender individual transitioning from female to male who hopes to join the military.

Stewart offered advice.

“This is far from the only one,” she says, explaining she’s been helping people since she came out.

She says it’s important that people have someone who can help. Transitioning has been easy for her, she says. Her mom and older sister have been accepting, but her father and younger sister don’t necessarily approve. Despite that, however, she knows she has family.

“While my family doesn’t agree and understand, I know that I’m loved,” she says. “That’s an important part.”

She has a job and a home and she wants to make sure all members of the LGBTQ community have a chance at that same security.

That’s why after close to 70 speakers — for and against the ordinance — had made their way to the podium and back, she walked a few short steps forward and pleaded her case.

“I said, ‘I spent 23 years in the military protecting other people’s rights and now you’re trying to take mine away,’” she says.

But that’s not what happened just moments later, as the ordinance that was tabled while David Stewart fought in Afghanistan in 2014 passed while Danielle Stewart celebrated.

“It was very emotional,” she says of the victory. “It’s hard to define because it’s wonderful to win and to get the ordinance passed but it’s so emotionally draining.”

She says she’s glad it’s over and she hopes people can begin to heal from the divisions it caused in the community as she says some of the things people said were sometimes difficult to hear.

She says she believes if people would stop looking for things to dislike in other people, it would be a better place.

“We blow all the differences up because humans like to find differences and pick on that instead of finding the similarities,” she says. “Because when you focus on the similarities, we all want the same thing: to feel safe and have a good life.”

And she says she looks forward to seeing what the future holds for her hometown as she plans an even busier 2019 campaigning for mayor in 2020.

“My goal is to make Beckley a place my kids want to live in, and whatever forwards that goal is what I work toward,” she says, adding she has a lot of of ideas to make Beckley better for current and future residents.

As for Stewart, she says she’s home.

“What I’ve determined is most of us don’t find home,” she says. “Most of us make home and I’m determined to make home... I’m happy here.”

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Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com

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