Milwaukee-born transgender actress and businesswoman Denise Chanterelle Dubois has penned a frank and fearless new memoir entitled, Self-Made Woman about her long journey to self-acceptance and her eventual gender confirmation surgery in 2003 at age 50.
Along the road, in an effort to fight the gender dysphoria she had felt since the age of 4, Denise ( as Dennis ) acted out with exhibitionism, theft, meth addiction, and alcohol abuse. She was eventually arrested for dealing drugs and sentenced to prison, but turned informant to avoid doing hard time.
In her absorbing new autobiography, Dubois holds nothing back. Self-Made Woman is written with an unflinching honesty which successfully conveys the damage and self-destructive impulse that consistently emerged from Denise's inability to address her gender issues for so many years.
After reading Self-Made Woman, I was thrilled to sit down with Denise and discuss her tumultuous and amazing story.
Windy City Times: What made this the right time to write your memoir?
Denise Chanterelle Dubois: Interestingly enough, it wasn't the recent national interest in trans issues that made it the right time for me. I started writing my memoir in 2010, and finishing the first draft manuscript which had ballooned to 650 pages in 2014. Prior to 2010, I had given thought of writing my memoir but wasn't that motivated.
Then, oddly enough, when I was sitting on the beach out on the north shore of Kauai and happened to have a yellow legal pad with me because I was making out a grocery list for shopping later that day, I just on a whim jotted down a few notes on several life stories. Then, when I got back to my little studio that I was renting out there, I fleshed out those stories on my desktop. It did feel like the right time because once I got into it I realized that my story could help others. That was a great moment for me because something seemed to be lacking in my new life as Denise, and I had finally found myself, my motivation, my mission. I wrote nonstop for the next four years.
WCT: So much of your pre-Denise life was about hiding and secrecy, was Self-Made Woman a way to drive a stake through the heart of shame?
DCD: I called it "my secret life" for so many decades, having grown up in the upper Midwest and coming from a conservative, Polish-Catholic family, where anything about sex was never, ever discussed. I learned at a very early age that being different from the other boys in wanting to be a girl was not going to work in my family, and knew I was transgender, ( even though that word hadn't even been invented yet ), at age four, and that was going to present huge problems for me if I didn't conform to my assigned birth gender, so I went deep into the closet to protect myself. Whenever I came out and that happened more frequently as I grew older, I felt intense shame, guilt and humiliation over who I was truly was, felt utterly helpless to do anything about my true feelings, was utterly alone with no way out, and no one there for support. It was a living hell for me.
The wall of shame, guilt and embarrassment came tumbling down when I transitioned to Denise in 2003, so writing the book as I mentioned beginning in 2010 became more of a catharsis for me than anything else. Even though gender liberation had occurred nearly decade before writing the book, what did surprise me was not putting that stake through shame, but through anger! I hadn't realized how much anger I still had bottled up inside me until I began writing the book. What I learned most from writing the book, and what was so beautiful, was I learned to truly to forgive for the first time in my life, and what a great sense of happiness swept through me from that catharsis.
WCT: Where did all that come fromyour roots, the media, your Polish Catholic family background, society?
DCD: It was a combination of all those things and more. I always had a sense of duty as the first born male in my family and felt absolutely horrible that I couldn't live up to the lofty standards that my parents had for me. They wanted me to be successful but how could I when my very being inside was being ripped in two? I was at war with myself; my true self against the phony self that I had put up around me and that was a toxic atmosphere certain to lead to problems as I grew older. I was also a true believer in the Catholic faith right up to when I graduated from Catholic grade school. The message from that part of my life was powerful and in no uncertain terms made it clear that people like me weren't welcome. The overpowering guilt and shame I felt over this rejection eventually drove me from the church.
WCT: Your memoir is so honest. You discuss your exhibitionism, your love of punishment at the hands of dominant females, your binges and purges of clothing and female domination pornography, your drug use, your eventual bust for cocaine dealing, and becoming a confidential informant for the DEA. Were you tempted to hold anything back?
DCD: I thought long and hard about holding back, in fact most of those things you mention, but how could I? How could I not tell it? I had to do the mea culpa and put it all out there because I wanted the reader to absorb the full impact of what happened to me in my life, and in that process maybe reach others who are like I was, and who are still in that deep, dark, forbidding pit of hopelessness that I was in and maybe help them climb out.
You know, I did talk to a close friend who just happens to have her Ph.D in psychology down in California and practices. I asked her about this back in 2010 when I first began writing the book and how much should I put out there? She unequivocally told me to go for it. That helped to give me the push I needed to write it truthfully.
WCT: What kept you going through all these challenges?
DCD: Interestingly, it was several things. Somehow, somewhere, deep in my psyche, I have this unique resiliency to bounce back from the worst of situations no matter how dire the conditions become. This saved me more than once from utter collapse. By that I mean either dead, in a nursing home from a drug overdose, in an insane asylum, or spending the rest of my life in prison. I could always pull myself back from the abyss at the very last moment. Friends have told me I'm like a cat, and always land on my paws.
I also have always managed to keep my myself physically fit and active by mainly running everyday and lap swimming. Even in the worst of times, and even if I'd miss weeks or even months of doing this, I always went back to it. Exercise is a tonic to my soul; fighting off depression, keeping me physically healthy, helping me with my sense of self-worth, and keeping me optimistic about the future not only for myself, but for others when I was able to finally embrace Denise in my life.
WCT: Your parents were never supportive of your choices or identity. If you were to give some advice to parents out there what would it be.
DCD: Save your trans child from a life of rejection, hopelessness, anger, shame, guilt, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, criminality, loneliness, heartbreak, and please embrace and shower your trans child with love and acceptance for who she or he is! Allow your trans child to be their true self! Give them the time they need to figure this out because they will, and don't try to ram gender conformity down their throats because that is a sure recipe for disaster.
WCT: Real life experience [living as a woman for a year publicly], hormone-replacement therapy or the gender-affirming surgery itselfwhat for you was the most challenging aspect of the process and why?
DCD: It was the RLE [real life experience] that by far was the most difficult part of the process for me. I came out very late, doing my RLE at age 48. Yet, I was convinced that RLE would be a breeze as I told my therapist at the time. Gosh, was I ever wrong on that one! I thought so because I had been dressing for so many decades by now, but pretty much only in private, and thought I had it all down, but then stepping out into broad daylight was a whole new experience and I was absolutely petrified which showed everywhere I went. Simple things like going to the grocery store became a dramatic and traumatic experience for me.
It took time for me to get comfortable in my new gender when out in public and the learning curve became paramount to my eventual success in making it as Denise. There was so much to learn; how to walk, sitting correctly, my gestures, my expressions, my posture, age appropriate clothing, my hair, my make-up, my shoes, my accessories, and most importantly to me at least, my voice! Decades of talking as a male had to be unlearned, and the new cadence of talking as a female had to be learned along with proper voice pitch. I took voice lessons from an excellent voice coach for two long years before I finally got it. It was kind of like that scene out of "My Fair Lady" where the male lead goes; "by Jove, I think she's got it!"
WCT: You transitioned at 50. Do you think age informed your experience and, if so, how?
DCD: You know, the detractors out there who are so adamantly against the transgender person always harp as one of their main arguments for not going through with gender affirming surgery, is that you will have strong regrets the second you wake up, and those regrets will remain with you for the rest of your life.
Well, let me tell you something about myself: The only regret I have in any of this is that I did not do this sooner! How I wish I had! In my middle twenties and in 1978, I tried. A gender clinic had opened that I'd heard about and I went there. I met with the head psychologist and worked through the lengthy intake process which took nearly a year. When it finally came time to start hormone treatment, I was rejected by the clinical doctor because alcohol and drugs were found in my blood draw, plus I lacked anything close to the financial resources required for such an undertaking. I was devastated. I often think back to that time and suspect that had I been able to transition then, it would have saved me from decades of alcohol and drug abuse, and I would've been much less a burden on society. I honestly think the drug dealing and prison time would never have happened.
The plus side to transitioning one month shy of my 50th birthday, was I had moved past all the alcohol and drug abuse, had matured, and was confident and happy in my new life as Denise which was such wonderful feeling for me. Having my surgery was just the final part of a lifelong dream achieved and I feel privileged to have lived two lives in one.
WCT: What is your advice to those who are experiencing gender dysphoria?
DCD: Don't do this alone like I did because loneliness like fear, is the mind-killer. Let that loneliness and fear go through you, around you, and then behind you, as you step away from it. Reach out to others who truly care for your true self, and don't think there isn't anyone there for you because there is. Learn to love yourself, your true self, so you reach out and learn to love others and they will repay in kind. Find your inner strength because you know it's there. You are strong, a survivor, and remember it's not what society thinks of you, but of what you think of yourself that truly matters. You're a beautiful human being; full of life, hope, dreams and promise. Don't let yourself down! Be strong!
WCT: What does the future hold for you?
DCD: Gosh, Owenwhat does the future hold for any of us? It's never too late to have a future, even at my age. Life goes on and will go on long after myself and everyone I know is long gone from this wonderful, beautiful, glorious, Mother Earth.
I want to teach love, acceptance, and forgiveness. That's what the future holds for me. I hope that's what the reader finds in reading my memoir. It was a long a road for me to reach this time in my life, I want to use what I have left wisely, and reach out to whoever will let me, and just be Denise.
More information at Selfmadewomanbook.com .