My husband Brad and I were sitting in one of our favorite pizza places one mid-October evening when I wasn’t in North Carolina, Norfolk, or holed away with a giant mug of coffee and a bowl of popcorn tapping out a school term paper.
I’d just started my second year in an MFA program, and I couldn’t really say things were going all that well. I’d entered the program on a portfolio of journalistic human-interest stories and a few essays I saw as witty. I wanted to do my thesis as a collection of humorous essays, with an eye toward becoming a Nora Ephron or a Sloane Crosley—funny women who lived their adventures and took readers along for the ride. But those intentions had been squashed the prior semester when a visiting professor of some renown steamrolled over my workshop submissions in a cloud of scorn and derision. I elicited some laughter from him, but it wasn’t the mirth I was going for.
“I wish you’d turn your lens on some of the darker elements of your life,” he said, snorting in disgust over an essay I’d written involving a yard sale, a bike named Biff, and some elementary school kids in the market for overpriced cotton candy and B-roll rides at a traveling carnival. He called me into his office for a secondary thrashing where he treated me to a personal reading from his recently released memoir, selecting a passage detailing a family member’s suicide and the subsequent tumble his mom took from the toilet upon hearing the news. When finished, he slammed the book shut as an indictment. There. That’s how it’s done.
Things were so bad I was considering singlehandedly erecting a structure on some abandoned wooded property we owned and attempting to live off the land until I either had a story or succumbed to the elements. I wish I were kidding.
Brad and I were in some sort of discussion about the general state of my academic woes when my phone buzzed. It was my friend Elaine.
“Can you swing by Panera real quick? Please?”
I thought about ignoring the text but decided to just shut it down instead. It was date night. I couldn’t bring myself to deal with her. Although I always knew Elaine’s personality toggled between bossy and fun, I’d spent two years embracing the fun and ignoring her more domineering behaviors. But the life-coaching program she’d completed late that summer shifted the balance toward the domineering, ultimately changing her relationship with me. By fall, she had all but coached herself right out of our lives.
“I’m actually nowhere near Panera—already ordered Italian.”
“Okay. Well, Dani is here with me and wants to share something,” she said.
“Is she okay?”
“Actually, that’s what he wanted to talk to you about. He’s great.” He? Elaine had my full attention now.
Dani was now Danny. This was important—for Brad and me, a drop- everything-and-run sort of affair, not unlike the obstetrician’s midnight call to the delivery room or a first responder summoned to the epicenter of catastrophe. Someone at that moment needed exactly what we had to offer. We boxed up our pizza and headed to Panera.
Learning to Be a Queer Ally
Not long before, Brad and I began to quietly fall into a role of support for queer people. It was more like an underground railroad situation than in any official capacity. We liked to send word out through our networks that we had a place at our table and a bed in our home for anyone in need of a safe space. And now that someone needed us, we were on it.
Danny offered a nervous smile as Brad and I slid into the booth across from him and Elaine, but he quickly turned his attention to a napkin he was twisting between his fingers.
“So, Danny’s ready to start sharing some news with people. I told him that before we started this,” Elaine waved a hand vaguely between her and Danny, indicating their private sessions, “that you and I had a strong hunch about what was going on. Danny’s really nervous about how to explain things to people, so we’ve been working on a script, and I promised him you guys were safe people to practice on.”
Brad and I both smiled at Danny, encouraging him to go on.
Danny smiled nervously and cleared his throat. “Elaine said I should start sharing this gradually in small groups, with the safest people first so I can build some confidence.” His voice quivered, and he paused and stared into the twisted napkin as though he’d find the script printed somewhere in the folds.
“So, you’ve probably heard the term hermaphrodite before. It’s actually called intersex, and it refers to people who have both male and female sex organs. That would describe me.” Danny pressed his lips together in a tight smile and nodded, looking me straight in the eyes. He took another deep breath. “All my life I’ve identified with my male side, but I’ve had to present myself in the way that people wanted to see: as female. But I’ve recently decided that I can’t do that anymore, and I’m going to live the rest of my life as me, as a man.” Danny’s voice became more confident as he spoke.
I don’t remember what Brad and I said, but I know we affirmed Danny in a way I wish I had been equipped to affirm others who I had failed before. I recall Danny relaxing and smiling. I remember Elaine slipping out.
“Goodbye!” she waved. “Have fun!”
It was like she had just brokered a real estate deal. Seeing her for the first time in months, I had briefly lamented the gulf that had grown between us. As she toodle-ooed out the door, I remembered why it happened. I turned to face Danny—who clearly represented the future of friendship for me.
When we finally stood to leave, I knew two things: Brad and I had a new friend, and we were going with him on a journey into spaces the church never equipped us to navigate.
Adapted from Intersexion: A Story of Faith, Identity, and Authenticity by Cynthia Vacca Davis
Photo by Rachel Claire: https://www.pexels.com/photo/interior-of-modern-restaurant-with-leather-seats-and-wooden-tables-5490908/