Thank You Eva Marie Saint for Teaching Me Pride, Long Before There Was a Parade

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Guest blog by Dana StarSong Sullivan, with Rob Watson

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s.  There was no such thing as an LGBT Pride parade, there were no festivals, no parties.  It could be argued that there was not even a hint of gay pride at all, even within those of us who knew we were not typical heterosexuals.   During those years I got a lot of incorrect information about sexuality.  Confusing the matter even more, at 13, I became aware that I was attracted to other boys.   

I felt very different because of this and knew it wasn’t okay to talk about my feelings with others. I had been uprooted from a small town outside of Boston into the very different world of West Los Angeles, CA. I was very thin, had bright red hair and white skin, and I landed on the campus of Paul Revere Junior High where it seemed everyone was tanned golden brown and had very blonde hair. They laughed at me for how I looked and dressed. Suddenly I went from never worrying about such superficialities to being obsessed with how different I was from all the other kids.  I felt like everything about me was wrong. Everything. I began to feel ugly. I began feeling that I was truly not as worthy as the other kids were.

One morning on the school bus two girls were fighting with each other and one of them grabbed the other girl’s breast and she pushed her back yelling, “Get your hands off me you lesbian!!” As a queer person in the company of the normal, I identified, I must be one of these.  I must be “a lesbian”.

Regardless of my own self-disgust, I thought this new information had given me a way to speak up and score a zingers against others. After coming out of the showers there was a guy at a window that threw a towel out.  The boy in front of me missed grabbing his as it flew past and he managed to grab my testicles. Here was my chance. “Get your hands off me you lesbian!!!” I yelled at him.

After a few moments of silence everyone started laughing and I heard “Lesbian?? You mean faggot??” All the other boys were laughing at me and pointing their fingers. I was so defeated. They started calling me “faggot” from then on, presumably to show me how the name calling “should” be done.

My misstep in throwing insults placed me directly into the cross hairs I so desperately wanted to avoid.  In time the other kids at the school also began ganging up on me and yelling “Faggot!”.

A few of them named me “Half Woman” as well.  I began hearing it everywhere I was on campus. I was so confused as to why. Going to school became most uncomfortable and I tried to fight back.  When a teacher came along, it was always me who got sent to the office. I was “the trouble maker”.  Back in those days, they employed corporal punishment. I got “swats” with what looked like a large ping pong paddle with holes drilled in it. I was asked to bend over and grab my ankles. Then starting from across the room the vice principal would run towards me and hit me so hard on my rear end I would yell out in pain and nearly fall over. One time, he told me not to move and after multiple swats, broke the paddle on me.   I was told to take the broken paddle to Wood Shop to get it repaired.

I did not dare tell my parents this had happened to me. I was never going to tell what the other kids were doing to me. I was ashamed of who I was.

My family lived about 2 miles up Mandeville Canyon Road and it seemed like a long walk home after staying for detention. One day my neighbor Mrs. Hayden drove past me in her very spiffy 1965 Mustang convertible.  She saw me and pulled over. I walked up to her car and she looked at me. She had the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a woman at that time in my life, with the exception of my big sister, Janet. Janet was every thing beautiful in a woman. I idolized her. I would carefully watch how she carried herself, and how she talked. I kept a running score at how many times guys would whistle at her.   Now another beauty was before me, Mrs. Hayden.

“Do you need a ride?” Mrs. Hayden asked.

“I sure could use one.” I answered. I got in the car, thanked her and before long, found myself confessing all my problems. It was hard to not stare at her. She had an aura of loveliness about her with a slight smile on her face that made her seem like she was very happy. I loved how her blonde hair blew behind her as we drove up the canyon. I wasn’t attracted to her physically or sexually, yet I was SO ATTRACTED to her. I wanted to look like her. I wanted to smile like her.   I wanted to listen like her.

As we got to my house she asked if I would like to see her pet rabbit.  “Great,” I replied.   We drove a few doors up to her house and she parked the car and brought me around to the back. Her backyard was lined with huge Sycamore trees that let dappled sunlight fall all over the grass.   Up by the house was a rabbit hutch. We walked over to it and she motioned to me that it was okay to open it and pick up the rabbit. I did. The rabbit was so nice, he was brown like a rabbit in the wild would look like. His nose was twitching and I kept looking up at Mrs. Hayden who was looking at me.  She wore her lovely slight smile and looked at me with what I can only say was a look of total compassion.  It made me feel peaceful, very peaceful.  I felt like I was okay and there was nothing wrong with me.  There was nothing unusual with how I looked or talked or anything.

She exuded kindness. She told me I was welcome to come over to pat the rabbit, any time I wanted to. I went and patted that sweet rabbit many times. Sometimes Mrs. Hayden would come out and talk to me and she always had that sweet smile and gentle celebration that just surrounded her and me. One afternoon she saw me walking home and she stopped and told me to get in. We pulled up to where my house was and my mom and my Aunt Ruth were standing at the end of the driveway by the street. Mrs. Hayden waved at them.  I looked over at my mother and noticed she had a dumbfounded look of complete amazement.  She grabbed my aunt’s arm and pulled her up to the car.

Before I could thank Mrs. Hayden for the ride, my mom blurted out, “I want you to meet my sister from Boston… Ruth, this is Eva Marie Saint!”

Eva Marie WHO? I thought.  THIS is Mrs. Hayden.

Mrs. Hayden graciously spent a few minutes talking to them. I went up to the house and waited for my mom and aunt to come in. When they did, my aunt was beside herself with excitement over having met “a big movie star!”

I had no idea who the beautiful woman with the kindest aura was. I had never seen any of her movies. I had never heard of “Eva Marie Saint”.  I still went over and patted her rabbit and watched her as she watched me with that expression of compassion and kindness.

When I got older, cute bunnies didn’t do it for me anymore.  I had found the contents of my parents liquor cabinet instead.  They helped me feel like I belonged, but also took me down a long and tortured path far from the world of Mrs. Hayden’s bunnies.  To this day, I wonder if Mrs. Hayden sensed that I was transgender. In those days it was not understood at all.  I assumed I was gay because I was attracted to other guys, but my mannerisms were very feminine.

Others eagerly pointed out how I carried my books, how I talked, so I believed, through their guidance, I was a nelly faggot. One day when I was well into my forties, had been in a long term abusive relationship, had become alcoholic and had gone to a detox, a gay man there asked me, “Have you ever wanted to be a woman?” and I answered “Yes”.   He looked me in the eye and said, “That’s the difference between you and me. I have never wanted to be a woman.”

At that moment, I realized, I had been transgender all my life.

How could I have missed that? How?  Wanting to avoid that question is probably why I ran all throughout my life. It is why I never stopped long enough to really look at myself.   I had been running scared the whole time. I began my transition in July 2011 at a very late age but I did it, I chose to become me. It is a process.

Now we have Pride, as we have had for many years. All these Prides have come and gone, all my friends have come and gone, so very few are left due to the scourge of AIDS.

Through my new vantage point of self-awareness, I am seeing Pride differently than before.   I shared some thoughts on it with my friend, blogger Rob Watson.  I told him that I had marched in the first Pride parade in Hollywood, CA in 1970. I told him that with every Pride I was reminded of having lost so many friends over the years and with the passing of time I was beginning to feel useless, forgotten… like an old bicycle parked in a dusty corner of a garage.   

This was his reply: “You are such a powerful hero. I wish you only knew that. You can be as loud and vocal as anyone else AND stay loving, kind and powerful. I am of the same generation as you, and have had all my loves and friends burned away from me. But you and I are phoenixes, and we have risen from our ashes, and that is HUGE. This movement is not passing us by, we are its parents. Speak, write.  The ONLY thing you have stopping you is giving into the feeling that you are done. NO. You are just beginning and it is scary. You don’t have a past, you have a history, and people need to hear it, understand it. Besides the general public, who mostly do not understand what it is to be transgender, the people who are transgender are not as unified as they could be. YOU are needed. Your voice, your guidance, your wisdom is needed. Do not allow your ego to make you small. I am serious as a heart attack about this.   You are one of my heroes and I won’t let you believe you are less than anyone. “

His reply to me created a spark and I realized I have a story to tell. I am not sure just how I am going to tell this story, but I am going to start here.  I need to talk about this journey that I have survived so many things others did not.   I need to talk about the simple inspirations from a kind woman named Mrs. Hayden who was brave enough to be her beautiful self.  She let me see it in her, and has brought me to today where I am privileged to pass kindness on to others as she did to me.

Pride has gone full circle for me now.  First I saw it in the eyes of a single woman who was grounded and confident in herself.  Then I saw it artificially in the bottom of a whisky bottle.  Then I saw it start in the streets.  It grew, it fought, it burned, it raged and finally, it has survived.  Now, it has marched off the streets and back into my heart. 

I have found PRIDE in me.

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2 Responses to Thank You Eva Marie Saint for Teaching Me Pride, Long Before There Was a Parade

  1. praw27 says:

    What courage! Bravo!

  2. You are stunning! I like red heads:)

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