By Larisa Robinson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – For decades, Dawn Storrud looked in the mirror and saw a man. But on the inside, she knew she was a woman – and that her physical body didn’t reflect her true gender.
Storrud was born with a male body, but from around age 3, she says, she felt that deep down, she was female. As a result, she said, she faced discrimination, harassment and even violence as a child and later as a transgender woman. Storrud said she has been beaten up and hospitalized twice. Regardless, she doesn’t turn down a challenge.
“Once, I went somewhere and was told I couldn’t use the male or female restroom,” Storrud said. “So I lifted up my skirt and did what I had to do right inside of the building.”
Such experiences have prompted Storrud to advocate in Virginia for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.
In January, for example, Equality Virginia, the state’s leading organization on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, held its annual Lobby Day. The group urged the General Assembly to pass laws to ban discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation.
Storrud was one of the first people to sign in on Lobby Day. She did so with a clear goal in mind.
“I just want to encourage legislators to pass any equal employment and any state employee protection possible,” Storrud said.
At the Equality Virginia event, she never lost a chance to make someone laugh. Everyone she spoke to couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm and humor. But behind the jokes is a pain-filled life.
“The biggest burden with being transgender is that it’s not you,” Storrud said. “None of your accolades belong to you; they belong to your mask.”
She found that taking the mask off could be dangerous.
For years, Storrud lived in Wyoming, where she was a Lutheran pastor and was active in politics and amateur theater. Storrud said residents left dead animals on her porch and shot at her.
So she moved to a small town in Utah and commuted to her job in Wyoming. She said she got shot at again. That’s when she decided to move farther south, to Virginia.
To avoid problems, Storrud said she “wore a male façade” until she was 54. She also married and had seven children during that time.
She said she finally came to terms with her transsexuality when her blood pressure was way over the limit. To reduce her blood pressure, Storrud said she started taking estrogen pills and decided to live her life as a woman.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone or lose my wife and kids,” Storrud said. “But when I finally took the pills, my blood pressure dropped within two weeks.”
Storrud said her wife was the only person she had ever been in love with. But Storrud had to tell her about her transsexuality.
Storrud’s relationships with her children and wife are estranged now. She hasn’t told them that she is now fully transgendered, meaning she now has female sexual reproductive organs.
“Most of my kids accept me,” Storrud said. “I can talk to my wife, but not in person … When we see each other, she feels like she’s grieving.”
But all has not been pain and struggle for Storrud. Now 62, she said she reflects every day on the good things that she’s done and that have happened to her.
For instance, in Wyoming, Storrud touched the lives of fellow churchgoer Sue Fahlsing and her family.
“When my 13-year-old daughter was hospitalized in an eating disorder unit with anorexia, Dawn sent her a lovely handwritten short story with illustrations about a dragon,” Fahlsing said.
Also in Wyoming, Storrud opened her home as a sanctuary for anyone who was on the streets or needed a place to stay. She invited prostitutes, homosexuals, homeless individuals and anybody else who needed love and shelter.
“I was concerned that she would be taken advantage of,” Fahlsing said. “I was very sad when Dawn decided she needed to leave Rock Springs for her own safety. Church just isn’t the same zippy place without her.”
Before that period, during her male façade stage, Storrud said she served in the U.S. Air Force and worked as an underground miner.
Now retired, she has big plans. She is building a catamaran that she plans on floating along the “Great Loop,” a route that traces eastern North America, from the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to the Gulf of Mexico, up the Atlantic coast, and eventually up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario.
Storrud also is a tinkerer and inventor. She is working on building ceramic houses that she said could last thousands of years.
“I figure I need to change the world,” Storrud said. “But nobody needs to know who’s doing it.”
She also has learned a lot about transgender people and the science behind transsexuality. Storrud encourages people who identify with a gender inconsistent with their biological sex to start the transgender process while they’re young – instead of putting on a mask.
“If you’re sure, start now,” Storrud said. “It will not get better the more you wait.”
Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender face an uphill battle to make Virginia a better place for the GLBT community.
Despite Lobby Day, the General Assembly this year killed bills that would have protected people against employment and other kinds of discrimination based on sexual orientation. And in April, a state board rejected a proposal to prohibit adoption agencies from discriminating against prospective parents based on their sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, Storrud had positive words for members of the GLBT community.
“Every day on this side of the grass is a blessing,” she said. “Stay alive; things will get better.”