Trans veteran on frontlines of hometown human rights efforts

BECKLEY (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.