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Regional Interests

Lives Changed: Claiming her true identity during the pandemic

Dana Coffman
Dana Coffman

Lives Changed is an OPB series on how individuals’ lives have changed across the Pacific Northwest during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dana Coffman grew up as a man in the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington. It’s a conservative area, and she says there was a lot she was never exposed to. Being transgender just wasn’t even on the radar there.

“From an early age I knew that I was different,” Coffman said. “I wasn’t ‘one of the boys,’ but I didn’t have the words to describe that feeling or that experience.”

In her 20s and 30s, Coffman had all the outward signs of success: a stable job as an engineer; a good life. But it just never felt right.

“I had a lot of repression and shame about who I was,” she said. “I had difficulty admitting that I might be transgender.”

Shame can be the hardest thing for a person to live with—and to break out of, especially when it’s tied to the core of their identity. She struggled with depression for years.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, she adjusted quickly to working from her home in Beaverton. The solitude gave her the space to feel a lot of feelings she’d spend decades avoiding.

“As soon as I realized that we were going to spend more than a month or a couple weeks at home, I immediately had to reconcile with myself these feelings that I’d had,” Coffman said. “It created this bubble of safety and security to explore things I’d never explored before. It pretty much removed all of the excuses I had built up over the years as to why I couldn’t or shouldn’t transition, or at least going down that path.”

Finally, a few months into the pandemic, she found the strength to face the truth.

“There was one night in particular where I had been thinking about these things,” she said. “It’s funny, I can still remember the moment when I couldn’t fall asleep. I stayed awake all night because the weight of this thing, of understanding that I’m trans, was too much to resist anymore.

“I remember having a thought of ‘oh crap, I’m going to have to do something about this.’”

She took things slowly, methodically researching online. Sitting there, in front of her computer, she found the most important thing: community.

“Thankfully during the pandemic, the internet was a great place to talk to other people,” she said. “I got to speak with a lot of people who are transgender, all different types of gender expressions and identities. It was shockingly accurate how close things I had thought or felt really matched up with the people I was talking to: that sense of being normal is something I’d never had. It was a huge relief to recognize I wasn’t alone.”

That’s how Dana Coffman became herself, for the first time.

She took steps to align her gender expression with her gender identity. She started dressing as a woman. She grew her hair out. She began hormone therapy. It was like she had this window of time to experiment and grow accustomed to being who she had always been.

But, you can only be so much of yourself without other people around. She had one big step left to take.

“I remember the first time I took a walk around my neighborhood, wearing the clothes that I wear every day and wearing makeup and having long hair,” she said. “Just doing something as normal as leaving my house and taking a long walk and waving to my neighbors, that felt like… just leaving the threshold of the door was the biggest part. After that, I felt amazing. I never want to go back to being any other way.”

Today, Coffman has come out as a woman to her friends, family and colleagues. She’s looking forward to the future, and to begin taking dancing lessons. She says the depression that she wrestled with for years receded.

“The part of my depression that was due to feeling really out of sync with myself and I didn’t love my body, I didn’t love the way I looked, I wasn’t living an authentic life, those parts of my depression are gone,” she says. “It feels so much better, it really does.”

In a year where there’s been so much pain, and death, and hardship, Coffman is living with this very unusual blessing: the ability to be in her own body. She’s quick to point out how much privilege has helped: she says she had safety and resources as a white-collar tech worker that most trans people never have.

But at the same time, she knows she wouldn’t be the person she is today without the months of solitude she embraced while working from home.

“I’m confident that I wouldn’t be here if the pandemic hadn’t happened,” she said. “I have super mixed feelings about that because of how much pain and suffering the pandemic has brought to other people. I guess I look at it as I’m not happy about the pain and suffering people have had to experience, but if there’s one silver lining, I’m grateful that it gave me this opportunity and I hope that I use that to its fullest going forward.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting