When Danielle Marie Bergan was seven, she used to climb an apple tree at her home in central New York and daydream about her life. In that tree was a caterpillar that she would watch. Day after day, she’d climb the tree and watch the caterpillar. Then one day, she climbed the tree, but her caterpillar friend was gone. Looking up, she saw a delicate butterfly flying above the tree.
That story–which is something of a metaphor for Bergan’s life–does not appear in her new book It’s Always Okay To Be Me, but it could easily have provided an excellent prologue. Bergan’s book is a detailed, earnest memoir of her life, the vast majority of which was spent as a man, Daniel Francis Bergan.
As early as the age of three (she was born in 1953*), Bergan writes in her eminently readable, though often dark, book, she knew she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Growing up in an Irish Catholic family made life difficult, but it was nothing compared to what would later happen to her. Combine gender identity issues with a father who died young, a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse, self-destructive behavior, crushing depression and suicidal thoughts, you pretty much have Bergan’s book.
Since the late 1970s, Bergan has made her home on Maui. At first a bartender on the Westside, where she drank and snorted more lines of blow than I could count, she eventually found therapy (both for her drug abuse and identity crises) and got a job at the Maui Chamber of Commerce selling memberships–at which she apparently excelled. Cresting on her new found success, as well as therapy that encouraged her to embrace her female side, she began the long, expensive and painful process of gender reconstructive surgery.
In July 2010, she flew to Trinidad, Colorado and went under the knife and medically became a female. Her painful recovery lasted until November of that year.
Her self-published memoir, which can be uplifting and depressing in the span of just a few pages, is a quick read (I was easily able to tear through it in 24 hours).
To find out more, I sat down with Bergan on Friday, Sept. 14 at the MauiTime office:
MAUITIME: First off I want to say that the book is quite good. How long did it take you to write it?
DANIELLE BERGAN: I started in December 2010. I just wrote down a few things. But I seriously started in February 2011. I wrote on weekends or whenever I had free time. I finished it after I got laid off (from business services outfit Kila Kila**). Then I worked on it full time as I would any job.
MT: So where can people buy your book?
DB: The Maui Friends of the Library bookstore at the Queen Kaahumanu Center and the Wharf Cinema Center all have copies. It’s also available on Amazon.com. I also have some signings coming up [see BOOK SIGNINGS].
MT: Why write the book at all?
DB: A couple friends of mine talked about it. I thought that it has a message that could be helpful–that I was able to successfully transition. My sober friends [she stopped drinking and using drugs in 2002] thought it would give hope to people who were lost in drug addiction and alcoholism. There are plenty of them out there. And I like to write, but that was mostly just poetry and short stories. But if God wanted me to do this, then I’d do it.
Also, I did a lot of business writing at the Maui Chamber. But this was much more satisfying.
MT: What did your therapist think of you writing the book?
DB: I’m still seeing Kevin [the final therapist she visits in her book]. He liked it.
MT: Kevin really seemed to support you embracing your femininity, but other therapists you saw gave very different counseling. One behaved completely unethically. That must have been disorienting.
DB: By the time I saw Carole [who counseled her to get rid of her women’s clothes entirely], I was sober. She helped with that, and we had a frank discussion. After my surgery, she said she was sorry, and that those times she said to get rid of my clothes were trying to get me off the fence. That was huge. She’s not my therapist now, but she’s a friend. There were ways she helped me with my self-esteem. I don’t think that I could have taken the job at the Chamber if it wasn’t for her.
Kevin and I did not hit it off at first. But no one had ever presented things like he did. He suggested that I just be who I was–oh, my God, what a revelation.
MT: When they decide to make this kind of transition, most people only have to face their friends and family. But when you decided, you were still working for the Maui Chamber of Commerce, which meant facing their board of directors–people like Bill Russell and Charlie Jencks. They had hired Daniel, and now you were going before them as Danielle for the first time.
DB: They were the biggest supporters I have. I told [former Chamber executive director] Lynne [Woods] when [Chamber exec] Pamela [Tumpap] was talking to the board. She was dumbfounded, but then said that she could see it. To a person, the Chamber board was supportive. Bill called me later and said he admired my courage. He said that he had never questioned his identity, and couldn’t imagine what I had gone through. They wanted me to stay.
MT: But you didn’t.
DB: I was offered a great opportunity at Kila Kila. You know, I showed up at a Chamber party later. I was scared to death, and one guy laughed at me. The gentleman found out later, and came up to me and apologized. He felt pretty bad about it.
If you’re doing business on Maui, you can’t really show me what you think. I just want to do business with you.
MT: In your book at one point, you said that you could never make the transition on Maui. But you ultimately did make the transition here. What changed your mind?
DB: That was early on in my sobriety that I said that. But the 12-step program helps you in so many ways. You actually learn a new way to live your life. It brought personal clarity. Also, I was getting a little older. I was scared to death, but this was my home.
An endocrinologist said this would be a lot easier on Oahu. I probably would have moved if things had gotten bad, but I’m glad they didn’t. I’ve always been welcomed here.
MT: It seems to me that from a strictly bureaucratic point of view, making the transition you did would be a tremendous hassle.
DB: It was a big problem. I’m still facing it. Everything on Maui is fine. I talked to others who had gone through it, and they said the first thing to do was change my name. Hawaii’s not too bad. But you can’t change your gender until after surgery.
I went to Social Security to do my name change, and then I went back after surgery to change my gender. Then I changed my bank accounts. I forgot about having to register to vote, so then I went to the Registrar of Voters. I tried to be proactive. The university I went to [St. Bonaventure’s in New York] wasn’t too happy about it.
MT: Why did you go to them?
DB: I wanted to have my school records changed. I petitioned the State of New York to change my birth certificate. They wanted a detailed report from Dr. [Marcie] Bowers [who performed Bergan’s surgery]. But then they refused because they said they don’t recognize the Hawaii Land Court [where she changed her gender]. They said they only accept Supreme Courts or county courts, but we don’t have county courts.
So I said that if the State of Hawaii recognizes me, and the federal government recognizes me, then they should recognize me. But they said no. I haven’t asked the Supreme Court yet. I’ll go to the Attorney General first and see if they can do something.
Sorry, I feel passionate about this. I’ve felt this way since I was born. I want records to say I was born a female. St. Bonaventure has changed my name, but not my gender.
MT: Your book is alternately exciting, funny, chilling and depressing–especially concerning your family, who also didn’t seem pleased with your decision.
DB: I come from an Irish Catholic family. Had my mom lived, I think she would have come around. I know my father understood something was wrong. My dad was much like me–sensitive, quiet, but he could also be gregarious. He was a big drinker, but he was also extremely sensitive. I grew to be more gregarious like my dad and brother but it took a while.
He always seemed to treat me differently. He had no problem hitting [her brother] Timmy with a belt, but it pained him to hit me. He hit me only two or three times. One time he just told me to scream while he hit the belt against the wall so my mom wouldn’t know.
My family is coming around. I had a good time with them at Christmas last year. It’s been tough for my step-father. They’ll still call me Dan, though they’re not meaning to.
I was into sports in high school, and my step-father supported me. He is still struggling with it. It’s not a question of love–I know he loves me.
I think my brother will eventually come around. If he doesn’t, I think it will be his loss, to be honest.
MT: Speaking of coming around, do you still run into people on Maui who knew you only as Daniel?
DB: I do. It’s more difficult for them than for me. But it can be difficult if it’s a male I know who still treats me as a man. It takes time. I’ve learned to try to be very, very patient.
It’s Always Okay To Be Me
By Danielle Marie Bergan – 2012
Sept. 29: Maui Friends of the Library (Wharf Cinema Center, 658 Front St., Lahaina) 4-6pm.
Oct. 6: Maui Pride at the Maui Tropical Plantation (Waikapu) 10:30am-4:30pm.
Oct. 7: Catering From Soup To Nuts Cafe (1951 E. Vineyard St., Wailuku) 2-4pm.
For more information, visit Bergan’s website and blog at Itsalwaysokaytobeme.com
* This article originally misstated the year of Bergan’s birth.
** The article originally noted incorrectly that Kila Kila closed in 2011. It was sold that year, but remains open.