“I tried to do the man thing”

Having handled classified documents in the military, Dayna Walker’s reaction to the news that Army Pvt. Bradley Manning had given thousands of sensitive documents to WikiLeaks was swift and final.

“I was disgusted,” says the 46-year-old Stockbridge resident.

But when Manning said he felt he was a woman trapped in the body of a man, things got more complicated.

That’s because Dayna Walker — born a boy and named Dana Walker — always believed she was a girl. Beginning in 2007, well after her years in military intelligence, Walker started taking steps to become a woman. After reconstructive surgery, she has lived life completely as a female for the past two years.

She understands the confusion of feeling alien from the image in the mirror, the isolation of wondering if another living soul can understand her plight, the fear that the secret will get out.

But Walker still hates what Manning did.

“There’s no excuse for that,” she said.

Though gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted in society, transgender people — whose bodies are at odds with how they perceive themselves at their core — are a different matter.

It was less than a year ago that the American Psychiatric Association deleted “gender identity disorder” from its diagnostic manual. The diagnosis “gender dysphoria,” describing the anxiety that can come with being transgender, is in the manual.

Faced with incomprehension and rejection, transgender people have high rates of unemployment and suicide, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

In metro Atlanta, Walker is among those working to foster understanding of people like her. This week she will be a speaker at one of the largest conferences on transgender issues in the country, the 24th Annual Southern Comfort Conference, which is being held in Dunwoody. She will address the issue of veteran’s benefits for transgender people.

Manning, who has taken the name Chelsea, caused a stir by asking for estrogen treatments in prison to promote breast development and other female characteristics. Manning’s lawyer has said Manning would be willing to pay for the treatment.

Walker paid for her own reconstructive surgery, though she does get some hormone treatments through the Atlanta VA.

She says she never felt male, though she spent years fighting the truth. It was a lonely and terrifying struggle.

Growing up in the conservative world of LaPorte, Ind., in the days before the Internet, “I was dealing with it by myself,” she says. “I felt like it was a perversion.”

So Walker tried to compensate. At 6-foot-1 and 176 pounds, “I played football in high school,” she said, “but I wanted to be a cheerleader.”

Next, she tried to suppress her woman-ness for 20 years in the hyper-masculine world of the military. She served a stint as a SWAT team leader and worked five years in military intelligence.

Always attracted to women, even though she felt she was one herself, Walker married four times. She has a 21-year-old son.

“I tried to do the man thing,” she says.

The idea that she simply chose to change her gender strikes her as ludicrous. “Nobody would want to go through this,” she says. “The surgery, the hours of hair removal. It’s a painful process.”

Walker said she’s not faced harassment on the streets of metro Atlanta, though in the early days of her new life, she was sometimes called out by children asking if she was a man or a woman. Even that, she says, felt like a kick in the gut and would make her retreat to her car to hide.

While Walker believes most people don’t question that she’s a woman, she still struggles with her voice. When she goes through a drive-thru, she sometimes is addressed as “sir” when ordering the food, and then “ma’am” at the cashier’s window.

These days, the most nerve-wracking moments are when a man starts to flirt. Walker knows that if the conversation goes on too long, the man might begin to question her gender.

“They might get defensive about their own masculinity” and start a fight, she says. She ends those conversations as quickly as possible.

Job interviews, too, can be tough for Walker, who’s been unemployed since May despite master’s degrees in business and psychology. The interviews often start out positive, but the more she talks about her time in the military, the more she sees a shift in the interviewer’s attitude, until the truth clicks.

Then, she says, “they start just going through the motions. They say things like I’m overqualified.”

Nevertheless, after years of therapy Walker feels happy in her own skin, living “authentically.” There is a calm in her voice when she talks about the past. She sees transgender equality as “the new frontier in civil rights.”

Walking down the street, she doesn’t feel ill at ease. If anything, the stares she gets now are because, as always, she is in a relationship with a woman. That hasn’t changed.

But there’s still that nagging irritation named Chelsea Manning.

Although she empathizes with her fellow soldier to a degree, Walker thinks the Manning episode did double harm: to the nation and to other transgender people who are struggling for acceptance.

“It casts transgender people as not being trustworthy,” she says.

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