As a man who was a member of the lesbian community for most of his adult life, Dana Delgardo is uniquely positioned to examine the longtime connection—and occasionally fraught relationship—between those two worlds. That’s because for him, those worlds are one. His journey from a child growing up in a highly religious household, to a high school and college basketball star, to a captain and soon to be major in the Air Force, to a father, a health care practitioner and a community servant, and ultimately to the person that he knew himself to be all along, is an inspiration to us all. For that reason, Dana Delgardo is GO Magazine’s first ever “Man We Love,” a new feature that highlights the men who serve as givers, doers and role models who support our community.
Dana Delgardo: GO’s first-ever “Man We Love”
Lesbians matter. Women matter. Family matters. And Dana Delgardo, a 50-year-old parent of two, major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and family nurse practitioner, is well acquainted with their significance. For almost three decades, Dana was a member of the lesbian community, where its camaraderie, comfort and love shaped Dana’s character and worldview.
The thing is, Dana Delgardo was never a lesbian. He is and always has been a transgender man.
Tall, fit, and well-dressed, with an easy smile and a calm demeanor, Dana, who started his medical transition just two years ago, looks just like any other fashionable guy you’d see on a city street—“metrosexual and sort of GQ,” he says shyly, when asked to describe his style.
A member of the World Professional Association on Transgender Health, Dana works at the only federally qualified community health center in New Jersey to offer a specific focus on transgender health care—an initiative he led. In recent years, he founded a group called OutSpoken, which strives to create a space for gender nonconforming youth and their families and allies to build community, while also developing a mentorship program for those youth. Being a gender minority of any stripe is a struggle, something Dana himself knows all too well.
As a child who was drawn to “masculine things,” his experience was “typical of most trans-identified people,” he says. “There was a lot of darkness in my childhood because I didn’t feel normal. I didn’t feel like everybody else. My depression was constant.”
His mother was a minister, “so God was the end-all-be-all in my household, and it was hard for me to understand why, if God loved me, why wasn’t I who I wanted to be?” Dana wondered if God was angry with him, and he feared talking to his mother about it. “I thought that if I expressed that to her I’d be ostracized, or maybe even institutionalized, because it went against every grain of religion I was brought up in.”
By high school, Dana said to himself, “I’m definitely a boy,” and considered himself asexual. “The thing is, I’ve actually always identified as male,” he says, rejecting a common theme that crops up in identity-related discourse—the idea that he was simply a butch woman who betrayed his community to align himself with the patriarchy. In spite of a growing interest in women, he didn't pursue them romantically. “I was raised to believe it was wrong—religiously, it was wrong,” he says.
Dana wasn’t interested in boys, either. So, he dove into academia, and played basketball. He excelled, ultimately winning a scholarship to play at Concordia University in Montreal. That was when he finally felt comfortable enough to start dating, and he came out as a lesbian.
At 24, he joined the military. He was looking for something to help him deal with the loss of his father. “He was my rock,” he says, “my main support system. When he died, I was lost.” In that time of need, the military, he says, “became my parent and life-saver. I really don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t joined.”
He found the strictness of the Air Force to be familiar, having grown up in a “very militant” household courtesy of his mother, a dominant figure in his childhood whom he adored. Yet, in spite of the comfort and satisfaction he derived from the structure of the military, the ability to serve his country, and the friendships he developed while actively serving, conflicting thoughts about coming out as transgender lingered for years. “I had a fear of losing a pension I earned fully,” he says.
Meanwhile, he was flying around the world, doing medical evacuations in places like Germany, Iceland, Portugal and Iraq. And he was meeting women. “If people described me,” he says, “they would say I was a dyke on the masculine side, but I didn’t really identify. And then I got to my late 30s, and I thought, ‘I’m not a lesbian, and I gotta figure this out.’”
Dana dwelled on his gender identity for most of his 30s, and at 37, he married a woman. “Between her and the military,” he says, “those were the two things that kept me from transitioning sooner.” He worried that if he did transition, it would threaten his wife’s lesbian identity. And he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to move forward as an officer. Through it all, he had no one to turn to. “I didn’t have any guidance or any type of a mentor in my life who had transitioned themselves.”
It’s not hard to imagine how the absence of such a figure could stall a person looking to make a change, however necessary and urgent the need to make that change might feel. When asked to name a cisgender man he admired, Dana says, “I think two men who have impressed me with their sense of style and strategic abilities are Colin Powell and Barack Obama. They have beaten the odds in an oppressive and hostile environment, and they have managed to always come out minimally scarred. They have learned to negotiate with the same tools that are used to oppress them. They walk the walk, and talk the talk.”
When asked the same question about women, he paused. “Women, you know, that is hard, because I admire all women. The women that I’ve known, starting with my mom, have all been strong. I am drawn to intelligence. All the women who have been intimately a part of my life I admire, and I’ve learned a great deal from every one of them.”
A question that is often posited by members of the lesbian community, specifically by women who have grappled with gender identity themselves, is why some of its longtime masculine members who transition can’t simply live as butch women. Regarding this, Dana says, “For me, I thought about it and thought about it and then when I was in my mid-40s I thought, ‘You know, when I die, I’m gonna die as a man, because that’s who I am. I gave myself a drop-dead date. I said when I’m close to my 50s, I’m just gonna do it, whether I’m in the military, whether my mom is on board or not, regardless of anything, I’m gonna do it.’ I just made the decision that I was tired of not being myself.”
Dana and his wife eventually went their separate ways, divorcing almost six years ago. They split before he transitioned, and they now co-parent a 10-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. “They’re cool kids,” says Dana. “You know, I sat them down and I said, ‘You know that mom-mom—that’s what they called me—has always identified as a boy? I’m gonna start a process that’s called transitioning, and I’m gonna start taking hormones that will make my body more masculine. It will make my body look on the outside the way I feel on the inside, so I’ll finally have my insides and outsides match. But don’t worry, I’m still gonna be the same person, you're just gonna see some changes outwardly.’”
His kids, with whom he is very close, now call him dad. It was Dana’s request. “I told them if they make a mistake, that’s fine.” In the three years since he came out to them, they’ve acclimated well to his fathering.
Unfortunately, certain friendships of Dana’s did not weather his transition. “It was okay for some of them when I identified as masculine but looked female,” he says. “It was kind of a running joke. One friend would call me ‘sir’ all the time. Now that I am a man, it’s not so funny anymore.”
But Dana affirms that he is the same person that he has always been to his close friends: “Me.” The only thing that’s changed, he says, is the way society views him. “I’m not a shadow of who they may have physically seen me as in the past. I am a whole person with multiple parts.”
It’s the multiple parts—not just his manhood—that truly define Dana. “I’m a parent, provider, officer, friend and father,” he says. “I sacrificed my transition for service, my mother and my country.”
His journey has given him a lot of time to think about what manhood truly means to him. “To some people, a man is a misconception based on a societal norm,” he says. “Being a man, to me, is an experience, because it cannot be defined in one word.”
The friction he's noticed between lesbian and trans communities clearly weighs on Dana, a peaceful yogi who meditates regularly. “I think if a lesbian and a trans man would just sit down and have an honest conversation, we could probably educate each other and get the fears out on the table. I think it’s a fear that really causes the distance between us.”
Wise words indeed. Dana cannot be emphatic enough about his appreciation for the women he knows and has known. “I am a hybrid of life experience, and a mixed concoction of every woman that has been a part of my life. I am the man I am today because of them. Time will tell what kind of man I go on to be.”
That said, Dana says that his family and LGBT health care practice take precedence over elements of his personal identity. His drive is unwavering. “I have more important things,” he says, “that I need to be focused on.”