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Final episode of 'TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas' featuring Deanna Starshine

Sophia Nourani

Taylor Johnson: "Today our guest is Deanna Starshine, pronouns she/her. She was born in Parsons, Kansas in March 1977. Deanna, how are you?"

Deanna Starshine: "I'm doing great Taylor. How are you?"

Johnson: "I'm phenomenal. I'm so glad that you're here today."

Starshine: "Me too."

Johnson: "Deanna, when did you first realize you were transgender? How old were you?"

Starshine: "I have had gender issues my whole life. But the COVID-19 pandemic really helped me to come out. Because for a couple of years when I was in my house, I had no social pressures at all. And so I could be who I wanted to be. I could dress as I wanted to dress. And it became clear at some point, ‘Oh, goodness. Yeah, this is real.’ So I first used the word trans to describe myself on August 15th, 2021, even though I had been living as a woman for two years. Once I used the word, the transformation was very quick."

Johnson: "What did it feel like to finally self-acknowledge being trans?"

Starshine: "It was liberating. I am comfortable in my skin for the first time in my life. And I can't imagine going back. There was a time when the weight of being the wrong gender was strong enough that I couldn't see a path forward. And I had to do something. And transitioning was the right thing to do. I was 44, I wasn't a youngin’."

Johnson: "What were the initial reactions from friends, family and your colleagues?"

Starshine: "I tried to come out to people in the order that I thought they would be accepting. So friends first, and then family members that I thought would be accepting. I had some surprises, some family members that I thought would not be accepting were and some that I thought were, were not. And then at the end, I came out to my employer. Coming out at the [University of Arkansas - Fayetteville] was a really simple experience. The Physics Department was amazing. The very day that I came out, the office people came and said, ‘Do you want us to change the sign on your door? You want us to change your name?’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, please, yes!' They didn't drag their feet at all. And as soon as my name was legally changed, they showed me how to tell the bureaucracy that and to change it officially in the system."

Johnson: "How did you first choose to present your identity to the world? And has that changed in the past few years?"

Starshine: "When I presented as a dude, that wasn't really necessary. I just wore geeky science t-shirts all the time, and jeans. And now I coordinate an outfit with colors and an artistic eye and I love it. Makeup is also something that takes a lot of practice. There's a whole lot of cussing in the mirror, before you get it figured out. And once you get it figured out, you try something else. For the first year that I transitioned, I wouldn't leave the house without a full face of makeup because I was so afraid of being misgendered. Now that's not true. Now, I'll occasionally go out with no makeup at all. Usually, I will put on some mascara, something on my lips and some eyebrows and it's fine."

Johnson: "Would you feel comfortable describing to us your sexual orientation?"

Starshine: "When I transitioned, a lot of things suddenly made sense. And one thing that made sense was throughout my life, I was attracted to trans women, but was afraid to approach them. And what I now realize is that what I was afraid of is awakening the transness in myself that I wasn't ready to deal with yet."

Johnson: "Are you receiving any kind of gender affirming medical treatment?"

Starshine: "Yeah, I'm on [hormone replacement therapy], I take estrogen and progesterone. And both the bodily changes, and the emotional changes make a lot of sense. I feel like, where has this been my whole life? And I'm grateful to be able to experience it now."

Johnson: "You moved to Harrison, Arkansas at [age 11], and are a 1995 graduate of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and The Arts in Hot Springs. You earned a Bachelor of Science at University of Houston. Do you want to tell us about that experience?"

Starshine: "I was a bad student, there was so much to do, so much to learn in [Houston]. It was my first big city, my first queer community, I was so excited, I forgot to go to class a lot. I made it and graduated. From there, I moved back to Fayetteville and spent a lot of time doing poetry, which I still do. And then I went back to grad school in 2009 and earned my PhD here at the U of A in physics in 2017."

Johnson: "Do you have any specific area of specialization in physics or astronomy?"

Starshine: "My research is in the spiral arms of galaxies. Before I got there, our research group found a correlation between how massive the black hole at the center of a galaxy is and how tightly wound the spirals of that galaxy are. More massive black holes correlate to more tightly wound spirals. And it might at first seem like the gravity of the black hole is pulling on the spiral arms, but that's almost certainly not true. The black hole is a monster in its own regime, but its gravitational influence cannot reach out far enough to pull in the spiral arms. We think there's a third factor in there. Probably the mass of the bulge of stars in the center of the galaxy is both feeding the black hole making it bigger and pulling gravitationally on the spiral arms. And my contribution to that project was I created a code called ‘Spirality’ that allowed us to measure how tightly wound the spiral arms of galaxies are."

Johnson: "I can tell from your passion about galaxies and black holes, and from what you said earlier about the University of Arkansas being really welcoming to you when you came out — so we can assume that you've not really had to deal with transphobic individuals and situations? And if you have, how do you manage that bias? Were there any kind of physical confrontations, or for the most part, are you kind of safe and sound in this community?"

Starshine: "Not entirely. I've had a few scary moments on the bike trail. Drunk white men on the bike trail, one right outside the [city] library. And I did have one at the university. This person was walking down the hall, and I was walking the other way, and this person started whispering to their friend. I turned into my office, and the person turns back around and walks across my office door, and says, as loud as he can, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ I get misgendered all the time. I know the difference between someone who does it accidentally, which is no big deal. If someone accidentally misgenders me, I'll gently remind them, but he was being a jerk. And I said, ‘My pronouns are she and her.’ And he said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Please don't call me sir.’ And he backed up. And then he looked at the nameplate on my office door, which said doctor and suggested that I was on faculty. And then he got real submissive, ‘Oh, I'm so sorry, Doctor, I had no idea. I'm so sorry.’ And what I learned from that is that in his mind, and maybe in some people's minds, I didn't deserve the basic human dignity of using my name and pronouns, because I was human. I deserved it, in his mind, because I had rank. And I am shielded somewhat by my rank. And a lot of trans people aren't, they don't have that. Bullies, people who try to misgender and deadname people, calling a transperson by their birth name, that hurts trans people."

Johnson: "Why do you believe adults, children and teens in Arkansas who identify as trans are being systematically and aggressively targeted by extreme right-wing Christian lawmakers? I mean, over the past few decades, they've aimed to erase pronouns and block equitable access to accommodations, participation in sports, and healthcare. Where do you think that comes from?"

Starshine: "Yeah. I think the conservative politicians are listening to their loudest constituents. And the loudest constituents, I think, are parents who feel shame, or would feel shame if their child came out as LGBT. And they feel that it might be bad parenting on their part, and they can't accept that. So, they have to look out to the outer world to place blame. If their child does come out, it's the fault of the school or the media, or the LGBT community. It's someone's fault. We've got to stop them. It's a juggernaut. These people are destroying our children. And if you are a parent, you have an opportunity to support your child, and to be close to them for the rest of your life. If you let it be known, whether they come out or not, if you let it be known that you love them, and accept them, whoever they end up being, whatever their gender, whatever their sexuality, then when they come out to you, if they do, they will cling to you. They will be so grateful to have you as a parent. And as they approach adulthood and you approach old age, your relationship with them will be closer and closer. If your child is LGBT, you are not going to convert them. You might make them pretend to convert because they don't want to lose your affection. But as soon as they enter adulthood, and are no longer dependent on you, then best case scenario they will be adjusted without you in their life. And worst-case scenario, they're going to deal with the trauma of being rejected by a parent through substance abuse or worse."

Johnson: "We've seen a lot more Arkansans, or people in general all around the world, coming out as trans, especially youth and teens over the past decade. Why do you think that is?"

Starshine: "Yea. I think it's for the same reason that more and more young people came out as left-handed in the 20th century, because the stigma slowly lifted. There started to be larger and larger communities saying, ‘Hey, it's okay to be left-handed. It doesn't mean you're a witch. It's okay to be queer. It doesn't mean you're of the devil. You know, you're just being who you are. And that's okay."

Johnson: "Earlier you mentioned you write poetry? You are an award-winning poet. You've brought a poem to read to us that exemplifies your trans experience. Would you like to read that to us now?"

Starshine: "Yeah, this poem is called ‘Touch My Face'."

A boy

still learning the word me

no, not a boy

not exactly

there’s no word yet

at least not one

he’s willing to apply

apply like blush

she brushes his face

not in the sexy way

but more

much more

she makes him pretty

she makes him her

Touch my face and make me pretty

my beautiful eyeliner friend

do you know how I admire you

what you do to me

how can I thank you

when the mirror

looks so terrifying

so euphoric

Touch my face and make me pretty

there’s no word yet

at least not one

spoken in the house

no LGB, certainly no T

as in transit

riding the bus


from home life to hangout

where she will

Touch my face and make me pretty

No, it’s just play

gender bending

for a party of friends


discovering things

countless people

have already found

but to you, a new hemisphere

novel stars in a mythological sky

No, no, mother only smiles

when you make her proud

she can’t brag about this

how dare you humiliate

the one who made you

how can the mirror be so terrifying

so euphoric

so true

Touch my face and make me pretty

my beautiful eyeliner friend

when future me looks back

you will be here, holding light

before the very first sunrise

Johnson: " Thank you for coming today. You are so incredible. And you really live up to your name: Deanna Starshine!"

TEA: the Transgender Experience in Arkansas is directed and filmed by Emerson Alexander, co-hosted by Taylor Johnson and Sophia Nourani, edited by Sophia Nourani, and produced by Jacqueline Froelich. To watch the entire series, visit TEA on Listening Lab.

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Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
Emerson Alexander is the coordinator of KUAF's Listening Lab.
Sophia Nourani is a producer and reporter. She is a graduate from the University of Arkansas with a BA in journalism and political science. Sophia was raised in San Antonio, Texas.
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