“When do I get to have long hair?”
Decades ago, a curious, 4-year-old child living south of Salt Lake City, posed that simple question to grandma.
“You don’t,” the child’s grandmother replied. “You’re a boy.”
It didn’t seem fair. The child was born male, but inside, always felt female. Something must be wrong, the child thought.
At an early age, the child recalled climbing out of the bathtub, wrapping up in a towel and pretending it was “a nice, beautiful dress.” The child recalled using a towel, to mimic long hair. The child asked to wear a nightgown. When grandma refused, the child donned a grandpa’s old T-shirt and pretended.
The child enviously eyed women with long, flowing locks.
“Why can’t I have that?” the child wondered.
As time went by, the child buried confused feelings. It was better to hide it than fight it, the child thought.
That child is now Danielle Lundgren, a 42-year-old Idaho Falls resident, who lived as Derek — the name she was assigned at birth — for 40 years.
To the outside world, Derek presented as a masculine man. He got married. Fathered four children. Sought out manly pursuits such as big trucks, motorcycles and hunting. Became a law enforcement officer.
But Lundgren hid how she felt inside. Nearly two years ago, she decided to live her truth. She now identifies openly as a transgender woman.
“For the first time, I can look in the mirror — even when I get out of bed, and my hair’s all ratty and messy — and I can go, ‘There she is,’ ” Danielle said. “That’s who I’m supposed to be.”
Figuring Things Out
As Danielle puts it, Derek was an ass. He was “jaded, cold — literally sometimes, cruel,” she said.
Her friends agree.
“As Derek, (Lundgren) was not a very nice person,” Danielle’s friend Ranae Johnson said. “I did not like Derek. He was just real standoffish, not very friendly and hard to get to know. I guess knowing what I know now, there was a shell there. He was just very unhappy inside.”
“He was very selfless but could tell there was some depression, almost,” friend Danielle D’Ulisse added. “He was just sad … it was just an effect on his overall personality.”Statistics show transgender individuals are at risk for increased suicide, discrimination and depression, among other things.
Derek was married three times to three women. He was a deputy with the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office for more than 12 years in which he worked as a field training officer, a SWAT team member, a detective, an EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operations Course) instructor and a motorcycle officer.
“He was a good officer and did very well,” said former sheriff Byron Stommel. “I had no complaints about him.”
At work and in his personal life, Derek largely kept his gender identity hidden — at the time, not even having a term for it.
That changed about 15 years ago when, for the first time, Derek got home Internet access. Danielle remembers staying up into the wee hours browsing the web, searching for a term that fit her.
“I just knew there was something,” she said. “But I didn’t have the definition … I knew people talked about cross-dressing and drag queens, but none of those fit — those things were done for entertainment, and what I felt was not an entertainment situation, it was a legitimate ‘I’m in the wrong body.’ So when I came across the term ‘transgender’ it was just like a light bulb. Like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ An epiphany, almost.”
With that hopeful bit of knowledge, Derek began digging into research. He came out to his wife and began exploring little tastes of femininity — researching hormonal therapy, wearing flared jeans, dressing more openly in front of his kids.
Those things, he hoped, would help quench the desire to be feminine. But they didn’t.
Eventually, he began taking low doses of hormones. He hoped that too would “help calm things from the inside.” That didn’t work, either.
“It’s like giving a child a taste of the candy and then expect them to go, ‘That’s good, I’m happy with that,’” Danielle said.
Living secretly transgender was like having a car alarm going off “every second of every day,” she said, as it constantly permeated her thoughts.
Eventually, she could no longer stand the blaring alarm. Severely depressed and contemplating suicide, coming out became a decision of life or death. Had she not, Danielle said today she’d be dead.
In May 2013 she crafted a carefully worded “coming out” post on Facebook. She said she expected to be fired from her job at the Sheriff’s Office the next day. She said she expected to lose 90 percent of her friends and family right then.
“What I was shocked by, was, the absolute outpouring of support,” she said. “I didn’t get one negative comment.”
Transitioning isn’t as simple as throwing on a dress, said Danielle, who began the lengthy process — mental and psychological evaluations, legal paperwork and other things — shortly after coming out.
She also discussed her transition with her superiors at work.
“Let’s face it, first, I am the very first person in Bonneville County … to make the full legal, lawful transition,” Danielle said. “Then, I was the only out cop in the state of Idaho. I mean wow, that’s a huge thing. We had agencies from all over, contacting us, basically saying, ‘we’re going to sit back and watch — we want to observe what’s going to happen and how things go.’ ”
Danielle hoped to make the process “as positive as possible for everybody” and help pave the way for the next person. She said she knew bathrooms would be an issue — so, at her suggestion, single-occupancy bathrooms in the county courthouse were changed from gender specific to non-gender specific.
On Dec. 18, 2013, an emotional Danielle, her now ex-wife and oldest son by her side, went to court. Those were her last few moments living life as the wrong person, Danielle said.
People she’d known for years walked by, and shook her hand. Others gave her a hug of support. Finally, she recalls, the judge — a longtime, familiar face — read her case “business as usual,” asked the appropriate questions, completed the process and slammed the gavel.
“That was it — I was Danielle,” she said. “At that moment, I was born, I can be me. No one else can take it away from me, no one can make me have to go back.”
It hasn’t all been easy. In January 2014, when she returned to work as Danielle, she noticed an immediate difference in treatment among those who supported her and those who didn’t.
“The passive-aggressiveness, people not wanting to say ‘hi’ to you anymore, people not wanting to even acknowledge your existence or work on the same case as you,” she said. “You’re treated kind of like you have the plague.”
Throughout the process Danielle has experienced loss, but she also said her life has been enriched. She’s built a support network of friends in Idaho Falls; she volunteers at local events and has shared her story publicly multiple times.
“A lot of it has been pulling it out of her shell,” friend April Rowberry said. “I remember (one time) at a women’s dressing room — she was so freaking scared. I was like, ‘No one cares, let’s go.’ And no one cared. So it’s been mostly helping her with her courage …. I’ve seen tons of growth in the last few months, it’s incredible how much she’s come out of her own skin.”
Danielle testified before the Idaho Falls City Council on the city’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance in 2013. This spring, she shared her experience gender transitioning before lawmakers in Boise on the “Add the Words” bill. And she’s spoken to just about every high school Gay-Straight Alliance in town.
“When I first came out, my whole thought at the time was just to live a normal, quiet life,” Danielle said. “I didn’t want to be into advocacy, or be seen as people’s role model … but (eventually) it was like, ‘How the hell can I not get involved?’ The more I thought about it, the more I just had to tell my story. Because there are so many people just like us that kind of fly under the radar … and by doing so, we do ourselves an injustice.”
Danielle quit her job in law enforcement earlier this year, in part, because she said it no longer fit who she is.
“Derek was the cop,” she said.
Now, she hopes to return to school and pursue a career in therapy.
“I don’t go around begging for attention, putting on a show and carrying this big flag that says ‘Hey look at me, this is who I am,’ ” she said. “All I want to do is live my life and be treated with the respect that I earn as a productive member of society — as a normal woman. Because that’s what I am.”