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Desirey and the Foot Stompers: How Square Dancing Became a Safe Space for LGBTQ and Adults with Disabilities

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"Cuesta mucho ser autentica. Uno es mas autentica cuando mas se parece a lo que soño de si misma."
"There is great cost to being authentic... We are most authentic when we most closely resemble what we dream of ourselves." --La Agrado, from Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother"

Perhaps it's her military background, but Desirey Benavides is a real stickler for punctuality. "I hate being late. I hate it, I hate it. My father always said its better to be a lot early than a little late."

Every Tuesday night, after working a full eight hour day repairing air conditioning units, replacing tile, and inspecting damaged electrical wiring, Desirey arrives at least an hour early before her first dancers trickle into the hall of The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Covina, CA. It gives her enough time to change into a comfy cotton dress and strap on her white sneakers for a brisk walk around the quiet suburban neighborhood. "The doctor says I gotta get enough exercise! I say, Doctor, I'm hauling a 20lb tool belt all day long, doesn't that count?"

After a 30 min walk, she returns to the hall and relaxes into her chair to catch up on her reading. She's reading one of Louise L'Amour's cowboy novels. She's not sure yet if she likes this one. "I like the books where the guy gets the girl. I know life doesn't always work out that way, but that's just what I like. No matter what, I'm still a romantic."

Eventually, the dancers start trickling in, skirts fluttering into the hall, petticoats and crinolines bouncing gleefully across the clean linoleum floor. The guys wear neatly pressed shirts with bolo ties. Their parents and caregivers take up their usual spots to play card games and sudoku while they wait for the next two hours.

Desirey eyes the chirpy dancers from over the edge of her book, already shaping up the squares in her mind, pairing up couples, inserting aids to fill the gaps, sorting through songs that might work for today's particular mix of dancers. At work is an algorithm of intuition that Desirey has developed over the last 15 years as she's come to know each of the dancers as the caller for the Foot Stompers, a square dancing team for adults with physical and developmental disabilities.

For nearly two decades, Desirey has taught participants to square dance and prepared them for performances, including their highly anticipated annual show at the Los Angeles County Fair. On this particular Tuesday night, the participants are especially giddy because they've recently learned that they will be performing at the Special Olympics World Games that are currently taking place in Los Angeles this year.

Desirey observes that this week, like many weeks lately, there will be a shortage of boys. The solution is simple. She'll have to play the boy parts herself. While this role-switching can be difficult for most dancers, disabled or not, (it's almost like learning square dancing all over again) it comes easily to Desirey. She's been doing it for years, even before square dancing became such an important part of her life. In some ways, it is the story of her life.

For nearly half of her adult life, Desirey was, technically speaking, a male.
And in the last 15 years since her sex reassignment surgery, after having traversed an entire spectrum of gender, she's been able to live fully in her own body. No matter what part she's playing, Desirey knows as she has always: exactly who she is. Her lifelong journey in becoming herself has led her to this church hall in Covina, where up to 40 disabled adults gather every week for the same reason: to relish in the act of being themselves.

Foot Stomper dancers are intensely committed to square dancing and each other. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Foot Stomper dancers are intensely committed to square dancing and each other. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Currently, Foot Stompers is the largest square dance group for adults with disabilities in Southern California. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Currently, Foot Stompers is the largest square dance group for adults with disabilities in Southern California. Photo by Sean Nobles.

*****
Desirey lives in Downey, only a few miles from where she was born and raised. Born in Long Beach California, she lived most of her childhood a little ways up the street in Lakewood, the Southern California exemplary model of post war living, where gender roles were as prescribed as its tract home architecture. Her father was a military man, and she grew up to become one herself, joining the Air Force shortly after her 18th birthday.

In her home, the walls are lined with photos of herself and her wife Janet, smiling with arms full of babies, toddlers. No trace of Desirey's former self can be seen.

"I used to build bombs," says Desirey, casually. She specialized in testing gravitational centers of munitions, calculating their pitch and yaw, at what angle and slope they'll drop from a jet.

"Also I've been married three times," Desirey offers. She is self-possessed. Knows the parts of her life that draw attention, evoke reactions. Three times!

"I never wanted that." She adds more candidly, suddenly more reflective. "I always wanted to be like Janet's parents: married one time to one person, for a lot of years. It didn't work out that way."

I say, "Sure it did. You've been married for over 20 years! It just took a while to find Janet."

She's pensive now. "I guess you're right." She looks over at Janet, who's joined us in the living room and now snores softly in her recliner. "Janet love her naps," She smiles lovingly, pink lips and neatly lined eye corners curl upward.

Desiree also never expected to be a mother. Now she raises three young children, Janet's grandchildren that they have adopted together. At age 55, when many women enter menopause and sit for their grandchildren, Desirey is in full feminine flower, attending school recitals, having parent-teacher conferences, treating the kids to family fun at Knott's Berry Farm.

Desirey is without doubt, also a strong woman. Now in her garage, I watch her lug a toolbag that indeed seems to weight at least 20 lbs. She's putting the final touches on the RV before their next trip. She looks completely comfortable in her broken-in, paint-speckled denim overalls and a bright yellow cut off t-shirt. Her make up is subtle, yet expertly applied over her smooth tanned skin.

Desirey is exactly the kind of woman she wants to be. The kind that can use table saws and chains and name every tool in a box and knows exactly how to use each one of them. The kind of woman that can wear a leather tool belt the way some women carry a designer satchel. Desirey happens to be able to do all of this in pretty lipstick, neatly curled eyelashes.

"Janet says to me, remember when you used to come home and get into your dresses, put on your bras?" she laughs. "Now I can't wait to come home and get out of those damn things!" Ah, the pleasures of the underwire.

Like a true feminist, she could burn the bra she worked so hard to earn. But truly, she did work so hard for it.

For years before her surgery, and before hormone treatment was accessible to most gender-transitioning persons, Desirey was doing it "the wrong way." In other words, she was taking regular trips to Tijuana to purchase self-prescribed hormones. Of course, she'd done her homework, read about the proper dosage and gradual incrementation. She knew the risks and side effects and when she was ready, she made an appointment with her doctor. Her instructions to him were specific: she wanted to get some lab work done on her liver to make sure the hormones had not altered or damaged it, and she wanted to start getting ready for her sex-change surgery.

Wide-eyed, her doctor requested the lab tests and referred her to specialists.

She underwent a series of psychological tests and had to get a final approval from a psychiatrist. Desirey was impatient.

"They wanted the whole story about me dressing since I was young, about my marriages and relationships. But I was done! I was done telling it! I was like, look, I didn't just wake up one morning and decide I wanted to become a woman."

Indeed, it was a lifetime process, full of risks, loss and love. Desirey worked hard to make herself the woman she wanted to be, the woman she always knew she was. Simone de Beauvoir famously said that "one is not born, but rather becomes a woman". This feminist banner embraces transgender women as well.

Beyonce, considered a feminist in her own right, sardonically sings "I woke up like this," in her song "Flawless," referring to the obvious construction of her superstar, hyper-feminine persona. The phrase points back to the title and main refrain of the song:

You wake up, flawless Post up, flawless, Ridin' around in it, flawless... We flawless, tell em ladies.

And if you think about it, though the imperfections that seep through the surface, the cracks that manifest in one's constructed identity may cast doubt and uncertainty for some, they also reveal our actual perfection as the beings we are. Flawless. And yes, we all did wake up like this.

*****
When you see Desirey in her lovely petticoats calling to her square dancers, voice perfectly poised filling a hall, and see her Foot Stompers dancers sashaying, taking pleasure in their swinging skirts so they look like great, drifting blossoms, you can catch glimpses of what flawlessness really means.

On the outset, square dancing may seem like an unlikely match for queer or disabled persons. Yet here are Desirey and her Foot Stompers, and they are unfailingly all about it.

Square dancing is part of country western culture that is vested in practicing and conserving rural American traditions that include music, dance, and rodeo. These are often attached to conservative ideologies and lifestyles. However it is in this sphere of American culture that both disabled and queer dancers have flourished in the last 27 years and 32 years, respectively.

For one thing, square dancing is structured around clearly defined gender roles, making it a mismatched pastime for LGBTQ dancers. The boy/girl partner arrangements might seem restrictive, if not downright oppressive, to dancers with more fluid gender identities. Gender-specific calls can confuse both the caller and same-sex or trans dancers. Without adhering to traditional gender roles that have served as the building blocks of square dance and country western culture, it would seem that the whole thing would collapse. The squares would disintegrate. And what would square dancing be without squares?

Mathew Suh's affinity for patterns makes him a great square dancer. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Mathew Suh's affinity for patterns makes him a great square dancer. Photo by Sean Nobles.

And yet some gay square dance groups make it work, and others, according to Desirey, use what is called Proper Definition dance calls that take gender out of the equation. Proper Definition does not simply replace gender roles with new names, but rethinks the entire way of looking at the dance squares. Though square dancing called by Proper Definition looks like regular square dancing to the untrained eye, it actually is arranged in entirely different, more complex configurations.

Like with LGBTQ dancers, square dancing isn't an obvious hobby for people with disabilities. The Foot Stompers and the entire national network of square dancing disabled adults, known since 1988 as the U.S. HandiCapables Square Dance Association, started square dancing in the early 1980s. And despite physical and/or cogntive challenges, disabled dancers, or as they self-define, Handicapables dancers, show up 40 strong at this Covina church every Tuesday.

Mathew Suh's mother had been reticent about bringing him to the group. Usually, she explains, he avoids physical contact with others and prefers to be on his own. Square dancing, where constant hand-holding takes place didn't seem like a good fit. This is a common characteristic of autism. Yet despite some of the social limitations, people with autism are gifted in other ways. For example, they can have extraordinarily detailed memories and capacities for deciphering and reproducing complex patterns. These are also Mathew's strengths. He also performs best with structured tasks and environments. Square dancing is as structured as a dance gets, and consists entirely of patterns and arrangements. Mathew thrives here. Though he is one of the newest in the group at nearly five years, he quickly made his way up to the advanced level.

Yet for many other disabled or HandiCapable dancers, the actual structures and patterns are less important than their colorful outfits, or holding their sweetheart's hand, or swapping silly jokes with their buddies. In these cases, the structures of square dance become more amorphous and quickly, squares come to resemble other more organic arrangements. Loosey-goosey rounded shapes that tend to break, or fractal-like spirals that sometimes spin off, more closely resemble the geometries of friendships and fluctuations in human emotions.

*****
Desirey remembers, as many other queer folk do, that LGBTQ didn't always have so many letters. At some point it was LGBT, and before that it was LGB, and before that, there was simply gay, the only term applied to anyone that strayed from rigid heterosexual roles. As we've learned over the years with each additional acronym letter, the diversity of sexual identities and spectrum of gender is expansive and fluid.

Desirey's life has been directly impacted by the addition of each letter. For years, as a transgender queer woman, she found herself isolated within the gay community. The words to describe herself had not yet entered the queer vernacular. She'd been wearing women's clothing, on and off, privately and publicly, in varying degrees for most of her life. Yet, despite clearly not being heterosexual, she didn't quite fit into notions of being gay. For one, she (still male at the time) was attracted to women.

"Most gay clubs wouldn't let you in if you were dressing," she remembers. So she continued dancing and calling as a man. Desirey first started square dancing when she went by Ray, and was married to a woman in a traditional heterosexual marriage that lasted eight years. At some point, she decided she was going to quit dressing forever. She gave away all of her clothes, gained weight to look more masculine, grew a mustache. She decided she was going to be a man.

But she just couldn't stop dressing. Her marriage fell apart. When she started dressing semi-publicly again, her co-workers were relieved. "Thank god, you're back. That other person that was coming in was a real jerk."

And that's when she realized that to be the best person she could be, she had to be her true self.

Unable to return to her formal life, and unable to fit into the gay community as a trans person, she embarked on her journey to becoming herself one step at a time.

She continued attending square dancing groups, calling and dancing as a male, dressing part-time elsewhere. She attended gay clubs but navigated her dressing with caution. She met a woman who initially seemed to accept her until the woman realized that she attracted far more unwanted attention by being with a male dressed in woman's clothes, than with a lesbian partner. The relationship lasted less than a year.

Eventually she met Janet, and for the first time was in a relationship with a partner that fully embraced her. "One night I told her to meet me at the beach, and I showed her a photo album with photos of myself in dress. I said to her, if you want to take this relationship further, you have to know that this is me. It's not a part time thing. I'm going all the way."

Dressed in full cowboy attire, Desirey married Janet in 1995. They ran off immediately after the ceremony to a square dance event. Five years later, after starting hormone treatments, Desirey had her first surgery.

Even though gay circles didn't quite accept Desirey, she continued to support gay advocacy groups, and in 2000 became a member of the Orange County Gay Imperial Court. The Gay Imperial Court is a non-profit LGBTQ organization that "sponsors, supports and promotes charitable and educational programs and efforts that help advance the cause of the gay community." The annually-elected royal court, the Emperor and an Empress, serve as spokespeople for the organization and gay rights in general. Desirey was elected Empress of both the Long Beach and Orange County Imperial Courts.

And yet, despite her coronations as Empress, Desirey was still met with misunderstanding. She recalls that her "Emperor" invited her and Janet to dinner. That night, he revealed his true motive for the invitation. He was confused about what kind of gay person Desirey was.

"Tell me, now that you're a woman, what you really want is to be with a man. That was the point of the sex change, right?"

"No! I don't want to be with a man, I want to be with Janet." She was aghast.
They kept going back and forth as he tried to wrap his head around Desirey's sexual orientation. Eventually, he surrendered and dropped the subject, unable to accept or understand their relationship. In retrospect, she doesn't seem to hold it against him. Only 15 years ago, those were very different times.

Fortunately, things have changed since, and more transgender safe spaces have opened up. Outspoken transgender celebrities, such as Laverne Cox, have been advocating not only for queer transgender folks but also the importance of embracing transgender notions of beauty that don't conform to cisnormative standards. Cox stated (in a response to Caitlyn Jenner's transition):

Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don't want to embody them and we shouldn't have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.

Desirey never conformed to anyone's standards of what she was supposed to be. And she never stopped searching, or working at building the life she wanted. The pieces of her life that seemed as if they would never come to cohesion finally started to fall in place when she and Janet discovered gay square dancing.

"It felt like home, it really did." Janet, awake from her nap, agrees. She notes that there's less pressure than in straight square dance, where mistakes are sternly frowned upon. Gay square dance is more tolerant of newcomers and newbies and by the time they found it, they'd also become more open to trans folk.

Desirey, Empress of Orange and Los Angeles Counties, joined the the International Association for Gay Square Dancing Clubs and finally, Desirey was able to wear petticoats at dance, and call in the voice that felt comfortable to her, without worrying about sounding less feminine or more masculine. Her voice is rich and she knows how to apply its to a mic, fill a room, and get the dancers moving.

They still like to go out dancing as often as they can, but only if they can find a babysitter, Janet notes. "And the doctor counts it as exercise!" Desirey is happy to add.

Foot Stompers have been dancing at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church hall in Covina, CA for over 20 years. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Foot Stompers have been dancing at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church hall in Covina, CA for over 20 years. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Desirey customizes her playlist to the fit the abilities of each particular dance group. Photo by Sean Noble.
Desirey customizes her playlist to the fit the abilities of each particular dance group. Photo by Sean Noble.

Eventually, Desirey arrived to the Foot Stompers, which provided an additional level of nuance to her already full life. (She'd also joined the International Gay Rodeo Association and competes regularly in rodeo events.) She started calling for dances for disabled adults, and was surprised both by the particularities of calling for this group, but also by their shared experience of being discriminated against and being outsiders.

The language used to talk about disabled persons and LGBTQ, though better than in years past, often seems inadequate, as dichotomizing vocabularies attempt to hardline fluid identities. Gay/straight, woman/man, normal/abnormal are such crude categories to describe the people around us or ourselves.

Most people know of the most visible of developmental disabilities, such as Downs Syndrome, but beyond that, it can be difficult to understand the spectrum of conditions that are not so neatly classifiable. Many functional disabled persons, in fact, could "pass" as "normal," though sometimes a slur in speech, a missing limb, a glitch in a strain of logic, an odd loud laugh in a moment of joyous abandon, might reveal an off-beatedness that hints at the "abnormal." Often people that have little or no interactions with people with developmental disabilities find this kind of difference disconcerting, uncomfortable. An awkward interaction ensues as they attempt to discern the hard line of a disabled persons limitations and personality.

But Handicapable Foot Stompers have no time for this kind of hesitation. They have no time for clumsy dances of personal negotiations. They have to get out there and dance. Likewise, Desirey has no time for lingering gazes that scrutinize her body and mannerisms or attempts to decipher her anatomy and her relationship choices.

Instead, Desirey and the Foot Stompers negotiate differences with curiosity and respect. Desirey remembers that when she was going through her transition, the dancers would sometimes ask her about things they noticed different about her. She'd answer plainly, kindly. They'd accept each new physical aspect of their caller, including her new name, and cheerfully move onto the good stuff that brings them together.

Desirey did, however, notice that when she started calling for HandiCapable square dancers, her phone didn't ring as much as it used to. She received fewer and fewer invitations to call square dances, straight or gay. "There's a stigma about calling for HandiCapables. But I don't care. My kids didn't care."

*****
Desirey hardly thinks of her work with HandiCapables as philanthropic or praiseworthy. "Some people think that me doing this is the best thing since sliced bread. They say I'm earning some real points toward heaven. But you know, whatever. I don't really believe in that sort of thing. But I guess in general I can use all the points I can get."

For Desirey, calling for a group of disabled dancers is just part of what she does. It's part of her life, the way dancing with Janet or getting the kids ready for school is. It's part of what she's good at, like fixing up an HVAC unit or cutting up wooden boards on a table saw.

She gets tired of it sometimes, especially after a long day of work that will be followed by getting the kids ready for bed on a school night. Sometimes after a packed, competitive rodeo weekend out of town, she thinks she might not make it to the Foot Stompers. But she shows up anyway. This is life.

Square dancers, Renee Montalvo and Danny Lewis. Photo by Sean Nobles.
Square dancers, Renee Montalvo and Danny Lewis. Photo by Sean Nobles.

Every Tuesday night, the dancers invariably show up as well. They are creatures of habit that thrive and feel protected by routine. But most of all, like Desirey, they treasure the people that are kind and accepting, and they honor the safe spaces they create together. Truly, for anyone, finding and sharing such a space is valuable beyond compare.

And every Tuesday, she accepts yet another hug from Annie, who "just can't get enough of Desirey who she loves very much." Desirey chuckles and nudges her back into formation for the next song.

It's a Foot Stomper favorite: "It's A Small World."

The thing about square dancing is that its too easy for a square formation to fall apart when a dancer is out of step. In the Footstompers beginners group, it usually takes only a minute or two before the whole thing dissolves into a soft, slow-motion mosh pit of gently colliding bodies.

Desirey stops the group. What happened? Dazed, it takes a moment for the dancers to realize that the formations have gone awry. Where did their original partners go? And how did they get over here and why are they facing in all these different directions? Robert, a veteran dancer that has been pulled into the group to help the beginners, maintains a look of disbelief throughout the entire song. He can't believe it took five seconds for the thing to fall apart. He turns to glare at his buddies and his partner from the advanced group that are chatting and giggling back at their tables as they wait their turn on the floor.

The dancers try again, this time guided by "angels," parents, volunteers and assistants to Desirey, that point them in the right direction, or spin them back to their partners before they fling off course like planets out of orbit.

Near the end of the song, Desirey starts cueing them in for the final set of calls.
Bring it back home, calls Desirey into the mic. The group stands in disarray, like a poorly shuffled stack of cards. Bring it back home, she repeats more loudly. They are completely oblivious. Some of them chat amongst each other, a couple seems to be having a silent quarrel. But most of them are giggling, being silly and having a good time. Bring it back home, she repeats for the third time, her voice booming against the wood paneled walls, before the disheveled cacophony shuffles back into squares.

Like Desirey's life, the disparate pieces eventually settle into place. The formation is not quite a square or a circle; it's an amorphous polygon that shifts organically and redefines itself, in spite of itself.

After a lifetime of ferris wheels, Alabama swaps, and half sashays, Desirey is also finally home.

Annie loves Desirey. Photo by Carribean Fragoza.
Annie loves Desirey. Photo by Carribean Fragoza.

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