© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Self Made Woman': Growing Up Trans in 1960s Milwaukee

In 1953, Denis Dubis was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee. After decades of struggling with his identity, Denis was reborn as Denise Chanterelle DuBois and is the author of the new memoir Self-Made Woman.

The book explores her life growing up in suburban Greendale, struggling with her identity, an unstable home life, and ultimately, drug and alcohol abuse.

Her early years in Milwaukee shaped her images of gender, and what it means to be on the outside of the supposed norm. She admits that "transgender" wasn't a word she heard until she was older. 

"There were different words for it back then and they were all derogatory, which only increased my shame and guilt. It wasn’t transgender - that came along much later - it was transexual, transvestite, words like that. Drag queen comes to mind... It was humiliating, it was mean, and it made me afraid. And that's why I stayed in the closet all those years," says DuBois. 

When she finally had her sex-confirmation surgery, DuBois was nearing 50-years-old, was married and divorced, and had spent time in a federal prison on charges related to drugs. In some ways, she credits her drug use for allowing her to come out over the years, but it wasn't until she was truly sober that she was able to come out of the closet completely. 

"I came out. I couldn't go back this time and for the first time - I don't know what happened, but I didn't need drugs to do that. I felt like: this is my moment now and if I don't do this now, it's never going to happen," she explains. 

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.