October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

By any standard, David Warfield, 44, was a star teacher. In eight years at Center High School in Antelope, Calif., a Sacramento suburb, the American history and journalism instructor won the school’s top teaching award and, for a program he created, a prestigious state grant. He also got a standing ovation at a September 1998 faculty meeting.

Then, in May, Warfield—called Mountain Man for his love of macho sports—wrote a letter to the five-member school board revealing a secret that would soon be impossible to hide: He was undergoing hormone treatments to prepare for a sex-change operation. He would return to school in the fall as Dana Rivers, a woman. “I want to be a whole person,” he explained in the letter.

At first the board supported her. But Dana Rivers has yet to return to the classroom and now fears that the price for finding inner peace may be the job she loves. On Aug. 18 the board placed her on paid leave and said it planned to fire her. Its reversal has not only roiled the Center High community but has reverberated nationally. “Whatever chance there was for this awkward situation to be handled gracefully and humanely may already have been squandered,” the Sacramento Bee editorialized earlier this month.

Why the change of heart? In June the board had sent a letter to parents of the school’s 1,500 students explaining the situation and urging “courtesy and respect.” Only four parents complained. Then, at the August meeting, three board members changed their minds and voted to fire Rivers. They said she had violated policy by talking to students—without parents’ consent—about her condition, called gender dysphoria. Rivers was devastated by the decision. “I am a teacher who just wants to go back to work,” she says through tears, on the porch of the mountain cabin she shares with her daughter Gwendolyn, 18, and their cat Bomber. “I did nothing wrong.”

Board member Ray Bender agrees. Those who voted to oust Rivers, he says, did so even after the board’s attorney warned that a legal battle would cost at least $500,000 and, Bender believes, would most likely fail. “This is money [taken] directly out of the classroom,” he says. Beverly Tucker, chief counsel for the California Teachers Association, says the board has no basis for firing Rivers. “In fact,” Tucker says, “her performance as a teacher has always been exemplary.”

Bender and others believe Rivers is being sacrificed to appease the Pacific Justice Institute—a conservative California group that plans to file a lawsuit against the board on behalf of at least four families unless the teacher is fired. One unhappy parent, Donna Earnest, calls the fact that Rivers shared details of her situation with students and then granted an interview to the school newspaper “a slap in the face.” Furthermore, Earnest says, “she has never taught. So how can they say she is such a great teacher?”

Rivers, who has filed a complaint with the California Labor Commission claiming her civil rights were violated, won’t discuss the charges. But others say she spoke of her gender change only to students who confronted her with their confusion. “She answered their questions,” says senior Kristen Pope, 17. “A gender change is a big thing. You are going to be curious.”

At a rally outside the school on Sept. 24, some 50 students carried placards and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight—we demand a reinstate!” Parents presented the three naysaying school board members with recall petitions. Rivers, who attended the rally, told the crowd, “I miss my students—I miss my colleagues.”

Rivers has long felt like an outcast. As David Warfield, she grew up in the San Jose, Calif., suburb of Milpitas, the oldest of four children of an assembly-line worker for Ford Motor and a school cafeteria worker. “As early as 4 years old, I remember thinking I would grow up to be a girl,” recalls Rivers. “When I played house I wanted to be the mommy.”

In high school, Warfield began drinking, experimenting with drugs and skipping classes. “I was taunted by other kids,” Rivers says. “It was as if they could sense that I was different.” After graduating in 1973 he joined the Navy and worked as an electronics specialist in Alaska, Hawaii and Japan. He also became a “manly” man, racing motorcycles and climbing mountains. When he left the Navy in 1975, Warfield married the first of three wives, divorcing in 1980. Gwendolyn, the only child of that union—she plans to attend Berkeley next year—has lived with Rivers since age 12. (She has said she has “no problem” with Rivers’s decision—but doesn’t call her Mom. “She calls me Dana,” Rivers says, laughing, “or sometimes, parental unit.”)

In 1982, Warfield married again and for most of the decade worked as a Democratic political consultant in Orange County. (He also went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Cal State at Fullerton and an M.B.A. from National University in Irvine, Calif.) Though politicians urged him to run for state assemblyman, he declined, partly because his second marriage had disintegrated—due to his intensifying gender confusion. He quit his job, moved to the Northern California town of Auburn and earned a teaching certificate from Chico State. During summers he was a river-rafting guide. In 1992 he married one of his rafting students, Tara Duggan, who says she felt she had found “the perfect man.” “I knew he was struggling with his feelings, but I didn’t want to know,” says Tara, who is separated from Rivers but remains a loyal friend. “I said, ‘go ahead and wear my dresses,’ but it wasn’t as simple as that.”

Except in the classroom, where success came easily. In 1993, only two years after he began teaching at Central High, Warfield won the school’s top teaching honor, the Stand and Deliver Award. In 1996, with fellow teacher Pete LeBlanc, he founded a media academy to help motivate underachieving students through journalism studies. Last year, the program was awarded an $80,000 grant. LeBlanc wants Rivers back in the classroom. “He is more comfortable as a woman,” LeBlanc says. “I socialize more with Dana than I did with David.”

As early as 1995, Warfield had begun seeing a therapist specializing in gender dysphoria, which affects less than 1 percent of the population. In January, Rivers began daily hormone treatments to transform his bulky male frame into a more feminine form. Surgery next year will complete the process. “I was such a man,” Rivers says, “but I felt like an impostor the whole time.”

No longer. Rivers, who used to wear a ponytail, has let down her long auburn hair. She wears bangles on her wrists, polish on her nails and summery pastel dresses with pumps. And while Rivers agonizes that she may never be allowed to teach at Center High again, she has already become active in lobbying members of Congress for transsexuals’ legal rights. Rivers also consoles herself with the hope that she’s imparting a larger lesson: “If my case can help bring together the community and help teach our students tolerance, then in a way, I am still teaching.”

Christina Cheakalos

Ken Baker in Antelope

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