Pride Month Special: Former Emery High Teacher & Trans Rights Pioneer Steve Dain
Emeryville Civic Center is once again proudly flying the pride flag for the month as we have for years. Additionally, the city is flying a second, less familiar flag consisting of a horizontal white stripe sandwiched by two light blue and two pink stripes. The Transgender Pride Flag is a symbol of transgender pride, diversity and transgender rights.
Emeryville may seem like an unlikely city to be at the forefront of trans activism, but decades ago, our city was at the center of a protracted legal fight involving an early transsexual rights pioneer named Steve Dain.
Born ‘Doris Richards’
Dain was born ‘Doris Richards’ in 1939 and grew up in Oakland. Richards attended high school at Oakland Tech where he graduated in 1957. He was accepted to UC Berkeley where he received his B.A. in 1961 followed by his Masters in Physical Education & Child Development in 1963.
Following graduation, Richards was hired as a teacher at Arroyo High in San Lorenzo. Richards’ teaching career eventually led him to Emery High in 1966 where he taught girl’s Physical Education. During his decade as a teacher, he was honored with a ‘teacher of the year’ award and achieved tenure.
Richards was a successful teacher, but struggled in his personal life with a gender that he knew was incorrect. His first marriage to a man ended in divorce. “My torment came from … inside, inside me,” Dain openly confessed after later transitioning. “I wanted to be who I was. I wanted to also fit. And to be who I was and fit would not go together.”
Richards described being thought of as a ‘tomboy’ growing up. “The counselor that I sought at that time felt that I had masculine protesting, the term that they used at that time, or ‘penis envy’ and that I wanted to be a boy and that if I didn’t get it straightened out, I’d be a lesbian.”
Dain noted the fatigue of applying makeup and maintaining his weight to appear ‘feminine’. “Emotionally, the desire to be a woman and a girl had been a most overwhelming drive ever since I can remember,” Dain noted in a 1976 news article.
Female to Male Transition in 1975 Sparks Controversy
In 1975 at the age of 36, Richards made the decision to have gender reassignment surgery at Stanford’s Gender Dysphoria Center after an exhaustive series of tests.
Richards took a six-month medical leave to undergo the long and difficult process of transitioning. The female-to-male procedure begins with hormone therapy with testosterone and involves several separate surgeries including male chest reconstruction, a hysterectomy and genital reassignment. Christine Jorgensen is credited with being the first American to receive a male-to-female procedure in Europe back in 1951.
“I wasn’t female gendered, I was female sexed,” Dain later reflected expressing relief for the success of the procedure. “It’s the gender that let’s you be who you are. So if I’m male gendered, I gotta line the body up. Now I’m a whole person.”
“Immoral Conduct” Charge by Superintendent
In addition to the procedure, Richards legally changed his name to ‘Steven Dain,’ assumed the use of masculine pronouns and began living life as a man. Sporting a beard and mustache, he returned to Emery High the following Summer and announced his transition.
He received a mixed reaction from the community described as ‘curious’ by some and ‘downright horror’ by others. Dain was open about the procedure and explained to the students that voluntarily gathered in the cafeteria what had transpired. “Although they were all curious about the details of the sex-change operation itself, practically every one of them asked me two questions: First, was I happier? And, second, when was I coming back to school?,” Dain noted in his typically straightforward manner in this 1976 L.A. Times article by journalist Bella Stumbo.
Not everyone was accepting of Dian’s transition though and the article went on to describe some parents, armed with bibles, declaring Dain had “violated God’s laws” with some referring to him as a “thing.” Support and opposition for Dain divided the town.
Then Emery Superintendent Lewis Stommel, along with members of the School Board, led the charge to fire Dain citing “immoral conduct” and “evident unfitness for service.” Stommel, describes as a bombastic character, questioned what bathroom Dain would use, the precedent it would set for other districts and accused Dain of showing his genitals to female students. “And I’m telling you, kids here just don’t understand this hanky panky of people going around chopping off their breasts,” according to the news archive above. “[Emeryville] is still just a small industrial community, predominately black filled with broken families and confused kids.”
The district also accused Dain of conducting “unauthorized lectures on school premises” for discussing his procedure with students. The board moved to fire Dain by first suspending him.
Dain sued for wrongful termination noting he did not violate any specific NEA code of ethics and was successfully reinstated. He was awarded backpay and compensated for his legal fees. Upon his pending return, the EUSD Board moved to terminate him for wrongful use of medical leave. After a four year fight, Dain could not continue the expensive legal fight and he opted to move on.
Next Transition: A Career Transition
The high-profile legal fight and lawsuit garnered massive media attention and highlighted a pioneering transsexual civil rights movement. This attention also made it difficult for Dain to land another teaching job and he ultimately abandoned the profession. Dain worked briefly as a tile-setter and in construction before opting to pursue a Chiropractic Degree. Upon graduation from Life Chiropractic College West, he opened a small practice in Union City.
Dain became a somewhat reluctant but outspoken advocate for transsexual rights at the time. Dain furthered his profile by being featured in the 1985 HBO Documentary “What Sex am I?” directed by Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant (available for rent on Vimeo for $2.99). The groundbreaking film took an early sympathetic look at transsexuals and transvestites and challenged the meaning of gender.
Dain also became a successful community college professor at Ohlone in Fremont where he taught Biology. Throughout his life he was sought out as a mentor by other members of the trans community. His lifelong learning led him to eventually complete a Doctor of Naturopathy Degree in 2006.
Dain had a passion for animals and was nicknamed “Dr. Doolittle” for his eclectic collection that included a rabbit, raccoon, iguana, rats, pot-bellied pigs, cats, fish, birds, and a variety of dog breeds.
Dain Succumbs to Breast Cancer at the age of 67
Dain was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and it returned in 2004 and again in 2007. The third time ultimately claimed his life. He passed on October 10, 2007.
“He fought a vigilant fight right up to the end,” reads Dain’s obituary (which makes no mention of his transsexual background). “He continued to live every day to the fullest and enjoyed each and every moment. Steve was truly one of a kind. His love, caring and compassion will be missed by all.” The obituary described Emery High as where he “had the greatest impact of his teaching career.”
Dain is survived by his wife Robyn, two step-children and a multitude of other family members.
Emery High Considering Naming EHS Gym after Dain
Advocates, looking to cement Dain’s historical role in our town, have began lobbying for the ECCL’s gymnasium to be named after him. Dain is among a long list of candidates being considered by the Emery USD Board of Trustees that includes legendary Emery High basketball coach Elio Abrami who coached for 38 years. Abrami passed away last year at the age of 92.
There were two public hearings to review nominees where feedback was collected. The School Board is scheduled to approve the name of the gymnasium on Wednesday, June 26th. “In naming the gym after Steve Dain, we have the opportunity to both celebrate our renovated gym and recognize the rights of LBGTQ+ to live and work in our community,” it states in the public notice.
Dain’s surviving spouse Robyn expressed her strong support for the naming of the building after her husband. “I would be so honored for Steve and he is truly deserving. He loved his students and always made himself available to them and any members of the community that needed guidance.” Robyn moved from the Bay Area to Stanislaus County after Steve’s death.
If activists succeed in having the gym named after Dain, it would likely be the first government building named after a trans person according to the The Bay Area Reporter LGBTQ news website.
Feature Image: Screen capture from Lee Grant’s “What Sex Am I?” Documentary film.
For a more articulate and comprehensive glossary explaining the difference between transgender and transsexual and other LGBTQ+ terminology, please refer to this AP Topical Guide.