April 27, 2024 | Michail Takach

Brenda Hanus: the power of finding your people

When you're questioning everything about yourself, a supportive and welcoming community means the world.
Brenda Hanus

Brenda was born in the Twin Cities area as the oldest of seven children. She attended grade school in Chippewa Falls, Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, and Marquette University for education.

“There was no information in those days about gender identity,” said Brenda, “so I followed the path most people start with: cross-dressing. I kept it private for years. I thought it would go away. It didn’t.”

“Following a series of family crises, I found myself depressed and despondent. While doing internet research, I stumbled upon the connection between gender dysphoria and depression. And, just like that, my life did a complete 180-degree turn.”

“I came to realize this was about becoming myself. I started taking hormones on July 1, 1997. I was scared going out as Brenda in public for the first time. I remember my first Gemini Gender meeting. Someone said to me, first-timers are usually so uncomfortable, they stand on the sidelines, but you walked in here like you’ve been doing this your entire life. Everything just felt like it was finally right.”

“I came out to my mother,” said Brenda. “It was a baby step with her. And then, one day, she invited me over, and said ‘we’re having a clothing exchange at our church. Would you like me to get you women’s clothes?’ I was so touched. Weeks later, she presented this big box of apparel, including some of her own clothing, and some family heirloom jewelry. There was a personal story written in each box. It was such a welcome gift – such a statement of acceptance. And then, we went shopping at Goodwill together and tried on fur coats. She bought me a women’s jacket that I wore until it was worn out. It was that special.”

“Eventually, I came out to my entire family. I’ve since learned that there were other queer family members before me. My father had three aunts, including Aunt Bill, Aunt Chuck and Aunt Doon who lived in Chicago with her partner Doctor Jackie. They’re all gone now, and all we have left are bits, pieces, and photographs, but their stories are so remarkable. I now have a nephew who was born as my niece."

"Having access to this heritage is so important in understanding our path. I find it all utterly fascinating, and yet most families just don’t talk about it.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have known some real pioneers,” said Brenda, “and I’ve learned so, so much about leadership. But now, times really are changing. So many traditions have disappeared. Dances. Discussion groups. House Parties. The Old Timers Party. Bars. The world that welcomed me almost doesn’t exist anymore.”

After 30 years, even the Lesbian Alliance went on hiatus during the pandemic. Brenda sometimes wonders whether there’s a real need for it anymore.

“It’s a different world out there now,” said Brenda. “With LGBTQ acceptance and social media, the need for LGBTQ social organizations seems to be less. Attendance was lagging long before the pandemic. I’d love to hand it over to the next generation, but nobody seems to notice it’s gone.”

brenda_hanus Brenda and friends at PrideFest Milwaukee
brenda_hanus Brenda and friends at PrideFest Milwaukee

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.