Giselle Donnelly is a renowned national security expert, author and conservative think-tank scholar — and even though she’s 65 years old, she was “born” only this year. That’s because Giselle has just recently transitioned to living openly as a trans woman. She is now re-introducing herself to the Washington community she has been a part of her entire adult life.
Giselle came into the world as Thomas Donnelly, the name most of Washington’s foreign policy establishment has known her by over her long career in media, policy and politics. She has now “changed her name and crossed genders,” she told me in an interview.
Giselle’s public acknowledgement of her gender identity comes after decades of secrecy, followed by five years of self-exploration and personal evolution.
It’s a story of suffering, struggle, loss and love — with a distinctly avant-garde twist. But, for Giselle, it’s simply the story of what happened to her as she gradually found the courage and support to understand — and then outwardly show — who she was on the inside all along.
“The whole thing is based on honesty,” she said. “Instead of leading a secret, private life that’s separate from my other life, now they are back together again. … We’ll see how our community responds.”
The conservative national security community in Washington is not known for its enlightened thinking on gender identity. Yet, so far, Giselle said, she has received nothing but support from her bosses at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works as a resident fellow in defense and security studies.
AEI President Arthur Brooks and Vice President for Foreign Policy Danielle Pletka told me their decision to support Giselle was a simple one, since she’s the same person dedicated to the same principles that made her a good fit for the institution all this time. “We are proud that she is part of the AEI family,” they told me.
As for the rest of the national security community’s willingness and ability to accept Giselle for who she is — well, she realizes that might take some time.
“I ask for people’s indulgence. That line of gender and sexuality is deeply personal for everybody,” she said. “I’m appreciative of what I’m asking of people. But as long as I can keep doing useful work, I’d rather be judged principally by that.”
As with many others, Giselle’s gender journey started at a very young age, wrapped in secrecy and shame. She hoped she would grow out of it or something would come along and cure her, but that’s not how it works. Only later in life did she come to understand her double life was unhealthy and she had other options.
“Over time, it becomes a more normal thing, more central to your perception of yourself,” she said. “I don’t want to make it seem more courageous than it is, but it’s very corrosive to do it the other way.”
A turning point came five years ago, when, a few months after separating from her first wife, Giselle met a photographer and makeup artist named Elizabeth Taylor. A former naval nuclear instructor, Taylor opened up a beauty shop in Washington called Makeovers that helps trans women find their style. The shop became an important node in a small but growing trans community in D.C., and was featured by the Washington Post in 2015.
Giselle and Beth shared a love of national security, wine, gender fluidity and BDSM. They soon began dating, and last year they were married. Those close to them who missed this time in their lives will soon be able to see it up close and personal. For about two and a half years, a film crew followed them and documented their relationship, along with Giselle’s gender journey.
Called “The Makeover,” the film debuts next month at the Alexandria Film Festival. The filmmakers call it “a distinctly traditional love story set in a decidedly non-traditional milieu of shifting gender.” The movie follows Giselle from when her female identity was a part-time alter ego in a fetish setting to her emergence as the full-time Giselle she is today.
“You can see an evolution throughout the film,” she said. “Our marriage is the final epilogue to it.”
In one scene, the film shows Giselle reading a letter she sent to one of her two sons, she said. Part of the motivation for participating in the film was to have a record of her journey so that her family can better understand down the line, even if they aren’t 100 percent on board right now.
Giselle knows that her decision to fully transition has affected her family, strained some of her relationships and perhaps even risked her professional future. But for Giselle, the alternative of continuing to hide her true identity was unsustainable. “You don’t have a choice,” she said. “After a lifetime of lying about this stuff, I was just sick of it.”
She benefits from the fact that awareness and understanding of trans people and their issues has progressed greatly in recent years. As happened with the gay community before them, trans people are now watching long-held stigmas lift, slowly but surely, even in the national security world.
Just nine years ago, when Amanda Simpson became one of the first openly trans persons to receive a presidential political appointment, public attitudes were much different. David Letterman mocked her on national television. She went on to work for the Pentagon for many years, leaving at the end of the Obama administration as a deputy assistant secretary of defense.
“All the years I was in the Pentagon, my gender really was never an issue. It was always about the mission,” Simpson told me. “The strength needed to make a transition is because of society’s hang-ups. It’s a lack of understanding by others that makes it complicated.”
Like Giselle, Simpson never set out to be a trailblazer, she just wanted to do her job and live her life. But being in the public eye, she felt a responsibility to promote understanding, tolerance and protection for trans people. She helped push to lift the ban on trans gender soldiers serving openly — the ban President Trump is now trying to reinstate.
Her advice to Giselle is to find friends and allies who support her, and give those who aren’t now willing to come along on the journey time and space, while making sure to just be herself.
“The ideals and principles that made her who she is, that’s still who she is,” said Simpson. “And those won’t change.”
I’ve known Giselle for over a decade, and I can attest she is still the same neoconservative, wonky, rock guitar-playing, offbeat writer she has always been. She told me she is already working on a new book about the British historical roots of American strategic thinking.
She doesn’t have plans to become politically active on trans issues, but she has well-formed views on such matters. True to her conservative values, she is disturbed by some of the more left-wing aspects of the trans political movement and doesn’t believe in government intervention on trans issues.
One would hope that in 2018, even in Washington, most people understand it’s not abnormal that a person’s mental, emotional and spiritual being don’t align with their physical body. It happens all the time, and society will eventually evolve to a place where it’s not a big deal.
Giselle knows not everybody in Washington is going to immediately accept her as “normal.” But, in the end, that’s their problem, not hers. And regardless, she’s going to be the truest version of herself, of which her gender identity is just one aspect.
“It’s a part of me, it doesn’t define me. Living a normal life is in a way its own statement.” Giselle said. “I’m happy with that, because that’s who I am.”