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First transgender officer on Kansas City’s police force looks to the future

One sign of her new life: Jessica tweezes her eyebrows. And every day she takes a handful of hormones as her body adjusts to living as a woman. Her co-workers are slowly getting used to working with a transgender police officer.

By Christine Vendel, The Kansas City Star

Jessica, a Kansas City police officer, is 6 feet tall with a chin dimple, pink manicured fingernails and a birth certificate that says “male.”

But in her mind, Jessica believes she has always been a female.

She legally changed her name from David to Jessica last year. And in January, she gained the right to dress as a woman at work.

She asked co-workers to refer to her in female pronouns, like “she” and “her.” She started hormone therapy and removed most of her body hair with laser surgery, but she hasn’t had a sex-change operation, known as gender reassignment surgery. She needs to raise $17,500 first.

Her co-workers are slowly getting used to the idea of working with a transgender police officer — a first for the department. But still, some point to Jessica and tell citizens to talk to “him,” prompting the citizens to look around, perplexed, since all they see is Jessica with her pink lipgloss and coiffed copper hair.

The bad guys can be equally confounded.

They see an officer wearing blue topaz earrings but shouting, “Get down on the ground!” in a deep, booming voice.

“When I get loud, I sound like a man,” Jessica conceded. “It throws the bad guys off. They can think whatever they want. I don’t care.”

Jessica understands the confusion because she lived 40 years mixed-up herself, not fitting in anywhere.

The crushing loneliness and decades of what felt like deception brought her to the brink: blow her head off or tell the world that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body and risk absolute alienation.

In police and sheriff’s departments throughout the nation, other transgender law enforcement officers have fought the same battles in the midst of a macho profession. According to researchers, they make up a greater proportion of law enforcement ranks than the general population.

About 100 transgender officers in the United States lean on each other through an international support group.

In Kansas City, Jessica mostly leans on herself.

When other officers say her decision to live as a woman despite her physical male characteristics is a choice, she agrees.

“It was a choice,” she said, “between pulling the trigger and not pulling the trigger.”

How do guys think?

Jessica’s mother named her David Joel.

As early as age 6, he resented that his sisters got to wear pretty dresses. Sometimes he slipped into their outfits around their St. Joseph home.

His father, a Marine sergeant and Vietnam veteran, signed him up for football and baseball, which he hated. He quit.

In high school, he played Friedrich von Trapp in the “Sound of Music” when he would have preferred playing one of the girls.

“I didn’t have a clue how guys think.”

He got picked on for being effeminate. He rarely cut his hair and dated little. He gained one or two friends, outcasts like him.

He discreetly read his sister’s book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and felt a connection.

Upon graduation, he focused on learning to act more like a man. He served in the Marine Corps for three years, married a girl from high school and then switched military branches to the Navy. At times he thought he had what he considered his “problem” licked.

After nine years he returned to St. Joseph. Bills piled up. His marriage broke down.

He applied at several Missouri police departments. The thought of getting killed on the job appealed to him, since he didn’t value life much as a man.

The Kansas City Police Department hired him in 1996. A year later, he remarried.

Then a back injury knocked him out of work for months, giving him time to dwell on his future.

I’m not getting any younger, he told himself, and I haven’t had the life I wanted.

A turning point

On the Internet, David finally discovered a name for the internal hell he’d been living: gender identity disorder. The solution was daunting: expensive female hormones and even more expensive and extreme surgery.

Even so, he daydreamed about living as a woman and sought a way out of his marriage. He committed adultery — openly. His wife forgave him, so he cheated again.

Divorce did not solve anything. He felt incredible guilt for hurting his second wife. Overall, he felt worse than ever.

He thought about his mom, who died 15 years earlier of cancer. He wanted to join her.

One day, David sat in the shower, crying, until the water turned cold. He stepped out, pulled on his pajamas and sat on the bed with his duty handgun and a pen and paper. He wanted to write a farewell letter to his father, but no words came. How could he explain?

Crying, he picked up the handgun.

I’m done, he thought. I don’t know how to deal with this.

But what would his death do to his father, siblings and other relatives? He didn’t want to hurt them. Pursuing life as a woman trumped death, despite all the risks, he figured. He slid the gun into his nightstand.

Searching the Internet, he found a British therapist who handled gender identity issues. They talked for months, until David found a local therapist.

David tested the waters at work by confiding his plans to another officer.

“Can’t you just be gay?” the officer responded.

Telling the boss

Last year, David decided to come out — a necessary step before taking pills to develop secondary female characteristics such as breasts.

He told his second ex-wife and saw relief flood her eyes, as if realizing it was not her fault.

The next hurdle: the Kansas City Police Department.

He pondered how to tell his bosses that the man they hired 10 years earlier intended to morph into a woman. He chose Deputy Chief Rachel Whipple, the only female deputy of five.

Sensing his stress, Whipple told him to take a deep breath.

“I don’t know how to say this,” David started, “but I’m a male-to-female transsexual.”

“OK, let’s talk about it,” Whipple answered. “I’ll take it to the chief, and you’ll need to let your chain of command know.”

David left in awe. Wow, he thought. This is going better than I expected.

Within a few days, television crews sought interviews. David declined. He felt somewhat betrayed by the way his private news traveled faster than if he had posted it on the Internet.

Still, he was glad to still be employed. He knew other transgenders who were not as fortunate.

Across America

In recent years transgender police officers have made news in multiple cities, including Philadelphia, Houston, Cincinnati and Oklahoma City.

One filed a civil rights complaint alleging her department was trying to force her to quit.

As opposed to decades ago, however, today’s bosses generally are more accepting and supportive of transgender employees, says Houston lawyer Phyllis Randolph Frye, who has been fighting the transgender rights battle for 30 years.

Just how many transgender police officers exist nationwide remains a mystery, though.

Former Police Officer Tom Whetstone, a researcher from Louisville, Ky., said he had documented 60 and had contacted about 300 more who may be.

The most generally accepted estimate is that one in 12,000 persons in the United States is transgender, he says. Based on that ratio, there should be only 50 transgender officers. Instead, there are more, he said.

Many males who transition to females are drawn to law enforcement because “they attempt to hide their feelings … by seeking a hyper-masculine occupation,” he said.

Conversely, females who transition to males are drawn because the profession allows them to more openly express male traits, he said.

The phenomenon spawned an international support group six years ago called Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, or TCOPS. The group has 110 core members and has contacts with more than 600, most in the United States.

Facing family

In May 2006, a local therapist prescribed David a testosterone blocker and 6 mg a day of estrogen. The next month, David gave away his “man” clothes and filled his closet with women’s.

As the estrogen boost softened his skin, he pored over women’s fashion magazines and books on makeup.

But he had not told his family, mainly his father, a Southern Baptist.

“How do you tell your dad, a 30-year retired Marine, that his oldest son is actually his oldest daughter? I didn’t want to lose my Dad. I had already lost my mom.” David dialed his father. Unable to find the words, he hung up, crying.

He called the next day and again chickened out. When his father begged him to say what was wrong, David replied: “I just can’t tell you right now.”

The third day, David talked.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he began, “but Dad, I am a male-to-female transsexual.”

“I love you,” said his father, who suddenly understood inconsistencies he’d noticed in David’s childhood. “It doesn’t matter who you are.”

David wept. Happily.

Workplace issues

In September, David legally became Jessica Renee. He picked it because it sounded active, happy and outgoing — all things he didn’t used to be.

As Jessica’s tall body changed, she worried about gaining weight from the extra hormones. But her 220 pounds dwindled to 170.

The department told her to dress as a man at work. She found switching hard.

Her recently pierced ears posed a problem. If she removed the starter studs, the holes would close. When supervisors complained, she inserted small clear plastic tubes.

Three times, she forgot. Her Metro Patrol supervisor wrote her up. She also got in trouble for forgetting to remove her pink nail polish, which one sergeant called “ostentatious.”

In January, Jessica composed a two-page memo asking to dress according to police women’s standards, which allow earrings, fingernail polish and long hair. All her supervisors, including Police Chief Jim Corwin, approved.

Then there were the bathrooms. Neither the men nor the women wanted to share.

To solve that, the department designated a unisex bathroom in each police facility.

As for searching female prisoners, officials decided after some discussion that Jessica had to do it as if she were male, using the backs of her hands.

Co-workers reacted differently, she says.

The department did not allow interviews with Jessica’s co-workers for this story, but privately, some officers said they were embarrassed.

Jessica says others approached her with questions, some of them pointed. One simply wondered: “How did you learn to act like a woman?”

“From my perspective, I didn’t have to learn,” she said. “I had to learn how not to correct myself anymore. I had been doing that for 40 years, listening to my inner voice say, ‘You can’t act that way. You can’t cry. You can’t do this.’ ”

A new person

A special concern for transgenders is “passing” as the gender they believe they are. It’s called “getting read,” if someone recognizes your birth gender is different.

Jessica thinks she passes pretty well. She has a full head of thick, curly hair, feminine eyes and relatively thin arms.

When she responds to police calls, no one looks twice.

Never really a go-getter before, Jessica says her productivity improved.

“Now it’s like I’m reborn. I’m not struggling with that inner voice anymore.”

She’s saving money for surgery, starting a nonprofit group to help other transgender people and wants to find a platonic boyfriend.

On the last count, she is realistic.

“You know how hard that would be to find a man who would accept me?” she asked.

She did not realize how much her transition had changed her until a gunman wounded one of her co-workers, a friend. Then she realized she no longer considered the fatalistic aspects of police work a perk.

“I’ve gone through 41 years surviving as David, and I finally got past that. I don’t want to get shot and killed at work.”

After each police call, Jessica slides back into her patrol car and types a message on her computer to let her dispatcher know she is available for the next call.

The laptop responds with a computer-generated voice: “Status change accepted.”

Editor’s note: Jessica agreed to talk to The Kansas City Star if the newspaper withheld her last name. She doesn’t want any extra trouble on or off the job.

She hopes the publicity will ease her transition by informing others about the complicated nature of transsexuals, or as she prefers, transgenders.

“They don’t have to like me or agree with me,” she said. “But maybe they will have some understanding of it.”

The Police Department declined a request to interview her co-workers.

The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report. To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send e-mail to cvendel@kcstar.com.


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Damaging effects of the closet
I believe that it is especially important today to discuss the damaging effects that the closet has had and continues to have on gay people or in this instance a person born in the wrong body. The closet is the closet. Given the current political climate of a presidential election approaching it is time to put “the closet” in some sort of context. It is also time for all of the candidates to step up to the plate and say how they really feel in spite of what the fear the ramifications may be. Gay rights are a civil rights issue that the candidates need to take a stand on without double speaking to protect their political asses. We need to provide some context for which people can better understand what “the closet” is and what it does to those that are in it. “The closet” is the emotional hiding place that many gay people recoil into out of fear of perhaps losing the love of their families or the acceptance of their school-mates.
When children reach a certain age when they begin to understand social expectations and what society deems proper and improper is when “the closet” door goes shut on an important part of early childhood development, being their sexuality. Children learn earlier than perhaps people realize that their same sex attractions are not considered normal but in fact unhealthy and morally reprehensible to many. These processes for heterosexual children as they discover their sexuality are such delicious feelings that add a whole new dimension to their lives. Gay children are denied this. Gay children in an effort to be considered normal will learn to role play or act as if they share the same feelings of opposite sex attractions.
Going into the closet is a terrifying and lonely experience that causes gay children feelings of deep loneliness. Suicide among gay teens is epidemic. They feel that they are the only ones in the world with these “abhorrent feelings. All children want and need to feel accepted by their peers in order to develop a healthy sense of self. They are instead bombarded daily by representations and celebrations of heterosexuality in the media, advertisements, at school and basically everywhere they look, those are the only images presented.
One important point I would like to make is that other minority children living within a dominant culture at least have their families to go home to that don’t wish that they were of the majority culture. However gay children do go home to straight parents that do wish their children were straight, that is if they even knew the truth which is rare. These closeted children live in constant fear of having their true nature discovered and will therefore often practice through observation what they believe it looks like to appear heterosexual. They will begin editing their speech, their walk, the way they move their bodies all because of the fear of being discovered or “outed” so to speak. This editing process is not only demeaning, exhausting but also damaging to ones self-worth.
However, often when gay children graduate from school and go out on their own and perhaps go on to college they will generally find others just like themselves with the same sexual orientation. As any reasonable person can imagine what it must feel like to finally fit in and feel a sense of camaraderie for likely the first time in their lives. These feelings can be an overwhelmingly wonderful experience. So overpowering and overwhelming that it can also unfortunately be a double edged sword and be dangerous as well. These now young adults will often out of their desperate need to feel those wondrous feelings of total acceptance for who they are will often then simply acquiesce to the pre-established norms and behaviors of the gay culture in which they now find themselves a part of. We need to understand that these men and woman that make up gay culture bring with them their own emotional baggage of what the closet has done to them throughout their lives. These accumulated wounds from childhood will often manifest in a variety of ways. Many of these manifested behaviors are not necessarily healthy.
The pitfalls that gays need to be ever vigilant about are the fact that addictions of all varieties and suicides are at a much higher rate than their heterosexual counterparts. The damage of the closet then can lead these young men and woman to adopt these behaviors so as to feel a part of that culture as well. There emotional damage has already been done so they are much more easily influenced by the culture enough so that they will follow along with the unhealthy and damaging behaviors as a means of dulling the pain of life long feelings of social denunciation.
We as a society need to be more compassionate to these emotionally damaged souls and start accepting them for whom they are no matter what their sexual orientation may be. This will not happen over night but we have to start somewhere if we are to be a part of the process of the healing of generations of gay men and woman that have been stigmatized for only one reason, that being whom they are innately attracted too. Aaron Jason Silver www.aaronjasonsilver.com

It's not that I don't appreciate Aaron's post. Everything he says about the closet is painfully true. However, I would like to point out that my transition is not about orientation. I have always considered myself female. My orientation is but a small part of my identity. It is the difference between my brain sex and physical sex that has created the disparity in my soul.

I am happy for her! Its a huge victory for trans people everywhere. Un fortunately for me, I think Im just gonna go ahead and pull the trigger.

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