- More Transsexuals Start New Life, Keep
- By Sarah Schafer
Washington Post Staff Writer
- Thursday, December 28, 2000; Page A01
Ron Hoyman had something shocking to tell his boss. He was about
to become Rhonda.
For months, Hoyman, supervisor of vocational programs for Baltimore
County schools, had changed clothes in his pickup truck each
evening as he left work so that he could live his personal life
as a woman.
But now it was time to become Rhonda full time, dressing as a
woman at work as he prepared for the surgery that would transform
him physically from male to female. And it was time to tell his
supervisor and co-workers that soon they would have a new colleague.
"I am trying to make changes which impact my personal wellness
as well as be a more productive worker," Hoyman wrote to
his supervisor in the summer of 1995, explaining that he was
a classic transsexual -- someone who felt he had been born the
wrong sex. "[If] I can learn to begin living life for myself
as well as the benefit of others, could you accept Rhonda instead
of Ron as someone you could work with?" he wrote. He signed
The supervisor's response? First, shock. And then, "Why
not?" She immediately started discussing ways she and Hoyman
could prepare other co-workers for the change.
Until about five years ago, someone in Hoyman's situation likely
would have quit his job and disappeared, preferring to start
a new life with a new identity and employer rather than tell
his boss that he would soon change his sex. But transsexuals
-- people who have undergone or are about to undergo sex-change
surgery -- have gained a new measure of acceptance from employers,
according to some mental health and workplace experts.
As a result, more transsexuals, their managers and co-workers
are learning how to cope with a transformation that can be long,
painful, emotional and unsettling.
Roughly one in 30,000 men and one in 100,000 women undergo sexual
reassignment surgery, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, a handbook for psychiatrists. About
1,000 people seek reassignment surgery each year, according to
an estimate by the Transgender Education Association, a nonprofit
research organization. At least half of all people who undergo
sex-change operations return to their jobs after the surgery,
according to the association and mental health experts. Not many
years ago, almost none did.
Transsexuals enjoy few legal protections when it comes to workplace
discrimination, but that is gradually changing.
Minnesota includes transsexuals in its human rights act. Iowa
Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) plans to ask the state legislature to pass
an anti-discrimination law covering transsexuals, according to
a spokeswoman. And increasingly, local governments are incorporating
transsexuals in their anti-discrimination policies. This year,
Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; Madison, Wis.; and Atlanta all
expanded their laws to bar discrimination against transsexuals.
About 35 local jurisdictions have such laws, up from about 11
in 1996, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian
advocacy organization in Washington.
At least three Fortune 500 companies -- Xerox Corp., Apple Computer
Inc. and Lucent Technologies Inc. -- cover transsexuals in their
anti-discrimination policies. After changing their sex, transsexuals
may be straight or gay, and so they do not necessarily qualify
for protection under policies that prohibit discrimination against
Experts trace the shift toward acceptance in part to the nation's
tight labor market and the imperative to retain talented workers.
In addition, advocates for gays and lesbians have been paving
the way for transsexuals and other minority groups by broadening
society's view toward those who go against sexual norms, these
"The competition for talent is extraordinary, and that certainly
has presented opportunities for a lot of folks," said Suellen
Roth, vice president of policy, diversity and retention at Avaya
Communication, a spinoff of Lucent Technologies. Both companies
bar discrimination against transsexuals.
To be sure, many transsexuals continue to face intense on-the-job
prejudice and discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union
has received an increasing number of such complaints, according
to Jennifer Middleton, a staff lawyer with the organization's
lesbian and gay rights project.
But Middleton said the spike in cases reflects a positive change
as well: "Today, people are more willing to challenge society
to accept them."
Because of that willingness, companies are learning -- often
one employee at a time -- how to accommodate transsexuals in
the workplace. And some transsexuals find that their co-workers
may handle their transition more easily than their families do.
Janet, a computer systems administrator who was once a male,
agreed to be interviewed but asked to be identified only by her
first name because her teenage children are worried their friends
might see this article. Janet said telling her boss about her
coming sex change proved far easier than announcing it to anyone
Janet said she was so nervous that her hands were trembling when,
carrying a stack of papers explaining transsexualism, she went
in to tell her boss. She was prepared to be fired.
Instead, her boss barely looked up from his desk when he heard
the news, Janet recalled recently, sitting on a sofa in her Fort
Belvoir apartment, dressed in a short, loosely fitted, flowered
dress. "I was told it wasn't an issue," she said.
Janet's boss, who had supervised transsexual employees in the
past, asked how he could help her prepare colleagues for the
change, asked her to use the unisex bathroom, and said he would
call a meeting to explain her situation to the rest of the staff.
Switching sexual identities is a long process. The "standard
of care" to which most doctors subscribe (only a handful
of hospitals perform the actual surgery) stipulates that patients
must undergo hormone therapy and live as a member of their desired
sex for a year before gaining approval for sex-change surgery.
During that time, a patient may change the pitch of his or her
voice and most male patients begin what will be a lifetime of
painful electrolysis sessions to remove unwanted hair. Others
get cosmetic surgery. Some say they endure roller-coaster emotions
as their body adjusts to new hormones.
Co-workers actually seem to fret most over the bathroom question
-- which one to use before having the sex-change surgery -- said
Michelle Martin, an American Airlines employee who had such an
operation nearly 10 years ago and who now consults with companies
that have an employee making the change.
Martin often recommends that managers ask the transsexual employee
to use a particular bathroom all the time or that the company
create one unisex restroom.
Some co-workers prefer to know as little as possible about a
transsexual's experience, but unanswered questions could drive
many colleagues to distraction, especially that nagging question,
Because of this, Martin said, transsexuals should tell their
managers about mental-health practitioners who could come speak
to workers. Or, she suggests, transsexuals should be candid with
That's what Hoyman did.
Hoyman, 53, knew her peers and co-workers would be surprised
because, as a carpenter by training, she had always projected
a stereotypical guy image at work and in professional associations.
"They wondered why I drove a pink pickup truck," she
said, laughing, during a recent interview at the Sollers Point
Southeastern Technical High School. After sharing her plans with
her supervisors, Hoyman began telling the principals and teachers
at the 25 schools whose vocational education programs she helped
to manage. Telling the large staff of Sollers Point in Dundalk,
Md., was one of her toughest moments, she said. Principal H.
Edward Parker suggested Hoyman address the faculty at an afternoon
Parker, 63, said he had to reconcile Hoyman's revelation with
his limited worldview. "I guess my first exposure to [transsexualism]
was in the 1950s with Christine Jorgensen," Parker said,
recalling the highly publicized first-ever sex-change operation
that turned American ex-GI George Jorgensen into Christine. "As
a teenager at the time, I was mortified."
Parker said his views hadn't changed much by the time Hoyman
revealed her new identity, although he learned to accept her.
"This is an age of enlightenment," he said. "I
changed a lot of things that I learned growing up. You have to
learn to operate in those gray areas."
Those areas included watching Hoyman swap makeup tips with the
women on staff, "which was interesting to us," Parker
Those tips were valuable lessons in how to fit in at work. A
male-to-female transsexual is "essentially doing a crash
course in learning about feminine styles," said Gregory
Lehne, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine who has counseled transsexuals
for nearly 20 years. "They might dress too young for their
age, or overdress, trying to represent themselves as a femme
fatale in the workplace rather than 'Jane Doe goes to work.'
Hoyman worked with an image consultant to carefully choose makeup
and clothing appropriate for work. "Every eye is on you,
judging your walk, your appearance. You have to be willing to
re-prove yourself," Hoyman said.
At work, Hoyman's transition appears to have gone as smoothly
But some mental-health experts worry about potential unintended
effects of the growing acceptance of transsexuals in the workplace.
Transsexuals suffer from more psychological problems -- including
severe depression and suicidal tendencies -- than other groups
of people, said Cynthia Osborne, associate director of the sexual
behaviors consultation unit at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
- Osborne worries that if the workplace sends the message that
"anything goes," people may not seek out the psychiatric
help they need.
But many transsexuals say their problems were mostly medical.
They would not have suffered such mental anguish if they had
been born as a member of the opposite sex, they say. And once
the "mistake" had been corrected, they felt healthier
than ever, not to mention more productive, they say.
Janet and Hoyman insist they're not activists. They simply want
to live life as they think they were intended to live it. Keeping
their jobs helps them maintain normalcy, they said.
Besides, starting over from scratch in a new job with a new identity
is hard because it means building a brand-new résumé
at middle age.
"It's easier to change on the job," Janet said, "because
then you have references."
- © 2000 The Washington Post Company