Being Transgender At Work Can Be Hard, But Made Easier With An Ally

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 (Ikon Images/Getty Images)
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Correction: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to Andrea Zekis' employer as the Highway Department and the Little Rock, Ark., Highway Department. The correct name is Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. A previous Web version also called it the Highway Department.

Bruce Jenner's national TV interview with Diane Sawyer in April ended months of speculation. The former Olympian turned reality TV star revealed that he now identifies as a transgender woman — though he still prefers to be called "he" for the time being.

Jenner was hailed as a hero for his openness on an issue that has caused real heartache for many. National surveys show an unusually high rate of attempted suicide among people who are transgender.

Conversations with family about transitioning to the person you truly feel you are can be very hard. Getting through the same process in the workplace can bring its own set of serious consequences.

The Justice Department recently filed suit against Southeastern Oklahoma State University for discriminating against a transgender professor, who complained about her treatment and then was fired.

Andrea Zekis did everything in her power to make sure things turned out differently. Zekis, who used to be Gary Zekis, works as a cartographer for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department in Little Rock.

Jordan Bittle (left) became Andrea Zekis' confidante and ally at work as Zekis went through the process of transitioning.
Jordan Bittle (left) became Andrea Zekis' confidante and ally at work as Zekis went through the process of transitioning.

This week on For the Record: transitioning at work. We hear from Zekis and two co-workers who witnessed Gary's transition to Andrea.


Jordan Bittle, who became Zekis' confidante and ally

"I told her that I really feel like a lot of people were going to hear what she was going through and they would automatically get this picture in their mind of the caricature of a transgender person, as opposed to a person who just simply wanted to be a female, and just live a genuine life as a female," Bittle says. "That they were going to picture somebody that was outrageous, and a cartoon, basically. So we strategized how not to be that cartoon."

Brandi McAllister, who was initially confused and skeptical about Zekis' transition

"Not long before she transitioned, I got the impression that she was fixing to come out as gay, because she was walking more feminine, because ... I don't know," McAllister says. "Because that's all I knew. I just didn't understand it."

Not everyone in the office was as accepting as McAllister turned out to be, she says.

"Some yes, some no," she says. "Nobody would probably ever say it to her face. A lot of it was, 'What do we call him?' — call him — and I'm like, 'Well she's she now.' "

Andrea Zekis, on how she looks back now at Gary Zekis

"I feel sorry for him, and all the things he had to go through, and all the pain he caused other people," she says. "Like, I did get divorced. Just the things he had to do to cope and survive, because he was living life in the back seat, and not feeling comfortable with himself. And you know, when you're not comfortable with yourself, you can't really put your best self forward in anything you do. I'm just glad that I gave myself this chance to be me."

Three takeaways

First, I have interviewed transgender people before, but still have a lot to learn when covering this issue. For example, transgender people are usually not interested in talking about their former identities. Zekis was very open and forthcoming, but it can be painful for some people. After all, it's taken a lot of work for them to leave that person behind.

Second, it was interesting that Zekis' good friend and confidante, Bittle, talked about how some in the transgender community expect people to just accept them without doing a lot of groundwork. She said Zekis had a good experience because she worked really hard to look like a woman to make it less uncomfortable for other people. She was saying that simply presenting as the opposite gender, and claiming to be the opposite gender, isn't enough. Appearing somehow "in between" is awkward for other people, and ends up putting a lot of extra burden on the person transitioning.

Third, transgender people who come forward and share their stories are brave folks. It takes guts to talk about the most intimate and personal parts of your life, to lay them all out for public scrutiny, in hopes that it might make a difference for someone else.

Click the audio link at the top of this page to hear the full interview.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record. Bruce Jenner's national TV interview with Diane Sawyer in April ended months of speculation. The former Olympian turned reality TV star revealed that he now identifies as a transgender woman, though he still prefers to be called he for the time being.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20: BRUCE JENNER, THE INTERVIEW")

BRUCE JENNER: For all intents and purposes, I am a woman. People look at me differently. They see you as this macho male. But my heart and my soul and everything that I do in life - it is part of me. That female side is part of me.

MARTIN: Jenner was called a hero for his openness on an issue that has caused real heartache for many. National surveys show there is an unusually high rate of attempted suicide among people who are transgender. Conversations with family about transitioning to the person you truly feel you are can be hard. Getting through that same process in the workplace can bring its own set of serious consequences. There's a case that's working its way through the courts in Oklahoma right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, the U.S. Department of Justice says Southeastern Oklahoma State University discriminated against a transgender professor and then fired her after she complained. In a lawsuit filed yesterday...

MARTIN: We're about to hear the story of one woman who did everything in her power to make sure things turned out differently. For The Record today - transitioning at work.

ANDREA ZEKIS: My name is Andrea Zekis. I live in Little Rock, Arkansas. And I'm a cartographer.

MARTIN: Zekis makes maps for the Highway Department.

ZEKIS: Being a cartographer is not really a job where you do a lot of talking with other people, you know? It can be kind of a solitary job. And I spend a lot of time at my desk, eight hours a day, trying to draw these beautiful maps.

MARTIN: She started at the Highway Department six years ago.

ZEKIS: I was fairly shy. Of course, I wasn't the same - I wasn't the person I am now. I mean, when I came to the Highway Department, I was a man (laughter).

MARTIN: Back then her name was Gary. Gary wasn't the sociable type. But the woman who sat in the cubicle next door got Gary to open up. This is Jordan Bittle.

JORDAN BITTLE: I'm a very personable person. How was your weekend? What was going on? What's happening at home? How's the new puppy? All of that sort of thing, and I didn't know it at the time, but it corresponded with the time that Gary had begun taking hormones - female hormones.

MARTIN: Gary had come out to friends and family the year before. But the situation at work was, in some ways, more difficult. And the hormones were kicking in.

ZEKIS: I was just waiting and waiting. And it got to the point where, you know, I was developing. I was changing. My hair was growing out and my skin was getting softer. And my looks were looking a little bit more rounder, and I was sometimes wearing a bra underneath my clothes. And I was thinking - it's like I have to do something about this. And I figured that eventually I would have to have some kind of ally, like, someone in the Highway Department I can talk to.

MARTIN: That ally turned out to be Jordan.

BITTLE: Probably about three or four months after we started becoming tighter, I felt like I noticed the outline of a bra strap. And I didn't exactly know whether or not I was right or what that would mean. But I could only come up with a few things that it could mean. And so I started shifting the conversation to things that would show that I was OK with this. If this was happening, I was not going to have a problem with it.

MARTIN: At the same time, Gary was also dropping hints.

ZEKIS: I mean, like, I told her one time - I think the thing that kind of tipped her over one time is I took a trip to upper Michigan.

BITTLE: And on their way there they had stopped in the city of - I think it was Gay. And they'd stopped at the Gay bar because it was just a dive bar in the city of Gay. And so she thought that was funny and had taken a picture out in front of it.

ZEKIS: And I came back, and I said, like, oh, look at this. There's this town called Gay, Michigan.

BITTLE: And after that conversation, I remember thinking what are you saying? Are you hinting at something? And so we each both started to hint more and more and more.

MARTIN: And eventually Gary told Jordan the truth.

BITTLE: She asked if I could take a break with her. And she took me outside.

ZEKIS: I think she was wearing sunglasses even. She was kind of playing it cool. You know, so it was, like, we leaned against one of the brick buildings. And I just pulled out the letter that my therapist gave me.

BITTLE: I call it her just-in-case note which was if she had gotten into some kind of trouble and had been arrested by the police, she would be able to present them this letter from her doctor stating that she was in therapy and had been diagnosed with GID. And that if she was arrested, she needed to be placed with the women, not the men. And so as I'm reading this, I'm thinking, oh, yes. This is really happening. And, oh, my gosh, this is really happening.

MARTIN: But Gary was worried about what would come next.

ZEKIS: I didn't hear many success stories of people coming out in a workplace. And if they did come out in the workplace that there was always some type of, like, catch - like there was conditions put on people's transitions. They weren't going to be like everybody else. I was really concerned I was going to lose my job.

MARTIN: And they strategized about how to tell the rest of their colleagues.

BRANDI MCCALLISTER: I didn't even know what the word meant (laughter). I had never even heard the word transgender before then. So it was very new to me (laughter).

MARTIN: This is Brandi McCallister. She also works at the Highway Department.

MCCALLISTER: Not long before she transitioned, I got the impression that she was fixing to come out as gay because she was walking more feminine. She was - I don't know, that's just - because that's all I knew. I just didn't understand it.

MARTIN: Let's back up. After Gary came out to Jordan, Gary told his supervisor and human resources. They were all supportive, and encouraged Gary to write a letter to the whole staff explaining that he was transgender and would soon start presenting as a woman. And her name would be Andrea. In the staff letter, Andrea said she'd be open to any questions anyone had. Brandi McCallister had a lot of questions for Andrea.

ZEKIS: I swear she asked questions every single day (laughter). There was probably about 500 questions. But every single possible, like, tiny detail about my life or what I would do or, you know, what it's all about.

MCCALLISTER: Some were simple as, OK, you're built differently than most women. So where are you going to find clothes or shoes?

ZEKIS: I don't think she wanted to be necessarily supportive, but I think she wanted to know what it was before she'd make a decision or a judgment on it. We didn't talk about LGBT stuff in the Highway Department.

MARTIN: I asked Brandi if everyone in the office was as accepting as she was.

MCCALLISTER: Some yes, some no, and nobody would probably ever say it to her face. A lot of it was what do we call him? And I'm like, well, she's she now.

MARTIN: What did end up becoming a big issue was the bathroom.

MCCALLISTER: The bathroom was a big thing. I will tell you for a lot of people, it was a big thing. I mean, you know, we're living in the Bible belt of the U.S. And there was a lot of concern with who would she be attracted to? Why is she in our bathroom if she's attracted - you know, is she attracted to women or is she attracted to men?

MARTIN: The office managers decided to put up privacy barriers in the women's restroom, so there was no open space between the stalls. That eased a lot of concerns around the building, but Jordan says what made Andrea's transition so successful at work was all the work that she herself put into it.

BITTLE: Initially, her female voice sounded kind of cartoonish. And when she came home from a visit with her family and told me that they had told her, please don't use that voice. It bothers us. I said, you know, your voice gets a lot more feminine when you're whispering to me. And she went to speech therapy for months. And she accomplished that female voice that she was looking for.

MARTIN: Andrea went out of her way to do things like this to make sure other people were comfortable with her transition. Jordan says that was important to Andrea.

BITTLE: There's a lot of people in her community that don't go to that effort. They feel like they've made the declaration that they are transgendered. And I'm wearing female clothes, and I'm using a female name. Ta da, I'm done. Whereas she didn't see that as the ending point. She saw that there was all these other steps that she needed to go through to accomplish what she was aiming for.

MARTIN: I asked all three women - Brandi, Jordan and Andrea - how they each think about Gary now. Here's Brandi.

MCCALLISTER: Honestly, Gary does not exist because she's been Andrea for - what? - four or five years now? So it's just Andrea.

BITTLE: I think of Gary as, like, Andrea's twin, Andrea's sibling.

MARTIN: This is Jordan.

BITTLE: It's so strange because when Andrea and I are talking and we talk about something that Gary did, we speak of Gary in the third person - both of us. And it really seems like a totally separate person.

MARTIN: And this is how Andrea Zekis thinks back on that time in her life - that person she used to be.

ZEKIS: I feel sorry for him and all the things he had to go through and all the pain he might have caused other people. Like, I did get divorced. And so just the things he had to do to cope and survive because he was living, you know, life in the backseat and not feeling comfortable with himself. And, you know, when you're not comfortable with yourself, you can't really put your best person forward in anything you do. I'm just glad that I gave myself this chance to be me.

MARTIN: That was Andrea Zekis, Jordan Bittle and Brandi McCallister - employees at the Little Rock Arkansas Highway Department. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly refer to Andrea Zekis' employer as the Highway Department and the Little Rock, Ark., Highway Department. The correct name is Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. A previous Web version also called it the Highway Department.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.