PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- From the outside, Heladio Gonzalez was all
toughness and swagger. On the inside, he was tormented.
"I was really lost, I was really in limbo for a lot of years. I did
my best to make it all go away, but I wasn't very successful. I was
pretty good at being a guy, but I couldn't do it any more."
His wife kicked him out of their home last year after he began
spending more and more time dressed as a woman. Then, on Jan. 6, he
delivered a letter to his supervisor announcing his decision to live
and work as a woman.
Officer Heladio Gonzalez would no longer be teaching firearms at the
Police Academy. Officer Maria Gonzalez would.
His supervisor read the letter to Gonzalez's co-workers the next
morning. "He got very upset, it was like he was reading a death
notice," Gonzalez said. "The room got very quiet. It was terrible."
For Gonzalez, a 36-year member of the Philadelphia police force, the
declaration was liberating as well as agonizing. No more buying
women's clothing, then throwing them away, buying women's clothing,
then throwing them away. No more drinking to, as he called it,
Gonzalez, 57, is believed to be the first transgender officer in the
department's history. Since assuming a female identity, she has lost
family, friends and colleagues but has gained a new circle of
supporters as she prepares for gender reassignment surgery.
"At first there were a lot of well-wishers, but then the reality set
in. Some people have had a hard time ... but they're really trying,"
she said. "There also were some who were completely disgusted and
never spoke to me again. I expected that, and I'm OK with it."
Her new friends include members of Transgender Community of Police &
Sheriffs, or TCOPS. She's heard from officers as far away as Hawaii
Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said in a written statement
that the department "will be supportive in this officer's lifestyle
decision." A police union official did not return calls for comment.
On the "Domelights" Internet forum popular with some Philadelphia
police officers, reaction has run the gamut, with some writers
questioning Gonzalez's mental health, others denouncing police brass
for "political correctness," and still others expressing total
support for their fellow cop.
One touchy issue has been which bathrooms and locker rooms Gonzalez
will use at the academy. She said the department told her she could
use the women's facilities but that she's decided to wait until her
female co-workers get used to the idea.
"You can't come blazing with everything all at once. You have to take
it step by step," she said.
The stocky, self-described former "macho type" is now getting hormone
injections to change her shape and electrolysis to remove her facial
hair. She's also coaching her booming voice into a softer tone,
growing her hair into a more feminine style, and undergoing
psychological counseling as her sex-change operation nears.
She's also avoiding alcohol, and wants to lose weight and stop
smoking as her transformation continues.
Gonzalez's wife learned about her husband's desire to wear women's
clothes a year after they married, but the revelation was quickly
brushed aside. For much of their 32-year marriage, Gonzalez fought
the behavior and hoped for a "cure." It never came.
She still loves her wife and misses their young daughter, but the
subject quickly brings her to tears and she ends the discussion.
James Halleman of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, an
advocacy group, expressed cautious optimism about Gonzalez's
long-term acceptance within the department.
"I sincerely hope she does not experience ... bias within the
department, and that she continues to be an exemplary officer," said
Halleman, a Pennsylvania steelworker and female-to-male transsexual.
The department is ahead of many other employers nationwide in its
support of Gonzalez but transgender people still have fewer
on-the-books protections of their civil rights than gays and
lesbians, said Lisa Mottet, a transgender rights attorney for the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington.
"Traditionally there has been less awareness of transgender people,
but that's changing rapidly," she said.
For example, 25 percent of the U.S. population currently lives in a
city, state or county with a law on the books barring discrimination
against transgender people -- up from only 6 percent just two years
ago, Mottet said.
In 2002, Philadelphia amended its fair practices ordinance to include
"gender identity" to the list of groups protected from discrimination
in employment, housing and city services.
"From an employer perspective, it's simple to see that it would be
insane to fire someone with (Gonzalez's) 36 years of experience to
hire someone with zero experience," Mottet said.
By some estimates there are as many as 40,000 male-to-female
transsexuals, or MTFs, in the United States, according to the
International Foundation for Gender Education in Waltham, Mass.
Because decisions are usually kept private, numbers are hard to pin
down, including how many people undergo sex-change surgery each year
in the United States. Different advocacy groups put the figure at
between 1,000 and 5,000. Some people go to Canada or Thailand, where
the surgery is cheaper.
Gonzalez joyfully jettisoned her male wardrobe, revels in shopping
for clothes, and is connecting with new friends in the local
transgender community. One is Dee Hellerman, a transgender women who
was a married man for 32 years and is preparing for her own
"It's really wonderful to see Maria growing in the way she is,"
Hellerman said. "She's confident, she's happy ... she's blossoming."
Medical protocol requires her to live full time as a woman and
undergo hormone treatments for a year before a doctor will authorize
the surgery. The surgery typically requires a five-day hospital stay,
more than a week of postoperative care in a nursing facility, and up
to six months of healing time. She wants to keep the date of her
planned sex change private, but she expects to have had the operation
by this time next year.
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"I'm doing something I always wanted to do," said Gonzalez, who
expects to retire from the police force in about four years. "I just
never knew until recently that I could go out and do it."