Philly Police Officer Comes Out As Transgender Cop

By Joann Loviglio, The Associated Press

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, "self-medicate."

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 and Australia.

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 sex-change operation.

"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.

"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."

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