DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In just the last few years, transgender people have become more visible. Americans are debating who can use what bathroom. And you can now see parents helping their children transition before they hit puberty. But nothing is more a sign of the times than this - older Americans who have kept their identities secret for decades are now starting to come out. NPR's Gabriela Saldivia has the story of a woman who transitioned while working in one of the most traditional jobs in America.
JESSICA HAWKINS: Day 1 - February 11, 2014. I wake up. I'm like, wow, there's so many things I got to get done now. I haven't got my eyebrows done. I still got to work on makeup. And - I mean, you got to make sure it's all perfect. At the time, I was wearing a wig. I was like, oh, my goodness - spending so much time. And then I had a 45-minute drive. And that whole 45 minutes, it was just panic.
GABRIELA SALDIVIA, BYLINE: Police Sergeant Jessica Hawkins was going to work for the first time as a woman. She's a cop at the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.
HAWKINS: I really thought they were going to slash my tires. I thought for sure my locker was going to be on fire. My car would be vandalized. I expected all of that.
SALDIVIA: Hawkins knew her job was safe because D.C. law is clear - you can't discriminate based on gender identity. But her fellow officers - they were a different story. Before her transition, Hawkins was known as a real man's man kind of cop. So she reached out to find an ally.
BRETT PARSON: It was a phone call on my cell phone.
SALDIVIA: That's Sergeant Brett Parson, Hawkins' first boss at the department.
PARSON: I basically called everybody that I could possibly think of who would be supportive and made sure that they were there. The other phone calls I made were as, I guess, an enforcer - to say if somebody so much as [expletive] giggles in that roll call room, I'll have their [expletive].
HAWKINS: So I get there. I meet with a friend of mine.
PARSON: And I was waiting for her when she pulled up, and she stepped out. It's the first time I had seen her dressed as Jessica. And I looked at her and I said, I've only got one piece of advice for you - walk in like you own the [expletive] place.
HAWKINS: And he said, I'm proud of you, put his arm around me and just walked me in. And the folks who still supported me, they actually showed up, and it was standing room only. That meant a lot - a lot, lot, lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF CASHMERE CAT'S "MIRROR MARU")
SALDIVIA: Getting through that first day was hard enough, but it turned out to just be the start. Now she was walking the beat every day as a policewoman.
HAWKINS: You know, I had one lady - I was walking on 17th Street. And she asked me - she goes, are you really a police officer? Now I was wearing makeup and had my little stud earrings. And I said, yes. She goes, well, I've never seen a male officer wear makeup before. It definitely hurt my feelings to the point I just walked away and found a little hole to cry in for a minute.
SALDIVIA: Hawkins doesn't feel as confident as she used to. But the daily harassment taught her how to be a better a cop.
HAWKINS: From transitioning, I have a lot more empathy, far more than I've had before. And it's like, I know what it's like to be discriminated against or to be told no because of who I am now.
SALDIVIA: Right after her transition, Hawkins took it upon herself to start showing up at crime scenes involving transgender men and women. Soon, she was given more responsibility. And now she's the head of the LGBT Liaison Unit, where she's helping to solve cold cases of transgender women murdered in D.C. Suddenly, her police work was personal.
HAWKINS: Because in those situations, it's like instant calm when I come on the scene because one thing they know for sure is I'm not going humiliate her. Or I'm not going to get the gender or the pronoun wrong or her name, and we use the preferred name. It kind of gives them hope from what I understand. A lot of them report back to me. And they're like, Jessica, we're so glad to see you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CASHMERE CAT'S "MIRROR MARU")
SALDIVIA: It's difficult to transition - period. But the later in life you are, the tougher it is. For one thing, as men age, their faces and bodies continue to become more masculine. Hawkins has hazel eyes and dyed blond hair. But she's square jawed with large, muscular arms.
HAWKINS: I'm almost 6-feet-tall, broad-shouldered. It's hard (laughter). There's some things there's no surgery in the world that it's going to correct.
SALDIVIA: Now she's taking hormones, developing breasts.
HAWKINS: You're going through a puberty process all over again. And it's a new body. Your hormones are different. And it affects the way you think and the way you do things. And it's best to equate it to - for me, think of the 14-year-old girl who is brand new at high school and she's not in the popular group - and whatever reason that sets her outside of the popular girls - and she wants to be part of that group.
SALDIVIA: Hawkins is trying to fit in and be accepted as a woman. She thought it would just take time. She wasn't expecting to have to compromise as well.
HAWKINS: When I see something - someone was like, I disregard everything else. And sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it's a bad thing because sometimes I get tunnel vision about what I want and I don't consider other things.
SALDIVIA: Other things - like how people in her life would react.
HAWKINS: I didn't think my wife would actually leave me. I thought it was something we can survive. Right now it's a big question of, starting into the person stuff of, like, you know, single, divorced. I do miss the life I had as a man. I miss that. I miss the outer parts of it. I miss having a wife, and I miss the way I was able to interact with my family.
SALDIVIA: Last year, Hawkins got to a point where she tried going back to being a man to get her old life back. Her wife gave Hawkins one last chance to save their marriage.
HAWKINS: She goes, if we get back together, there will be no Jessica. You'll cut your hair. You'll change your name back. You'll change your gender back - no more hormones and not even dressing up on the weekends - nothing. So I tried. And then six weeks later, I realized, no, that's not going to work.
SALDIVIA: So now, Hawkins is somewhere in the middle. She stopped wearing makeup and jewelry. It just makes life easier.
HAWKINS: Basically, I'm just in this zone where I'm just more androgynous these days. And this way, if someone does refer to me as a sir or mister, it doesn't hurt my feelings. When I go on the street, all they see is a cop with long hair.
SALDIVIA: It's a way to protect herself. Hawkins isn't quite the woman she wants to be. But for her, it beats not being a woman at all.
HAWKINS: One thing I won't take back is the fact that, yeah, I now have the freedom to be who I am. Whether I maintain as a male or a female or somewhere in between, at least there's no more shame. There's no more secrets. My family, my employer, my friends - they all know my story. They know who I am. They know what I'm about.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUBI'S "BALMORHEA")
SALDIVIA: Gabriela Saldivia, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In earlier versions of this story, we said that Hawkins’ ex-wife had “met someone else” before they attempted to save their marriage. That was incorrect.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.