After living 57 years as a macho man, veteran Philadelphia police officer Maria Gonzalez will retire as a middle-aged woman.
He left after 2 a.m., drove to Center City, parked near 12th and Pine, got out of the car and found a little side street. There was nobody around. Gonzalez thrilled to every click of his shoes striking the pavement and strolled down the center of the street.
Devil may care.
He ate breakfast at the Oregon Diner, where nobody said anything about the man in the wig. There was no turning back.
He came out to the rest of his family, and in July 2003 he moved out of his house. He started taking hormones in preparation for genital reassignment surgery. That December a female police officer at the training academy looked at his chest, where his breasts were developing.
"Have you caught a chill?" she asked.
|Back in the saddle: Though she's still recovering from surgery, Maria Gonzalez feels better today than she did as Heladio.|
"It felt just like a funeral," says Gonzalez. "It was awful."
Many officers stopped talking to Gonzalez, who slowly escalated her efforts to feminize her appearance-adding wigs, makeup, ladies' shoes and earrings as time passed.
Before a person can be approved for sex-change surgery, they must obtain written consent from a psychologist and live as a person of their new sex for at least one year. The "real-life test," as it's called, often proves more difficult for the people around them.
The coffee room often cleared out when Gonzalez arrived, yet she also received support. The first day she came in with her own hair styled in a perm, a cop named Tom offered her an enthusiastic, "You go, girl."
Tom, a retired officer, says he declined to have his last name published in this story at least in part because this issue remains so controversial.
"Some cops didn't understand," says Tom. "I told them, 'If you told me you wanna be called Ali, or whatever, I'd do it. A person's a person. It's not like she has the plague.'"
For Tom and officers like him, the bonds forged among police officers couldn't be broken by the taboo of a looming sex-change operation. Others assumed a setup-an officer nearing retirement positioning himself to sue the Police Department when the harassment started.
"Everybody thought I was going to sue," says Gonzalez. "They still do."
The stakes were raised when Gonzalez was transferred from the police academy to the Differential Police Response Unit, fielding minor complaints like barking dogs. The move took place in October 2004, after Gonzalez was accused of shooting a gun into the ground at the firing range. (In some versions of the story a trainee failed to fire off all the required rounds in the allotted time, and Gonzalez took the gun and shot it perilously near her feet.)
Gonzalez declines comment, citing a rule prohibiting officers from discussing ongoing investigations. But her sour facial expression suggests this could be an incident she feels represents discrimination. Of course the city's fear of being sued-precisely because she's transgender-could play into her favor. Gonzalez is just 16 months from retirement, and her case has yet to be decided, so running out the clock could look like sound fiscal policy.
Gonzalez claims no intention of ever suing the Police Department. "We have a lot of cops," she says, "particularly supervisors, who are very good to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. They may not invite you over for dinner, but they're good. And they treat us with respect."