Is she a "transgender bike mechanic" or a "bike mechanic who is transgender"? "Gay ball player" or "ball player who happens to be a lesbian"? Upon coming out, I found that most people would pose these kinds of questions. I would prefer the latter description in the above cases, where one part of my identity does not necessarily describe the other. Indeed, in no particular order, I am transgender, manager, ball player, mechanic, and lesbian and do not choose between these labels, since they collectively describe me as a whole.
I was born, raised, and live in Staten Island. As a boy I had no trouble playing this role and even enjoyed my participation in competitive team sports and welcomed the opportunity to fix things. At home I always had access to tools and was surrounded by uncles who were mechanics, carpenters and motorcycle enthusiasts. When I was lucky enough to have access to a garage, I fixed bicycles and taught myself to build computers that were older than the Internet. While I had no trouble "being a boy," I knew as early as 8 years old that I would prefer to be called "Kate" and wasn't concerned about differentiating between genders.
As a graduate of Port Richmond High School, a student at the College of Staten Island and a growing mechanic expert, my first job was naturally at a pedicab company, followed by a dispatch position, car service role and other mechanical jobs. Whenever there was confusion over my identity among former colleagues or customers, I often dealt by responding in a lighthearted or comical manner about my ongoing transition. However, there were indeed inescapable, cruel and probing questions too, which I only tried to escape through silence.
No matter the company, the workplace was always a challenge for me. I vainly tried to steer the attention away from my obvious transition and allow my skills to be judged, free of prejudice, bias or notions of being transgender. I lifted more physical weight than others and took more risks to get jobs done, believing I could distract my colleagues and employers from asking further questions. Nevertheless, I couldn't escape discrimination and often found employers hesitant to introduce me to clients, no matter the quality of my work. Promotion always seemed questionable or out of sight. One employer once had me use a more gender-neutral variant of my own name, even after my name was legally changed. I was also written up for refusing to wear a name tag with my given name at another workplace.
With all these collective professional experiences, I found relief at Bike and Roll New York City, the largest bike rental company in NYC, where I'm treated like any other employee, with responsibilities, duties and expectations. As Manager of Fleet Operations, I'm now responsible for overseeing the maintenance and repair of Bike and Roll NYC's 2,500-plus fleet of bikes at all of its locations. When it comes to speaking about my identity at work, I am not only comfortable to address my transition but actually find myself wanting to share, thanks to my employer's positive reception. Some discussions on the shop floor include light humor about encounters where I may inevitably have to repeat my name three (or seemingly 3,000) times when being introduced. My colleagues do not generally emphasize saying "she" when speaking about me. Instead, they allow the words to come out naturally. When brought to question, I once heard my colleague explain to another, "I've only known her to be this way," something I was flattered to hear.
It seems strange to come out as a transgender person, because I believe I have always been female. I would not abandon all memory of my childhood or "my previous life," when I was understood as a boy, and I continue to maintain friendships that date from the first grade. My future plans include continuing hormone therapy and pursing surgical changes, which are necessary to allow my body to truly reflect who I am. I now spend less time trying to justify "how I am" and more interested in sharing "how it is." The nonjudgmental atmosphere has kept me at Bike and Roll NYC for the past four years and allows me to focus on professional development. I can direct my energies on leading a team to practice my trade without wasting energies in justifying my identity. Even when colleagues leave Bike and Roll NYC, I always hope that they will tell a friend how they worked with someone who is transgender and share how I am comfortable being openly as such. One connection at a time, I would hope these folks will help create an atmosphere as widely accepting and encouraging as ours.
Follow Kate Freitag on Twitter: www.twitter.com/twopinkwheels