“It started with a bathroom,” says Risa Bear, retired University of Oregon librarian.
When her bosses learned that she had begun her gender transition, they assigned her a key to the locked, unisex, management bathroom for nearly eight months. They did this to avoid any questions or stares that would make co-workers feel uncomfortable. However, after months of sprinting the 0.8 miles across the library to the management bathroom, Bear decided that it was her time to visit the ladies’ room.
Sitting in a faded green rocking chair one year into retirement, Bear smiles and sips her tea, always aware of where the closest bathroom is. In 2006, at the age of fifty-seven, Richard Bear became Risa after undergoing genital surgery. Despite the tilted heads, cocked eyebrows, and questioning voices, Bear acknowledges that she was among the lucky few to keep their jobs while transitioning.
Dr. Jillian Weiss, a professor at Ramapo College who transitioned at the age of thirty-seven, explains that being fired is the biggest fear when an individual decides to transition.
“We spend so much time at work that this business environment transforms into a social organization,” says Weiss. “Even in a great work environment, it typically takes at least a month for people to adjust to the notion of their co-worker taking on a new identity.”
Bear emphasizes that it was because of the support of those around her that her transition was so smooth. She explains that many of the negative comments she could have heard from students or visitors of the library were deflected by a close group of friends and co-workers who continuously looked out for her.
“I had 300 friends before I transitioned, and 300 friends after I transitioned,” says Bear.
She kept her friends by being someone that other people wanted to know. No matter her gender, Bear was a friend to those around her.
In 2009, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that more than ninety-seven percent of transgender individuals had experienced some form of harassment or discrimination at work. Forty-seven percent had been fired, denied a promotion, or refused a position because of their gender identity.
However, Weiss explains that in the last decade, these trends have begun to shift. Since 1982, gender identity protection laws have begun sprouting in states in order to protect individuals from being fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“It’s not right for someone to be fired because of their gender identity,” says Weiss. “If you think about it, everyone is a little transgender. A woman who works on cars and a man who likes to cook, they are both transitioning across the lines of [stereotypical] gender roles.”
Nevertheless, discrimination because of gender continues. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that Special Forces veteran Diane Schroer be compensated with $491,190 in back pay and benefits, emotional pain and suffering, and out of pocket expenses for the discrimination she faced for being a transgender person. This ruling penalized the Library of Congress for refusing Schroer a job when she announced that she was transitioning from male to female.
From the media to the government, Bear explains that transgender individuals are given the lowest amount of civil rights. In fact, “We’re no longer people, we’re objects,” she says. “If you want to make people feel like they have no rights, like they don’t even belong in society and have no right to ask to be treated like equals, start by telling them that they are less than human.”
According to Bear, the vast majority of people are accepting of transgender people. Once they have the opportunity to meet and work with a transgender individual their stereotypes disappear. However, until that time, they often know very little and assume that whatever stereotypes presented by the media and other outlets are true.
“People tend to not have an opinion,” says Bear. “The opinions they do have are generated from shows like Cops.” Bear explains that the comical representation of transgender people, large men stumbling in low-cut dresses, paints a very harmful picture.
While people are beginning to take the situation seriously, Bear emphasizes that right now, transgender individuals need “media outlets that will present people for who they are and what they do rather than what they are.”
However, without the necessary steps, transgender people still face fierce discrimination in and out of the workplace. In Illinois, the discrimination of transgender people proceeds far beyond the cubical. Victoria Kirk and Karissa Rothkopf sued Illinois for not changing their gender on their birth certificates. Still, the state explained that this was difficult because both women had their surgeries performed by doctors outside of the United States.
Whether navigating the impressions of others or lessening evidence of physical differences for the workplace, Bear explains that there is always a barrier to be broken.
Bear began her career at the University of Oregon while still Richard. However, when she decided to transition, she began leaving her co-workers subtle signs of femininity—a pair of earrings or a barrette in her hair. Bear recalls the evening of August 7, 2003. It was after a day of dressing up and taking pictures that Bear ordered her first set of pills. When she began to take estrogen, she also began to transition.
In 2006, Bear proceeded with her Real Life Test, a psychological examination to ensure that one is ready to change genders and fit into a new role. In Homecomings, Bear’s blog, she recalls a difficult segment of the transition process—changing psychologists three times to find one sympathetic to her experience.
“He inquired into my childhood. He listened to my vocabulary, enunciation and phrasing,” she writes of one psychologist. “He watched my body language. I had a feeling I was not feminine enough for him.”
After completing the required number of sessions, Bear requested a surgery. She flew to Miami where there was a surgeon who was competent, yet affordable. Post-surgery, Bear grew her hair longer and began wearing dresses that covered most of her still slightly masculine figure. Bear explains that she knew that she would never be a “beautiful woman,” but would rather settle for an “old lady.” However, she began to allow herself to wear makeup and jewelry outside of the house, in order to make her new persona more apparent to the public eye.
“I realize this makes me sound a little shallow,” Bear says. “But, I was always afraid of being seen as grotesque.”
Upon returning to work, Bear found that her colleagues were very supportive. Rarely did she encounter conflicts. The “pronoun problem,” as Bear refers to it, is one of the most hurtful mistakes that people make when working with a transgender person. This is often a slip of the tongue, when someone uses “he” instead of “she,” or vice versa.
“It’s the kind of mistake that crushes you and leaves your confidence on the floor for weeks,” Bear says as she chokes back a tear.
Weiss, however, takes a more moderate position to this issue. She explains that transgender individuals need to understand that it’s a transition for their peers as well. It takes time for the mind to adjust to new names and pronouns.
Bear suggests approaching a transgender co-worker in a gentle way with a simple variation of the question: “What pronoun would you like me to use?” She adds that this practice is done throughout the University of Oregon’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) groups and is very successful.
As a transitioning counselor, Weiss is often asked to assist companies when an employee is transitioning. When doing so, she breaks the process into three main steps.
First, she pulls all company records and policies to ensure that they are transgender friendly.
“There are so many sensitive issues that need to be changed,” explains Weiss. “And it’s not the transgender employee’s responsibility to educate their employer on the issues.”
Instead, Weiss looks at bathroom policies, paychecks, changing names on payroll, emails and much more to ensure a smooth transition.
Next, Weiss holds an intensive training for management. She talks to them about what it means to be transgender and how the transition will affect their employees. Weiss prepares management to be supportive while not changing the working environment. An ideal employer, according to Weiss, is one who seeks outside resources to aid in the transition. Hiring a human resources consultant to work specifically with the transition, or doing research that takes pressure away from the transgender individual helps show support.
Finally, a similar training is held for co-workers.
“This session is more casual, allowing everyone to ask questions and understand that the transition won’t affect their work environment.”
Weiss explains that often colleagues ask questions in good faith, but enter very personal territory that the transitioning individual may not be comfortable answering. These questions include asking what sort of surgery or medications they are using. Rather, it is appropriate to be inquisitive about how this will change their relationship with the transgender individual, not about the details of the transition itself.
“People are usually curious about what they should do if a client calls for Mr. Smith, but Mr. Smith is now Ms. Smith,” Weiss says.
These are issues that Weiss helps associates navigate and practice. She stresses that within the first month, most kinks are worked out and by the end of the year, pronoun and name changes are hardly even a conscious effort.
“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if you asked the transgender individual ‘why’ he or she is transitioning, but remember that when someone’s at work, he or she is just trying to do the job—regardless of gender,” she says.
Lonnie Sexton, a colleague and friend of Bear’s, says that as Bear gained confidence in her new identity, she became a role model to others. Sexton explains that Bear is an individual who is even tempered and has always been a joy to be around. She also speaks of Bear as a role model for students. “Those [students] grappling with transgender identity could look to [Bear] as a model of a smooth transformation. She has confidently integrated her transformation with other aspects of her life—work, friendships, and family.”
Throughout this process, Bear says that her peers were aware and supportive of her decisions.
“Risa, keep your knees closed,” repeats Bear in recollection of the best advice an associate ever gave her.
“I knew and liked Richard Bear as a co-worker,” says Sexton in reference to the transformation. “However, I was not very close with him. I was interested in his poetry, and we exchanged pleasantries, but that was the extent of our relationship. On the other hand, I have become very friendly with Risa Bear. It’s interesting that she is the same person, but I definitely relate better to her as a woman. This says more about me than her.”
“There are a lot of rules about transitioning—I broke them all,” Bear says with a chuckle. However, she advises everyone about to delve into their own transition to invest in a nice set of thank you cards and Hershey’s Kisses. “Express your gratitude and show appreciation when people are nice to you,” says Bear. She explains that her own gratitude paid off greatly when people would stop by to give her a hug or when a woman would pause and whisper “welcome” to her.