Alex Kunz was playing a video game when she understood something she always knew.
Kunz stared back at the virtual female character she had created on the screen, the kind of female character she had always created since childhood. After 21 years, she realized she was not a man.
“Something about that moment … something about it just clicked in my head and I was like, ‘Even if I have to fight every day, even if I have to save up pennies from tips at work to save up for any minor surgeries I can have, I cannot live like this anymore,’ ” Kunz said.
Kunz, whose legal first name is Calob, is a transgender woman. She is undergoing a transformation that will eventually change her physical appearance and those around her are noticing. She is married and is father to a 2-year-old daughter. Her friends and family have all supported her during the transformation, she said; now her concern is the response of her employer as she contemplates switching her presented gender at work.
It’s a concern shared by many transgendered individuals. One of Kunz’s friends, she said, lost her job after coming out to her employer as a transgender woman.
Despite that fear, Kunz said she cannot continue to be a different person at work than she is at home, and is ready to face any consequences that follow.
‘T’ in LBGT not as well-understood
It’s legal in 33 states to fire a person based on their gender identity.
Washington is one of the 17 states with a nondiscrimination law for transgender individuals. Other states, like New York and Wisconsin, protect discrimination for sexual orientation but not gender identity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Idaho protects neither.
Lance Kissler, president of the Inland Northwest Business Alliance, said members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – and especially transgender people – still face significant challenges in the workplace.
“With the (Washington) employment discrimination act in place, they know that that’s there to protect them. But that doesn’t protect them from people making off-handed remarks or any of that kind of stuff,” Kissler said. “There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty there.”
The Inland Northwest Business Alliance works to broaden employment opportunities locally for the LGBT community, including publishing a directory of LGBT-friendly businesses.
Kissler said he personally noticed a positive difference in the treatment of LGBT people after moving back to Spokane from Portland, although a perception of Spokane as intolerant persists.
The Human Rights Campaign publishes an annual Municipal Equality Index, which last year rated 291 cities on factors including nondiscrimination laws, LGBT relationship recognition and the city’s relationship with the LGBT community. Spokane was given a rating of 71 out of 100. The average is 57; both Seattle and Portland scored 100.
Kissler said there is a great amount of work to be done to improve workplace conditions for LGBT people.
“The best that we can do is try to change the perception, educate people, create awareness and, from a grass-roots level, move the needle,” he said.
But he also said LGBT issues typically focus more on people who are lesbian and gay, rather than transgender.
“I think that because transgender hasn’t been as prevalent in society, it probably has more uncertainty around it,” Kissler said.
Support critical for success
Marybeth Markham, a mental health therapist in Spokane who frequently works with transgender individuals, said what she hears most is that they feel like they woke up in the wrong body.
“Some people know when they first start talking, others know around middle school, another group will know during puberty, and another will not come to know this as their truth until they are much older,” Markham said. “Often, they try to pretend it isn’t true and find they cannot live a lie any longer.”
In high school, Kunz remembered bursting into tears while talking to her then-girlfriend, hating the fact that she was not a woman.
“Honestly, it’s something I’ve felt my entire life,” Kunz said. “The thing you’ll hear most frequently from the transgender community is: ‘I’ve always known it, but then I realized it when …’ ”
For Kunz, she fully realized it in 2012, one year after marrying her wife.
Kunz said that within hours of telling her wife, her spouse was understanding and supportive.
“My wife is totally cool with it and has no plans on changing our relationship status,” Kunz said.
Kunz’s main concern is what society will teach her daughter.
“Kids are understanding. They don’t see an issue with two women or two men being together,” Kunz said. “That is stuff that’s taught.”
Kunz became manager at a sandwich shop in Spokane last November after just a few weeks of work at that location. She provides the only income for her family. New managers in that company serve a probationary period before their position is entirely secure, which occurred at the end of March for Kunz.
She plans on switching her presented gender at work to female within the next couple of months.
Some of her co-workers already are aware of Kunz’s change. The hormones she’s taking create some noticeable differences in appearance – and sometimes make her feel unwell, she said.
Support for transgender decisions is critical, said Markham, the mental health therapist. Some 57 percent of transgender people reported that they attempted suicide when shunned by families, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law focusing on LGBT issues.
Kunz said she was surprised by the reaction of her family and friends. Now, she hopes her boss surprises her in the same way.
“I think what people don’t understand is, yes, we are technically choosing to change. But it’s not really much of a choice,” she said. “Despite the pressure and despite the prejudice and risk of everything, it’s easier to change than to not.”