Capt. Maeve Griffith showed up for her first shift at Spokane Fire Station 3 on Easter Sunday.
She wore makeup, which was unusual, and was preparing to get into her uniform, which was not. Firefighter Ty Bates arrived and made coffee for the shift crew, and Griffith thought he seemed a little uncomfortable. As she is wont to do, Griffith looked to pop the tension with the needle of humor.
“How was your Saturday?” Bates asked.
“Pretty good,” Griffith answered, smiling broadly as she relates the story, “now that I’m a girl.”
In March 2016, Sarah Griffith told her husband, John, that she wanted him to let their kids know something important. Something she had known about her husband for more than two decades.
“I thought they could deal with the truth,” she said. “I think they were owed the truth, and I think secrets are corrosive.”
The Griffiths had been married for 25 years. They’d raised three boys in their tidy South Hill home. John Griffith was a captain and paramedic in the Spokane Fire Department and a former Air Force captain; he was a long-distance runner, union leader, writer, prankster, political battler. Sarah Griffith was a registered nurse and instructor at Washington State University.
They had shared a long life together, from years of near poverty through parenthood to grandparenthood. They’d shared similar senses of humor, political views and interests. They’d practically shared birthdays; Sarah is one day older. The year they turned 50 – both are now 57 – they ran a 50-kilometer race to mark the occasion.
They had also shared a secret: John was transgender. It had been almost entirely hidden, and Maeve Griffith had basically intended it remain so – pushed into a corner of the self where it would reside in secret.
“It’s something I fought against and fought against and fought against,” Griffith said.
But Griffith wasn’t winning that fight.
“This is just a part of who I am,” Griffith said. “I’m really proud of my work as a firefighter, proud of what I did in the Air Force, proud of my family, proud to be a member of this community, proud of my creative work. Being transgender – I’ve always been that. It’s just a part of me.”
It’s a part that was entirely secret until around 20 years ago. After leaving the Air Force, Griffith was working as an adviser for an organization of gay and lesbian students at Gonzaga University. Griffith found herself full of admiration for the young people she was working with, who were out in a time and place where there could be real consequences.
Griffith began to think: “I need to tell somebody about my thing.”
What was her thing, exactly? Going back to childhood, Griffith had simply and strongly felt female – always interested in her mother’s and sister’s clothing, always hyperaware of the social signs and signals built into masculinity and femininity. She recalls having a complicated appreciation for Emma Peel from “The Avengers.”
“Basically, at age 8, I wanted to kiss her, but I also wanted to be her,” she said.
Griffith remembers seeing a boy in high school carrying his books in a “feminine” way – and thinking, Don’t do that! It’s girly! People will see! Griffith grew up in a Catholic family that moved a lot. Had it even occurred to her to consider coming out when she was younger, “I risked certain death from my father,” she said with a laugh.
As an adult, Griffith would dress in women’s clothing on occasion – not with great frequency, but with some regularity. She would buy items of women’s clothing and put them on, alone at home. Look in the mirror, and think, “Oh, you’re still in there. I see you.”
Then she would get rid of the clothes or put them away, sometimes for years. It was as though it went into “remission,” she said.
And so, provoked by the bravery she witnessed in those Gonzaga students and feeling the pressure to tell someone the truth, Griffith decided to tell Sarah.
“It was so scary and so hard and I was just shaking,” Griffith said. “There is so much shame about it, and so much embarrassment about it. But I felt like I had to share that with a person I loved. The person I loved the most.”
Griffith’s revelation became a source of closeness. A shared thing. A part of what Maeve thinks of as the “third person” in their marriage – the two of them, together.
Sarah appreciated the magnitude and intimacy of the revelation. “I was the first one she told – ever, ever, ever, in her life,” she said.
Still, Maeve’s “thing” remained walled off for years, a secret room in the house of their lives. But as she grew older, her sense of herself as a woman intensified, pressed harder against the life she was living.
And that pressure began to boil back in 2016, when Sarah asked Maeve to tell their sons. She didn’t want them to discover it after Maeve’s death in some way. Griffith agreed to do it, and eventually told each of their adult sons separately, though it took her a while to work up the courage.
Everything that’s happened since – from Griffith’s decision to come out to the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy to her current deliberations about whether to go further – grew out of that decision.
“I’m the one who kind of cracked open the door,” Sarah said.
A bit of conversation from a recent family dinner at the Griffiths’ home:
“Where’s your dad?”
“She’s in the garden.”
Griffith told her three adult sons, Aidan, Ike and Kirk, separately, and they responded, she said, with love and compassion. When she told Ike, “He was like, ‘Well, thanks for letting me know. And what pronouns do you prefer?’ ” Griffith said.
Ike may have been a relatively quick adapter, but it’s not as if it was easy, he said. He always considered himself an ally of LGBT people, but his dad’s announcement came as a big surprise. He wasn’t sure, at that point, whether Griffith planned to come out as she now has – and when that happened, it required another level of adjustment.
“That’s when it really hit me: Wow, my dad’s going to be a woman now,” said Ike, a 24-year-old who just moved to Boston. “It was hard to know if my dad was going to be the same person I’d grown up with.”
Not every step was smooth, he said, and he’s had to reconsider a lot, ask himself and his dad a lot of questions. But he says that his dad is happier now, and he’s come to accept the differences.
“Maeve is still my dad to me,” he said. “She was my dad when she was John, and she’s my dad now that she’s Maeve.”
The couple’s youngest son, 22-year-old Aidan, said he felt immediately and emotionally supportive of the news – even more than logically so. That’s because he has such appreciation for his parents and the way they raised him, he said.
If it was a burden for him as a son, he said, “it was far more of a burden for my dad to have a secret like this for decades. Being accepting and loving to her is the least I could realistically do for her and my mom, after what they’ve done for me.”
After Maeve told her sons, she began speaking to a counselor; after a few sessions, she asked the counselor: Was she definitely transgender?
“She said, ‘Oh yeah!’ ” Griffith said. “ ‘If there was a checklist, every box would be marked.’ ”
So that helped push Griffith down the road toward coming out. The political environment influenced her, as well – an outspoken liberal, Griffith said she began to feel urgently that it was important for marginalized people to speak up for their own truths in the Trump era and to stand against bigotry.
Having opened up to her sons, Griffith began “lighting fuses,” as she puts it – starting to tell people close to her, friends and family and some co-workers.
Griffith had become captain of Fire Station 3 by then. She told some immediate co-workers, and started a closed Facebook group: Operation From Cradle to Maeve.
In April 2017, about a year after Sarah first raised the idea of telling their sons, Griffith wrote a “letter to the job” – an email to everyone in the department outlining the changes in Griffith’s life and introducing herself.
“I might have hid out from you a lot longer, maybe even retired, before my transition became really noticeable,” Griffith wrote. “The reason why I told admin and why I am telling you now is because I want to be ready to take a stand for anyone in our city who is the victim of bigotry-related violence. … If someone in Spokane was persecuted for being a trans person, I would feel like a coward if I just hid out.”
Griffith said she hoped they would all remain friends, though she understood that might not work for everyone. “Don’t worry too much about offending me with questions you might have.”
Among the biggest changes: A new name.
“It is ‘Maeve,’ ” Griffith wrote. “Rhymes with Dave, save and Flavor Flav.”
Here’s the thing about Griffith: A number of people thought, at least initially, that she might have been joking. Pulling an elaborate stunt.
“The initial thing was people were disbelieving of it,” Griffith said. “To this day, they think there’s gonna be a big reveal.”
There’s a reason people might have had this thought. Griffith has always had a creative, comic streak, with a sharp satirical edge and a willingness to take pranks further than most. Once, when ordered to trim her sideburns by a supervisor in the fire department, Griffith showed up with a Mohawk. Griffith has operated satirical websites and published a book of her poetry, among many other creative projects.
Years ago, Griffith created an online persona known as Soccermom Susie, commenting on Spokesman-Review stories – and later tweeting and doing other social media – in the guise of a cranky, all-caps conservative ranter who adored President George W. Bush and whose favorite drink was Gin and Geritol.
I wrote a column about Soccermom Susie, which struck me as an often hilarious satirical subterfuge for the internet age. Having arranged an interview, I arrived to find Griffith – whom I had not met – dressed in an obvious disguise, wig and mustache included.
He was, I was told, Susie’s nephew.
It was aggravating at first, and then kind of fascinating. Griffith never broke character, and yet also managed to discuss what it was Soccermom Susie was satirizing: a growing alternative universe of facts and a level of political rhetoric that had been almost entirely decoupled from truthfulness.
This trend has only deepened, of course. As Griffith puts it now, “I guess Soccermom Susie is president.”
Griffith is getting ready to take her creative impulse in a new direction: appearing in a performance later this month of “The Vagina Monologues,” which is a fundraiser for the YWCA Women’s and Children’s Shelter.
“I haven’t done a play since eighth grade, when I played Daisy Mae’s cousin, Romeo Scragg” in a production of Li’l Abner, Griffith said.
She has a relatively upbeat, untortured attitude about her transition, though it is doubtlessly a difficult process. In this respect, she says, she knows that she is not representative of many trans people. A 2015 survey, for example, found that trans people in America report higher rates of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, attempted suicide and harassment in the workplace or public places than the general population.
“I don’t pretend to represent them,” she said.
Yet she’s aware of the ambassadorial role she embodies, given that she is well-known in Spokane – someone with an established reputation as a responsible, visible, civic-minded member of the community who might be, for many friends and colleagues, the only person in transition they’ve met.
She is forgiving of those who “dead-name” her – use her former name – or don’t get her pronouns right. She welcomes questions and is patient with awkward ones, and that’s probably, in large part, because she has known no trans people herself until fairly recently, when she started attending a support group.
“I totally get it,” Griffith said. “It’s a weird thing. I’ve lived with the weirdness since I was 5 years old.”
Among the “family” of the Spokane Fire Department, Griffith said she’s heard overwhelmingly supportive comments and has felt backed up by Chief Brian Schaeffer. She knows not everyone will approve or be comfortable with it.
Schaeffer said that when Griffith approached him about transitioning, they tried to lay the groundwork by dealing at the front with the technical, logistical, human-resources questions involved – changing names and gender on records and so forth. State law protects transgender people from employment discrimination, but Schaeffer said he also wanted to make sure there was a welcoming culture.
Griffith had been with the fire department for many years, after all, and had recently reached the rank of captain. She was an experienced paramedic and an informal and formal leader within the department, Schaeffer said, and because of her openness with co-workers, it went very smoothly.
“It was a really good experience,” Schaeffer said. “No hiccups. No concerns from people in the field. The small group discussions we’ve had and the larger discussions I’ve had with our employees have all been positive. Everybody has been really accepting.”
In a message to the department, Schaeffer made it clear the department would not tolerate harassment or bullying and asked firefighters to be supportive of their longtime colleague.
“The SFD is an ally for all people, and that includes majorities, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community and refugees – all people,” he wrote.
Schaeffer said Griffith’s transition prompted a few other firefighters to come out as gay or lesbian, having felt the department was a safe place to do that.
“Her gender is really irrelevant in the larger picture, especially in terms of taking care of people and putting out fires,” Schaeffer said.
Griffith said the response in the department has been nice. But she’s emphatic that it wasn’t workplace goodwill that prompted her to come out – it was the fact that the law prohibits discrimination against her.
“Laws in Washington state protect me,” Griffith said. “They basically let me tell people the truth. I’m allowed to tell the truth and not lose my job.”
At Fire Station 3 – the West Central station that is the city’s busiest for service calls – Griffith’s co-workers seem unfazed. Justin Freeman, who’s known Griffith since he joined the department four years ago, is the station’s fire equipment operator. He said that knowing someone firsthand who transitions has been a new experience – but not one that’s been all that arduous.
“I always knew I was OK with it intellectually,” he said, but learning a new name and some new information about a specific person he works with required some adjustment.
“For me, the concern was if some of our patients would say mean things or react in a way that isn’t supportive,” he said.
Griffith said that hasn’t happened.
Joanna Balin, a firefighter who’s relatively new to Spokane, has known Griffith only as Maeve – a station captain with a withering sense of humor who is skilled at her job.
“I’ve never enjoyed my job more,” Balin said, “and that’s because of her attitude and professionalism.”
When Sarah Griffith talks about her spouse now, she falls naturally into referring to her as “she.” She talks about how she has been able to gain an appreciation – through their many years of having this knowledge between them – of “the complexity of Maeve.” After a lot of announcements and reintroductions and fundamental change in their lives over the past two years, she feels as though they may be resettling into a new normal.
“I think it’s pretty done now,” Sarah said.
She has taken some of their experience into the classroom, to help student nurses at WSU learn how to interact with trans patients.
“Yeah, it’s my own journey, but also I’ve got this thing to share, and I can make things better in the health care sphere,” she said.
Which doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
The Griffiths say they’ve always had the kind of marriage in which they try to be clear-eyed and honest about their difficulties – to insist that staying together does not become an unexamined assumption.
“In my family,” Sarah said, “people never get divorced. Even if they should.”
As Maeve puts it, in their marriage, “Failure is an option.”
So, was it an option in the past year? At the simplest level, the Griffiths decided what they share is stronger than what has changed.
“I love her very much,” Maeve said, “And a big part of that love is this thing we have together – this third person that is us.”
“It’s been an up-and-down journey,” Sarah said. “I’m very proud of Maeve, and I’ve been part of the process. But on the other hand, sometimes it’s overwhelming and there’s a sense of grief.”
John was, Sarah said, a “lovely person,” who she loved to be with – funny, passionate, engaging, ambitious. And while Maeve is of course the same person, some differences emerged as she has come out and undergone hormone replacement.
They both note that Maeve is more emotional these days, but also a little calmer – a little turned down from the “flurry of activity” that always used to surround her.
Maeve’s body has changed, with larger breasts and hips and some muscle loss, and there are challenges in getting in shape for the ultramarathon she’s planning to run in April. They even argue differently now, the Griffiths say – as opposed to disagreements sometimes dragging on in chilly silence, they tend to explode and then end with laughter.
On a recent Sunday in their living room, Sarah told Maeve, “I’ll say you’re not quite as funny as you used to be. You don’t have an edge.”
At that, Maeve told a story – something Maeve is good at – whose particulars will have to remain unreported in the newspaper, but which displayed plenty of edge.
“It’s hard on people,” Maeve said. “This has been extremely hard on Sarah, hard on my mom, hard on my kids, hard on people I work with, and it hasn’t made my life any easier. But it’s the truth. That’s it.”
Back on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, on Capt. Maeve Griffith’s first day on the job, she defused her first interaction with firefighter Ty Bates with a joke.
In that way, she told the truth about how she was changing in a way that reinforced how she would remain the same.
“That’s how the morning started out,” Bates said. “From there I asked her some questions. It was new to me. I asked a couple questions, and she was totally open and answered them.”
Then they went back to work.
“To me, it’s not really that big a deal,” Bates said. “She’s still the same person. Same person, different name.”
Lead photo credit: Capt. Maeve Griffith’s reflection is seen in a window between emergency calls on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, at Fire Station 3 in Spokane. “It’s hard on people,” Maeve said. “This has been extremely hard on Sarah, hard on my mom, hard on my kids, hard on people I work with, and it hasn’t made my life any easier. But its the truth. That’s it.” (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)