Sgt. Jessica Hawkins remembers Feb. 11, 2014, clearly.
It was a sunny, cold Tuesday in the District of Columbia — the day she would go to work at the Metropolitan Police Department as a woman for the first time.
Hawkins is transgender. She has known since she was 5 years old, when Wonder Woman was her favorite superhero and she liked to dress up in her mother’s clothes.
On that first shift at work, Hawkins had to be in for roll call in the afternoon. She spent the morning in a panic and almost didn’t go in. She was terrified about how her fellow police officers would react.
“I really thought they were going to slash my tires,” Hawkins says. “I thought for sure my locker was going to be on fire, my car would be vandalized. I expected all of that.”
Hawkins came to MPD in 2000 because of the protections for transgender people under Washington, D.C.’s Human Rights Act. She had no similar protections in Virginia, where she began her career as an officer more than 20 years ago. The act makes discrimination illegal based on 19 protected traits, three of which directly relate to sex, gender identity and expression and sexual orientation.
So Hawkins knew her job at the MPD was safe. But the officers were a different story. Up until this point, Hawkins was known for being a “man’s man” kind of cop.
To help prepare for that first day, she reached out for an ally: a former boss at MPD, Sgt. Brett Parson, who is openly gay. Hawkins thought if anyone would understand, it would be him.
“I was so afraid that someone was going to hurt her that day,” Parson says. “And that would have been like hurting me in that moment, because to me it was not just Jessica’s reputation at stake there; it was the reputation of a police department, of a district, of each individual in that room.”
But that didn’t happen. Parson called every officer he could think of to come to roll call. When Hawkins walked in, it was standing room only.
“That meant a lot … because I knew no matter what, they had my back,” Hawkins says.
Getting through that first day was hard — but it turned out to just be the start.
Policewoman on the beat
Now she was walking the beat every day as a policewoman.
“I had one lady, I was walking on 17th Street, and she asked me, ‘Are you really a police officer?’ Now, I was wearing makeup, and I had my little stud earrings in, and I said, ‘Yes,’ and she goes, ‘Well, I’ve never seen a male officer wear makeup before,’ ” Hawkins says. “It definitely hurt my feelings to the point where I just walked away and found a little hole to cry in for a minute.”
This kind of harassment has taken a toll on Hawkins’ confidence, but it has taught her how to be a better cop.
“From transitioning, I have a lot more empathy — far more than I ever had before,” Hawkins says. “I know what it’s like to be discriminated against or to be told no because of who I am now.”
She took it upon herself to show up at crime scenes involving transgender men and women. Soon she was given more responsibility. Now she’s the head of the LGBT Liaison Unit, where she’s helping to solve cold cases of transgender women murdered in D.C. She is also trying to strengthen the frayed relationship between law enforcement and the LGBT community. She trains officers how to respond appropriately in cases of crimes involving LGBT people and does community outreach.
Her police work has become personal.
“Because in those situations, it’s like instant calm when I come on the scene,” Hawkins says. “Because one thing they know for sure is I’m not going to humiliate her or I’m not going to get the gender or the pronoun wrong or her name [wrong]. I’m going to use the preferred name.”
Transitioning later in life
Hawkins, 43, has hazel eyes and dyed-blond hair. But she’s square-jawed with large, muscular arms.
“I’m almost 6 feet tall, broad shouldered, and it’s hard. There’s some things there’s no surgery in the world that’s going to correct,” she says.
Hawkins describes her coming out as a sort of midlife crisis. She turned 40 and thought, “What am I still waiting for?”
That sentiment is not uncommon. As awareness of transgender issues increases, those who have kept their identity secret for decades are finally coming out. You see it in the news of celebrities coming out, like the former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, who came out at age 66, and in the Emmy-winning TV show Transparent, about a retired professor and father of three who came out in her 70s.
It’s difficult to transition, period. But the later in life you are, the tougher it is. For one thing, as men age, their faces and bodies continue to become more masculine.
Hawkins is taking hormones and developing breasts. And she’s trying to fit in and be accepted as a woman. She anticipated fallout at work, but she wasn’t expecting her transition to change her personal life.
“The folks that knew me for 10-plus years, they actually had a problem with it,” Hawkins says. “And it took a lot of time for them to adjust as well, because, you know, that was their friend and their friend is gone.”
There are about 1.4 million transgender adults — approximately 0.6 percent of the population — living the United States, according to research based on federal and state data out of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
It’s unclear how many transgender police officers there are in America, but Hawkins knows they’re out there. She’s a part of a private online group for transgender cops. Members often ask her for advice about whether they should transition. She tells them to think carefully.
“It cost me more than what I’m willing to spend — and I’m not just talking about money,” Hawkins says. “I’m talking about losing my wife, some of the family I’ve lost.”
Hawkins came out to her family a few months before coming out at work. She and her ex-wife were high school sweethearts, married for 23 years.
“A lot of people find it hard to believe, but I didn’t think my wife would leave me,” Hawkins says. “I thought it was something we could survive.”
When her marriage was ending, Hawkins saw it as an opportunity to see what else was out there and a time to explore her new identity. But that didn’t last long.
Now, nearly two years later, Hawkins lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building. The walls are painted purple, her favorite color. She’s lonely, and she’s still got a lot on her mind.
“Right now it’s a big question of, starting to get into the personal stuff of, like, I’m single, divorced,” Hawkins says. “I do miss the life I had as a man. I miss that. I miss the outer parts of it. I miss having a wife, and I miss the way I was able to interact with my family.”
“No more shame”
Recently, Hawkins got to a point where she tried to go back to being a man, to get her old life back. Her ex-wife had found someone else but gave Hawkins one last chance to save the marriage.
“She goes, ‘If we get back together, there will be no Jessica. You’ll cut your hair, you’ll change your name, you’ll change your gender back, no more hormones, not even dressing up on the weekends. Nothing,’ ” she says. “So I tried, and then six weeks later, I realized, no, that’s not going to work.”
So now, Hawkins is somewhere in the middle. She stalled her transition. Hawkins no longer wears makeup or jewelry regularly. It just makes daily life easier.
“Basically, I’m just in the zone where I’m just more androgynous these days,” Hawkins says. “And this way if someone does refer to me as a ‘sir’ or ‘mister,’ it doesn’t hurt my feelings. When I go on the street, all they see is a cop with long hair.”
It’s a way to protect herself. Hawkins isn’t quite the woman she wants to be. But for her, it beats not being a woman at all.
“One thing I won’t take back is that … now I have the freedom to be who I am,” Hawkins says. “Whether I maintain as a male or a female or somewhere in between, at least there’s no more shame, there’s no more secrets. My family, my employer and my friends, they all know my story, they know who I am, they know what I’m about.”