Tricia Russell is elated.
After years of advocacy – including leadership on the steering team for the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality and the board of Equality Florida – Tricia watched on Valentine’s Day as twelve members of the Republican-majority City Council in Jacksonville, Florida voted YES on a comprehensive LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. She smiled as Mayor Lenny Curry, also a Republican, announced that he would allow the ordinance to take effect. And despite knowing that there remains significant work ahead, Tricia is celebrating a major step forward for the LGBT community in Jacksonville, one of the largest cities in the country. At last, LGBT people have explicit protections at the local level from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tricia is a transgender woman, and she has been working toward these protections for many years. Just a few years ago, in 2012, she watched as a similar ordinance was voted down by the Jacksonville City Council by a vote of 17-2, despite high hopes it would pass. She also watched again early last year as a similar proposal was withdrawn before reaching a final vote by the Jacksonville City Council. Clearly, the work of advocates – and the growing understanding of what it means to be LGBT and especially what it means to be transgender – has made an impact.
Tricia is proud to have contributed to that positive change in her hometown. Having herself faced discrimination in public spaces – sometimes subtle, like a totally empty restaurant telling her they don’t have space for her to eat after hearing her voice, sometimes more direct – she knows how much it hurts.
“It used to hurt me,” she said. “My face would get hot as a frying pan, and I just wanted to be gone.”
It wasn’t until she took on the activist work and dove head-first into speaking out about transgender equality that she felt like she had some control. “I started showing up at council meetings and speaking in support of the HRO. And even though you listen to vile hatred from many people, you know that you are doing the right thing and educating people on your life and your story.”
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Tricia transitioned from male to female about five years ago, but she has long understood herself to be female. From a very young age, she knew she was a girl – and after a significant amount of time doing so, her parents began to understand that she wasn’t simply engaging in a short-term roleplay. This was who she was.
Back then, in the 1960s, her devoutly Catholic parents were not accepting. “They taught me that there was something wrong with me – and that controlled a lot of the way I lived my life for the next 40 years,” she said. “I did everything in my power to change who I was, and eventually when I saw that I couldn’t change, I tried to hide who I was. I considered it a matter of life and death that no one else ever know my secret. But It was destroying me, killing me, to continue to bury and deny such a central aspect of who I am.”
In her early 50s, she finally came to a breaking point – the point where she knew she had to live authentically, no matter the cost.
“But eventually I got to the point where all of my fears of job loss, losing my family, losing my church – they couldn’t compare to the fear of where I was headed if I didn’t come out.”– Tricia Russell
“The worst prisons are sometimes the prisons we create for ourselves,” she said. “But eventually I got to the point where all of my fears of job loss, losing my family, losing my church – they couldn’t compare to the fear of where I was headed if I didn’t come out. I saw that no matter how we choose to present ourselves to the world – and no matter how successful we are at it – there will be people that love us, people that dislike us, and everything in between. So why not leave fear and deception behind, which were killing me anyway, and just be myself?”
Tricia works at Bank of America, which she understood was a progressive company with visible senior-level leadership for gay and lesbian people. The company has a corporate-level policy prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination and has taken a stand for specifically transgender equality in the past few years. But even with a supportive company like hers, she knew she didn’t have city-level non-discrimination protections, and she feared what would happen if she told her employer that she is transgender.
One day at last, she approached her HR representative.
“I’m transgender and I really need to transition, but I don’t know if it’s okay for me to do that here” she said.
To her surprise, her HR representative‘s first question was, “Can I ask, what name would you prefer that I address you with?”
“Tricia,” she responded.
The representative paused, then said: “Tricia, I want you to know that you may face many challenges as you transition. But job security is not one of them. We are not only OK with you transitioning – but we encourage you to bring all of yourself to work. We’ll be better for it. You’ll be better for it.”
And that was that. She worked with management to ensure a smooth transition, helping the small team that reported to her to understand. And then, when everything was taken care of, “I left one Fridayafternoon as Patrick and I reported on Monday as Tricia,” she said. “It was a non-event.”
Job security, Tricia knows, is vital for all Americans – and transgender people are no exception. “You can suffer through a lot of ugly discrimination and face those challenges,” she explained, adding that no one should have to experience injustice. “But if you have a stable job
, you can at least feed yourself, pay your bills, and you can maybe make it.”
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For Tricia, transitioning was a life-saving decision, one that fundamentally transformed her life.
“In every way that I can think of, I am a better person for transitioning,” she said. “I’m happier, more self-confident, more effective, more authentic, more connected to the people around me. I am comfortable in my own skin today.”
Coming to that authenticity has taken time – but it has been time well spent. “One of the things my mom said when I was just a kid was, ‘God made you a boy, and God does not make mistakes. You need to act like a boy and dress like a boy, and spend your time like other boys, and to do otherwise is really an insult to God.’ And it took me 40 years to see that my mom was absolutely right – but not in the way she thought she was. God doesn’t make mistakes. God made me who I am. There was no crisis in my life that turned me into a transgender person. God made me this way. And I’m just part of the diverse rainbow of humanity God created. I am proud of who I am. I see diversity as simply another word for beauty.”
“After I transitioned I realized that I didn’t just forfeit a lot of living along the way – I also missed so many opportunities to help others, to be a resource for others like me as well as others NOT like me who could benefit from a deeper understanding of transgender people.”– Tricia Russell
She is now looking ahead to the future – and she knows the fight for equality is not over, even though Jacksonville has secured these protections. Many people even in her own community still are terribly misinformed about what it means to be transgender, and Tricia sees opportunities to help people along. On a very practical level, the state of Florida has no state-level protections from anti-LGBT discrimination – and the federal government lacks a comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination law. Tricia wants to be a part of making these important changes, too.
“After I transitioned I realized that I didn’t just forfeit a lot of living along the way – I also missed so many opportunities to help others, to be a resource for others like me as well as others NOT like me who could benefit from a deeper understanding of transgender people. Now, I want to work on that. Now, I’m making up for lost time.”