Every work day for the past six years, Sarah Stowe has woken up early, pulled on her uniform, and reported for work at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Following her promotion to Sergeant in 2014, Sarah is charged with the supervision of both staff and inmates. She fulfilled her job responsibilities following her promotion, and about a year later, when she came out to her colleagues as a transgender woman and transitioned from male to female, she continued to perform her duties each day.
Everything was fine at first – her coworkers emailed her supportive messages, and her supervisors seemed to understand. Then, months after her transition to being a woman, Sarah began using the women’s locker room. Several officers filed grievances with the labor union and reports with the unit, claiming that Sarah was creating a “hostile work environment” by using the women’s locker room.
After Sarah took action to correct the discrimination she faced among her coworkers, her unit took a diversity class, during which an officer said to the instructor, who is also transgender, disparaging comments about transgender women. No one said anything to correct the statement, despite virtually no reports in the United States of any transgender person physically assaulting someone in any restroom.
“It’s just crazy that here I am, a law enforcement officer who can be denied entry to any public space because of who I am.” – Sarah Stowe
“These experiences made me feel really lonely, and pretty unsafe,” Sarah said. “They made me feel like my coworkers didn’t have my back.”
In Massachusetts, transgender people have been protected from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and credit since 2011 – and Sarah has taken steps to address the discrimination she faced at work. But despite this, transgender people have no state-level protections in public spaces in Massachusetts, including on public transportation, in parks, at restaurants, businesses and hotels, and in government buildings.
“It’s just crazy that here I am, a law enforcement officer who can be denied entry to any public space because of who I am,” Sarah said.
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Sarah is a lifelong Bay Stater, born and raised in Borne, Massachusetts. She has known that she is transgender essentially her entire life.
“I felt for the first time I may be trans at around five years old,” she said. “But back then, I didn’t have a word for it. And it was safer to keep it a secret.” After high school, Sarah enlisted in the United States Army as an airborne paratrooper, where she served for over ten years. “I didn’t really want to think about my gender, which is part of why I joined,” she said. “I wanted to get away from it.”
When she did come out, first to her siblings and friends, she was pleased to be greeted with strong support. “My family and friends, nothing changed for them” she said. “I am really one of the lucky ones – I didn’t lose any friends or family when I came out.”
When she prepared to come out at work in 2015, she made all of the right decisions, notifying her supervisors and asking for a formal process for transitioning in place. “I wanted to make it all a smooth transition.”
While not everything was smooth about the transition at work, it was comforting for Sarah to know that should the process not run particularly, smoothly, state law would protect her. “It was empowering to know that I had those protections on my side.”
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But Sarah and other transgender Bay Staters don’t have the law on their side when it comes to discrimination in public spaces.
Toward the beginning of her transition, Sarah had a negative experience in a bar, when a bartender was inexplicably rude to Sarah, refusing to serve her and ultimately telling her to leave. She strongly suspects it was because she was transitioning.
“This bill would give everyone fair and equal rights right now. If this passes, it just makes transgender people equal – no different from anyone else.” – Sarah Stowe
“To be kicked out for who you are, it sucks. I didn’t go back to that place.”
That’s just part of why Sarah is so hopeful that this year the Massachusetts Legislature takes action and passes a bill to extend full non-discrimination protections to transgender people, securing comprehensive protections at last.
“It would have a huge impact on me,” she said. “I would feel more confident going out – and if I had issues, I would be able to stand up for myself. I would be able to say, No, this is against the law.”
Sarah knows that the country is evolving and coming to a national understanding of who transgender people are. But people are hurting now and facing discrimination – and one bill would make a world of difference right now.
“Eventually, people will have fewer and fewer issues when transgender people are more widely accepted,” she said. “But this bill would give everyone fair and equal rights right now. If this passes, it just makes transgender people equal – no different from anyone else.”