Crossing the Highway

When county government has to deal with a very personal choice


Earlier this summer, Ada County Highway District employees got a real life lesson in accepting workplace diversity when managers announced that 37-year ACHD veteran John Edney would begin a "real life test" for gender dysphoria.

While affecting relatively few people, gender dysphoria is a state in which a person's genetic gender is in conflict with their psychological gender. Also known as "transsexuals," individuals who are born with gender dysphoria often feel from a very young age that they are living in the wrong body as the wrong gender. Though the condition and its causes are still being studied, one widely accepted hypothesis is that prenatal hormone secretions determining the formation of physical gender differ from those secretions that condition the fetal brain to be receptive to either estrogen or testosterone. Individuals born with gender dysphoria physically express one gender despite being mentally wired to express the opposite gender.

Transsexuals begin treatment for gender dysphoria by receiving hormone replacement therapy and psychological counseling. In order to become eligible for cosmetic surgery or "sex reassignment surgery," they are required to live full time in their new gender for at least six months as part of a "real life test" to ensure that life-altering decision is the right ones

In December 2004, Edney, whose legal name change to Emilie M. Jackson-Edney became official in early August, began hormonal replacement therapy to reassign her gender. Six months later, in early June, she notified her supervisors at ACHD of her intentions to begin living as Emilie, thereby beginning her real life test.

"Coming out at work has been so much easier than I imagined," says Edney, despite describing her position as ACHD Construction Division Supervisor fairly "testosterone-heavy."

However, facilitating a smooth transition for Edney as well as educating coworkers to avoid workplace discomfort presented ACHD with an interesting challenge. "We had an employee who made us aware that she was going through a fairly significant change," explains Craig Quintana, ACHD Public Information Officer. "We tried to be scrupulously fair about it while following the law and tried to facilitate the change as best we could to maintain the workplace environment for Emilie and her coworkers."

In order to accomplish this task, ACHD retained Jan Salisbury, an organizational consultant specializing in resolving diversity issues within the workplace. After speaking with Edney and contacting her therapist, Salisbury met with leaders at ACHD to discuss the most effective method of disclosing information to staff members, anticipating conflicts that could arise among employees and determining how to deal with such issues.

According to Salisbury, educating Edney's coworkers and giving them guidance on what was expected of them during her transition was key. "We wanted to make sure people got the proper information because there is so much misinformation," says Salisbury. "And we must protect the privacy and boundaries of Emilie."

While Edney took several days leave from work, managers were debriefed on Edney's transition with a talking points memo defining gender dysphoria and projecting what effect Edney's transition would have on the workplace and individual coworkers. The memo guided employees on practical matters, instructing them to immediately begin addressing Edney as Ms. Edney or Emilie, and informing them that single-stall restrooms would become unisex.

A district-wide meeting was held with supervisors from each division to inform all ACHD employees of Endey's transition. Supervisors used the talking points memos as well as a very personal letter written from the desk of John L. Edney (but signed from Emilie) to coworkers in which she writes, "I am finally comfortable and accepting of who I am," and assures them that she would "rather answer sincere, even very personal questions, than have misconceptions exist due to a lack of knowledge or stereotypes" about her condition.

When Edney arrived for her first day at work as Emilie, ACHD had already changed her nameplate, printed new business cards and changed her e-mail signature. Several female employees even sent her an e-mail congratulating her on being the first female supervisor in the construction division. "So far everyone has been positive," says Edney.

Both Quintana and Salisbury echo Edney's enthusiasm. "We're quite happy with the way it's gone over," says Quintana. "We couldn't have hoped for a better transition."

Salisbury says her understanding of the situation is that Edney's transition is going well. "I'm sure there are employees who don't agree, but the organization is very clear on how people need to work together and respect their diversity," she explains.

Understanding and respecting the new diversity has been difficult for some ACHD employees. One employee told BW about discomfort among staff members whose personal religious beliefs conflict with Edney's transition. Asking to remain unnamed, the employee described staff members as "shocked" over Edney's transition-especially as Edney is slated to retire in December of this year. Edney's response to criticism from those who feel she should have waited to transition until after her retirement reflects the type of commitment the real life test is designed to bring forth: If she can transition happily and successfully in an environment where she's existed for nearly four decades, then she can face myriad other challenges that will arise in the future.

"Some people in the workplace have had a hard time saying my name, so they just don't refer to me," says Edney about one of the only difficulties she's encountered at work. "One-on-one, people have been great. Most people have good hearts but they have to overcome their own phobia. Once they know who I am, then it's their problem, not mine."

In dealing with Edney's coworkers who may have personal issues with her transition, Quintana says that ACHD has adopted a zero tolerance policy toward any negative reaction from coworkers. "For some people it will be uncomfortable," admits Quintana. "We have had a handful of folks express objections. They talked to their supervisors and one even went to the director of ACHD."

However, Quintana maintains that while employees are encouraged to express their points of view, ACHD is demanding tolerance. Salisbury, who has prior experience in facilitating gender transition in the workplace, says respecting diversity is important, but so is giving people skills to do so. Through ACHD Human Resources and the Employee Assistance Program, Edney's coworkers have avenues to voice personal issues in private and learn how to dissociate their personal beliefs from their workplace attitude. "I think [ACHD] did a good thing here," praises Salisbury. "Hopefully this encourages other workplaces to do the same thing."

For Edney, coming to terms with who she is in a productive and positive way meant a full-time transition six months before her retirement. "People like me get stereotyped," Edney states. "I'm not a deviant. I'm an individual. God has a purpose for me, and I don't know what it is yet, but if it's to do this-to stop biases-then that's my purpose."