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TransSarasota: Changing Attitudes One Person at a Time

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Elaine Litherland/Herald-Tribune Media Group

Two years ago, a City of Sarasota utilities worker prepared to tell her employers that she is a transgender woman who wanted to transition in the workplace. That meant changing her appearance and being acknowledged as female after almost a decade of being addressed as a man at work.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is telling her story and others through Trans Sarasota, an online multimedia project about Floridians who are transgender or supporting someone who is transgender.  Reporter Katy Bergen tells us about the woman formerly known as “Don.”

In December 2012,  Donna Coan sent an email from an anonymous account just before 9 p.m. It was short and to-the-point.  The recipients — the mayor of Sarasota, its city commissioners, city manager, director of Human Resources and attorney — were chosen deliberately.

Coan had created a new email account with a false name because she wasn’t sure if she could lose her job for what she wanted to do. At the end of her message, she signed: Thank You, A Loyal Employee.  Then, she clicked send.

Coan says she was nervous and afraid, because she’d seen friends in other cities fired for being transgender, or be denied permission to change their identities at work.

“I had heard of other people that had came out. And when they came out, for one reason or another they were fired," she said. "I mean, I had a friend who came out and within two days they were fired. I don’t know the particulars, but, you know, it happens. Because people just don’t want to accept it. People don’t want to understand.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7yzass8PpI

Twenty-fourteen was a year of high visibility for transgender people, who identify with a gender that is different than the sex they are born with. Activists like Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox worked to shed light on the violence, discrimination, and harassment transgender people disproportionately experience.

Such issues came to light not only in pop culture but also politics.  In 2014, President Obama signed an executive order protecting transgender federal employees from discrimination. There are now also laws in 18 states that explicitly protect trans people in the workplace. In Florida alone many cities and counties updated their city codes to include similar protections.

In Southwest Florida, a small network of people embarked on their own efforts to make their community more inclusive for trans  people and their allies.  Like Zii Miller, a recent high school graduate who documented his own experiences as a transgender boy on a YouTube channel to help other kids with gender identity issues.

"I’m really comfortable answering any questions. I want to educate people. I don’t want to hide it," Miller said. "I don’t want to make it seem like people think that being transgender is something people don’t talk about. Because I think that it is important and people should know."

Or Marilyn and Sonny, a Bradenton couple who were scared when their child told them she is transgender as she was graduating college. Now, the pair visit support groups to help inform other parents.

"I wanna tell you who we are and what we are about. And acceptance. That's all we want is acceptance for who we are." - Donna Coan

"It was quite a shock to me," said Sonny. "Of course, you don’t expect just out of the blue for your child to announce that they’re transgender. So the first thing I tried to do was wrap my head around and got on Amazon that night and ordered about 20 books and we consumed those in about three days, you know non-stop just trying to understand the whole thing."

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Credit Elaine Litherland/Herald-Tribune Media Group
Donna Coan

City staff helped Coan make changes to her identity documents at work and inform staff that she was going to start living as a female. This fall, commissioners added transgender people to a list of those protected by Sarasota’s anti-discrimination policy. Sarasota’s anti-discrimination policy protects from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations within the city. It’s a consideration that came after civil rights groups pushed local governments to support employees who federal and state law does not explicitly protect from workplace discrimination.

Coan hopes more visibility for transgender people will change some people’s attitudes. Embracing her identity has brought a new confidence, in addition to pushing her toward more activism.

“I’ve become more of an activist for the trans people because its helped me speak out not only for myself, but for others," she said. "Which has opened my world up to a whole lot of others things. Now, it’s like I wanna be here. I wanna tell you who we are and what we are about. And acceptance. That’s all we want is acceptance for who we are.”

To read more stories from Trans Sarasota, visit transsarasota.heraldtribune.com.