When Christine Garcia, who was named Christopher at birth, decided to come out as a woman, it was bittersweet. She felt happiness was finally in reach, but she was sure her career as a San Diego police officer was over.
Transgender women couldn’t be cops, she thought.
But her dedication to the profession gave her the strength to reveal herself to her peers. Their response shocked her: complete acceptance.
On Saturday, more than a year after her transition, Garcia was awarded for taking her story public and using it to empower the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning community — especially its youth.
“I want to show them that… you can be anything you want to be,” said Garcia, who is San Diego’s only transgender officer. “I’m living proof of that.”
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Garcia’s accolade was presented by the San Diego Ambassadors of The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people.
Josh Coyne, co-chair of the San Diego group, said Garcia has been a dedicated volunteer who is always willing to stop by an event or field late night phone calls.
“Her story really shows the power of acceptance and support,” he said.
Garcia always knew she was different. As a child she preferred feminine outfits. She continued dressing into adulthood, often spending her days off in women’s clothing, complete with a wig and makeup. It’s how she felt comfortable.
For years, publicly coming out as a woman seemed impossible, she said. So she tried to embody what she viewed as typical, heterosexual male behavior. She married a woman, had two kids and became a police officer.
“At the age of 31, it all caught up with me,” she said. “I couldn’t go on living that way anymore. It was either give everything up and quit my job and become who I knew I needed to become, or unhappiness.”
She sought therapy to help her stop dressing as a woman. The result was quite the opposite.
“I was really ashamed of who I was,” she said. “Therapy actually helped me embrace who I was, love who I was, not be ashamed of who I was.”
She told her wife, who was and is supportive, and her friends. Garcia eventually accepted the idea of leaving her job, despite the fact she loved it and was good at it.
“I didn’t know any other transgender police officers,” she said. “I thought you couldn’t be transgender and be a cop.”
While doing some research, she discovered the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs International, or TCOPS. It is a peer support, education, and advocacy organization for transgender or gender questioning law officers.
Julie Callahan, president of the group, said it’s estimated there are more than 3,000 retired and active-duty transgender officers worldwide.
“I got to see I’m not the only one out there,” Garcia said. “There are others, just like me, who’ve done it. Who’ve transitioned on duty. I decided I needed to try.”
She moved cautiously at first, telling only a close friend, who was also the department’s LGBT liaison, and a member of the community himself. Sgt. Daniel Meyer said he’d never been approached by an officer who identified as transgender, so he wasn’t sure what the path forward would look like.
“All I knew was, I wanted to make sure we were taking care of Christine and upholding our obligation to ensure she was in a safe work environment and that she was happy,” he said. “I had no plan, but we created one together.”
The two talked with police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and the city’s human resource department. Everyone was behind her, but that didn’t make the next step any easier — coming out to her peers.
“I thought, maybe I’ll lose respect from 50 percent of the department,” she said. “But I’m a good cop. I hoped if I could show them that I’m still a good cop, that only my appearance has changed, that I could change their perception.”
She chose to transition publicly. She didn’t want a desk job. She wanted to be in the field, in uniform, with the officers she loved to work with.
When that day came, she received nothing but acceptance, she said. She made herself available to officers who had questions, even personal ones, in the hopes that it would help them better understand what being transgender means.
Her transition hasn’t been devoid of struggle. She’s had ugly encounters with community members. Despite this, it’s been an amazing journey, she said.
“And the best part is I can come to work as a police officer, something I’ve always loved to do, and be who am. Truly be who I am,” she said.
Garcia, a San Diego native, is a traffic investigator, a job she calls one of the best assignments in the department. She spends much of her free time with her wife and young daughter and son.
Her wife has been loving and accepting, Garcia said. “When both people in a relationship are truly happy, it breeds more happiness. And we’re both happy.”
When she isn’t with her family, she is working to better her community, especially for her LGBTQ siblings.
Surveys show about 5 percent of the overall U.S. population has attempted suicide at some point. That climbs to between 10 percent and 20 percent for lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals. For members of the transgender and gender non-conforming community, it skyrockets to 41 percent.
“When we look at the stories of these young people who commit suicide, a lot of them don’t come from strong, supportive backgrounds,” Garcia said. “My story is different. I had so much support and I can’t stress enough how important that is.”
Callahan, president of TCOPS, agreed that Garcia’s story is atypical, especially for members of law enforcement. Transitioning on the job is easier than it was 15 years ago, but many transgender employees aren’t readily accepted by their peers.
“We think progress has been made and that it continues to be needed,” she said. “There is much work to do.”