Metro Weekly

Behind Her Badge: Sgt. Jessica Hawkins on risking her family and career to become her true self

Sgt. Jessica Hawkins risked her marriage, friends and career to come out as transgender. Now she's reaping the rewards

Jessica Hawkins -- Photo: Julian Vankim

Jessica Hawkins — Photo: Julian Vankim

When Jessica Hawkins was a child, she would often try on her mother’s clothing. She would almost always get caught.

To try and deal with her behaviour, Hawkins’ family pushed her into various activities, enrolling her in Boy Scouts, Sunday school, Bible camp, and even military school. Hawkins now laughs at their futile attempts to change her.

“Here they are, trying to make a young man out of me,” she says, “and the whole time, I’m like, ‘I want to be a girl.'”

Shuffled between various relatives across three states, Hawkins sought to find her place in the world, dealing with the turbulence of family life while struggling with her own identity. After finishing high school and a brief stint working for a family-owned court reporting business, Hawkins became a volunteer police officer in Front Royal, Va. Eventually, she took a paid position in the Shenandoah Valley.

During that time, she also married and settled down with her high school sweetheart, never thinking that she would one day transition. In 2000, she joined the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, where she was eventually being promoted to sergeant. But after 14 years on the force and 23 in married life, Hawkins experienced a “midlife crisis,” one that prompted her to reexamine her gender identity. So, she began the process of reintroducing herself to the world as a transgender woman. It was then she learned that secret hadn’t been quite so well hidden.

“I came out to my family, and that’s when I realized, ‘You guys knew all this time?'” Says Hawkins. “And they were like, ‘Oh, we forgot.’ How do you forget that your grandson or nephew was really your granddaughter, or your niece, or your daughter?”

The bigger challenge was coming out professionally. Hawkins was known as a “tough guy, a guy’s guy” at work and feared repercussions from both supervisors and colleagues. Those fears were unfounded, thankfully — something she learned during her first official roll call as a woman.

“I had this crappy little old wig on. It looked awful,” Hawkins says. “I had my makeup done, my eyebrows done, manicure and a women’s tie. And I remember my officers saying, ‘You know what, Sarge? That’s cool.’ Everybody stood and clapped for me.”

Now serving as the head of MPD’s LGBT Liaison Unit, Sgt. Hawkins seeks to engage the District’s LGBT community and train officers to respond appropriately to crimes involving LGBT people. She is also the “face” of the MPD to the LGBT community, through outreach efforts initiated by the liaison unit. It’s a job Hawkins adores, though she does regret that her mother, who died when she was 16, never got to see her achieve success in her career.

“My mother never got to meet Jessica,” she says. “She never got to see everything I became. But I know in my heart, she’d be happy for me, as long as I was happy. I can hear her say, ‘If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it right.’ That was her motto. So if you’re going to be a transgender woman, be the best transgender woman you can be.”

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood and early life.

JESSICA HAWKINS: I was born in Miami in 1973 and lived there for the first 12 years of my life. This is where things get crazy for little Jessica. Ever since I was 5 or 6 years old, I always felt female. Always wearing my mom’s clothes, always getting caught. In the late 1970s, early 1980s there was no information, there was no Internet. My mom was a single mom — my dad lived in Georgia — so she was doing the best she could. I was put in Boy Scouts, church, Sunday school. And summers, while I visited my grandmother, I was sent to more church and Bible camp. When I was 12, I went to live with my grandmother in Arlington, Virginia.

MW: Did you ever express that you wanted to be a girl to your mother or your grandmother?

HAWKINS: They’d put me in Boy Scouts, and I’m like, “I don’t want to be in Boy Scouts, I want to be in the Girl Scouts.” But no, there was so much shame around being trans, or any part of the LGBT community back then, especially as a child.

But my grandmother knew. Evidently, hindsight is twenty-twenty. After talking to everybody when I came out, the whole family knew. They’d never let me know, and they’d never have let me explore, so it was always me sneaking and dressing when I could. My grades suffered because of it, because I used to daydream in school. I’d think, “I want to be her.” I used to think, “I want to wear the jumper, the cute little dress.” And I’d always have to wear the little boys’ clothes, the slacks and the light blue shirt.

Jessica Hawkins -- Photo: Julian Vankim

Jessica Hawkins — Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: What happened in high school?

HAWKINS: Between the ages of 12 and 16, it would get so convoluted. I was bounced from Arlington, back to Miami, then Georgia for a little while, then back to Miami, then Georgia for 2 years, and then back to Virginia, this time in Front Royal. I had three different high schools. I finally finished my high school in Warren County, in Front Royal, Virginia.

I failed a year in high school. My mother died when I was 16, and I was struggling with going through all this: my mom’s death, my transition, moving. I’m not making excuses, but it was amazing I finished with a high school diploma. In my final year, I just had to take two classes so I could graduate. You have work release, where you go to school for a half-day, and then you work. So I started working for my grandmother. She owned a court reporting business. I was a freelance court reporter, she started teaching me a trade. Here I am, 18, 19 years old, with my notary, and I’m going out to court, setting up all the recording equipment and the steno mask and everything. I did that for quite some time. I hated it. It was so boring.

MW: How did you get to MPD from court reporting?

HAWKINS: When I was 20, the Front Royal Police Department and Warren County Sheriff’s Office did their first-ever reserve police officers’ class. Unlike D.C.’s reserve police officers, they sent me through the entire academy. About 20 other officers and I were picked as either town officers or as deputies. We all graduated on Oct. 22, 1994 and started patrolling. You did a whole certification ride, field training, and a few months after that, you were turned loose. They give you the keys to a police car, you take your uniform, your gun, you have your arrest powers, you’ve got your badge, your radio — the whole nine yards. You’re a badge-carrying police officer, you just don’t get paid.

I did that for two years, then in 1996, I went to the town of Strasburg full time. It was a paid, full-time position. I did that for almost four years. In 2000, I began my career with MPD. I worked my way up — I was assigned to the 6th District in Anacostia until 2014. While I was at 6th District, I was a field training officer, or Master Patrol Officer. I trained many, many officers. I worked midnights. And once I made sergeant, I was promoted — I was sent to the 7th District, the other half of Anacostia. I’ve worked everywhere in the city, so I’m happy, regardless of where I’m at.

MW: You were married at the time. How did you meet your wife?

HAWKINS: We were highschool sweethearts. Married July 17, 1994.

MW: Any children?

HAWKINS: A son and daughter. My daughter, Josie, is with my wife. And my son, Timmy — remember I told you that between the ages of 12 and 16, I was bounced around? Well, when I was in Georgia, I fell in love with a girl, and Timmy was the result of that relationship. I was very young. He’s 26 now. Josie’s 21, she still lives in the area. We get along great, my kids and I. My ex-wife gets mad at me a lot, but, you know, that’s the way it goes.

MW: How did you tell your family that you were transgender?

HAWKINS: I explained to them that I was in therapy. I kept saying that, trying to get them to ask me why. They said, “Oh, that’s good, I’m glad that you’re getting counseling.” And I would think, “Damn it, I want you to ask me why. I’m looking for a way here to come out.” And everyone lived all over the country, so I couldn’t really sit down and explain this to them. Finally, I just blurted out, “I’m transitioning.” And they said, “What?” “I’m transitioning from male to female.” And they’re like, “Do what?” And it turned into a big explanation.

MW: Were there any negative reactions?

HAWKINS: My grandmother said, “Oh, my God, you’re screwing up your life. The Devil has a hold of you.” My uncle found out from my grandmother. He would not talk to me for a year-and-a-half. I did try to talk to him and explain why, and he just kept referring to me as his nephew, and that he changed my diapers as a kid, and that’s just not possible. Last year, we started talking and I started visiting. I actually visit him and stay with him, hang out.

MW: And your kids, were they accepting?

HAWKINS: They had a hard time with it at the beginning. Well, my son, he was okay, because I was never really part of his life. He lived with his mom in Georgia. But his exact words were: “I don’t understand why you’d want to cut your pecker off.” He was born and raised in rural Georgia, so coming from him, that’s pretty good. He said, “You’re still my dad.” And I’m like, “Perfect. You don’t have to understand. Maybe with time you will. But you’re still my kid.”

My wife knew I was transgender from when we were dating. I told her I liked wearing women’s clothing, and I liked guys, and I was bisexual. She knew all that. I explained that to her. But neither one of us ever thought I would actually transition. We always thought it would be a fetish, a cross-dressing thing, not actually a transsexual. She knew about my dressing, and about some infidelity that I’m not too proud of. It’s one of those things that we just try to get through.

My daughter knew when she was 7 years old. But I didn’t know she knew until she was 13 or 14. She kept it a secret for years.

Jessica Hawkins -- Photo: Julian Vankim

Jessica Hawkins — Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: How did she figure it out?

HAWKINS: So this is crazy. My daughter claims she can see ghosts, or paranormal activity. We lived in a townhouse in Woodbridge at the time. She was five years old. But my neighbor, who went to American University, he was part of the paranormal science program. They both would describe, at different times, the same exact family passing through the walls. And I was like, “Oh my God. That is as freaky as crap. Holy crap.”

My daughter explained to my wife that she knew I did a pedicure with red nails. I fell asleep on the couch or something, and the little ghost girl took her down to the couch, and told her to pull the covers back and showed her. And then the little ghost girl took her to the basement and showed her my stash of women’s clothing and wigs and heels and shoes. So, yeah, the little ghost girl sold me out. My daughter knew, all this time, and she’d never told me.

One day, when she’s 13 or 14, she tells my ex-wife: “I know about Dad.” And my wife goes, “What do you know?” “I know he likes to wear women’s clothing.” And she said, “Well, you’re going to have to talk to him about that.” My ex-wife came home and said, “Josie knows.” I said, “Really?” “She knows. She knows everything.” And I’m like, “Everything?” And she said, “Well, not everything. But she knows that you dress.” And I was like, oh shit. When Josie came home, I said, “Okay, let’s talk about it.”

At first, I would still not let my kids see me, and she’d get so mad at me because I’d hide in my room or my office if I was dressing. And if she came home early or came home from school, I’d come out a little bit later. She’d say to me, “I don’t get why you feel like you have to hide from me. I already know.” And I said, “So you’re cool with this?” And she said, “Sure, just don’t show my friends.” So for a couple of years, we lived with me dressing while I was in the house. And my wife or daughter would give me a courtesy call before they came home, especially if they had friends coming over.

When I turned 40, I had a midlife crisis. I came out to my doctor, because I was having sex with men and I was not faithful. I was having some [sex] addiction problems. My wife and I, we tried to work through it. It’s a whole other issue — I’m in therapy for it still, getting through that. I’ve never forgiven myself for all the infidelity, and I think it’s horrible what I did.

MW: Was there anyone else you were worried about coming out to?

HAWKINS: There was one guy I was scared to death to come out to, because we were such good friends. This guy — when you think of the spectrum of gender identity and masculinity — is at the end of that spectrum of masculinity. Hunter, fisherman, family man, great cop — everything. Helped me become sergeant, helped me study. I was scared I was going to lose his friendship. So I wrote him this long, two-page email, explaining everything. And I sent it.

I was feeling brave, thinking, “I’m going home. He’s on my way home. I’m just going to stop by his house.” I called him, no answer. I texted, “Are you up?” The next morning, he sends me a text, “Yeah, I’m up.” “Did you read your email?” “Nope.” And I said, “Read your email.” Two minutes later, he said, “Can I call you?” We had a 45-minute conversation. And we had dinner that night. And he said, “I don’t know why you thought you’d lose my friendship.” He was a little hurt. He asked, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” I said, “I didn’t know how you were going to react.” When’s the perfect time for a police officer to tell their partner, hey, I’m gay, by the way. Or I’m trans. When does that happen? So anyway, I told him, and the rest just fell like dominoes.

MW: How did you come out to the rest of the department?

HAWKINS: Well, the funny thing is, here I am, a new sergeant. When you get promoted, you go from one district to another. So I emailed my commander in 7D, and said, “Hey commander, I’m getting ready to do something.” At this point, I had already told all of my friends and contacts to send me their personal email address. And I had started telling them. Some of them asked me, “Is this real?”

All the research I’d done about coming out, especially about being transgender, is that once you come out, if you don’t stay out, people tend to forget, or say, “Is he serious about that?” And so Brett Parson asked me, “Well, what do we call you?” I had already known what my name would be. I said, “It’s going to be Jessica.” And Brett says, “Well, are there any plans to come out? Because now that you’ve told everyone, it’s going to spread.”

I went back to work on a Sunday, worked Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday — we call it Super Tuesday, because everyone in the department is working that day. There’s two different roll calls, and at the time, probably about 80 to 90 officers in 7D. I talked to my commander and told him what my intentions were. I told him, “Tuesday, I want to come out and start living full-time as Jessica.” And he said, “Anything you need, I’ve got you.”

I remember coming to roll call, and just explaining it very quickly to everybody. Both roll calls were amazing. The young officers were awesome. The veteran officers, it took them a minute. The older officers, they were cordial, but they’d keep their distance. But over the year I worked there, things changed. And by the time I left, I was on a first-name basis with everyone there, got along with everyone — veteran or younger officer, didn’t matter.

MW: Are there any parts of the city where you’ve felt unsafe, whether in your uniform or in plainclothes, because you are transgender?

HAWKINS: The Metro. When I was offered this position, I’d take the Metro to work. So I’d take the Yellow Line, transfer to the Red Line at Gallery Place. And what a nightmare that is. It’s okay coming to work in the mornings. But at the time, working evenings, if I was going home at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, it was a nightmare at Gallery Place.

I can’t lock somebody up for being disorderly to me. They can say whatever they want. If they did it to somebody on the train who was not on the force, I could actually arrest them for disorderly conduct or what’s known as “fighting words.” That doesn’t apply to me when I’m in uniform. But the ridicule I got. You’re talking about a group of teens or people in their early twenties, and one starts, and then they all just turn on you. And they knew just what point to push it to. I couldn’t take the ridicule anymore, so I stopped riding Metro.

MW: In recent months, there have been a couple of anti-LGBT incidents on the Metro. How does MPD work with Metro Transit to solve those cases?

HAWKINS: Unfortunately, because we don’t work for the same agency, it’s not a requirement to work together. I’m not sure what their training or procedure is. I would like to know about those events, because they still happen in D.C. I would encourage people in the LGBT community or people in general to report incidents. I go to community meetings, and I hear about incidents, and I always tell people, “You’ve got to report it.”

Even though Metro Transit has their own police department, I can still take a hate/bias incident report for them, and forward it to them to let them know. And a lot of times, if I have to do a warrant for someone for disorderly while on the train, I will. Because that’s my job, to make sure that kind of stuff doesn’t happen. If you’re doing something to someone based on any of our protected traits, I’m not going to tolerate it. I’ll try and make sure you get justice somehow.

Jessica Hawkins -- Photo: Julian Vankim

Jessica Hawkins — Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: As head of the LGBT Liaison Unit, what is the biggest complaint you receive from the public?

HAWKINS: Right now, the biggest complaint we get is that we’re not visible in the community. Fortunately, this unit is very much up and running. I just took over a year ago, so I’m not exactly sure what used to be done. But I go to as many meetings as possible. I go to as many events as possible. We do a lot of outreach — I think that’s one of the biggest complaints, and it’s something we’re working on.

MW: Is there a particular complaint you hear most from LGBT victims of crime?

HAWKINS: It’s usually fighting words. And in order to lock someone up for fighting words, it has to be on public domain, such as a bus or on the train. Basically, if you’re trapped, and someone’s calling you anything that could provoke you in an attack, that’s how fighting words are described. Some of the biggest complaints I get are hate incidents, where people get called names. They always try to remove themselves from situations where it could get physical. But usually it’s late at night, if they’re out clubbing or going out, they get verbal attacks.

MW: Let’s talk about the setup of MPD and the LGBT Liaison Unit. Each district has its own unit, correct?

HAWKINS: Each district has their affiliate officers. The building we’re in now is the main office for the LGBT Liaison Unit core members, myself and four other officers. In addition to that, I get two affiliate officers from a district each month, they get to work here for 30 days. They work alongside the core members, they go to events, they respond to crime. Anything involving the LGBT community, whether it’s a crime or not, even if it’s a social event, we’ll bring the affiliates along, just so they get more acclimated to the community.

MW: What’s been the reaction among affiliates?

HAWKINS: Lately, the ones who’ve come through here love it. Every one of them wants to work here full time. They absolutely love it. They love the people, the community. I like having them work here, because I can put my name behind them and say, “This is going to be a good affiliate for the LGBT community,” and I can feel comfortable putting them out there to represent the LGBT unit.

MW: Has the competency training become easier to do for all officers?

HAWKINS: Yes. We just finished our 2015 professional development training last year. Myself and a handful of other instructors, we would go to the police academy for a couple of weeks at a time, from Tuesday to Friday, and teach LGBT competency, as well as hate crimes and intimate partner violence. Every police officer that’s on duty now has been through that training. All the recruit classes get the same training: 2 hours from each unit, based on LGBT competency. I feel comfortable saying that if an MPD officer is out on the street, with a badge and a gun, they’ve been through this training.

MW: What’s been your toughest day on the force? And it doesn’t necessarily have to relate to being transgender.

HAWKINS: Unfortunately, the last couple of years, the negative experiences of being a transgender female police officer far outweighed what I thought was a bad day before I transitioned. So, unfortunately, it is due to my transition. And there are a lot of these days. There are a lot of people in the city I serve who don’t understand, who don’t want to understand. I get a lot of hate speech toward me, homophobic or transphobic slurs against me, I’m called names.

I used to be super confident before I transitioned. I could go anywhere and take control of a block, no problem. I tried the same thing my first go out as a transgender female, and that’s when reality slapped me in the face. A young group of people, upper teens, young twenties, at least ten or fifteen of them. They started calling me out for being trans, being a man, just trying to hurt me. Luckily, my partner, she shut them up. We finished our business and left. But that shook me. It really made me scared and nervous. From that point on, I started trying to build my confidence back up to where it was, but I still get a lot of transphobic comments on the street — like Anacostia, when I go over there.

I’ve been assaulted because I was trans. I’ve been threatened because I was trans. I get challenged a lot more as a transgender female. I get ridiculed. People take their cell phones and film me, laughing at me, calling me all kinds of names.

MW: Was there ever a day where you just wanted to hang it all up?

HAWKINS: Oh, absolutely. There were many of those days in my first couple of months, or probably in that first year after transitioning, especially after my wife decided she was not going to stay with me. The combination of people on the street, plus losing my wife — who I had been with since 1991, and I loved her. And I still do. When we weren’t sleeping in the same room anymore, when I was sleeping downstairs and she was sleeping upstairs, I really questioned what I did. I was like, “Oh, my God, everyone on the street hates me.” Some of the people I knew from 6D, they still, to this day, will not accept me as a friend or even as a person. I’m referred to as “it” a lot. Not by officers. But even today, I got a message referring to me as “it” from my ex-mother-in-law.

MW: What was your best day on the force?

HAWKINS: I’ll show you. If you look at my board back there, I was in the 5th District, on redeployment. I was at a kabob place on Benning Road. The vendor making my kabob, he wrote a note for me.

It says, “Thank you for serve and protect. We love you. It is even hard for me to be gay Saudi Arabia Muslim. Remember you are not just an officer. You are a woman of integrity and fierce. I am proud of you.”

It gave me so much happiness. It really makes me feel good. Cheering me on gives me more strength. To me, that’s telling me you’ve got my back. You’re from a country where they will kill you for being LGBT, and here he is, Muslim guy, still practices his faith. He took the time out while he was making my food.

I stepped away for a minute, and when I came back, he had given me that letter folded up. And I was like, that is awesome. That one gave me a huge smile.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Unit (LGBTLU) is located in Dupont Circle at 1369-A Connecticut Avenue, NW. The entrance is on the Massachusetts Avenue side of the SunTrust Bank Building. Call 202-506-0714 (202-347-8164 TTY) or visit mpdc.dc.gov/page/lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-liaison-unit-lgbtlu online.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com