For Karen Diane Thomas, a construction worker, transitioning to the opposite gender hasn’t been an easy road.
Twice in her journey, Thomas reverted back to presenting as a male, due in large part to workplace harassment. At one point, she underwent breast-reduction surgery so that she could assume her former identity, as Ken.
“I was isolated and hassled at work,” she said. “I got death threats. I had guys saying they want to kill me, fight me in the parking lot, different goofy stuff.”
She said graffiti was scribbled on walls at job sites, stating: “Ken sucks dick,” “Ken’s a homo” and “Ken takes it up the ass.”
No one acted on those threats, she said, but it was enough to push her back into the closet.
Today, Thomas finds it impossible to continue the charade, and she’s reaffirmed her commitment to transitioning. She recently underwent an oriectomy, which involved the surgical removal of her testicles.
Within the next two years, she expects to undergo complete gender-reassignment surgery.
Since 1994, Thomas has been a member of Local 98, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, based in Philadelphia.
Thomas’ job duties involve installing electrical outlets at an oil refinery in Southwest Philadelphia. Things have been quiet lately, and she’s been able to do her job without harassment, she said.
But all that could change as she prepares for her surgery and lives more openly as a woman, she said.
Currently, she ties her hair back in a ponytail and wears traditionally male clothing when traveling to and from work. But eventually she intends to let her hair down and wear clothing and makeup that will make her situation clear to coworkers.
“I think a lot know it now, but more will know it later,” she said.
Her union has about 4,000 members, most of whom seem to be close-minded on the subject of transgenderism, she said. Thomas doesn’t know of any other transgender union member.
Patrick B. Gillespie serves as business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, which oversees 52 unions in the area, including Local 98.
Last week, Gillespie pledged to ensure a safe, comfortable work environment for Thomas, regardless of the gender she presents to coworkers.
“No one has the right to harass someone else, for any reason,” Gillespie told PGN. “We would not want a person like Karen to feel abused. We wouldn’t stand for any of that. She has the specific right to privacy, to live her own life, unmolested by anybody else at the workplace.”
Gillespie even said he would visit Thomas’ worksite if he received reports of pervasive workplace harassment that was interfering with her ability to be a productive worker.
“On a number of occasions, where we’ve had some racial intimidation on the job, we’ve assembled people on that job and talked to them,” Gillespie said. “I want people to understand that our collective bargaining is based on fairness and equal treatment for everyone.”
Thomas, 48, is married and has four sons and one grandson. Two of her sons also are members of Local 98.
She said she’s encouraged by Gillespie’s support, but she also consulted a local transgender attorney, Kristine W. Holt, in the event that she needs to take legal action to enforce her rights.
“Anybody who crosses the line toward me or my children I will take to court, and take everything they have,” Thomas vowed.
After completing her gender-reassignment surgery, Thomas expects to remain married. She identifies as a lesbian and said her wife is trying hard to understand, because she loves her.
Thomas finds some conflicts between her family life and her life in the LGBT community, but she’s optimistic about bridging the gap.
“The work life is more challenging,” Thomas noted. “I think my wife and kids can pretty much handle anything. [But] most of the guys I deal with are really close-minded.”
She also expressed gratitude for the moral support provided by her lawyer. “I’m extremely grateful for the support and very capable advice of Kristine Holt.”
Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.