Transgender Veteran Finds His Calling—And A Safe Workplace—In Social Work August 30, 2016

When Matt Aversa completed his Master of Social Work in 1999, he was elated to land a job at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire. From 1979 to 1982 Matt served in United States Air Force, first in the air force reserve and then in the air national guard. He was proud to be serving fellow veterans, once again.

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Soon though, Matt soured on his job at the VA. Not because he didn’t love the work—but because his supervisor at the time became hostile after learning he was transgender.

In 1994, after spending a decade questioning his gender identity, grappling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and living in and out of psychiatric hospitals, Matt made the choice to officially transition. Although he had lived his life up to that point as a woman, Matt finally understood—thanks to his therapist, who was well-versed in issues surrounding gender identity—that he identified as a man.

“I credit her with saving my life. She figured it out. I had seen three or four therapists over the years and not one had addressed that piece of it all,” Matt said.

His therapist had been browsing online, and found an organization in Waltham, Massachusetts that was working to provide resources for transgender people. At the time, many people—including Matt—knew almost nothing about being transgender. But when he visited Waltham, he was encouraged to find a wealth of resources.

“When I got over there it was like ‘wow, this fits.’ And all the depression and suicidality went away.”

As part of his transition he went to the DMV and changed his driver’s license, social security information and official name. Matt was finally living, working and going to school as gender he had always felt himself to be. It was after fully transitioning to living every day as the man he is that Matt was hired at the VA hospital.

But even though Matt had changed much of his official information, some remnants of his female identity lingered in government databases—something he only discovered several years later when his supervisor at the VA hospital confronted him about it one day.

“She went online and looked it up, and of course it being the government they [the VA] have access to more than you or I would. She found out that my name had been something else, and that I had been female.”

And things got worse. Matt’s supervisor had confronted him via email, and cc’d the hospital director, effectively outing him to the entire office. From that day on, he said, he always felt uncomfortable at work.

“She outed me to the whole hospital,” Matt explained. “And it’s not that anyone else had an issue, but it being a military culture, I didn’t know if anyone would be OK with that.” While he was in the military—serving as a woman—Matt had experienced first-hand the military’s lax attitude toward sexual harassment, and didn’t have high hopes that the VA would be any more sympathetic to any harassment he might face as a transgender man.

After the incident, Matt decided to leave the VA and pursue social work in other settings. His experience there was the first time he had experienced such hostility in the field because of his gender identity. His graduate program had been understanding and supportive. When he graduated from Boston College with his MSW, the school even offered to go back and change his undergraduate transcripts to reflect his male gender identity.

“When I went into social work I figured I would have less of a problem being accepted at my job, and that was important to me.”

Luckily, Matt found his niche—treating LGBT patients at the Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health and addiction treatment center in Vermont.

“They were very happy to have me. I was one of the few transgender people they had.” He said the administrators were glad to have someone who could provide more specialized care to their LGBT patients, and the patients were glad to have someone safe to confide in.

That feeling of safety, Matt says, is one that transgender people have a hard time finding, especially when the law does not protect them from discrimination.

Truth is, Matt’s experience of workplace harassment is something most, if not all, transgender people have gone through at least once in their life. And in many cases, workplace mistreatment goes much further. Matt remembers 20 years ago, knowing transgender people who were “unemployable” because no employer would accept their gender identity.

Now, he says, a lot has changed culturally—but the law has some catching up to do.

“I don’t think, had the laws been in place at the time, she would have been so open about cc’ing me and my director. Now that more and more trans people are out and visible, I think it makes a lot of sense to make sure those protections are in place.”

Matt is one of many transgender Granite Staters and their allies who are calling on the state to add “gender identity” to the list of classes protected from discrimination under the statewide non-discrimination law.