Like everyone in our community, my first day back to work after I transitioned full-time is a day I will never forget. For me, the day was October 12th, 2010. Let me take you back four months earlier – to June 2010 – when I attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference (now called the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference). While attending this conference I saw five, six, seven-year-old kids enjoying themselves and having fun, only to find out they were transgender kids. I attended the workshops only to hear stories of lives just like mine. The more I heard, the more I was beginning to understand that I was transgender too. I left that conference fired up and like a runaway freight train back to Maryland and to work the next day. I wanted to talk with a friend at work to see what I needed to do to transition full time as a woman at work.
That Monday I went looking for my friend, who is also one of our agency’s attorneys, who just happened to be traveling and then afterwards on vacation. It was the longest two weeks of my life. When she returned to work, I was so happy to see her and tell her I had something to tell her. I shut her door to tell her I was transgender. She said that she was so honored that I trusted her enough to come to her and she would talk with the firm’s director of civil rights and inclusiveness (CRI) without giving my name. The next day my friend told me the reaction and response that was displayed to her, and so I said I would meet and talk with her. While talking with the director I was getting the same positive, welcoming response. She said she wanted to talk with our CEO to advise him the plan. The CEO gave his blessings and told her do whatever it takes to make it happen and that it goes smoothly for me.
Later I was advised that I was to keep my transition a secret between director and myself. At that point we set up meetings once a week to go over plans to tell the agency around the country on the same day and time without it leaking out to anyone. I said, “Not a problem. On Facebook I’m under a different name – going by Karen Kendra Harris”, and I knew no one from our agency would find me.
On October 1st, 2010 after work I went home and threw away all my male clothes except for one shirt, pants, and sneakers. On Monday, October 4th I went into the agency one last time as Tony to tell the head of my department about my transition. We had feared the news might leak out from her. After I told her she said she didn’t care, and she still loved me and that I was a good worker and that’s all that mattered to her. She gave me a big hug and off I went, returning home and to return to work on October 12th, 2010. I was also told during that time by the director of civil rights not to call anyone at work or look at work emails until I return. At a mandatory meeting with all our state offices and headquarters at the same time I told staff the story about my transition and I would be coming back as Karen. After being told the news about me a lot of the staff jumped on Facebook looking for me. Little did they know all they were going to find out were all the good things I had been doing in and around the community and country. I heard that because of this mandatory meeting, they all thought they were going to be fired. Little did they know it was about me. The only issue that really came up from that hour-long training was the bathroom. My agency had that all taken care of by making the small bathrooms on each floor into single use bathrooms with locks on the doors.
During that time off I spent the time getting myself together to return to work. I called up my friend to put a weave in my hair and go to the nail salon to get a pedicure and manicure, getting tips added and painted with a very nice burgundy color. Sunday, October 11th, 2010 – the night before going back to work – I pulled out the outfit I wanted to wear for my first day back. It was a nice pair of slacks and top with about one-and-a-half-inch heels. I didn’t want to go back to work throwing a dress right away into their faces. That night I slept like a baby without a care in the world, and I was in total peace for what I was about to do and knowing my life wouldn’t be the same starting the next day.
Monday, October 12th was “D-Day.” I woke up at 5:30 am and was anxious to be at work by 8 am, but the director of civil rights told me to relax and come in around 10 am. I received a phone call from one of my co-workers and she said she would meet me at the McDonald’s, a couple doors down from the building, so that we could go together. After we finish eating, another co-worker from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) stopped by McDonald’s too and he said he would walk back with us for support. As I entered the building, the guard greeted me at the front desk who welcomed me back to work. Up to the 8th floor I went to my cubicle and to my surprise there were flowers, cards, and a couple of gifts. There were emails on my new email account from co-workers who were welcoming me back to work. First stop after I got settled was to go to the security office to get my new ID badge. As the security employee was about to take my photo he said, “Are you ready to take your photo or would you rather use this photo”, which was one of my model pictures taken in the park. This photo was shown at the mandatory meeting and I said, “Oh yeah, this picture!”
As the safety officer for my agency I couldn’t just hide at my desk all day – I had to walk around to check on things and I said to myself, “I must do my job.” I felt like I was in a parade, walking around the agency that day for staff to see me. Along the way, some of the women who had offices would stop me to say, “You look awesome and if you need to hide and be yourself, feel free to use my office”. I told them thank you, but I would be okay. The rest of the day was a charm, even going to lunch with a few people. I have to say that I had a couple of co-workers who were friends and were mad at me because, they had no idea and I didn’t tell them. I told them that director told me not to tell anyone in fear that it would leak out, so they forgave me. A couple of comments were, “Why didn’t I make it easy for them by staying with the name Tony, but with an ‘i’?” I told them, “Make it easy for you? I’m the one who must answer now all the time and to start writing and answer emails as Karen”. I told them it is harder for me than you, and I told them this is who I’ve been deep down in my soul all my life. I then told them the story of when I told my mom that my name was going to be Karen. This is something my mother never told me before, that if she had a girl, she was going to name her Karen. At that moment I lost it and knew I was who I was meant to be. Now my friends and co-workers understood why I went with the name Karen. That day I was told it was okay to leave work early due to my big day back to work. As I left I started saying to myself, “Wow! What an awesome day. I did it!”
In the next article I will tell you about joining the Maryland Defense Force (MDDF), supporting the Maryland National Guards. MDDF is the defense force for the state of Maryland.
So remember, shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll be among the stars! See you all in the next article and be safe out there!
Karen Kendra Holmes works for the Federal Government as a Safety Officer. Besides her full- time job with the Federal Government she is a part-time radio host on WPFW 89.3 FM on the “Inside Out LGBTQ Show” on WPFW 89.3 FM. She also writes a column for Baltimore OUTloud under the column called “Trans Lives”. Karen received the Engendered Spirit Award from Capital Pride on June 7, 2018. She also was a TEDx Speaker with TEDx Asbury Park, NJ on May 19, 2018. In April 2017 she received the “2017 Monica Roberts Advocacy Award”. She was selected in January 2017 by LGBTQ Nation as one of the “Top 50 Successful Transgender Americans You Need to Know”. In May of 2015, she was honored in a special edition among 41 other women from around the world in The Platform Magazine, for up and inspiring females who have made a difference with their platform and inspired others with their positive values towards others. In April 2014 she received the “Willis Greene Community Service Award” and the “Unsung Hero Award-Team” by the Corporation for National & Community Service. In October 2013 she received “Soldier of the Year”, out of the country, by the State Guard Association of the United States out of 24 states and 23 thousand soldiers. In December 2012 she received “NCO Soldier of the Year” by the Maryland State Guard Association and The Maryland Defense Force. She was selected in August 2012 by The International Women’s Leadership Association, "A Woman of Outstanding Leadership in the Business Owner Division".
With the Maryland Defense Force under the Maryland National Guards she was a Staff Sergeant with Force Protection, the Chaplain’s Unit as a Chaplain’s Assistance, Honor Guard, and MWR. She has been doing volunteer work with the American Red Cross for the National Capital Region since 2009 on the Disaster Action Team. For several years, she has been volunteering with Community Emergency Response Team (CERTs) in Prince George's County, MD, and also with the Medical Reserve Corps. She sits on the board for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Prince George's County, MD. Karen also use to sit on the board for DC Metro PFLAG working with the Transgender Community. She is now the chapter president of the Transgender Veterans Support Group (TVSG) for Maryland. Before Karen’s transitioned, she previously volunteered with the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission Park Police Prince George's County Division for 7 years, 5 of them as their President, and received several awards for her service, such as two Commander’s Awards and two Volunteer of the Year Awards. In December 2005 she received the Governor’s Crime Prevention Award for her outstanding work and leadership with Park Police Volunteer Association. She has her own side business called SafetyFirst DMV and is certified as an instructor through the National Safety Council (NSC). Karen believes whole heartedly in the importance of and Giving Back to her Community.