- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Being black in an almost all-white law-enforcement agency was one thing. Being a transgender person and going through an emotional and physical change while commanding staff, working with inmates and running an arm of the Larimer County jail has been a struggle on a completely different level.

When it comes to adversity, Lt. Rachel Esters’ story is hard to fathom - a decades-long plot of feminine thought hidden by a masculine facade. It’s a story of a uniform and badge acting as a front for the conformity demanded by a life in law enforcement.

For 50 years, Michael Esters lived as a man. For the past two years, Rachel Esters has been able to be herself.

“I always felt I was supposed to be a girl inside, so I just wrapped it up,” Esters said in November from her office at the Larimer County jail. “I knew that was wrong. I knew that was supposed to be wrong. You’re not supposed to feel this way, so as soon as I would have those feelings, I’d wrap them up throughout my life.”

Those feelings first started when Esters was a youngster, growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement was well under way - racial slurs were lobbed at Esters and her family on a daily basis. That was how it went being the only black people in a white Midwestern neighborhood.



Raised as a son in a military family, Esters was never a good student, but learned notions of courage and dedication at a young age. Esters’ dad envisioned his son would become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Or the President.

A stint in the Air Force, some time in the Army and a 22-year tenure with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office would have to suffice.

Whenever Esters would start to have confusing thoughts about gender identity, she would ball them up, tuck them away and go 180 degrees in the opposite direction. She enrolled the military, serving four years in the Air Force before getting married, having children and dabbling in law enforcement with the Broomfield Police Department. She ended up re-enlisting, this time in the Army, and serving a stint as a paratrooper.

“I wanted to do these kind of tough male things. I really took on this persona, this armor as I refer to it, of being a guy, and it kept people at a distance,” Esters said. “It insulated me and it protected me. It also protected me from these feelings I was having.”

But as time carried on, so did Esters’ confusion.

After leaving the military, she signed up as a deputy with the sheriff’s office. As time progressed, the Fort Collins resident raised a family and rose through the ranks of deputy, corporal, sergeant and, about five years ago, lieutenant. During “hyper-male” time, Esters served as the commander of the county’s Special Emergency Response Team and headed operations within the county lockup.

It wasn’t until December 2013 when Esters asked a colleague to meet at a Fort Collins coffee shop. It was the chance to finally open up, and to start a long-awaited new chapter.

Esters came out as a transgender woman and said she wanted to start the physical transition.

“For 53 years, I was denying it. I needed to do something about it. It was like opening a door,” Esters said. “I felt like a real person. I felt like I was really on the path to being a real person.”

Travel down that path accelerated quickly. There was the announcement to the rest of her co-workers and an “awkward” conversation with her boss, Sheriff Justin Smith. To be fair, Esters said, there were a lot of awkward conversations with a lot of people. It’s inevitable when you’re talking about your deepest secrets - secrets that even today are met with scrutiny, ridicule and hate.

By fall 2014, the transition was becoming outwardly apparent. Esters’ hair looked different. Her mannerisms were changing. Some jail inmates would cat call, bark or harass. Most, though, didn’t think much about it outside of a group setting, she said.

“I would say my transition at the sheriff’s office has been better than in the community,” Esters said. “I didn’t see that coming.”

Intolerant people exist everywhere. And they exist all the time. The same type of people who called Esters the n-word in the 1960s call her “tranny” now.

“This kind of hate seems to change in form, but it goes on forever. We don’t seem to be able to get over it. We don’t associate that these are all the same thing,” she said. That’s a frustrating element of being part of any minority population.

It’s even more highlighted in a county that is only 1 percent African American and a society where being openly transgender is still met with a second-glance or a scornful eye. Esters is the only openly transgender individual at the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. She thinks she’s the only transgender person in northern Colorado law enforcement.

“There are old friends that I don’t have anymore,” she said. “There are old friends that have become better friends. And there’s brand new friends that I didn’t even know. That’s incredible.”

The days of Michael Esters have passed. Awards, photos and keepsakes from a life - including that time she met President Barack Obama during a Fort Collins campaign stop - are largely confined to boxes in storage.

Rachel Esters now thinks of Michael as a big brother who’s no longer around.

Last week, she had to pack up the sci-fi posters that adorned her jail office walls. The trinkets that interns, friends and co-workers left for her over the years will get tucked away. The triangle-folded flag of her father that sat on her desk was moved. The framed Martin Luther King Junior photograph that was mounted over her desk, a sign of courage through the years, will find a new spot on a new wall.

After 22 years with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Esters retired. She hopes to write a book about her transition - about seeing law enforcement from the perspective of a hyper-male and a transformed female. She’s moving to Telluride to be with her girlfriend. And she hopes to find success in public speaking where she can inspire others facing adversity.

“Out of all the decisions I’ve made in my life, this is the best,” she said. “I get to be me. And I get to be a human being. And I get to live under my own terms. And it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I would do it over again a thousand times. I don’t care how much negativity or bad things happen, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to be yourself.”

Michael Esters got Rachel to where she is now.

Rachel Esters was really there the whole time.

___

Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, https://www.coloradoan.com

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