ColumnsUnapologetically Trans

To the Max

On a 25th Transiversary, a look back at an old friend.

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Happy 25th Transiversary to me! April 4, 1994, is the day I nervously stepped into Terminal C at Houston Intercontinental Airport to clock in for work and finally begin my life.

It was a long, winding road to get there. I was deeply unhappy, despite having a great job I loved. The urgency to sort out my life increased after I attended my 10-year high-school reunion in 1990, zipped past my 30th birthday in 1992, and suffered through the breakup of a three-year relationship in 1993. I was coming to grips with the awareness I was trans, and trying to figure out what to do about it.

What I did know for certain was that I didn’t want to waste another decade wrestling with the issue, like I’d done during the ’80s. However, I was concerned about how transitioning would affect the job I loved with Continental Airlines. When I was hired in February 1987, my goal was to be there for 35 years like my late grandfather had done. I started on the ramp, moved up to my desired gate-agent job a year later, and got promoted to CSR in 1990.  

I was good at that job, and I was considered one of the best customer-service reps in the building. But it bothered me that I was one of the few African-Americans working gates, and even fewer were CSRs and supervisors. So I got to know and started hanging out with many of the Houston-based African-American flight attendants before and after work.  

One of those flight attendants I met was Maxine Johnson-Farrington. When I met her statuesque self, I thought I recognized her but couldn’t put my finger on why. But she also picked up on my unhappiness in that period before I transitioned.

Well, I’ll let Max tell you the story:

The first time I met Monica, it was before her transition. We became very fast friends. I would make her laugh constantly, and she would tell me how I made her day. Our friendship became deeper the more we conversed.    

I could sense she was hiding something. What, at that time, I didn’t know. Whatever it was, I was going to be there for my friend. I trusted her and she trusted me.

One day, when Monica told me I should model, I burst into laughter and told her all about myself. She jumped up, stating, “I knew it!” After I told her about my modeling days and the major ads I had done, Monica began to change.

I came through the airport terminal one day, and she asked me if I had time to talk. My eyes welled with tears as she told me about the transition plans. I went on vacation shortly after, and when I returned, the person I’d met had disappeared and Monica Roberts was here to begin a new life.  

Monica will tell you I had a lot to do with her transition, but I think she already had the courage, fight, and fortitude to do what made her happiest. I was there at the right time to give her the push she needed. Once I had her confident, she took herself to another level. I am so very proud of her achievements and what she believes in, still fighting for justice.

To Monica: I will forever love you and believe in you. Thank you for being the ultimate friend. Blessings in all your endeavors.

Thanks, 
Max 

That first week and month seemed like it took a decade to pass. In between my flights, I was having sit-down conversations about the transition with my airport gate-agent colleagues, flight attendants, the peeps I knew on the ramp, some of our pilots, and the maintenance guys.

Those pilots, gate agents, and flight attendants based in Newark, Denver, and L.A. that I knew who flew through Houston eventually heard about my transition, and also caught up with me in individual conversations I had with them throughout the summer.   

One of the emotional meetings I had during that first eventful month was with Jessica Starnes. She was our Newark-based trans pilot who successfully sued the company for wrongful termination and got her job and seniority back. I ran into her in a Terminal C food court, and she had already heard about me through the Continental company gossip line.  

“You were the reason I fought so hard to get my job back,” Starnes said to me as we hugged. “I wanted to make it easier for the next trans person to be themselves and keep their job.”  

I thanked her for it, and as she rushed off to catch up with her crew, I headed back to C-16 to work my next flight. I kept up with her for a few years before we lost contact with each other. 

Maxine was also one of the people I ran into that first week. I was working a flight at my gate as she walked off the airplane. Her words to me when she saw me for the first time? “About time. But we need to talk when I get back from this trip.”

We did, and she expressed her concerns that I was jumping into transition too fast. It was literally seven weeks after she read me as trans. I assured her that I’d had more than enough time to think about the pros and cons of it. I was taking this transition journey seriously, and was doing so to be a complement to black womanhood, not as a joke or a detriment to it. 

My first month wasn’t all positive. Six of my white evangelical female coworkers tried to get me banned from using the Terminal C women’s bathrooms. Their request was rejected by my duty managers.

I shut down the ringleader of that group in May. She tried to insinuate in the break room that because I didn’t have female reproductive organs and couldn’t give birth to kids, in her (and God’s) eyes, I “wasn’t a woman.” I reminded her that her own mother was going through menopause, and if giving birth was the standard for womanhood, when was she going to start calling her mom “sir” and using a masculine derivative of her mom’s name? Moni 1, Transphobic Evangelical 0.

I instantaneously discovered that sexism was a serious problem now that I was presenting as my fab self. I was experiencing firsthand how my female coworkers got treated in the workplace by customers and supervisors, and it frustrated me in those early days.

Activism wasn’t in my initial transition plan. My goal was to get adjusted to living life as Monica, reach my 35 years at Continental, and move on. Fate had other plans for me, and I only got to do 14 years there. Twenty-five years later, my life is totally different from the modest goals I had when I took those first nervous steps into Terminal C and clocked in for work on that sunny April day.

But I’m so glad I did. Because 25 years later, my life is infinitely better and I’ve gotten to do some amazing things and meet a lot of wonderful people along the way. While I lost some friends, I gained a few more, and the ones like Max who were there before my transition are still in my life. I also picked up a lot of nieces and nephews, and a family that spans continents.

Happy Transiversary, Moni!  

This article appears in the April 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Monica Roberts

Monica Roberts, a native Houstonian, is the founding editor of the GLAAD award-winning blog TransGriot. Her ongoing mission is to educate people on the lives of transgender people and fight for everyone’s human rights.

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