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Transgender Woman Finds Acceptance Working As A Forest Ranger


Let's meet a trans woman who found acceptance working as a forest ranger in upstate New York. Here's North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Robbi Mecus has her hair in braids and is wearing these little teal earrings that match her puffy coat. We're hiking in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

ROBBI MECUS: This is a favorite trail because it's just something right close to home. I can walk through from my house, and it has this amazing view.

RUSSELL: We reached the summit, a gray shelf of rock. From here, we see the sharp outline of some of the highest peaks in the Northeast. The story of how Robbi found herself here goes back decades.

MECUS: Even as a very small kid, I was very attracted to the notion of wildness, wild places.

RUSSELL: She'd cut pictures of mountains out of magazines and hang them on her wall. Robbi grew up in Brooklyn in a conservative blue-collar family. She says back then, she knew she wanted something different, that she was different.

MECUS: From the moment I had an idea of what gender was, I knew that I was a girl. But I also knew pretty early on that girls didn't have the body that I had.

RUSSELL: Growing into that body, Robbi says, was scary and confusing. It was the 1980s, and she didn't know anyone who was openly trans or queer. Then Robbi heard something on the radio, a kind of opening.

MECUS: Do you remember the Lou Reed song "Walk On The Wild Side"? The first character in that song was Holly, right?


LOU REED: (Singing) Holly came from Miami, Fla.

MECUS: Holly came from Miami, Fla.


REED: (Singing) Hitchhiked her way across the USA.

MECUS: She hitchhiked her way across the USA.


REED: (Singing) Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs, and then he was a she. She says, hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.

MECUS: I wanted to be Holly. I wanted to be that girl who just owned her identity and took her life in her own hands and went off and lived it.

RUSSELL: But she was scared. She didn't see a safe way forward, so she stayed in the body she was born in. Robbi chased other dreams. She got into rock climbing, moved to the mountains and became a forest ranger. She even got married, had a daughter. But she says staying closeted was destroying her.

MECUS: It was the first time in my life that I thought, I can't continue doing this. I'm going to wind up dead.

RUSSELL: So three years ago, Robbi decided it was finally time. She remembers the night she told her wife she planned to transition.

MECUS: I just kind of walked into the house and broke down and told her everything. That was a hard day (laughter). Yeah.

RUSSELL: It was the beginning of the end of her marriage. She also thought her career was over. Robbi's job was protected by New York's anti-discrimination law. But she works in really small, often conservative towns that don't have many openly queer or trans people. Robbi figured she'd lose the respect of other rangers and local fire and police chiefs.

MECUS: I was pretty convinced that that wasn't going to be there and then I wasn't going to be able to do my job. So I had to accept the fact that I wasn't going to be a ranger.

RUSSELL: But then, Robbi says this surprising thing happened. The people she worked with in these small mountain towns, they were supportive, respectful. Robbi says she knows she's privileged, that it can be a lot harder, especially for transgender people of color.

MECUS: I'm white. People don't necessarily read me as trans for the most part, and that enables me to occupy a safe space in society.

RUSSELL: Robbi has used that space to speak more openly about her work and her life. She says it's important that trans women like her be seen. Robbi says she does sometimes think about what life would have been like had she come out decades ago, like Holly did, when there was a lot less acceptance.

MECUS: The sad reality is, is that people who had to do that back in the late '80s, early '90s, they had a hard life. So in some ways, I'm sad that I didn't transition way back then. I'm very sad that I've lost those 20 or 30 years of living an honest life. But in other ways, I'm content with how my life turned out.


RUSSELL: Robbi is a parent, a climber, a forest ranger. She says she's hopeful that as more trans people like her are seen and heard, it'll get easier for others. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell