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Viewpoint - City File - Navigating the Gender Divide

Navigating the Gender Divide

Michelle Hamelin’s brave journey as a transgender
employee of Kingston Pen

By Lindy Mechefske | Michelle Hamelin Photos by Lindy Mechefske

A few months ago Michelle Hamelin was in the women’s section of a major department store with a large selection of clothing in her arms when she had a full-on panic attack.

Everywhere she looked she saw men, women and children. “I flipped out,” she says. “I thought to myself, I am none of these things. I’m a freak, I don’t belong anywhere.”

Her heart pounding, she dropped the clothing and fled the store.

Michelle Hamelin, age 49, is on one of the bravest and most emotional journeys, the trip across the gender divide. She is still in the early stages of gender transition and had just started taking the female hormone estrogen shortly before that panic attack sent her running.

“I felt somewhere between male and female,” she says. “I was bouncing around between days at work as Michael Hamelin and nights as Michelle.” She was not yet officially out as transgender except to a few very close friends, some select work colleagues and her parents.

Michelle Hamelin is an institutional supply officer at Kingston Penitentiary. She started working there in 2010 when she was still Michael Hamelin. Prior to joining the federal prison service, Hamelin, a rough, tough, burly guy with a big heart, had spent close to three decades in the Canadian military as a member of the elite Royal Canadian Regiment. “I was trained to kill, to jump out of helicopters and off towers, and to handle weapons,” she says.

Michelle Hamelin today, styling courtesy Diva Salon

If it seems like Hamelin has a penchant for working in testosterone-fuelled environments, that might be because for most of his life Hamelin worked so hard at being a man. “I’ve known for as long as I can remember that I was different, that I was female on the inside and that perhaps other men didn’t feel the same way,” she says. “But I was determined to defeat it.”

Hamelin would hang out in bars with the guys. “I’d announce that I was a lesbian and everyone thought it was hilarious — me this big tough hombre, calling myself a lesbian. It was a huge joke and always brought the house down,” she says. “I chased skirts out of bars with the best of them.”

On the inside though, Michael Hamelin was starting to crack. When his first marriage broke down and his ex-wife returned to Germany with their two children, Hamelin was suicidal. He blamed himself for the demise of his marriage.

Just after his family left Canada, Michael Hamelin sat in a parking lot with a loaded gun for an entire night. In the morning he checked himself into hospital. He knew he needed help. He had no idea where to turn and he still had trouble explaining himself and admitting his feelings out loud. “It’s all I knew. I thought I was a cross-dresser. I didn’t understand yet what being transgender was all about,” she says. That was 1993.

Michael Hamelin receives a medal from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), mid-90s

Eventually in 2007, Michael Hamelin was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the condition where the known or felt gender does not match physical gender. At that time, he went on estrogen briefly. Around the same time, he met another woman and they got married. His second wife was aware of his condition but shortly after their marriage she told him that it wasn’t going to work if Michael persisted in taking hormones. He quit. Once again he tried to tough it out as a man. It didn’t work and the marriage broke down in 2011.

In February 2012, Hamelin started taking hormones again. This time it was different. “I could not continue the charade. I was no longer comfortable being a man,” she says. “I’d come to terms with gender dysphoria and I couldn’t keep living a lie.”

Gender transition does not come easily, quickly or cheaply. It’s a process that takes time, money and courage. The emotional process is as challenging as the physical transition. Coming out as transgender to friends, family and co-workers can be daunting. Transphobia is rampant. Most transgender individuals feel they have no choice. The suicide attempt rate in the trans population is amongst the highest of any known group. Yet despite all this, the regret rate of those transitioning is less than one per cent.

Michelle came out officially and very publicly on July 14, in a story published in the Ottawa Citizen. The first week after the article appeared she felt as though she’d come out of the closet and gone straight into the basement. Prison management thought Michelle should continue coming to work as Michael until her legal name change came through.

Though she felt sick about continuing the charade of being a male even though she had announced her transition publicly, she complied. A week later, after some discussions on both sides, management agreed to waive their requirement for Michelle to continue on as Michael and on July 24, Michelle came out again — this time coming to work dressed as a female for the first time.

(left)Michael Hamelin with daughter, Nadia, 1991 (right) Hamelin outside Kingston Pen, July 2012

“There was no precedent for this at Kingston Penitentiary,” says Michelle. “As far as I know, I’m the first out male-to-female transgender staff person in the federal corrections service. There was a learning curve for all of us.”

Coming out has been a predominantly positive process, thanks in no small part to her own attitude but also due to a surprising amount of support from colleagues, friends, and even inmates at Kingston Pen. “With each passing week it gets easier,” says Michelle. “Soon I will no longer be a curiosity.”

Still, there are awkward moments. People stare. She’s learning as she goes and telling her story with a view to helping others that might be transgender and to educating everyone she can about what being transgender means.

“I can have some fun with this too,” she says. “I need to help people so they don’t trip over the sidewalk and hurt themselves while gawking at me.” She asks people that are staring if they have questions and tells them that she would be happy to provide answers and that she too, might have questions if she were in their shoes.

“There will be an adjustment,” says Michelle Hamelin. “There’s no rule book for how to come out transgender. That’s why I wanted my story to be public — it’s about education. We’re all learning. It takes time. It takes honesty. It takes acceptance.”