Dress Rehearsal

Scott Matheis thought he'd found a great place to work -- until he asked to wear a dress

Dec 6, 2000 at 4:00 am
After three decades in sales, wearing starched shirts and pressed suits, weathering the ups and downs of commissions and the pressures of marketing everything from air-filtration equipment to mutual funds, Scott Matheis decided he needed a career change. So this year he applied for and got a customer-service job at Business Response Inc., a Creve Coeur company that provides telephone support services for a number of client companies.

Matheis, who started Aug. 21, was hired as a dealer-support manager. The $28,000-a-year position involved talking to Isuzu dealers by phone. He'd pitch sales incentives and advertising programs, authorize warranty work and assist the dealers in maintaining inventories of parts and special tools.

Matheis really liked his new job, and he liked his co-workers.

What BRI didn't know when it hired him was that Matheis also liked to dress in women's clothing.

For years he'd been a cross-dresser, but only on weekends. And since October 1998, he'd been on hormone therapy for gender reassignment. With the seemingly friendly and open-minded atmosphere at BRI, Matheis thought that maybe this office would be the place where he could formally "transition" from a male persona to a female one. As his own doctor had told him, no surgeon will consider performing a sex-change operation unless the patient first lives for a year or two in his or her preferred gender. He asked a friend who had previously worked at BRI whether he thought the company would allow him to make such a change.

"He said, "Yeah, the people there were all pretty easygoing people,'" Matheis recalls. "I had it in my mind from that moment on: This is the kind of place where I can transition."

Matheis says many people don't understand why he would switch his sex. Matheis says he's not a gay male. He's sexually attracted to women, and if he completes the sex change, he still expects to prefer women. He understands other people's confusion. "I'm just as confused about it myself," he says. "It's something that's been there for as long as I can remember, but was always shoved in the back -- "Boys aren't supposed to do this. Boys aren't supposed to do that.'" Nine years ago, after undergoing heart-bypass surgery, Matheis sought out a therapist to "cure" him of his cross-dressing habit. She told him she couldn't do that: ""She said, "I can help you to accept it and to explore it, the feelings deep down inside.' I didn't know whether to break down in tears because I was afraid of all the consequences of this thing and all the isolation that was involved or to jump up and cheer because finally, maybe, I'd be able to accept something in me I hadn't been able to."

Although he very much wants to have sex-reassignment surgery, he says it is unlikely he will ever be able to; he is a 50-year-old diabetic who has had several heart attacks. He explains how he views himself in this way: "I'm involved in a lot of masculine activities. I love to fish and hunt and that sort of thing. That doesn't change with your gender identity at all.... When I look in the mirror, I know that I am not female and that I am never going to be female with all the right equipment, no matter how much surgery or whatever. But I know that my mind and my emotions are very, very feminine. And I know that when I adopt all the trappings of femininity -- the attire, the makeup, a wig, etc. -- that I feel relief. I feel comfort. I feel like I'm who I should be, whereas in the past, I've always known that something wasn't right, and that carried over into everything I did, whether it was my relationships -- I've been married and divorced twice -- my relationships with women I was dating, friends, family. Nothing seemed to fit quite right. Now, when I put on this identity, yes, everything does seem to fit properly."

On Sept. 15, Matheis approached his supervisor and handed him a letter from his physician explaining that Matheis was being treated for gender reidentification, along with two drivers' licenses -- one with Matheis dressed in masculine attire, the other with Matheis as "Staci," in feminine attire. Matheis says his supervisor was supportive: "He said: "You've got guts! You have my support. Will you need time off for this?'"

Matheis says his other co-workers were, to varying degrees, supportive or accepting. The next Wednesday, he met with BRI's vice president of human resources, Linda Tyler. He says she asked whether he was familiar with the company's dress code for women, and she inquired about the potential reaction from Isuzu dealers if they learned of his gender identity. He says he assumed dealers would always identify him as a man over the phone, because his voice is very deep and would always remain that way. That Friday, Matheis says, Tyler called him into another meeting and told him the company "didn't want to make others uncomfortable." She repeated her concern that he might identify his preferred gender to the Isuzu dealers, and she asked whether he could wait to change attire until after he had undergone the actual surgery. She gave him a copy of the male dress code for the company. She also remarked that she felt Matheis had attempted to "deceive" BRI of his gender identity, because he'd obtained the letter from his doctor four days before beginning work, he says. At the same meeting, she accused Matheis of making inappropriate remarks at work -- once by jokingly asking a woman who worked at an Isuzu dealership in New York to marry him. She also accused him of making a sexually explicit remark -- about cutting off his genitalia -- while discussing a canoe trip with two women friends, which Matheis flatly denies.

Over the weekend, Matheis decided that he liked his job enough to continue working there, even if he was required to dress in masculine mode. But when he came in Monday morning, Tyler informed him that he was being fired for making inappropriate remarks. He was given his paycheck, escorted to his desk to retrieve personal belongings and then ushered out the door.

Matheis believes his firing was the direct result of his request to work dressed as a woman: "I was so hurt by the entire thing. Maybe they weren't going to accept this, but that they were now accusing me of things? There was no need to ever accuse me of that -- just making up lies from God only knows what source."

Tyler, at BRI, referred calls to company president Don Kornblet. He would not discuss Matheis' firing directly. "We don't comment on specific circumstances relating to any current or former employee," he says. "However, we can tell you that BRI is firmly committed to career-growth opportunities without regard to gender, ethnic background age or any nonperformance factor.... We adhere to all the laws that govern hiring practices. Should this employee pursue a claim against BRI with the proper agencies, we are completely confident that BRI would be found to have acted entirely properly."

As it is, if BRI did fire Matheis because of his transgender issues, the firing would not be illegal under federal employment law. Matheis filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was told the law does not protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status.

He also filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Denise Lieberman, legal director for the ACLU, agrees that transgender cases like Matheis' aren't addressed by anti-discrimination laws. "It's very unfortunate that in this day and age, a person's sexual orientation or their gender affiliation alone is a legitimate reason to fire someone," she says. "For someone like Mr. Matheis, he is going to have very little recourse under the law."

After he was fired, Matheis began looking for another job. This time, he decided to apply dressed as a woman, and he now uses the name Staci Scott Matheis. He wears a blond wig, large glasses and a small amount of makeup. As Staci, he favors long skirts and flats -- a neighborhood child said Staci looks like a schoolteacher. He called each potential employer before applying and explained his situation. And he found one that truly didn't care about his transgender status.

He now works in customer service at Southwestern Bell. He applied dressed as a woman and was hired. But before he began work, he suffered a bout of pneumonia and a minor heart attack. While recuperating, he says, it was easier to dress as a man, so he showed up for work in masculine attire. None of his co-workers or supervisors seemed to mind which way he dressed, he says. "Everybody knows," Matheis says. "Everyone has been wonderful about the entire thing."

At the phone company, it appears gender identity just doesn't matter.

"We really don't care, as long as the person can do the job and do it ethically," says Linda Rupard, associate director of compliance, diversity and equal-employment opportunity at Southwestern Bell. "It is our policy to have a very diverse workforce."