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Shelby Shallenberger, Age 51

By Carol Sadtler
Pittsburgh , PA

“I overheard a woman tell another co-worker, ‘If I had the time, I’d follow her home and burn her house down.’”

When Shelby Shallenberger explained to the human resources director at her workplace that she would be transitioning her gender presentation from male to female, she says she was told, “We’ll do everything we can to keep you safe.”

When her employer, a community college, didn’t keep their promise, that was only the first of many things to go wrong.

“Everybody was OK with me. Then I began to feel unsafe using the men’s bathroom,” she says. HR gave her her a key to the only private bathroom in the main building. Unfortunately, her job required her to visit three other satellite campuses without a private bathroom. For those locations, she was given an “out of order” sign to hang on the door when she used the women’s bathroom.

Shallenberger followed instructions at first, but stopped using the sign because she “felt ridiculous.” Consequently, HR called her in and told she had to stop using the women’s bathroom or lose her job, because her driver’s license didn’t match her gender. (Updating a gender change on your license is now legal in Pennsylvania.)

She resigned her job. She consulted a lawyer in Pittsburgh and found she had no legal basis for action against her employer.

After a year of unemployment, Shallenberger took a job with a telemarketer. A co-worker there would watch to see which bathroom she entered, and she overheard the woman make a threatening remark about her.  “I drove home a different way every night, in case someone followed me home,” Shallenberger says.

Those traumas took a heavy toll. “Thanks to the discrimination, I’m unable to even go to work if I had a job. I went from happy-go-lucky to paranoid,” says Shallenberger, who feels uncomfortable nearly everywhere she goes.

After a life that included teaching English as a second language in Moncalieri, a small town outside of Turin, Italy, for a couple of years, she now lives “in the middle of nowhere,” near family. It’s familiar territory, but limiting, especially since she lacks the income to keep her car on the road. 

About her transition, Shallenberger says, “When you know what you have to do, you just do it.” But, she adds, “I never thought about how mean people could be.

SAGE Story is a national digital storytelling program or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults. Photo by Kristy Lumsden Photography. Follow #SAGEStoryLGBT on Instagram.

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