A force for change

Transgender crime fighter finds quiet acceptance in rural Georgia community

My first night in Houston County — pronounced like the street in Manhattan, not the city in Texas — Anna Lange takes me to meet a bunch of her friends at the Warner Robins home where one of them grew up. A group has gathered to provide moral support while a water leak behind the washing machine is being repaired.

We walk into the house, through a kitchen with vine-patterned wallpaper, and into the dining room, where three of Anna’s friends have gathered. I want to talk to them about what it was like when Anna, a police officer for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office for more than a decade, went public as a transgender woman last spring.

When Anna came out, she expected to be fired. Law enforcement doesn’t typically tolerate much variation in gender identification, and most people in her Middle Georgia community are pretty conservative. But she was not fired. In fact, the support she received from both the sheriff and her colleagues exceeded anything she could have imagined.

Anna’s friends unanimously agree: Anna’s coming-out story is an astonishingly affirming one.

This is why, when I ask the women how to spell their names for my story, I am puzzled when they refuse to go on the record.

When the plumber decamps to the bathroom, we take turns gawping at the hole while the women chew over the decision.

“I work for the sheriff,” says one, “and I just worry…” She stops mid-sentence.

Another considers letting me use just her first name. “I guess, just out of respect for him,” she says.

“The fact we’re talking about the sheriff so much says something, doesn’t it?” another woman says.

As one of Anna’s neighbors said of Houston County, “When people here disapprove, they do it quietly.” It turns out that in Anna’s case, when people approve, they do it pretty quietly, too. After contacting more than 20 people for this story — only seven of whom were willing go on the record – I’m still not sure if it’s ultimately good or bad that Anna’s most important champions insist on public silence. But I do understand that their silence is not without reason.

Anna Lange as a child. Contributed photo


Trying to fit in

Anna’s house is one of many one-story brick homes on one of many neat, pecan tree-lined streets in Houston County. She started keeping beehives out back two years ago because she was tired of paying 12 bucks for a bottle of honey, and she thought it’d be fun for her 13-year-old son, of whom she shares joint custody with his mother. She sets a bottle on the table for me to taste. It is her autumn harvest, dark and tangy, with crystals forming at the bottom.

We sit at the table in her kitchen under the only decor in the room, a mangled bicycle wheel hanging from the wall by a nail. “Bachelor art,” she says, snickering at the redoubled joke, because it’s not so much art as it is a souvenir from an accident that nearly killed her — and Anna, in her prim tank top and small silver earrings, is no bachelor.

Anna always felt there was something different about her. Even as a kid, she sometimes cried alone in her bedroom without knowing why she was sad.

Her parents, Atlanta natives, named her Patrick, and raised her and her older brother in the kind of Sandy Springs neighborhood where kids played hide-and-seek with a flashlight on late summer nights. Her upper-management father took her and her brother camping on weekends in a blue Volkswagen bus he’d kitted out with a long foam cushion.

In her living room, a map of the Appalachian Trail hangs on her wall. When she was 7, she and her father and brother began hiking the trail in segments over the years until her mid-20s. She points out the green dots marking each section they hiked, the distance between the dots increasing as they all grew older, able to chip away at the trail’s length in longer trips.

Anna thrived in nature, but she struggled in school, starting in kindergarten. Switching from private school to public then back to private again didn’t help. After repeating the second grade, she was promoted through the system year after year, despite her learning difficulties.

“They skated me by because I was cute,” she says, “but I couldn’t read well. I thought I was just stupid.”

Compounding the feeling that she didn’t fit in was a confusing identification with girls.

She recalled idolizing an eighth grader in her carpool who was bratty to her mother and wore Jordache jeans with wide belts. It wasn’t puppy love — Anna wanted to be her. One year, after getting a firm “no” when she asked to wear a dress for Halloween, she dressed as a member of the hair metal band, Poison.

“I could mask it,” she said. “‘I’m just being a rocker who wears long hair, makeup and fake leather pants!’”

At her kitchen table, she shows me school pictures from those days, the same wide, easy grin dimpling her cheeks and squinting her eyes then as now. She looks so eager in those photos, her smile seemingly authentic. But by the middle of fifth grade, not only was she having trouble academically, but she was starting to push limits at home. Once, a few hours before an Ozzy Osbourne concert, she pierced her left ear with a safety pin – a big deal in 1980s Sandy Springs.

An educational consultant finally diagnosed Anna with dyslexia and recommended a special education program at a boarding school in Connecticut.

“My parents took his word as the word of God,” Anna says.

Anxious about living so far away from her family, she knew she needed help. By the time sixth grade began, she was excited to go away to school. Stuck on campus with little to do on weekends, Anna developed a love of reading her first year. She gravitated to nature and adventure stories like “Call of the Wild.”

But the following year, her small size put her on the bottom of a brutally enforced pecking order. After several fistfights and one attack with a hockey stick, she transferred to a boarding school in Virginia. Around the 10th or 11th grade, Anna decided she wanted to come back home and try public school again. Based on the recommendation of the consultant, her parents refused.

Their decision was like a punch to the gut, and the pain it caused still lingers. They should have questioned his advice, she says. They should have given her a chance.

I follow Anna to her bedroom, where she excavates her dresser drawers. She wants to show me the “Best Camper” plaque she was awarded one summer. Camp was where Anna bloomed, a place of innocent crushes, water skiing and being adored for her goofy, enthusiastic nature. She attended for 10 years, working the last four years as a counselor.

High school was not without its pleasures. Anna had friends and even a girlfriend. Still, on rare occasions, she would furtively acquiesce to a secret desire to buy a matronly skirt and wear it in private before balling it up in shame and throwing it in the trash.

One year, she was exhorted by friends to enter a Miss Seahorse contest, in which boys dressed as girls for a male “beauty” pageant. She demurred, even though she desperately wanted to do it. Acting disinterested, she thought, would put the others off her scent. So far as anyone else could tell, she was a Drivin’ N Cryin’-loving, tobacco-dipping, yes ma’am-ing prep school kid – and she’d do whatever she could to keep that image intact.

The Houston County Sherrif’s Department is in Warner Robins.


Enforcing the law

The Houston County Sheriff’s Office is in a building that looks like many government buildings in central Georgia: squat, square and in the middle of a huge parcel of flat, grassy land. At the center of it, usually, is Cullen Talton, now 85 years old. Talton has served as the sheriff of Houston County since 1973, longer than any other person has been sheriff in Georgia. An elected official, he has often run for re-election unchallenged, because to challenge him, you’d have to prove you could do his job better than he did.

Most people in Houston County seem to agree that he does a damn good job. He made big changes early on, hiring the department’s first black chief deputy in the mid-’70s and setting a high standard for his officers’ interactions with the community.

Lately, Talton has been uncharacteristically absent from the sheriff’s office. Since his wife of 68 years, his sweetheart from their days at Warner Robins High School, has become ill he has rarely left her side.

Just south of Macon, Houston County contains three cities. At the north end is Warner Robins and its Air Force base, which today employs nearly 25,000 people. Nearby is tiny Centerville, and on the western side of the county, just off I-75, is Perry. Each of these towns has its own police department; the Houston County sheriff’s jurisdiction is everything else.

On a map of the county, the roads look less linear than they feel in a car. It’s not unusual to drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. Halfway between Perry and Warner Robins, a hand-painted yard sign declares, “Real Heroes! Police Military Firemen EMTs. Teach Your Kids.” Once, I lost count of the churches between Anna’s house and my Airbnb 2.6 miles away.

Anna began working at the Sheriff’s Office in 2006. Six years later, she was promoted to the Criminal Investigations Division. In 2014, she led the investigation of a homicide that resulted in the conviction of Devasko Lewis, a trucking company owner who had hired a guy to kill a former business partner. Even now, her eyes shine as she talks about the six-hour interview with the triggerman that ultimately yielded a confession, the way his lips trembled and his gaze shifted when he was on the cusp of admitting the crime.

It was her biggest case yet, and everything about it was what she loved most about police work. The job is not all thrills, though. The next case she was assigned was the theft of a pine straw bale off a truck.

On her lunch break, we go to Martin’s Bar-B-Q, across a bland, busy street from Warner Robins Air Force Base, for what she says is the best smoked brisket in town. I put my bag in a wooden booth and order at the counter. When I return, I find my bag across the table and Anna sitting in its place. “I stole your spot,” she says apologetically. “Cops don’t like to have their backs to the door.”

She stumbled into a criminal justice major at Auburn University after discovering a forestry degree required her to be good at math, which she was not. At the time, she also loved the unambiguously butch identity the major allowed her to adopt. The buzz cut and swagger made it easier to hide the possibility she was anything but a real man, even if she occasionally bought something in the women’s department at the mall.

Her first law enforcement job was at the Harris County Jail, followed by a job in the Columbus Police Department, where there was plenty of work for an eager rookie. She got engaged, then broke it off — but not before convincing her fiancée to help her try on makeup.

You’ve got some issues, the woman told her.

In 2001, she fell for a woman from Perry. They married, and in 2004, Anna’s wife got pregnant.

Anna had always wanted to be a parent, but her wife’s pregnancy made her seethe. To her own disbelief, she found herself jealous that her wife was the one who got to carry the child. The senselessness of her feelings shocked her.

She channeled her conflicted feelings into long-distance cycling and took extra jobs to supplement her modest police officer’s salary. Desperate for clarity, she searched online for words to describe herself. She wasn’t a cross-dresser — women’s clothing offered her no sexual gratification. Then she came across “transsexual” — in 2004 it was the word commonly used to describe a person whose gender identity did not correspond to their sex assigned at birth.

Oh, crap, she remembers thinking when she read the definition. That’s me.

She learned about gender dysphoria — the sense of discomfort at being in a body that didn’t match the way she felt inside — and the use of hormone therapy to achieve gender transition. As her son’s birth neared, new knowledge and old pain combusted in a way that Anna still feels guilty about. Just days before her wife was to give birth, Anna confessed that she believed she should have been born a woman and she wanted to start hormones to transition.

After their son was born, the couple struggled to make their marriage work in light of Anna’s revelation. And they moved to Houston County, where Anna began working at the Sheriff’s Office.

It was during that difficult time when Anna’s brother visited her. They had grown close during her years in boarding school and had been roommates for several years at Auburn University. During a drive around the county, Anna confided in him about her struggles with gender identity and desire to undergo transition. He encouraged her to tell their parents. She said she would when she was ready. Meanwhile, don’t spill the beans, she told him.

But he did. Her brother’s betrayal cut deep. Her parents insisted on a family meeting with a therapist in Atlanta. Anna felt vindicated when the therapist chastised her brother — when she tells this story, Anna makes a decidedly non-fraternal gesture with both hands — but she wishes he would have just apologized. Her family declined to be interviewed for this story.

Divorced in 2010, Anna blamed herself for the dissolution of her family. If she could just stop herself from wanting to be a woman, she thought, her troubles would evaporate. Again she threw herself into long-distance cycling. In July 2014, while riding on a straightaway near her home, she was hit from behind by an inattentive driver. She suffered a concussion, fractures of her C6 vertebra and her collarbone, and injuries to her right shoulder. She was out of work for a month. It took a year before she was fully rehabilitated.

People kept telling her she was lucky to be alive — and while she understood what they meant, she found herself wishing the accident had killed her.

“I was depressed,” she says.

Besides, to be alive meant to be reminded that, as a therapist once told her, gender dysphoria would never go away. The only way out was transition.

And transition — well, that was something she could hardly imagine. It was whimsy to think she could keep a law enforcement job as an out transgender woman, she thought. And her family had already demonstrated their disapproval. How would it affect her son? What about people at the grocery store? What about everyone else she had ever known?

The simplicity of being dead felt preferable to admitting to herself, her loved ones and her bosses that transition was what she really needed. And she knew there was something wrong with that.

In summer 2016, Anna looked up an old crush from her camp days, a woman who lived in Tennessee. They struck up a long-distance romance for a while that helped embolden Anna to finally start hormone treatments. She began that fall, and a few months later, sitting at home alone one night, Anna felt something strange: happiness. She was on the right path, she realized — and while it meant there would be rough terrain ahead, it was a path.

She curled up on the floor of her bedroom and cried tears of relief.


No more secrets
On the day Anna decided to come out at work last April, Ken Carter, director of personnel for Houston County, was the first person she told. Houston County’s hiring policy contains no protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Sheriff’s Office employees are hired and fired at will. If her bosses didn’t like the idea of employing a transgender officer, they could give her the boot without having to provide a reason.

Ken had never dealt with a transgender employee before. He asked her questions — offering apologies if they were inappropriate — and told her she needed to tell the sheriff. She asked him to come with her, and an hour and a half later, she and Ken were in the sheriff’s office telling him and Chief Deputy Billy Rape about her transition.

Their mouths fell open. They asked her to step out of the office while the three of them talked, and she cried in the secretary’s office, fearing she would soon be cleaning out her desk. A few minutes later, the sheriff called her back in.

I don’t really understand all that, he told her. But you’ve done a good job. I’ll allow it as long as it doesn’t affect your job performance.

He also told her she had to tell her colleagues and friends in the office the next day.

The secret she had tried so hard to keep all her life could be a secret no more.

Anna barely slept that night. The next day she stood pale-faced in front of her colleagues who had assembled in a small, over-air-conditioned conference room with too few chairs. Several noted the presence of the sheriff who didn’t usually attend their division meetings; they knew something was about to go down.

When she told her colleagues she was transgender, they were dumbfounded.

“It was like Christmas morning, and you find out your tree is burned to the ground,” said a police sergeant. After the meeting he told her, “Look, this doesn’t change my opinion of you, but it doesn’t change my sense of humor. If I say something that offends you, just tell me.” Later that day, another colleague wrote on Anna’s Facebook page: “I admired you then as a coworker … and I admire you even more today.”

The sheriff didn’t order his department to be supportive, but informally, through whatever channels in which the office’s culture is forged, he made it clear no one was to mess with her. With the exception of the rare odd question about surgeries or off-handed comment about her eyeliner, coworkers treated her no differently than they did before. Anna had already known the sheriff as a man with integrity to spare — but after that, she respected him even more.

Despite my repeated efforts, Talton would not speak to me about Anna.

That’s not surprising, says Julie Callahan, who runs the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs, a 5,000-member peer support network for transgender law enforcement officers. Most law enforcement agencies avoid commenting publicly on transgender issues.

Anna was lucky, says Callahan. Only about a quarter of transgender officers have that experience, and the older an officer’s colleagues, the less likely they are to be sympathetic to gender identity issues. But even supportive departments may not want to publicize their tolerance.

“The department [may] see that as being against the values of where they’re from,” says Callahan, “especially if it’s an elected official.”

Transgender law enforcement officers have been physically attacked by members of their community. Anna received her first community complaints after transitioning — one saying she’d arrived at a scene in flip-flops, which she denies, laughing, and another accusing her of wearing a women’s blouse; it was the department-issued women’s uniform. But she has never felt unsafe.


Blazing a new trail

Anna’s family has struggled to accept her transition, although there are signs of progress. Her mother recently sent Anna a photo of a woman’s top she’d bought for her, a chaste gray knit with metallic studs in a star design across the chest.

“I feel like they’re hiding me, like they’re ashamed of me,” Anna says. But what can she do? The people who quietly disapprove — the parents of her son’s classmates who stopped making eye contact, the neighbors who once surprised her with an Auburn wind chime and now barely speak to her — she can’t control what they think. But she doesn’t have to care about it, either.

“My give-a-crap meter has been re-tuned,” she says. “You’ve just gotta straighten your tiara, fluff your tutu and move on.”

On my last day in Houston County, Anna and I talk in her living room in the early evening. By now, a page in my notebook is filled with the names and phone numbers of people I have not been able to meet — people who in the coming weeks will not respond to my voice mails and text messages, many of whom will then apologize to Anna for being unable or unwilling to speak publicly.

At the meeting where she came out to her colleagues, which she still describes with a shiver, Anna invited her coworkers to come to her any time with questions. Now — perhaps because of the self re-examination the last few days have required — she sees her responsibility as a spokesperson for the transgender community writ large.

“It’s an educational time,” she says. “People are curious.” If she were less patient with the colleagues who sometimes call her by the wrong pronoun, or if she refused to answer silly questions from well-meaning people, she would miss the opportunity to show them that at heart, she’s just like them.

And that’s an important opportunity. Because it’s critical to Anna that, regardless of what people think of her gender identity, they see the rest of her as what she is at her core: a loving parent, a devoted friend, a respected public servant.

This is the third story Personal Journeys has told about transgender transition in as many years, and each time I’m struck by how different each one is. But the subjects all share one thing in common: a tremendous amount of courage. This week’s story about Anna Lange is no different.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys

Keren Landman is a practicing physician and award-winning health journalist who’s written for The Atlantic, Wired and other outlets. She is trained in internal medicine, pediatrics and infectious diseases, and served as a disease detective at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She lives in Atlanta.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Anna checks her beehives in the backyard of her home in Perry.