Sex change launched a rough year for Danvers firefighter, and colleagues
By Jill Harmacinski
Staff writer


DANVERS For seven years, Albert Ouellette was a proud member of the all-male Danvers Fire Department, a fraternity of 48 firefighters who work together, eat together and sleep in the same station house.

But when the department's firefighters marched in the town parade last Memorial Day, Ouellette was wearing a woman's dress uniform, women's shoes and makeup.

A year ago, Ouellette announced plans to begin living as a woman to prepare for a sex change operation. Ouellette legally became Alishia Ouellette and asked other firefighters to refer to her as a woman, as "Ali." The department officially recognized her as the town's first female firefighter.

Though the surgery has not been scheduled and Ouellette continues the transformation, the department has spent the past year in a transition of its own. It has been one fraught with emotion and stress.

And how well it has gone depends upon whom you ask.

The chief and town manager say the department is thriving, but also acknowledge Ouellette's change has created some anxiety. Her fellow firefighters won't talk publicly about the situation, but say privately it has hurt morale.

Ouellette, 50, is careful about the words she chooses to describe the past year as a Danvers firefighter. She admits no one taunts her directly. But she acknowledges complaints about her perfume, makeup and the way her change has affected the department's image.

"I mean, it's a brotherhood, and I'm not a brother," Ouellette says.

Hard adjustment

Firefighters are traditionally close-knit, with relationships forged in the knowledge they may be called into danger on a moment's notice. Most fire stations are male-dominated environments where conversation, jokes and the stories of wives and children flow freely.

Departments nationwide have been forced to adapt, however, as more women have joined firefighting's ranks. But few, and none in Massachusetts, have made the adjustment as one of their members has prepared for a sex change.

Initially, Ouellette's announcement tossed a wave of unwanted publicity at the Danvers Fire Department.

Even though she detailed her story exclusively for The Salem News, the department was thrust into the national spotlight, answering to calls from newspaper, radio and television reporters, including producers from "20/20" and "48 Hours." Today, the media attention has ebbed, but the department is still adjusting.

Some firefighters say the process has been stressful and frustrating, especially because it is out of their control.

Ouellette's direct supervisor, Capt. Douglas Conrad, says while he hasn't seen "overt harassment," it is clear that not everyone is "100-percent behind her."

"There's more tolerance than anything," Conrad says. "Nobody is that open that they can say, 'OK, fine, you're going to be a girl.'"

Conrad, who also considers himself Ouellette's friend, says he doesn't treat her differently than anyone else.

"I accept this is what Ali wants," he says. "I'm not a cheerleader, but I'm not a naysayer or a basher, either."

But some firefighters have gone out of their way to avoid dealing with the situation. Capt. Robert Flachbart says some have declined to volunteer for overtime shifts if they know Ouellette was also working.

"It's been a challenge to fill open shifts," Flachbart says. "And it's never been that way before."

The department has also closed ranks. Last February, after Ouellette's plans were made public, department officials discouraged firefighters from speaking to the press about the situation. A year later, the wall of silence remains largely intact, though now it is self-imposed.

Danvers officials concede Ouellette's sex change has created tension. Fire Chief James Tutko describes it as a "distraction."

"Some guys are having a difficult time adjusting to this," Tutko says. "... It has not been without its bumps along the way."

Tutko says the issue has been emotional for firefighters, and some "deal with their emotions better than others."

But it hasn't sidetracked the department from its work, he says.

"It has been a distraction, but we try to keep people focused on their work, focused on their daily duties."

Town Manager Wayne Marquis says firefighters in general have handled the situation well.

"Change is something that can often be quite difficult," he says. "And looking back, I think it's been handled well and people have stayed focused on their work."

Early on, there was talk of providing firefighters with sensitivity training. But so far, the only training has been for the department's 13 superior officers, who met twice with lawyers who specialize in sexual discrimination and harassment.

Rank-and-file firefighters with issues or concerns have been urged to seek help on their own, through the town's employee assistance program.

"We thought the one-on-one approach was better," Tutko says. "We just feel that everybody deals with this on a personal level. And we don't think this situation lends itself to the group dynamic."

Physical changes

The Fire Department has faced immediate effects of Ouellette's change: She has started wearing women's clothes. Though firefighters have individual sleeping quarters, she has started using separate bathroom facilities.

But Ouellette's own transformation has been more gradual.

She has dropped 25 pounds off her 5 foot, 9 1/2 inch frame and now weighs 190 pounds. She hopes eventually to weigh between 170 and 180 pounds.

Her hair is now shoulder-length and highlighted blonde. She dresses for a recent interview at her home in blue jeans, high-heeled black boots and a purple blouse. She wears dangling earrings tiny Dalmatians with red fire hats.

Ouellette continues a daily regimen of hormones, which are sorted in a plastic medication bin she keeps on her kitchen table. She says she is physically and emotionally prepared for the sex-change operation. But she has not scheduled the $15,000 procedure and does not know how she'll pay for it.

By the end, Ouellette estimates she'll spend more than $30,000 on the surgery, medications, hormones and plastic surgery.

Ouellette says unveiling her secret in early 2004, and the transition that followed, have been exciting.

But she has also faced many dark days.

She is still in the process of a divorce, ending a marriage to a woman "who I still love and get along great with" but became separated from "for obvious reasons." Then on May 1, 2004, Ouellette's 34-year-old stepson, Jamey Cassidy, died from a heart problem.

Amid the sadness, however, Ouellette says there have been signs of progress for her personally.

She was appointed to the North Shore Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Youth, which meets at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Salem. Ouellette says she hopes to become a role model for teens facing similar gender dilemmas.

"I want kids out there to know they are not alone, that what they feel and what they are going through is not weird," she says. "They are not freaks."

Another blessing has come in her unexpected friendship with a 77-year-old great-grandmother who lives on Centre Street.

Margaret "Peggy" Blais, who has nine children, remembers what it was like years ago when she was criticized for enjoying a man's hobby riding a motorcycle. Since then, she's always favored the underdog.

"When I read her story in the paper, I decided to send her a card," Blais says. "... I told her I was with her 100 percent. And I invited her to stop by my house anytime."

Ouellette, holding a bouquet of flowers, rang Blais' doorbell last Easter Sunday. The two now visit every other week, and Blais sends Ouellette cards three times a month.

"I've gotten to know her and I think the world of her," Blais says. "I hope I'm around to see what she wants to become."

Ouellette says she hopes to find acceptance in the fire house, though she knows that change will be slow. She also declines to discuss in detail how her fellow firefighters have handled the change.

"I'm not going to say anything that's going to cause us to go backwards," she says. "In the fire service, even when normal things come up, change can be very slow. This change is extraordinary, and it's going to take time."


Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski can be reached at (978) 338-2652 or by email at JHarmacinski@ecnnews.com.