Becoming Christine: Transgender CEO Hallquist Prepares to Go to Work As a Woman | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Becoming Christine: Transgender CEO Hallquist Prepares to Go to Work As a Woman


Published November 4, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Christine and Dave - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christine and Dave

Dave Hallquist was dressed in a maroon button-down shirt and black trousers during a tour of the Vermont Electric Cooperative headquarters last month in Johnson. The former engineer wore comfortable shoes and a black leather men's watch while showing off a state-of-the-art control room, noting how technology has helped to shorten the length of power outages in the 74 towns VEC serves. Hallquist has brought the state's second-largest utility back from bankruptcy, and, after a decade as its chief executive officer, has become a knowledgeable ambassador for the 107-employee co-op.

Dave Hallquist - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Dave Hallquist

The next day, Hallquist was back on the job, this time staffing a VEC booth at Renewable Energy Vermont's conference at the Sheraton hotel in South Burlington. But the CEO looked different in pumps and a stylish black-and-white blazer. A delicate pearl bracelet had replaced the watch. Shoulder-length auburn locks topped off the new look of VEC's leader. Affixed to her lapel, the name tag read: Christine Hallquist.

"You probably remember me as David," she said, reaching out to shake hands with Bob Farnham, an environmental activist from Thetford who was live-streaming the conference.

There was a slight delay before Farnham recovered himself and said, "Sure, congratulations," before the trade-show midway reclaimed him.

"My experience is, it's a five-second delayed reaction," Hallquist told a reporter after Farnham left. "I need to be active in saying hello to people, because they don't recognize me."

Christine Hallquist - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christine Hallquist

Plenty of people did. Rep. Tony Klein came over and joked that Christine must be Hallquist's sister. Green Mountain Power spokesman Kristin Carlson gave Christine a hug.

Similarly good-natured was an exchange between Hallquist and VEC lobbyist Andrea Cohen, whom the CEO hired this past spring. Hallquist apologized for not being able to prepare her during the job interview, noting that Cohen had barely gotten to know Dave before Christine came into the picture. Hallquist added, "I don't think you would have liked Dave as much."

Hallquist was literally on display at the annual energy conference that attracts power people from every corner of Vermont, most of whom were acquainted with Dave. Kerrick Johnson, vice president of Vermont Electric Power, said he noticed some in the crowd doing double takes when they saw Christine. But he described the overall reaction as "intrigue and some fascination" with "zero condemnation."

The onlookers shouldn't have been totally surprised. Hallquist, 59, had already revealed her lifelong secret to family and friends when Christine went public in a September WCAX news story about the decision to change gender expression, from male to female. Darren Perron's piece chronicled Hallquist's decades-long process of coming to terms with her true identity, and of breaking the news to her loved ones.

Now the VEC chief is figuring out how to make this transition in the professional world. With no textbook to guide her, Hallquist started a gradual process that involves inhabiting Dave one day and Christine the next.

"Here I am, the transgender CEO of one of the most macho businesses," Hallquist said. Work emails continue to come from Dave Hallquist. The VEC website still indicates the co-op is led by a man.

Switching from one gender presentation to another is a big deal — for her, her family, the co-op and the community, she acknowledged. "I can't think of a greater change for someone to experience," Hallquist said. "It's how we define ourselves."

Transgender experts say there is no typical experience for people making the transition. But coming out at work is often the last stretch of a long road, said Kim Fountain, executive director of Pride Vermont, a support organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Hallquist went into it knowing that, but especially as the CEO — a public figure who is responsible for the co-op's future — she found there was no road map to follow.

"There's probably one out there," Hallquist said. "I just haven't been able to find it."

'I Like to Be Feminine'

Christine talking to WDEV radio host David Goodman - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Christine talking to WDEV radio host David Goodman

Hallquist always felt like a girl as a child attending Catholic school in suburban Syracuse, N.Y. — but it would be decades before she knew there was a word for it.

"I've always known I was different," Hallquist told radio talk-show host David Goodman on WDEV a week after the WCAX segment. She was dressed as Christine for the live interview, in a tan skirt, a tan-and-white sweater over a white blouse, yet another auburn wig, neatly applied lipstick, and a pearl bracelet. Her tan purse contained a hairbrush, makeup and a woman's wallet.

"I took time to get that to match," she said of the purse. "I love to shop, but now that I can do it freely, it's awesome. I like to be feminine."

Clothes are not the goal of the transgender experience, but they often take on a significance that goes beyond the fabric, said Kara DeLeonardis Kraus, a licensed clinical social worker in South Burlington who counsels transgender people. "I think the clothes are more of an outer representation of gender," she said. "Wearing a dress is the most feminine thing a person can do."

As a child, Hallquist envied the perfume of a female classmate and was drawn to girls' clothes. Those unorthodox interests, combined with posing "lots of questions about religion," got the attention of the monsignor, who recommended an old-fashioned exorcism for young Dave, who was a long way from revealing his secret to anyone. Horrified, the Hallquists pulled all of their children out of the Catholic school.

"At the time, transgender was considered a mental condition, and you could be put in a mental institution," Hallquist said.

Merriam-Webster defines the term "transgender," which came into popular use later, as "of, relating to, or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth."

"My brain believed I was a woman" is how Hallquist put it.

Hallquist said that as a teen she became adept at hiding what she considered her true identity. "By the time I got to ninth grade, I realized I needed to play this game, so I took up a couple of sports," she said. Hallquist skied and ran competitively but kept a secret stash of women's clothes in the closet.

Over the years, Hallquist kept collecting those items, then throwing them away. "When you've done that seven times ... it's time to just accept the facts," she said. Wife Pat learned of her husband's secret several years into their marriage, and the couple came to an uncomfortable agreement: It was OK for Hallquist to dress up in private and play the piano, for up to two hours a day.

For decades, no one else knew, but it haunted Hallquist that the couple's two daughters and son were among them. "I started to get in a very dark place because I hadn't shared probably one of the most important things about myself with my kids," she said.

At age 48, the Hyde Park resident made a New Year's resolution to find a transgender support group, get counseling and start the process of coming out.

"They're quiet, secretive groups," Hallquist said of the one she found in central Vermont. "All of us had the same incredible fear: being caught out in public ... dressed female ... and it brought a lot of shame."

Hallquist finally came out to the kids about five years ago, and they took it well, she said. The daughters call her "Maddy" — a combination of mommy and daddy. For son Derek, 31, she is simply "mom." He is making a movie, titled Denial, comparing Hallquist's transition with that of the energy industry's, on the grounds that both make people uncomfortable. The whole family has been in counseling. Hallquist said she and Pat remain together but are unsure what is going to happen to their marriage.

"We're still sorting it out," Hallquist said. "No matter what happens, we're going to continue to really love each other."

Hallquist broke the news to her mother and siblings — she has four brothers and two sisters — this past summer, around the same time Bruce Jenner appeared as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Jenner's very public story "made my job a lot easier," Hallquist said. "I related entirely to the whole story. Bruce's heart was my heart. It was inspiring and supportive. My confidence today is probably helped by that."

Hallquist's 83-year-old mother has accepted Christine. But Hallquist hasn't heard from some of her siblings since. She's lost some friends, too, who said they had a hard time dealing with her transition. "It would be wrong to say it doesn't hurt, but you expect that level of pain. It's disappointing," Hallquist said.

To complicate things, in 2013 Hallquist was diagnosed with cancer, the origins of which doctors had difficulty tracing.

"I truly thought I was going to die," Hallquist said. Then one day a few months later, she said, her doctor phoned. "He said, 'I think your testosterone is killing you,'" she said. The doctor didn't know at the time that Hallquist was transgender, but the medical diagnosis gave extra weight to the way she had felt for most of her life.

The doctor recommended a bilateral orchiectomy, surgery to remove the testicles and stop testosterone production, which was believed to be fueling the cancer. It happened to be a week before she planned to start testosterone-blocking hormone treatment as part of the gender transition, she said.

The surgery stopped the cancer and made it so Hallquist doesn't have to take a testosterone blocker, as others making the transition from male to female do. She is taking estrogen, which she said is changing her body. She also cries a lot.

"Most of those have been tears of joy," she said. "They're nice emotions."

Working 'Out'

Christine at the REV conference - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christine at the REV conference

Last May, Hallquist made the first move toward coming out professionally. She shared her story at a monthly meeting of Vermont business executives who meet privately to discuss job challenges.

"I was visibly scared," she said. "They saw me shaking as I presented this story."

By the time she was done explaining, though, "most of them were crying," Hallquist recalled. Their answer to her first question — whether she should continue to live a double life — was a unanimous and resounding no.

When Hallquist asked for advice on the best way to introduce Christine to colleagues and employees, the group told the CEO to come back with a plan in June.

Though Hallquist has essentially been making this transition for decades, "I will say coming out to my board and employees was another one of my great fears," she said. "You can imagine I'm thinking, This isn't going to go over too well," she said.

Such fears are common among transgender people, said Dot Brauer, who advises students and staff as director of the LGBTQA Center at the University of Vermont. "They don't want to be shunned. That's the No. 1 fear, that look that says, 'Why do I have to occupy the same space?'" she said. "They worry they'll be fired."

A 2007 law specifically protects transgender Vermonters from discrimination, including dismissal. Still, some transgender people run into trouble at work, Fountain said, including from employers who suddenly crack down on job performance in a way they hadn't before or aren't doing with other employees. "Where there's a will, there's a way," Fountain said.

At least one such case is pending before the Vermont Human Rights Commission, according to plaintiff Lexi Rylant, a 54-year-old Burlington woman who said she was placed on unpaid administrative leave from her job after returning from gender-reassignment surgery.

Some transitioning people choose to change jobs — or even professions. New coworkers or another career can make it easier, social worker Kraus said.

Hallquist had other plans: to run VEC as Christine. When she went back to her business group in June, they offered her advice: Don't be so apologetic about it. She took the suggestion to heart.

Using the plan her fellow CEOs helped her develop, Hallquist delivered the news in July to Vermont Electric Co-op's senior leadership team. At that meeting, she noticed what would later emerge as a trend: Women were quicker to congratulate her. "Men were pretty much in a state of shock. I've learned with the male population, give them time," she said.

A short time later, she called all 14 members of the co-op's board of directors to tell them, one by one.

"I really didn't expect to be supported across the board," she said. "My worst fear was that I fully expected a few of them to say they just couldn't live with this."

Rich Westman, a Republican state senator who lives in Cambridge, serves on the board and used to work at the co-op. When Hallquist called with something personal to talk about, Westman said, he thought Hallquist's cancer had returned.

"I've got to tell you I was somewhat relieved," Westman said.

Mark Woodward, a state House member from Johnson who serves on the board, said cancer was also his first thought. "My second thought was, 'This is a big deal,'" Woodward said. "I was more concerned about the employees' reaction."

Westman said he talks to VEC line workers at the local diner. Their reaction has been the same as his. "They know Dave's done a good job," said Westman, noting that Hallquist's people skills have grown in the past decade and employees see their CEO as a fair and trusted negotiator.

"When Dave came, the co-op was nearly bankrupt," Westman said. "Now it's in good shape." Since Hallquist took over 10 years ago, it's cut back on power outages by 75 percent, and the bond rating has bounced back from just above junk to an A rating. 

Employees might have met Christine a year ago — had they noticed a framed photo in plain sight on Hallquist's desk. When she marched in Burlington's 2014 gay pride parade, alongside daughter Kiersten, a picture wound up in the next day's Burlington Free Press.

"It was very clear it was me and my daughter. I thought I was going to have to 'fess up to my company. But nobody said anything," Hallquist said.

Kiersten bought a copy of the photo and framed it, and Hallquist brought it to work. "I thought, 'I'll use this as the vehicle to come out,'" she said. "But nobody ever asked who it was."

"I learned this is so far out of people's thinking, no one could ever imagine it was me," she added.

Beyond the Watercooler

David at work at Vermont Electric Cooperative - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • David at work at Vermont Electric Cooperative

Co-op employees got the big news about Hallquist in August. Following advice from the human resources department, Hallquist had supervisors inform their employees. In retrospect, she said, it would have been better for all of them to hear it at the same time, because some were offended that they were among the last to know.

But the overall reaction far exceeded Hallquist's expectations. "I'm overjoyed with the support I've received," she said. "I'm sure this is a struggle for them, but I really haven't noticed any change in my interaction with employees.

"People can change, but you have to give them the space to do it," she continued.

Westman's take: "A lot of people were like, 'We don't want a change in leadership, because things are dramatically improved.'"

One co-op customer did complain after the story aired on WCAX. The man called Hallquist to say he thought the CEO had misled the co-op and should have to reapply for the CEO job as Christine. "The point he made was, 'I can handle this gay stuff, but this transgender stuff is just off the scale,'" said Hallquist. "Another of his points was, 'What are we going to call you?'"

Hallquist didn't get defensive but instead invited the man to her office, gave him a tour and sat down to hear him out. "I said, 'I'm an honorable person; that's why I did this. I know how unusual it is. I may come to work in a dress, but you can still call me Dave,'" Hallquist said.

Hallquist didn't identify the questioner, but David Whitcomb, an Eden resident, acknowledged that it was him. Whitcomb declined to discuss the situation in detail, but said that after he and Hallquist talked for 45 minutes, he came away "fully satisfied."

While Hallquist has made clear it won't bother her if people continue to call her Dave or use male pronouns, that's not the case for all transgender people, particularly if their wishes are blatantly ignored.

"It's almost like a slap in the face or a reminder that 'I don't see you as you see yourself,'" Kraus said. "For those of us who are not transgender, it's important to understand those little words, they become bigger."

Hallquist said both employees and colleagues have asked for clarity on that: Should they use "Dave" or "Christine"? The pronoun "he" or "she"?

Hallquist announced last week that starting December 1, it will be Christine who walks through the office door, visits line workers on the job, testifies on behalf of the company at the legislature and represents Vermont at national rural electric co-op meetings.

Vermont Electric Co-op board members — the people who are essentially Hallquist's bosses — say they are ready.

"My sense is, it isn't going to be an issue," said Michelle DaVia, a co-op board member from Westford, who struggled herself over which name or pronoun to use as she spoke about Hallquist. "Christine — and Dave — has proven herself to be so competent," DaVia said. "I don't believe there's going to be any pushback or resistance or ridicule."

Hallquist's colleagues in the Vermont energy industry are also standing by her.

Vermont Electric Power VP Johnson recalled an August meeting of his company's board in Rutland at which Hallquist asked for some time to speak. When she stood up and announced, "I am transgender," Johnson said, "There were people who were taken aback. Eyes opened up a bit. It was not your run-of-the-mill board meeting," 

Johnson, who knew already, said it was emotional to watch a roomful of others take the news in as Hallquist eloquently told her story. "Spontaneously, everyone started clapping," Johnson said. "It was very moving."

Johnson, who's known Hallquist since 1987, was among a group of state utility leaders who walked with Christine at the 2015 pride parade as a show of support. The event was a first for Johnson, but he described it as "enlightening" as he watched his friend and other transgender people celebrate something they've hidden most of their lives.

Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, was there, too. When Hallquist first told her about Christine, in August, Powell said, it was "one of the most powerful" conversations she's ever had.

"I was really struck by the courage of Dave and his transition to Christine," Powell said. "I already was a big fan of Dave Hallquist, and I'm an even bigger fan of Dave as Christine."

Leading Lady

Dave Hallquist used to lift 90-pound weights for 15 repetitions during regular trips to the gym. Christine limits herself to 30 pounds for 30 reps — partly because she's lost strength since she switched from testosterone to estrogen. But she also wants to keep from bulking up so as to look and feel more feminine. Her once-stocky 5-foot, 10-inch frame could now be described as matronly.

If she hadn't gone public, Hallquist said, her body would have started to give her away. Her skin is softening, and her breasts are developing. She'll soon start working on voice inflection with a speech pathologist. No additional gender reassignment surgery is planned, however, and she's leaving her thinning hair alone. "I've been screwing around with wigs for a few years now," Hallquist said. "I think I'm finally getting there."

Her transition has also afforded Hallquist the rare opportunity to experience life both as a man and as a woman. Those who don't buy into the notion that there are emotional differences between the two might not agree with Hallquist's assessment so far. As Christine, she said, she's less angry and a better listener.

"I do like what it's done for my leadership. It's going to take a few years to figure out how much of it is gender-related or not," she said. "I love the fact that I can just ask questions and listen and take more of a backseat." She said she's become more conscious of how women are treated at business meetings, whether their ideas are taken as seriously as men's, and will be watching that unfold. 

Those around Hallquist have noticed she's happier. "There's been a change," DaVia said. "The last couple years you could tell there was something going on with him. He was less happy, less outgoing. Now, he seems very much relaxed."

Through her long transition, Hallquist has had doubts about what she was doing and putting others through. "I do get brief moments of 'This is insane,' but they're brief. The reality is, I know this is the right thing to do," she said.

"I do really feel at peace as Christine," Hallquist said. "That was the part I really didn't know a couple weeks ago. It's amazing how many people see it. It shows in my face, in my expression.

"I'm pretty sure I will not miss being Dave," she continued, "I'm so much more comfortable."

Challenges remain, of course. By December 1, her name needs to be changed legally — and all of her identification updated. Otherwise, Hallquist risks getting stopped by police and handing over a driver's license that identifies her as David. "There's many states that are not as loving as we are," she observed.

The biggest test of all could come next year, when Hallquist plans to attend a conference of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an organization with which she has long been active. Many of the group's members come from rural areas of the South and Midwest. Being Christine there won't be as easy as it was at the Renewable Energy Vermont conference.

"They're very conservative. They start their meetings with Christian prayers," Hallquist said. "I'm recognized for my skills and talent at the national level. Will I lose that?"

Not according to the association's media-relations director, who responded via email to an inquiry from Seven Days. "Christine has a long history of leadership and professionalism within the electric utility industry and among electric cooperatives," said Debbie Wing. "She is a respected and appreciated member of the electric cooperative family."

Like any CEO, Hallquist always has an eye to the future. But the past two months have confirmed how hard it is to plan something so personal and life-changing. Since Christine went public, Hallquist said, none of her fears of rejection, scorn or dismissal have materialized.

She said: "I didn't expect to feel this good about it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Becoming Christine"

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