'I was not a pretty girl, and I felt like I was a man'

Appearance matters to Diego Sanchez, whose black blazer, blue jeans and gold-striped tie are worn confidently. A neatly manicured goatee, mustache and close-cropped silver hair frame the 51-year-old’s smile.

The newest addition to Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) staff, Sanchez also boasts an impeccable résumé. Named one of the 100 most powerful Latinos in corporate America by Hispanic Business magazine, Sanchez carries 29 years of experience in corporate public relations, diversity management and healthcare policy work.

But what the new legislative aide’s Capitol colleagues may not know is that Sanchez was born a female. Sanchez is the only University of Georgia letterman known to have earned the letter on the women’s tennis team.

From an early age, Sanchez wasn’t comfortable being a girl.

“I spent lots of years feeling like I had just feasted on that Thanksgiving meal and then was told that it was time for the family bathing-suit fashion show,” Sanchez said. “And it’s not that you look huge, it’s that you feel like you look huge. I looked like a very not-good-looking woman; I was not a pretty girl, and I felt like I was a man.

“I felt like I was a boy forever, and as you grow up, adolescence begins to betray you because you start to take on characteristics. For me, I knew I was missing [physical] parts, but then when I started growing parts, that was really bad. Growing breasts is a hard thing for a man — at least for this man.”

“I was born wrong,” Sanchez remembers saying as a 5-year-old. Instead of the expected scolding, Sanchez’s parents embraced him.

The “greatest heroes” of Sanchez’s life raised their child as both a boy and a girl. “My parents dually socialized me,” Sanchez said. “My dad socialized me as a boy and taught me all the things I needed to know, and my mother socialized me as a girl, so that however I worked it out, I would not be without lessons that would sustain my life.”

Sanchez’s parents had their own hardships. Sanchez’s mother is East German. She was an orphan, and due to her looks was imprisoned during World War II in a labor camp. Sanchez’s father was in the U.S. Army unit that liberated the camp. He eventually brought her back to the States, where the couple wed.

“They made me understand the value of every breath of oxygen, and that it’s a gift. And they made me understand that everything that you can contribute to society and community is something that you owe back for the sake of just being here,” Sanchez reflected.

Sanchez took hormonal drugs, such as testosterone, for many years, and underwent a series of surgical operations, which were completed in the mid-1990s. Is there anything he misses about being a woman? “No,” says Sanchez, “because you know what? I wasn’t. I just looked like one.”

The question of Sanchez’s former name is “very painful,” he says, because “it’s sort of like saying, ‘So what was it like before you got that prosthetic leg? What was it like to hobble?’ ”

DNC Chairman Howard Dean appointed Sanchez to be the first transgender person on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Platform Committee. It was a proud moment.

Sanchez was able to get a national AIDS strategy adopted by the party, gain family recognition for same-sex couples and win party platform changes to protect gender identity as well as sexual orientation from employment discrimination.

Winning gender equity protections had become a major issue for members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, particularly those who identify as transgender or transsexual.

Frank, a gay man and champion of gay rights, sponsored a bill in 2007 that would have broadened federal non-discrimination laws to include
LGBT employees. But soon after, a whip count revealed that many lawmakers who would vote for including language protecting sexual orientation would not vote for language encompassing gender identity.

Rather than pursue a bill that was not going to pass, Frank proposed a new bill that did not protect transgender employees from being fired, saying that it was the first step toward an all-inclusive bill.

“No matter what people think, the truth is, there were not the votes,” Sanchez said. “If the votes were there, the bill would have reflected it.”

Some in the transgender community accused Frank of abandoning their cause and criticized the nearly 30-year veteran of Congress.

“People got upset and said, ‘Why is Barney telling us we have to go meet with our legislators?’ ” Sanchez said. “But he said, while we know it’s more boring than having rallies, the effective work is getting to the legislators and the staff so that they see the faces of the people who are being affected.”

And when Frank hired Sanchez at the beginning of this year, some saw it as a token gesture to appease angry members of the transgender community. But those who know Frank and Sanchez say this notion is ridiculous.

“Nobody that knows anything about Congressman Frank would think that he would make decisions on anything other than getting the work done,” said Mara Kiesling, a longtime friend and colleague of Sanchez’s and director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“I think [Frank] is very aware of the significance of it. I just don’t think that’s why he did it. And frankly, I’m glad. I don’t want members of Congress taking token opportunities.”

The Obama administration, also with an eye toward diversity, has hired more than 20 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people for jobs ranging from Dr. Jill Biden’s scheduler to NASA’s White House liaison.

Frank’s bill hit close to home when Diane Schroer, formerly David, was allegedly offered a job and then not hired by the Library of Congress (LoC) after announcing plans to live as a woman. A judge ruled against the transsexual former Army Special Forces commander last year when Schroer tried to sue the department for discrimination. The LoC has since offered $10,000 in reparations.

Joe Racalto, Sanchez’s predecessor, who is now chief of staff to Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), said Frank’s list of possible replacements contained only one name because nobody else can do what Diego Sanchez does.

Frank said of Sanchez: “He has virtually no learning curve — he’s very smart.  He knows the music. He’s got to learn the words, but he’s very much in tune.

“One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re pragmatic, but I’m idealistic.’ And my answer is, the more you care about your ideals, the more you’re obligated to be concerned about implementing them, and that’s what I found in Diego from the beginning: a passion for the policy and, precisely because of that, a commitment to getting it done in the best way possible.”

Sanchez said Frank is showing what non-discrimination in hiring looks like.

“It’s about Congressman Frank’s leadership and courage to step up and bring in someone qualified for the assigned portfolio who also is a transgender man,” Sanchez said. “He’s raised the bar. I’m first, which means we hope there will be more. He is demonstrating what employment non-discrimination can and should look like — inclusion.”

Both Frank and Sanchez are optimistic that an all-inclusive employee non-discrimination
(ENDA) bill will pass this year, thanks to the legwork the
transgender community did on Capitol Hill.

But the ENDA measure is only a fraction of what Sanchez has been tasked with in Frank’s office. As Frank’s legislative assistant, Sanchez is also tackling healthcare reform, equality-of-rights issues pertaining to race, sexual and gender orientation, people with disabilities and veterans’ rights.

“It’s what I wake up thinking about in the morning, I really do,” Sanchez said. “And it’s what I do a mental check on when I leave, to make sure I’ve touched something that affects our constituents in each of these areas every day.”

Sanchez is slowly becoming a member of the Capitol Hill community, though Frank said he has seen less of a reaction to the aide’s arrival than he expected. But not for lack of effort on Sanchez’s part.

Instead of the main office phone number typically printed on staffer business cards, Sanchez’s has his direct line. Sanchez doesn’t want isolation and, according to Frank, is “very good with people face to face.”

Sanchez carries two cell phones, a BlackBerry and a personal phone that has had the same number since the advent of cell phones. The aide says the cell number will remain the same because people in the LGBT community give it out to those in trouble — whether they’re homeless because they’ve just disclosed themselves to their families or whether they’ve just lost their job because of disclosing themselves. Sanchez never plans to stop taking the calls.

“Every day when I come through the metal detectors and put the cell phones in the bin I thank God because I know so many people like me who do not get to go to work every day,” Sanchez said.

“It’s not something that I make up. I know people who have lost their jobs the minute they disclosed they were either transitioning or were transgender.”

Sanchez also tries to counsel and warn people in the LGBT community against violence, teaching them to stay in bright, populated areas. Walking in a dimly lit area of Boston years ago, Sanchez was attacked at knifepoint, and thus now knows the importance of observing one’s surroundings at all times.

“I’ve lived in big cities most of my life — for about 30 years — and it’s something that we are all very aware of, that there is danger in the world,” he said. “So we may choose a slightly longer route to get somewhere if there’s more light and more people.”

Sanchez has been fortunate in the job market, having worked, before coming to Capitol Hill, as director of public relations and external affairs at the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and the AIDS Action Council in Washington. The aide holds a journalism degree with a public relations major, and has worked for Coca-Cola Co., the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and Sheraton hotels.

But a lot has changed since then.

“I was a person working in corporate America as a masculine female for years, and I would’ve given anything to be able to wear a tie,” Sanchez said. “So now that I can, I’m going to. You may see me raking leaves in a tie, because I can.”