Finding Lana: The Story of a Transgender Columbus Firefighter
Sitting alone at a table in a wine bistro, waiting for her dining companion, Lana Moore looks like an ordinary woman.
Middle-aged and pretty, she's wearing dark jeans, black flats and a burgundy sweater. She waves a manicured hand and smiles, which highlights the apples of her high cheekbones and brightens her honey brown eyes. Her hair curls softly around athletic shoulders. She's tall, just over 6 feet, but slender. A gold pendant in the shape of a firefighter's crest hangs from a delicate chain around her neck. She orders a glass of pinot noir.
"My name is Larry, and I'll be taking care of you tonight," the server offers before departing to fetch her drink.
Once he's out of earshot, Moore quips sweetly: "I don't think I'll have a problem remembering that."
Larry is a name Moore won't soon forget. It's the name she heard daily for 48 years, the name by which she introduced herself and the name to which she answered. It was a name she hid behind. Moore, 55, hasn't always been a woman, and Larry Moore was her name when she was a man-a son, a husband, a father. A little more than seven years ago, after spending decades feeling like a prisoner to her own body, Moore bid farewell to Larry and became entirely, unequivocally Lana. A captain within the Columbus Division of Fire, she made her transition on the job and, much to her surprise, was met not with hatred and intolerance but rather an outpouring of support and understanding. Today, Moore remains a leader on the fire truck and has become a different sort of leader off it, advocating for transgender equality and serving as a role model for other transgender people, including firefighters and children, across the country. Finally, Moore is the woman she feels she was always meant to be, and she is far from ordinary.
Moore entered the world four minutes before her sister in 1960. The twins were the youngest of five children, raised in a Catholic home in East Columbus. From the moment the pair left their mother's womb, their differences were emphasized. Friends and relatives cooed, always asking which was the girl and which was the boy. While her sister wore skirts and dresses, Moore was dressed in shorts and pants.
"The differences between boy and girl were always spelled out," Moore recalls. "From as far back as I can remember, I just remember wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to be like my twin." Her twin wasn't teased when she sat with her legs crossed or let a high-pitched giggle escape when she laughed, but Moore was. "Boys don't sit like that," other children and even adults would sneer. "Boys don't laugh like that." When Moore would sniffle during Little League games, she'd hear the chastising response: "Boys don't cry."
"I think out loud; I talk with my hands," Moore says. "Growing up, when I'd let my guard down and was being myself, I would get shamed. My whole life, I learned just to suppress that."
Alone time was rare in a family of seven, so Moore capitalized on every quiet moment she had in the empty house. She'd hurry to the basement, pull out a box of the girls' dress-up clothes, and put on dresses, high heels and costume jewelry. There, shut away from the world, Moore could be herself without fear of judgment.
"At the time, I thought it was because I was a twin, and one of us had to be a boy," Moore recalls. "I rationalized that it would go away when I was 10, and I would feel like a real boy. And it didn't go away. Then I thought, when I'm a teenager, it'll go away. And it didn't."
She remembers asking male friends if they ever tried on their sister's clothes or wonderedwhat it'd be like to be a girl. Their response ("Hell no!") was clear. Those thoughts and urges were not to be expressed, so Moore buried them.
"I obsessed with it. It's all I thought about," Moore says. "A little kid shouldn't be spending their time wondering why they're different, wondering why they can't be who they want to be."
Discussion and visibility of transgender people and issues they face are becoming increasingly mainstream. Still, while 90 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual, only 8 percent say they personally know someone who is transgender, according to a poll by GLAAD and Harris Interactive. "This makes media visibility all that much more important for transgender people," says Nick Adams, director of communications and special projects for GLAAD. Last year, actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox, best known for her role as transgender prison inmate (and former firefighter) Sophia Burset in Netflix's "Orange is the New Black," became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. TV shows like Amazon's "Transparent," CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" and TLC's upcoming reality series "All That Jazz," about 14-year-old transgender teen Jazz Jennings, bring transgender people into America's living room. Most recently, former Olympic athlete and reality TV personality Bruce Jenner captivated a national audience with his highly anticipated interview with Diane Sawyer, during which he announced his transition to a woman.
This certainly wasn't the case when Moore was growing up. Back then, Christine Jorgenson was the most widely known transgender person. News of her transition from male to female broke in 1952 with a headline that screamed "Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty," and she was immediately thrust into the limelight. But Moore didn't even hear the term transgender until she attended a transgender support group as an adult. There, she learned about gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria, which was known as gender identity disorder until 2013, is a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. People who have gender dysphoria feel strongly that they were assigned the wrong sex at birth. Many people describe it as being trapped inside the wrong body.
"I spent a lifetime trying to figure it out and make sense of it," Moore says. "I had thought I was the only one."
High school was an effective distraction for her. She joined clubs and focused on her studies. An avid drawer, she took art classes and reveled in painting and illustrating. Her senior year, Moore became Independence High School's first senior class president. After graduation, she parlayed her part-time job at Kroger into a full-time gig for a few years until, at the age of 21, she followed in the footsteps of the other men in her family. Like her older brother, father and grandfather, Moore became a firefighter.
Moore joined the Columbus Division of Fire in 1981, and soon met fellow rookie Sam Cox. The two worked at the same station, shared an interest in computers-they "liked the same nerdy stuff," as Moore puts it-and quickly became friends. Over the next several years, they'd open a computer and electronics business together and buy houses in the same neighborhood, where they'd raise their children as neighbors. Cox has always admired Moore's integrity as a firefighter.
"When you get any kind of a government job, you can choose to do the bare minimum and collect a check, or you can choose to excel," Cox says. "[Moore] chose to excel. In this job, that makes a difference. People's lives depend on [you] being good or bad. There are people walking the planet today because he was good at his job."
Here, Cox stops himself. Cox was the first firefighter in whom Moore confided about being transgender, and he has supported his friend every step of the way. Though his dear friend has been a woman for more than seven years, Cox still slips sometimes with his pronoun usage.
"I've struggled with remembering to use she instead of he, Lana instead of Larry," Cox says. "I've known Larry up until recently. I switch back and forth. I'm sure it's a source of frustration for her." (Moore says the mix-ups only upset her when they're intentional or malicious. Transitioning isn't only a change for transgender people; the people in their lives experience the transition, too.)
Cox recalls a time when Moore's honor and bravery shone brightly.
"We had what we called a nightmare run," he says. "It was the middle of the night, and a child was trapped inside a burning house. Lana was the first one dressed and into the smoke and heat. Unless you've done it, you can't imagine what that's like. You're just scared you're not good enough, that you're going to fail. She hears a cough, which guides her through the room. She grabs the child, and now it's a matter of getting out of the house. Seconds count now. She's listening, thinking. She hears someone banging near the front door. That guides her, and she saves the child. Now, the average person couldn't have done that. They'd have floundered. That child would be dead. That's the kind of firefighter [Moore] is."
Becoming a firefighter was a thrill for Moore. It was so exciting that, at first, she was able to suppress the urges to cross-dress and, more deeply, feelings of gender dysphoria.
"It was a very masculine career," she says. "I was trying to make it go away. I could finally be a real man, this person everyone wanted me to be. I felt like it finally went away." A pause, then she continues: "But it always came back."
In 1987, Moore married Faith, a woman she'd met in her early 20s while the two were working at Kroger. "We couldn't get enough of each other," Moore recalls. Faith (not her real name) knew about Moore's cross-dressing; while they were engaged, she'd found a box of wigs, makeup and articles of women's clothing Moore had stashed in a closet. "She confronted me, and my heart about beat out of my chest," Moore says. Still, they were in love and excited to marry. As with the other milestones in her life, Moore thought marriage would finally resolve her identity crisis once and for all. "I promised her it wasn't a problem and I'd never do it again," she says. "That's a promise I wanted to keep, but deep down I knew I probably wouldn't be able to."
Sure enough, about six months after their wedding, Moore began collecting more wigs and clothes. Faith was supportive, and she tried her best to embrace her husband's cross-dressing. They attended marriage counseling. They watched Phil Donahue specials about cross-dressing and befriended couples experiencing similar issues. Then, in the early '90s, Faith delivered their first child, and Moore dove into fatherhood.
Moore adores her children, one daughter and one son. As their father, Moore coached them in soccer and took them to dances and birthday parties. She volunteered at their schools and at church. Before the children were born, Moore had considered the possibility of physically transitioning to female, but felt a responsibility as a father. "I fulfilled that role very dutifully," Moore says. "I enjoyed it."
The Cox and Moore families spent a lot of time together when their children were young. Cox remembers Moore renting a purple dinosaur costume and playing the role of Barney for a birthday party one year. "[Moore] was a good family man, a good father," Cox says.
Moore struggled to find a balance between the person she felt she was supposed to be and the person she knew she was inside. Alcohol helped numb the pain. "I never considered myself an alcoholic," Moore says. "But if you're drinking more than social drinking … by definition, I was." (In 2003, Moore quit drinking and remained sober for six years.)
For decades, Moore lived as a man-then came the tipping point. Around 2008, four Columbus firefighters died consecutively within a few months, and Moore felt something in addition to sadness.
"I was jealous," she recalls. "I thought, 'Lucky bastards.' Here, I had a wonderful spouse, beautiful children, a wonderful house, a great job, and all I could think was: 'When can I get this over with?' " That's when Moore knew she couldn't go on that way.
When a man takes estrogen, it has some physical effects. Skin softens, and body hair thins and lightens. Breast tissue begins to form, and body fat might begin to gravitate toward the hips and buttocks. Hormone replacement therapy also has mental effects. For a typical man, those effects would be uncomfortable. But for a person with gender dysphoria, like Moore, those effects can provide clarity. Moore compares it to tuning a radio that's drifted slightly off channel.
"You're putting up with it, and after a while it doesn't really bother you," she says. "But then you tune it correctly, and the bass is rich and it's crystal clear and you think, 'Why didn't I do that sooner?' That's what [estrogen] was like. I just felt like I could think clearer, and everyday interactions seemed to work better."
Though Moore's secret was never easy to keep, it became impossible once her body began to change. She had made up her mind; she would become Lana. Now more than ever, she needed to tell the people in her life.
Debbie Beck thought the worst the day her younger brother asked her to come over and talk.
"I was scared," Beck remembers. "I thought she was going to tell me she was dying. In a way, that's what she was telling me. Larry was dying." Afterward, Beck cried as she drove home. She was relieved her sibling wasn't ill, but she knew she was losing a brother. On the other hand, she was gaining a sister, and she knew the decision wasn't made rashly.
"Larry was always so level-headed," she says. "He always made good decisions, so I knew this was really something he had to do. Even though it was hard, I loved him and I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to go through it with him."
Beck's voice thickens when she talks about Larry, but she says Lana is still the same kind, loving person her brother always was. Today, the sisters are closer than ever. They share things they couldn't share before. Most importantly, she loves seeing Moore so much happier.
"She's finally enjoying life," Beck says. "I feel like all those years she was in prison, and now she's finally out."
Through one heart-wrenching conversation after another, Moore came out as a transgender woman to family members. Some remain supportive; others aren't. Faith and the kids were devastated at first, but have since reached a level of acceptance and even understanding. (The couple divorced in 2009.) In her purse, Moore carries a handwritten Father's Day card she received from her daughter last year. Though she still calls Moore "Dad," she wrote she was proud of the woman her father had become.
Telling her blood relatives was hard, but Moore knew telling her other family-her "fire family," as she says-would be even harder. Moore, who'd risen to the rank of captain, went to Cox first.
"At first I thought it was a joke," Cox recalls. He, too, thought Moore was sick. "I was extremely relieved she wasn't dying from something. Her appearance was changing dramatically. I remember I said something like, 'Oh, is that it?' " Cox kept his friend's secret for months while Moore worked with a counselor to develop a transition plan, which would include coming out to the chief, senior officers, her commanding squad, as well as the rest of the division's 1,500 firefighters. Moore was surprised to learn she was the first Columbus firefighter to transition on the job. (The counselor who worked with Moore could neither confirm nor deny whether this is true, citing confidentiality.) Moore worked with the counselor, Cox and a communications specialist to write the coming-out letter she posted on the labor union's blog.
"The changes I'm undergoing are fundamental to my life, though they certainly are not easily understood by most," Moore wrote. "I'm not asking you to approve or even to understand. But I am asking you to recognize that my decision is not made in haste, nor is it made with ease. I've weighed risks, assessed benefits and know this is what I have to do."
No one-not Moore, not her siblings, not Cox-expected the tremendous amount of support she received.
"I thought I had the one job where you couldn't transition," Moore says. "But in reality, it turned out to be very good."
Moore acknowledges her experience-a relatively smooth transition met with love and support from family, friends and coworkers-is not the norm in the transgender community.
After the tragic death of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn in Cincinnati last December, the issue of transgender suicide grabbed hold of the media and the general population and shook them by the shoulders. According to GLAAD, 41 percent of transgender people say they've attempted suicide (compared to less than 2 percent of the general population). Ninety percent of transgender people report experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job. In 2013, 72 percent of LGBT homicide victims were transgender women, the majority of whom were transgender women of color, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
Moore's story, thankfully, has had a much happier ending. Cox says they didn't give their fellow firefighters enough credit from the start.
"You have a bunch of tough guys you're thinking could be narrow-minded, and they weren't," he says. "It says a lot for them, but mostly for her. She was such a good firefighter, so well-liked and well-respected. The attitude was, 'Here's a guy who needs our help. Let's at least not add to his problems.' "
On Dec. 8, 2008, Capt. Lana Moore reported for duty for the first time. For the next 21 months, she worked light duty-a desk job-while she completed her transition. In 2009, she traveled to the so-called "Land of Smiles" to complete her physical transition. While she could have had the surgeries in the U.S., Moore chose to travel to Thailand, which has an abundance of surgeons who specialize in sex reassignment surgery, for its symbolic appeal. Her transformation in Thailand was as spiritual as it was physical.
"I wanted to go to the other side of the world, where night is day and day is night," she says. "It was a journey. I had a lot of time to rest and reflect."
When she returned, fully a woman, Moore's new life began.
On a sunny afternoon in March, Moore opens the front door of her firehouse. Dressed in her firefighter's uniform, navy blue slacks and jacket, she greets a mother and her two young children. They've traveled here for a tour of the firehouse and to meet Moore. The younger of the excitable male children, who's wearing a pink puffy coat and whose long hair is pinned back with a barrette, identifies as a girl. The mother, supportive of her child's gender identity, found Moore online and hoped she might be able to provide some inspiration. Her child isn't finding the same level of support at school as she is at home. The children bolt toward the shiny, red fire truck with fervor.
Since coming out as openly transgender, Moore has become an advocate for transgender equality. She mentors local transgender women through Franklin County's CATCH Court, a rehabilitation program for victims of sex trafficking. She's also a mentor to dozens of transgender firefighters around the country, who found her online and look to her for support and guidance. Moore maintains a blog, an active personal Facebook page and a private Facebook group for transgender firefighters.
She recently received an email from one of her mentees. It's Moore, the woman wrote, who gave her the courage to come out to her own mother. "I don't know how often you hear it," she wrote, "but be assured your visibility and the example you've provided is a great service to those of us who are summoning the strength to do what we need to do in our lives."
Moore acknowledges the tremendous responsibility attached to mentoring, however informal it might be.
"People are responsible for their own decisions, but you don't want them to wreck their lives," Moore says. "I'm just honest. I tell them, this is my story and my experience, but there are as many ways to be transgender as there are to be human."
More recently, parents of children exploring their gender identity, like the mother who brought her family to the firehouse, have begun reaching out to Moore. She often wonders what her life would have been like if she'd been able to come out as a child.
"In some ways, I envy them," she says. "Sometimes, I wish I could have just lived my life as Lana, but then I realize, I couldn't wish my kids away. I couldn't wish away the experiences that I had. I wouldn't be who I am today without them."
In 2013, Moore joined the GLAAD board of directors. GLAAD is the national communications epicenter for the LGBT movement and works to ensure fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues in the media. Of the board's 30 members, four are transgender. Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender author and co-chair of the GLAAD board, recruited her.
"Lana is one of our more respected and beloved board members," says Boylan, an English professor at Barnard College of Columbia University. "People bring all kinds of things to that board. What Lana brings is a sense of inspiration and courage. When people look at her, they see an American hero.
"It's funny to use the word endearing when you're referring to someone who rushes into burning buildings for a living, but there is something truly endearing about her," Boylan continues. "She has a fundamental kindness and a generosity of spirit that's quite disarming."
When Cricket Miller met Moore for the first time at a holiday party, she asked her a lot of questions.
"I think people are normally very afraid to ask the kind of questions I was asking, but I wanted to understand so that my friendship was sincere," says Miller, whose husband is a firefighter. Moore is an open book, and her willingness to discuss such a personal topic with Miller led to an instant bond. They've been good friends ever since.
"She's one of those people that, if you have a problem and you call her at 3 a.m., she's going to take your call and help you through it," Miller says. "She stands by the people who stand by her."
Debbie Beck says her sister is a strong soul. "I'm so proud of her, both for being a captain on the [Columbus Division of Fire] and for all she's gone through," she says. "For not running and hiding from it, for not being ashamed. I applaud her for it."
Moore lowers her head bashfully at compliments, whether they refer to her appearance (she has skin other women must envy, stunning bone structure and a beautiful smile) or her character and courage. She doesn't see herself as a hero. She not only risks her life as a firefighter, but she's also a voice of change and a beacon of hope for transgender men, women and children.
"I have always felt a call to duty, both in being a firefighter and in the transgender community," she says. "I wanted to step up and do my part for activism. A lot of my activism in the last few years is just that; it's just being visible. That's good activism. We have all these organizations that work on getting policies and laws changed, but we kind of are the precursor by helping to change people's attitudes," she says. "We're storytellers. It's harder to hate someone when you know their story."
GLAAD is a national organization that promotes fair, accurate and inclusive media coverage of LGBT issues to eliminate homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The organization has compiled a list of tips specific to transgender-related issues. Below are seven to keep in mind.
1. You can't tell if someone is transgender just by looking.
2. Avoid backhanded compliments like, "You look just like a real woman."
3. Be patient with a person who is questioning their gender identity.
4. Understand there is no "right" or "wrong" way to transition-and that it is different for every person.
5. If you don't know what pronouns to use, ask.
6. Don't ask a transgender person what their "real name" is.
7. Challenge anti-trans remarks or jokes in public spaces, including gay-, lesbian- and bisexual-friendly spaces.
Find a complete list of tips at glaad.org