Stefania Pecchini. Photo: courtesy of Stefania Pecchini. All rights reserved.Stefania Pecchini, 51, has been a police officer in her small town near Milan since the early 1990s. When she joined the force, at 24, her name was Fabio.
Today she is the first and only publicly trans woman in the police in Italy, arguably one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries.
“My life was apparently perfect” she told me. “I had just got married with a beautiful woman, I had a job and I was ready to build a family. After two years, she had our first son and shortly afterwards our daughter was born.”
“She wanted me to be a good husband, a good father, a good man. And I tried to fulfill her desires,” Pecchini said. But after the police officer's beloved mother died of cancer, something changed. “It was like the cage I was closed in suddenly opened.”
Pecchini explained that this grief forced her to ask questions about who she was, even if she wasn’t ready to cope with the answers. “I tried to fight my feelings.”
In the following years Pecchini saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with what was then referred to as “transexualism” – when a person’s biological sex does not match their sexual identity. Her initial reaction was confusion, shock and disbelief.
“I was a policeman, I used to think about transexuals as people who lived as prostitutes and drug dealers,” she said. “I can definitely say that the first prejudice I had to fight was mine.”
"the first prejudice I had to fight was mine”
When Pecchini decided to transition, she talked to colleagues and superiors at work. “Some of them were astonished. My bosses told me it wouldn’t be a problem and I felt relieved,” she said. But as hormone therapy went on, problems began.
“My body started to change. There was a moment where I had lost most of male features but I had still not gained a female appearance. People get scared when they are not able to put me into a category.”
Luckily, her area commander was supportive. “He just said that my team should be proud of me, because it was the time to tear down barriers. I was judged for my work and they had to accept it,” Pecchini said.
Stefania Pecchini. Photo: courtesy of Stefania Pecchini. All rights reserved.In Italy, transgender and transexual people are identified by the gender given by their reproductive organs at birth. Unless they opt to undergo reassignment surgery, they cannot change what's recorded on their papers.
Pecchini recalls an incident when, at court with a suspect, she looked like a woman but had to give the judge her official, male name. “I remember the embarrassed silence of those moments,” she said.
Whilst Pecchini later had reassignment surgery, many trans women do not, meaning they remain recorded as men on their official papers. Though, this may be changing.
In 2015, Sonia Marchesi, a trans woman from Piacenza in northern Italy launched a successful legal challenge against how her sex was recorded at the civil registry.
“You cannot imagine how embarrassing this [law] is”
“You cannot imagine how embarrassing this [law] is,” she said outside the court that heard her case. “Once, at hospital, the doctors saw my documents and said: ‘Sorry, there is a mistake: you gave us your husband’s papers.’”
Are these judgments the first steps towards enshrining legal rights to self-determination for trans people in Italy?
Italy has particularly high levels of discrimination against trans people. A 2014 EU agency for fundamental rights report said 81% of those interviewed reported feeling victimised because of their identity; across Europe that figure was 59%.
Pecchini believes that her job in the police has protected her, not least in providing ongoing financial stability. “I already had a good job that allowed me to afford the hormone therapy,” she said.
Italian LGBT rights group Arcigay has found that 45% of trans people have experienced workplace discrimination – higher than 40% of all LGBT people. A staggering 25% reported losing their job after coming out as trans.
'Pecchini believes that her job in the police has protected her, not least in providing ongoing financial stability'
Employment and earnings have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of trans people because of the often prohibitively high cost of hormone treatments. Only a few Italian regions provide therapy on the national health service.
Cathy La Torre, vice-president of the Transexual Identity Movement, told me that the price of hormones can range from 20-180 euros per month. On top of this there may be additional costs for psychological or aesthetic treatments.
The Trans Murder Monitoring project collects data on homicides of trans and gender-diverse people worldwide. By their research, between 2008 and 2016 at least 30 trans people were killed in Italy, compared to 8 in the UK and 5 in France.
Rights activist Ottavia Voza from Arcigay is adamant: “Italy clearly has a problem.” She believes trans people must be more “serenely visible” and that Italy needs a “cultural revolution” to make this happen.
Pecchini told me that “the term ‘transexual’ was always linked to a certain and negative idea that is not real. I had to fight this myself when I began my transition.”
She described finding “no information on what being a trans person really means,” although “what a trans woman or man seeks is the same as everyone...normality.”