Salem Witch Hunt

When you're a "he" who wants to become a "she," a small-town firehouse is a nasty place to be.

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Jimmie Lee Smith isn't very womanly, though he does try. He stands 5 foot 10, with boxy shoulders. His hands are callused and gnarled and enormous. He speaks in a high, quiet voice, and like most intensely private people, he's comfortable with long silences.

The bells of his ankle bracelet softly jangle with his hip-swaying walk. But occasionally he takes a full stride and lets his arms swing. Underneath the mascara, you see a thick-boned man with a rambling gait and a face full of pain.

Smith spent decades forcing himself to appear masculine, and old habits die hard. "When he's thinking about it, he's very feminine," says his wife, Ellie. "When he's not thinking about it, when he's busy doing something, he has no female traits at all."

Jimmie Lee Smith is a fireman in Salem, 15 miles outside of Youngstown. He worked seven years for the department before allowing his womanly side to come out in 2001. A change like that would be difficult anywhere. Most people have a hard time accepting someone they've always known as a "he" who now wishes to be called a "she." But it's an especially difficult change to make in a conservative factory town like Salem. Making the switch around firefighters is even tougher.

"The guys I work with are good guys," says Smith, 49. "For the most part, they'd do anything for anybody. But we were all taught from a young age that anything that's not normal was not acceptable . . . So a lot of people are against me from the get-go."

When Smith started acting like a woman, the reaction came immediately. Colleagues barely managed to hide their contempt beneath a mounting tide of gay jokes. The mayor, fire chief, and various city council members plotted to fire him. One plan even involved disbanding the fire department altogether. So far, each plot has failed. And while most firefighters still don't enjoy having a woman/man on the force, Smith's effort to save their jobs has at least won him some grudging respect.

Jimmie Lee Smith went on his first fire call when he was six months old. His father worked as a volunteer fireman in Mineral City, near Canton. "He had me uptown with him and the fire siren blew, and he had no choice but to take me to the fire station, throw me up in the front seat, and away we went," Smith says. "My dad says he hasn't been able to get me away from fires since."

His father worked in a coal mine, and most of his relatives are Baptists or evangelical Christians. Not ideal circumstances for a boy who felt like a girl. "I used to lay in bed at night at a real young age and cry myself to sleep, feeling things was real screwed up," Smith says. "I couldn't put my finger on what it was, but I knew something wasn't right."

He bounced on the balls of his feet from the moment he could walk. His hands flipped loosely as he spoke. When he listened to others, he cocked his head to the side and curled his palm under his cheek. He and the neighbor boy would pitch a tent and camp in the backyard. The boy pretended to be the husband; Smith would play the wife.

Other kids called him a sissy and beat him up. "My grandmother would tell me not to worry about it, because I was supposed to be a girl anyway," Smith says.

His mother took him to the doctor to see whether his girlish walk was caused by a foot deformity. The doctor found nothing physically wrong, but he made Smith walk up and down a hallway for half an hour as he offered instructions on how to walk like a man. Smith's church finally allowed him into the choir, but only after he worked for weeks with a male singer to practice lowering his voice. Meanwhile, Smith's parents kept pestering him: Why didn't he have a girlfriend? So he started dating a girl named Lisa.

At age 17, Smith left high school and joined the military. He hoped his desire to become a woman was just a phase and that the Air Force would train him to be a man. It worked, but only to a point. His drill sergeant repeatedly threatened that if Smith didn't stop bouncing on the balls of his feet, he'd be sent to live in the women's quarters.

Smith finally reined in his sashaying walk. He became a fighter-jet mechanic. When he turned 18, he flew home and married Lisa, then brought her back to the base. He bought a 1965 Mustang, tweaked the engine, and took it out on country roads to drag-race. "I did a pretty good job of covering some of it up," Smith says. "Anything I could do to convince people that I was a guy and keep them off of my back."

But the better Smith got at hiding his feminine side, the more depressed he became. He started wearing his wife's clothes around the house. She caught him a number of times. He felt ashamed, but they never discussed it. He drank more and more, usually alone. Eventually the Air Force sent him for a psychological evaluation. Two doctors told Smith they suspected he was transsexual. "I jumped up out of my chair and told them they were full of crap," Smith says. "And I left the office, and I never went back. That's how much I was trying to deny that anything was happening."

Smith re-upped for another four years, but his drinking and depression worsened, and the Air Force kicked him out. He and Lisa divorced. Eventually he moved to Wilson, North Carolina. He enrolled in a local community college to study fire science, and he joined a volunteer fire department. He also started a relationship with a man. For the first time in his life, Smith felt comfortable being himself. "I felt very relaxed when I was with him," he says. "I dressed female when I was with him, and he treated me female."

The relationship ended when Smith found his boyfriend in a swimming pool with a naked woman. He spiraled into a deep depression, and his brothers arrived from Canton to bring him home. He wound up back in his parents' house in 1988, living under his parents' rules. No dressing like a woman. No talking like a woman. No moping. He drove a truck and joined a volunteer fire district. He also met Ellie, who was working for an ambulance company at the time, and they started dating.

In 1993, Smith heard about an opening with the Salem fire department. He made the highest score on the entrance test. Between his degree and his years as a volunteer firefighter, Smith was one of the best-qualified rookies ever to join the force. When the city's former safety director, Hank Willard, took the new recruit to the fire station for the first time, he half-jokingly introduced Smith as "our next chief."

The joke ruffled feathers among some veterans. "Some of them said, 'Who does this new guy think he is?'" says inspector Aldie Breault, who has 28 years on the force. "It didn't go over well with people."

In many ways, Smith's new life was the best he'd ever known. He and Ellie married in 1995. They rented a little house, and for the first time he had a stable job. "When I first met Jimmie Lee, he could fit everything he owned in the back of a Bronco," Ellie says. "I'd like to see him try that now."

Smith became a well-respected fireman. "There's never been any question about Jim's ability as a firefighter," says Mike Burns, president of the union. "He's always done his job well."

He applied for a lieutenant's position in 1998. Competing against eight others, Smith got the highest score on the civil service exam. He won the job and skipped two levels in the department hierarchy. "He blew them right out of the water," Ellie says. "Nobody else even came close."

The promotion meant Smith was often the only officer on duty. But he still felt he was living a lie. He found a counselor. After a year of therapy, Smith decided that he could never be happy unless he became a woman in everyday life. "It was either start being who I was or jump off a cliff."

Smith finally told his wife that he suspected he was transsexual. The news was difficult to hear. "I was not thrilled that he didn't give me a choice, that he didn't tell me before we got married," Ellie says. The day after Smith confided in her, Ellie went to Goodwill and bought him women's clothes. "I was open," she says. "Nobody has to know what happens behind our door."

Smith felt relieved that he could finally dress and act like a woman around the house, but it was only the first step. He wouldn't be comfortable until he lived as a woman full-time, even around the firehouse. He made his preparations quietly. He shopped for wigs over the internet. He bought women's clothes, but only a few at a time, trying to look like a dutiful husband shopping for his wife. He contacted the Veterans Administration and began hormone therapy in 2001. He stopped cutting his fingernails and let his hair grow until it fell over his ears. Then he girded himself for the response.

"A lot of this he brought on himself," Ellie says. "Salem is an extremely good-old-boy town. One of the worst. He knew what would happen if he opened his mouth at the fire station."

The Salem fire department is a man's world. Since its founding in 1841, it has never employed a firewoman. Today it consists of 16 men. When the city constructed a new station in 1999, it didn't bother to build separate sleeping quarters or restrooms for women. "It's a very testosterone-filled environment," says Stephanie Ritchie, wife of fireman Bill Ritchie. "I mean, they're all guys. They watch Spike TV all night, and they watch college football every Saturday and pro football every Sunday."

So when Lieutenant Smith started sashaying around the station in March 2001, everyone noticed. Smith let his hips sway side to side. He pressed his knees together when he sat down. He stopped sleeping in the bunks near the other guys and instead slept in the recliner in front of the TV. Homosexuality had always been fertile ground for humor around the station, but the gay jokes became more frequent, Smith says, and more pointed.

Once, Smith walked into the TV room while someone was watching a Jerry Springer show about fighting transsexuals. "Are you related to these people?" the fireman asked. People often stopped talking when he entered a room. Sometimes they'd get up and leave. "It never got violent, but it was quite uncomfortable," Smith says.

"Jimmie Lee always kinda fit in," Stephanie Ritchie says. "I never heard anything bad about him until the last couple years. This is a very close-knit, conservative community that doesn't look highly on stuff like that."

Smith's boss, Captain Thomas Eastek, repeatedly asked Smith what was happening. In April 2001, Smith agreed to tell him, but only after Eastek promised not to tell anyone, especially Chief Walt Greenamyer.

Smith told Eastek that ever since he could remember, he'd felt like a girl trapped in a boy's body. He talked about his lifelong struggle to restrain his body movements, about his years of alcohol abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Smith said he planned to start the painful process of sex-change surgeries in a few years. In the meantime, he would start growing breasts with the help of estrogen pills. Eventually, maybe in a few weeks, he agreed to tell the chief.

Smith never got the chance. Within hours, Eastek divulged the conversation to Chief Greenamyer. Seventeen days later, Greenamyer and Law Director Brooke Zellers called a secret meeting to discuss ways to fire Smith. Also in attendance were Mayor Larry DeJane, Safety Director Hank Willard, and the city's auditor and service director.

Together they hatched a plan. They would require Smith to undergo psychological evaluations from three doctors of the city's choosing. If Smith refused, he could be fired for insubordination. If he agreed, at least one doctor was guaranteed to turn up something incriminating and provide grounds for termination.

Throughout the meeting, Willard sat in silence. When it was over, he phoned Smith immediately to tell him that city leaders were on a "witch hunt." He advised Smith to hire a lawyer, fast. (Willard died a year later, but his account of the meeting is described in court documents and verified by Eric Resnick, a reporter for the Gay People's Chronicle, who interviewed Willard before his death.)

Smith contacted attorney Randi Barnabee, herself a transsexual. Two days after the secret meeting, Barnabee called Mayor DeJane. "I made it very clear that what they were contemplating was illegal," Barnabee says. "I told him they would lose [when Smith sued], and it would be very expensive for the city. By the end of the conversation the mayor was backpedaling, saying, 'Oh, we would never violate Jimmie's rights.'"

The mayor and the chief refused to discuss the issue when contacted by Scene. "There's been too much turmoil over this already," Greenamyer says. Law Director Zellers admits that the meeting took place and doesn't deny that the purpose was to find a way to fire Smith. But he says Smith's gender wasn't the root of the city's concern. "The meeting had nothing to do with Lieutenant Smith being transgendered," Zellers says. "It was about other stuff."

Zellers refuses to elaborate, but in subsequent legal proceedings, the city cited Smith's disclosure to Captain Eastek that he had once been depressed and suicidal.

As soon as Smith discovered the plot against him, he asked the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for permission to sue the city for civil-rights violations, as required by law. In April 2002, the commission approved Smith's request. Chief Greenamyer soon retaliated.

Smith had been the officer on duty when a woman called 911 and asked for a ride to the hospital. It wasn't an emergency -- her insurance simply wouldn't cover the treatment unless she arrived at the hospital by ambulance. The dispatcher sent a private ambulance company to the woman's house, then notified Smith. Department policy required Smith to send a fire truck on all emergency calls. But the city had no policy regarding nonemergencies. And since the woman was already safely on her way, Smith didn't send a truck.

Greenamyer gave Smith a one-day suspension anyway. The written reprimand -- Smith's first in seven years with the department -- came a week after he received the go-ahead to sue. Smith immediately appealed the order to the city's civil-service commission. But at the hearing, the three commissioners refused to admit evidence that Greenamyer might have an ulterior motive. They also ignored the fact that the chief never announced a policy concerning nonemergency calls. The commission made these decisions with the help of its supposedly impartial legal counsel, Law Director Brooke Zellers, who was active in the plot against Smith and had prepared Greenamyer's case for the hearing. "It was a kangaroo court," Barnabee says. "It was quite clear that the city was just trying to lay a paper trail to get rid of Jimmie."

Smith promptly sued. In its defense, the city claimed it had the right to discriminate against him, because transsexuals are not protected under the Civil Rights Act. The argument missed the heart of Smith's case, however, because Barnabee was attempting an entirely new legal strategy.

She argued that the city discriminated against Smith not because he was transsexual, but because Smith didn't live up to city officials' stereotypes of how a man should behave. Barnabee relied on the watershed case of Price Waterhouse vs. Hopkins, in which partners of the large accounting firm denied a woman a promotion because they considered her too masculine. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this amounted to sex discrimination. Smith's case was the first in the nation to test whether the courts would apply the same reasoning to transsexuals.

At trial, however, the argument flopped. The judge ruled that since the discrimination was based on Smith's transsexuality, it was perfectly legal.

Smith appealed, then waited six months for a response. In August, an appellate court ruled that the city's argument had been "eviscerated" by the Supreme Court's ruling in Price Waterhouse. The city agreed to settle.

The terms remain sealed. But the rumor around town is that Smith won $800,000, which makes Ellie cackle. "Oooh, that's great!" she says. "I've been dropping hints all over town that we're in the market to buy a house with all the money we made. Of course it isn't true. But it pisses people off, which is so much fun!"

Salem's civil-rights history stretches back almost two centuries. The city was founded by Quakers in 1806 and was the western headquarters of the Anti-Slavery Association. Many of its Victorian homes still have the crawl spaces and secret rooms that hid escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. In 1850, Salem hosted the nation's second Women's Rights Convention.

The town grew more conservative as it aged. In 2004, voters passed the statewide initiative to ban gay marriage by an overwhelming 70 percent. But 10 Quaker churches remain in Salem and the surrounding farm towns, and decades of Quaker activism have mellowed into a form of live-and-let-live tolerance. People gawk at Smith when he appears in restaurants and grocery stores wearing rouge, eyeliner, a blond wig, and a pink sweatshirt, but he's never been insulted or threatened. Many believe that Smith's gender is none of their business. "It's not for me to judge," says John Morris, owner of Mosblack Hobby Shop. "As long as they're coming in and spending the money, it's irrelevant."

"I've been in his house, and he seems like an all-right guy to me," says a meter reader for the water department, who doesn't want his name printed. "Everybody knows about it, but nobody talks about it."

Those who disapprove do so quietly. "Personally, I don't like him," says a downtown shop owner, who asked that her name not be printed. "He's a very strange person. I mean, what is he thinking, dressing like that?"

Feelings inside the fire station are more intense. "This community has a lot of old people," says one firefighter, who asked not to be identified. "If we're going out on a call and you're making people uncomfortable, you're not helping. You're just making it worse."

Even Smith's biggest defenders in the department wish the whole issue would just go away. "It probably would have been easier if he had kept it to himself," says inspector Breault. "But you can't ask him to hide it, once he gets it in his head that this is what he is."

Smith's lawsuit against the city gained wide attention after two front-page stories in the Salem News. But interest faded quickly as the town's attention drifted to a more pressing concern: jobs. Last spring, Eljer Plumbingware shut its tub-and-sink factory and moved the plant to China, costing the city 250 jobs. Another 100 people were out of work when Bliss Manufacturing closed its plant this summer. Still another 300 jobs will be lost when the Demmings Valve factory closes in March. The fleeing jobs and tax revenue led the city finance director to warn that if Salem didn't cut spending, it could soon go bankrupt.

So last February, one month after the federal appeals court agreed to hear Jimmie Smith's case, a number of city council members held their own secret meeting. The topic of discussion: disbanding the fire department.

Salem is surrounded by Perry Township, which has its own volunteer fire district. Council members wondered whether they could merge the two departments and create one large volunteer district. For six months, they met secretly with township trustee Larry Parker. They guessed the plan could save Salem $600,000 a year.

It would also give them a legal way to fire Jimmie Lee Smith. If the plan was approved, most of the 16 firefighters would be fired. The new force would require just a few full-time staffers.

City council member Nancy Cope denies that the plan has anything to do with Smith. "We're trying to avoid a crisis," she says. "Over the next five years we're looking at an $800,000 deficit. Cities our size just don't require a full-time fire department."

But that's not what Cope said in her first public statement on the matter. In a letter to the editor printed in August, six days after the plan was publicly introduced, she said her primary reason for disbanding the fire district was "the high cost of lawsuits against the city . . . Neither the mayor nor council [has] been the cause for lawsuits against the city." Excluding one suit against the mayor, the only lawsuit pending against Salem at the time was Jimmie Lee Smith's.

"That wasn't exactly a well-veiled comment," says Larry Shields, a reporter for the Salem News. "She was obviously talking about Jimmie."

The message was not lost on residents. "They never came out and said that was the reason for it," says trustee Parker. "They never had to. It was just assumed."

"Why did they do it? I think it had a lot to do with Jimmie," says Stephanie Ritchie. "Because everybody above Jimmie will probably get to keep their jobs. Everybody at Jimmie's level and below him has to go."

The move seemed like a done deal. After six months of secret meetings, council members announced that they would create a five-member board with the power to build a fire district from scratch. The board would operate entirely on its own, with no input from citizens.

The Salem News howled. "If council and the township, as we have learned, already had their minds made up six months ago, then you can call it a hoax," read one editorial.

Residents were equally disgusted. In three days, firefighters gathered nearly 1,000 signatures -- triple the number needed -- to place two initiatives on the ballot. One would require a public vote to disband the department. The second would require another vote to join a new fire district.

The firefighters' message was consistent: A volunteer department will mean longer response times and more danger. "Citizens won't get the same level of service," union President Burns says. "Their taxes will go down, but they won't save any money, because their insurance rates will go up."

Though Smith's womanly ways were part of what prompted the council's move, his fellow firefighters never mentioned it to him -- perhaps because he joined the fight. Smith helped organize forums. He went door-to-door, passing out fliers and inviting people to meetings. "Jim was very involved in the campaign," says Burns.

Smith also wrote more letters to the editor than anyone besides Burns. After he had written so many letters that the paper started turning them away, he ghost-wrote letters for other people.

"I've heard people say, 'He's writing some hellacious letters!'" Breault says. "So they give him respect."

Salem voters passed both initiatives by 65 percent. But some council members believe they can ignore the results. "The ballot initiatives were unconstitutional," says Cope.

Smith believes that his activism bought him some breathing room. The gay jokes tapered off, and people started talking to him again. Co-workers stopped leaving when he entered a room. After the election, while the city was still deciding whether to settle his case, a number of firefighters approached him to whisper their support for his civil-rights suit. They said they couldn't speak openly, but if Smith ever subpoenaed them, they promised to testify on his behalf. "They said they had my back," Smith says, "and I told them I really appreciated that."

Of the 16 members of the department, only 4 agreed to interviews with Scene. But the general attitude around the station toward Smith seems to be one of grudging tolerance. "He's basically the same person," says Burns. "It shouldn't affect his ability to do the job."

Still, conflicts remain. When rookie fireman Jeff Olinger drove a truck to his first call, Lieutenant Smith sat beside him. A resident complained that Olinger drove through an intersection too fast. The chief called Olinger and Smith into his office and issued Olinger a verbal warning. Smith never said a word, says Olinger.

"It has nothing to do with him being a transgender or whatever," Olinger says. "It was my first week on the job, and he didn't stand up for me. After that, I didn't respect him when he came to work as a man, and I don't respect him when he comes to work as a woman."

Few firefighters will ever be excited about working with a transsexual. But in Salem, most have learned to deal with it. "It's just like you can't pick on a woman because she's a woman, and you can't pick on a colored just because they're coloreds," says Inspector Breault. "I think people realized you can't go against somebody's sexual identity. You just gotta accept it."

Around Salem, Smith's appearance still turns heads. He stopped living as a man a month ago and now dresses as a woman everywhere he goes. When he walks into Jalisco's Mexican restaurant, the waiters and busboys do triple takes, then follow Smith with their eyes as he walks to a booth. He wears peg-legged jeans, white sneakers, and a pink sweatshirt painted with purple irises. He has on a ruby-colored wig that curls against his shoulders. A man at the bar baldly stares as Smith lights an off-brand cigarette.

Smith has considered moving to San Francisco or New York, somewhere more accepting of his kind. "The thought has entered my mind," he says, pointing an eyebrow toward the man at the bar. "I'm sure there's people who wish that I'd just picked up and left."

But Smith has lived most of his life in the small factory towns of Northeast Ohio. His gut says that if he truly wants to become himself, he must do it here. He has a job he likes, a wife who loves him. He's saving money and hopes to begin sex-change operations next year. If he manages to keep from getting fired, he'll be eligible for retirement in 11 years.

"The more years I went through it, the stronger it got -- the voice saying, 'Why don't you have the guts to say what the issue is and get on with it?'" he says. "I'm tired of running. I'm tired of hiding. And this time, I'm going to stand my ground."

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