A transgender kitchen worker calls out Minneapolis Public Schools

People at Chase Hermes Bakken's Minneapolis school knew about his work ethic. His gender identity was supposed to be a secret.

People at Chase Hermes Bakken's Minneapolis school knew about his work ethic. His gender identity was supposed to be a secret. Susan Du

As a kid growing up in Oakdale, Stillwater, and then Minneapolis, Chase Hermes Bakken tried to conform to expectations. That meant being a butch lesbian. Short hair, masculine clothes.

Chase’s parents—a lunch lady and a tool-and-die guy, both practicing Catholics—had grown used to this side of their child.

Then, at age 20, Chase realized he was not a butch lesbian, but a man. He decided to transition.

“My parents were supportive, but grieving me at the same time. Your parents grieve who you used to be.”

The strife was worth it. Chase had struggled with chronic depression. He’d resented his female body, and felt uncomfortable in public. Even going to work at a Hollywood Video store or as a pizza delivery driver felt like a chore, a constant act of masking and pretending.

Life after transitioning was much easier. Chase passes as a man, no questions asked, which puts him in control of who he tells about being transgender. In early 2015, he took a job at Riverbend Education Center, a K-8 alternative school in near north Minneapolis. Chase planned to keep his identity a secret.

He worked as a lunchroom cook, dishing up food for a student body with “significant emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs,” as the school’s website notes. He’d wound up working the same job as his mom, and he loved it. He knew a lot of the kids weren’t getting regular meals at home—not good ones anyway. His breakfasts and lunches were setting them up for better learning.

Chase invited kids into the kitchen to help prep meals. He’d teach them how to tabulate and track inventory on a production sheet. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,’” he says.

But in the summer of 2016, Chase’s secret got out. According to a subsequent complaint filed with the Minneapolis Department of Human Rights, at a meeting where he wasn’t present, his boss in the district’s food services department asked the group, “Did you know Chase is really a girl?” Word spread quickly.

Chase took his outing to the district’s civil rights director, who told him he couldn’t investigate “just because [his] feelings are hurt,” according to the complaint.

With the help of his union, he asked for a meeting with his supervisor’s boss, who refused to assign him to a different supervisor, and suggested that Chase try to explain his identity to his boss. He was also warned that getting the union involved would “make things worse.” And so it did.

The woman who’d outed Chase started talking down to him and yelling about mistakes, humiliating him in front of co-workers and students, according to his human rights complaint.

Chase was pitched back into a depression he hadn’t felt since his confused youth. He started seeing a therapist. He cried on the drive home from work. He grew distant from his wife and son. He thought about killing himself.

Last fall, he sought a new job, this time as a janitor, and was placed in a different school. It was a heartbreaking move. Outside the food department, he had “zero” bad experiences with the people at Riverbend.

One of those people fought to bring him back. Lead custodian Will Aanonson had seen Chase’s commitment in the kitchen, skipping breaks to make sure the kids’ food was ready. After he was outed, Chase told Aanonson he was transgender. The idea this fact might matter was lost on the burly custodian.

“I saw [Chase] cared deep down for kids in my building, and most people in the city probably don’t even want to know the kids in my building exist,” says Aanonson, a seven-year veteran at Riverbend.

Aanonson was able to bring Chase back as one of his janitors, where he exhibited the same work ethic he’d brought to the cafeteria. The assignment would not last. Chase was again sent to another school, a move that occurred not long after his former food services supervisor came to Riverbend and saw Chase working there, according to Aanonson.

“It wasn’t just me that wanted him to stay,” Aanonson says. “Everybody in that building wanted him to stay.”

Minneapolis Public Schools says it’s unable to publicly address the case unless Chase signs a release. (Chase declined, fearing the district would “make things up” to hurt him.) In a statement, the district says it is “proud to welcome staff and students of all backgrounds,” pointing out that its inclusion of “gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes” goes beyond the federal standard.

That’s not enough, says Chase, who now works in the district’s before- and after-school program. This time, he’s not waiting for gossip to get around about his being transgender.

Earlier this month, Chase testified about his experience in front of the school board, asking when the district would honor policies it already has in place.

“I came out to the whole board, to the whole district, because of the situation at hand,” he says. “I’m not doing this just because I was wronged, or for myself. I’m doing this to protect our trans kids in the future.”

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