In 2014, Coca-Cola employee SueZie Hawkes – a master data analyst based in Tampa, Fla. – achieved a transition she’d considered for years. Through surgery, she transitioned from male to female; it was an arduous change she chronicled in videos and through a blog. 

SueZie also made the change with the full support of her wife of 15 years, Cheryl Hawkes. She, too, is a Coca-Cola employee in Tampa, where she is a customer marketing agreement analyst.

This year, countless news stories in the United States and around the world have focused on gender transition. Most recently, the U.S. military has announced steps toward repealing a ban on open service by transgender troops.

Here at Coca-Cola, the story of SueZie and Cheryl Hawkes offers a look at what it’s like to make this kind of change in the world of work.

The couple recently visited Atlanta to speak to representatives from companies across the city at Coca-Cola’s LGBTA Business Resource Group Networking Reception. We followed up to ask SueZie and Cheryl about their experiences before, during and after SueZie’s transition.

When did you decide to make the transition from male to female? How did you think this would impact your work lives?

SueZie: At the end of 2009, I approached my doctor to disclose my identity dysphoria. In early 2010, I began therapy and explained to my psychiatrist that I wanted to transition. One of the reasons I did not complete transition at that time was that I felt that Cheryl and the workplace were not ready. It wasn’t until 2014 that I felt Cheryl would be strong enough to fend off external opinions. Coca-Cola had become a leader in diversity and inclusion, and I knew my own fears of public reaction would be greater than reality. Of course, we expected strange looks at the workplace, but never expected the amount of support we have received.

What was the reaction at Coca-Cola?

SueZie: My work colleagues and Coca-Cola have been more supportive and encouraging than I ever imagined. Every day, I would receive a new smile as another joined those supportive ranks, or a comment like “doing great, keep it up.” The weight they were lifting was so overwhelming that it brings tears of gratitude. A supervisor, Ronald Buhr, approached me and said, “We think what is going on with you is fantastic! We all love and support you and seeing your transition in our workplace is changing the workplace culture for the better. I can see such a positive change in this building. 

You’ve been very open about the transition. What do you hope people will learn from your story?

Cheryl: I hope to show those close to transgender people that the person they love and know is still there. We connect with what is inside our loved ones, so altering the exterior shouldn’t change our relationships. Transgender people are just like everybody else, and our support of them should not change once they come out. Both of us have transitioned, embarking on a new journey. 

SueZie: There is no magic pill. The transitioned woman still retains strong male characteristics under the makeup. We must accept that we do stand out, but because greater exposure leads to acceptance, I am proud to represent transgender people. By speaking on my transition, I hope to make the lives of transgender people easier.

Why did Coca-Cola ask you to speak in Atlanta?

Cheryl: Coca-Cola brought together all of the top companies in the city to stand as one in a journey of knowledge, understanding and unity. Our experience at this event was both exciting and emotional. It was very overwhelming to see and also feel so much genuine support.

SueZie: We both felt honored to be invited. Over the course of our journey, we have spoken at multiple events to help others, but this event was exceptional for us. It was amazing, and we were speechless to see company leaders in the front row, supporting not only us, but the entire LGBTA community. They supported us with their words, actions and donations to make this event happen.

What kind of impact do you think this reception will have on the larger business community?

SueZie: This event showed other companies the pride that Coca-Cola has in its diversity and inclusion, proving that our company has groundbreaking leadership. By fully supporting us and all other associates, the company continues to demonstrate that, beyond product and profit, it cares about people and bringing happiness to everyone. As LGBTA awareness progresses, consumers are more loyal to companies that support those who are LGBTA, so the company’s active support of its LGBTA associates sets an example for the larger business community. Thank you to Ceree Eberly for her support and to Kathy Waller for her words of encouragement. We also give special thanks to the Atlanta BRG, Mary Beth Mendoza, Ted Ghiz, and Mary Tanzosh – the rock who helped us more than we can express.

Cheryl: Transitioning could have been full of fear and rejection, but the company’s caring ways embrace everyone inclusive of who they are. We have no adequate words to convey our gratitude to Coca-Cola for its support.