Following the Heart: An Unusual Transition

By Mia Yamamoto

After spending a lifetime as a male, as well as a 30-year career as a criminal defense attorney, I made the decision to follow my heart and undergo gender transition.  I had known of the gender disparity between my body and my brain ever since I was 5 or 6 years of age, and old enough to be aware of the rigid dichotomy between males and females.  This awareness haunted my life from early childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, and all the way into middle age.  Growing up was torturous, fraught with alienation and suicidal ideation.  These were the years following World War II, after my family had been imprisoned, along with the entire Japanese American community.  I had no recollection of these events, since I was born in camp; and I only got to witness the discrimination and hatred, which was directed at us, after we were released.   I searched and questioned but never found anyone, during my adolescence, who felt the way I did about my incongruous gender identity.  It was not until 1952, when the media reported the case of an ex-WWII-GI named George Jorgensen who went through a sex-change operation and became Christine Jorgensen that I learned there were other people like me in the world.  I can remember telling this to my mother who immediately started crying, thereby teaching me that this was a bad thing and something I couldn’t reveal to anyone else.

I attended Catholic elementary and high schools, barely passing my classes until I entered junior college at LACC, and immediately flunked out of my first year with all F’s.  I was 18 years old and had lost suchcare for my life that I didn’t see much point in going to school.   However, a year later, after I worked full-time in a grocery store, I re-applied to LACC and was re-admitted on academic probation.  I thereupon had a change of heart, probably brought on by a desire to please my mother, and made a scholastic comeback sufficient to transfer to CSULA and graduate in 1966.  I used my college experience to study my gender issues, conducting research in the libraries of the colleges, medical schools and research institutions.   I learned that my condition was rare but had been reported on and observed by clinicians, psychologists and other researchers for many years.  All I got from all this research was a sense of impending doom.  Nothing good was going to come of this life and I saw no reason to continue.

At this time, the Vietnam War was raging overseas. So, I decided to volunteer for the draft, serve my country and, I thought that if I died in battle, I could spare my family from the shame of my secret longing.  I did my basic training at Fort Ord, after which I was assigned to the 5th Army Headquarters in Illinois.  My next assignment was to Vietnam, first to the 1st Cavalry Division at Anh Khe, then to the 4th Infantry Division in Pleiku.  I only spent 3 months in the field before I was re-assigned to base camp to work in the Awards and Decorations Section of the Administration Company.  My dad was a lawyer and, although he died when I was very young, I decided that I would apply to law school while I was in the army.  So, after surviving the war, I entered UCLA Law School in 1968 and graduated in 1971, working first with Legal Aid Foundation of LA, then with the Office of the Los Angeles Public Defender where I stayed until 1985.  I went into private practice at that time and that is what I am doing today.

As a lawyer, I finally was able to afford therapy. First, for post-war stress and later for gender identity discomfort.  I was able to explore the phenomenon in myself as well as others in group therapy, and I was finally able to meet others who felt like me; however, everyone I met in therapy was very unhappy, depressed and often suicidal.  Outside of therapy, I only found a few other transgender people who were living lives on the margins of society, many of whom had been put out into the streets by their families and who were barely surviving.  What little I could find in the media treated transgender people with ridicule and rejection.  In fact, the only regular reporting about the community was in pornography.  The only transgender people I met outside of therapy were clients who had been arrested for prostitution, drug possession, drug sales, or other forms of criminal activity.  This was not encouraging.

I tried to find my way into the world through the arts.  I joined a band and played professionally for over 25 years, danced in ballet companies for over 20 years and involved myself deeply in my professional and community organizations.  Although this gave me some temporary gratification, it was never enough to achieve any lasting personal or psychological fulfillment.  I’ve read that gender identity disorder is something that you are born with, fight against your whole life and which wins in the end.  It is inescapable, incurable and immutable.  Moreover, I learned that it gets increasingly more insistent as you age.  I had spent most of my life searching for an explanation, for a cause and for a cure.  My first gender therapist came to the conclusion that I was transsexual and advised me to plan for sex reassignment surgery in my future.  I fired him.  That was not the answer I was seeking.  However, 20 years later I came to the realization that he had been right.  With that realization, I began researching surgeons.

Finding the right surgeon was not that difficult since most of the best gender reassignment surgeons are in Thailand, a country with a tradition of tolerance wherein this specialty was allowed to flourish and grow ever since its inception in the mid-20th century.   I didn’t want to let my family, my clients and my community down by going through transition; however, I knew that, if I didn’t, I would continue to feel dishonest and cowardly.  I decided it was either do or die.

I started by coming out to my family.  I felt like I owed it to them, first and foremost.  Most of them were disturbed by this revelation, but ultimately tolerant and accepting.  That was the most I could ask of anyone.  I have one older brother who was enraged and disgusted.  He told me that I was disowned, and that he would never speak to me again.  I said:  “If this is the last time we ever talk, I want to thank you.  You were the rebel of the family.  You taught me that I didn’t have to be what everyone else wanted me to be.  Good bye.”  He has not spoken to me since and that is probably for the best.  I then came out to my clients.  I told them that I was going to go through a sex change and, if they wanted to get another lawyer to represent them, I would find them someone good.  Amazingly enough, every single one of them, without hesitation, said they wanted to continue with me.   My office partner, although initially incredulous, accepted my transition.  He is still my office partner today.

I’ll never forget my first day in the Criminal Courts Building dressed as a woman, first in the parking lot, then in front of the elevators, all the way into the courtroom.  I got a number of shocked looks as I smiled and waved to them.  My client, who was out on bail, and I went through the appearance as though nothing was different.  The prosecutor simply asked me:  “So, what do we call you now?”  I told her I called myself “Mia” and thanked her for asking.

I did encounter some resistance from my fellow lawyers here in California who wrote letters to the Daily Journal, which is the daily legal newspaper, condemning my transition pursuant to their fundamentalist views, and criticizing me for violating traditional gender norms. I also encountered an inmate at the county jail (an accused serial rapist with a pending Sexually Violent Predator petition) who expressed his revulsion based upon his religious principles. I was fully prepared for this type of negativity from these segments of society, and really had no trouble at all ignoring them. However, I was stunned and taken by surprise by an old friend – a fairly prominent Asian American woman lawyer – who was openly hostile and publicly questioned my right to call myself a woman.   Apparently, she resented my intrusion into her sphere of influence without having to face the barriers that she had had to overcome in order to achieve her stature in the profession.   I understood her objection, but calling me out publicly was a somewhat extreme way to end our friendship.  Thankfully, I never encountered anything like her attitude from the many Asian American women lawyers whom I’ve known or met.

On a more positive note, the Los Angeles Daily Journal published a front-page article about me during this very hectic time.  This helped immensely since it spared me from having to come out and explain myself to everyone individually.  Thereafter, I treated every day as an act of liberation.  I had liberated the Criminal Courts Building.  Now, I had to liberate the many individual courts of Los Angeles and the surrounding counties, along with the jails, police stations and law offices in Southern California.  I had never known another Asian American transgender person (although I’ve met others since I came out) and certainly never met another transgender trial attorney.   So, I was determined to forge a path for myself and for others like me.  I prepared myself for whatever obstacles and obstructions I would have to face.  But, as it turned out, there were not as many as I anticipated.   Many of the courtrooms I went into, for the first time since the article appeared, were even more welcoming than before.  Often times I would walk into court and the personnel – prosecutors, defenders, reporters, clerks, and even the judges –  would be lined up to give me a hug  and a kiss while offering their congratulations for my courage and my integrity.  I was moved to tears by how little I had expected of them, and by how enlightened and accepting they turned out to be.

This year it will be 10 years since I began my transition.   What I did then was somewhat unprecedented in my community and my profession, at least to come out in such an open, public and notorious manner.  I didn’t know what to expect then, any more than I do today; however, what I have seen is more transgender people coming out of the shadows, in more walks of life, along with younger transgender children, in some cases, as young as 5 or 6.    Moreover, the bigotry and discrimination which is commonly directed against transgender people, along with the hate crimes and violence which are so widespread, is also coming to light.  Thankfully, through the efforts of civil rights advocates, federal and state laws are being proposed, and passed, against gender identity discrimination and hate crimes against transgender people.   While discrimination, hatred and violence continue against transgender people worldwide, I’ve learned that coming out is an act of liberation, not just for the individual, but for the community, the society and the world.  We can be better, but we have to start with ourselves in order to eventually realize the change we wish for the future..

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