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A Journey on the Road Less Traveled: The Life of a Transgender Attorney

By Robyn B. Gigl
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

—Lao Tzu

In late August 2009, I walked from my car to my office as I had done literally thousands of times before, but this time, I was terrified. I was going to a “surprise” party, a luncheon actually, a luncheon I had planned—a luncheon where I was the “surprise.” No one had seen me since I had left the office a month earlier. Now, I was coming back, and I had planned this firm-wide event as a way to break the ice because I was unsure how people would react. When I had given them the news five months earlier at a firm meeting of what was coming, they had handled things rather well. But, truth be told, the muted reaction could have been more the result of fortuitous timing than acceptance. The Great Recession was in full swing, and in New Jersey, even major law firms were undergoing reductions in force. As a result, many of the attorneys and support staff had assumed that the firm meeting was to announce cutbacks, layoffs, or worse. So, as I stood before everyone as the managing partner and announced what was to come, while there were some strange looks, there was also a collective sigh of relief—everyone still had their jobs. Over the ensuing five months the firm’s lawyers and staff dealt with what was coming in their own way, some with acceptance, others with curiosity, still others by ignoring it and hoping it would just go away. But on that day in August, as I made my way to the office, the concept was about to become reality. This was the day I would confirm what I had announced: I was a transgender woman, and now, after 32 years of practicing law, 22 at that firm, they were about to meet Robyn for the first time.

 

When I was approached to write this article about what it’s like to be a transgender attorney, the title that was suggested was “The Courage to Be the Best You.” After I cringed, I demurred. I’m not courageous. This is just who I am. Nonetheless, I agreed to do this article (albeit with a different title) because it presented me with an opportunity to put a human face on an issue that so many people, including lawyers, don’t understand—being transgender. As an out and proud transgender woman, I recognize that being transgender can still raise an eyebrow or worse. However, I don’t believe that makes me courageous. To me, courage involves a choice. And to be clear, I didn’t choose to be transgender any more than others who are reading this chose to be African American, or female, or gay. They just are. Similarly, I just am transgender—no choice required.

I will admit that it can be strange to know that the story of my life somehow causes people to have very divergent reactions—ranging from being asked to speak about courage, to being mocked and derided. Candidly, I am always genuinely surprised by either reaction. To me, my life is not worthy of either derision or admiration—it is simply my life.

Certainly, prior to 2008, by all outward appearances, my life was fairly vanilla. I was born in 1952 and grew up in a happy, middle-class family, the third of four children. I was fortunate enough to go to law school, marry my high school sweetheart, be blessed with three wonderful children, and have a modestly successful legal career, which included in October 2006 being selected as the managing partner of our 15-attorney firm. (And you didn’t believe me when I said my life was vanilla.)

In 2008, for those viewing my life from the outside, my life changed dramatically. But from my perspective, all I did was begin to acknowledge to other people something I had known since I was three or four years old—I was female. Despite all outward appearances, despite living my life as a male for 55 years, I realized I finally had to deal with the incongruity between my gender identity—who my brain told me I was—and my anatomy.

I understand that for most people the very concept of gender identity is foreign. This is because statistically approximately 99.5 percent of the population is cisgender, which means their gender identity matches their genitalia (tinyurl.com/mv587mx). As a result, for most people, gender identity is synonymous with anatomy, and the fact that each of us possesses a gender identity that is separate and apart from anatomy is just not something that is part of most people’s consciousness. Accordingly, when people hear someone claim that their gender identity does not match their anatomy, they assume there must be something emotionally or mentally wrong with the person making the claim. This assumption reveals a lack of understanding that gender identity is truly distinct from a person’s body. Transgender people don’t pick their gender identity any more than cisgender people do. No one reading this article decided they were a man or a woman, they just were. It is the same for a transgender person. I did not choose to have a female gender identity. No one asks to be transgender. It is not a lifestyle choice, you just are. And for approximately 0.5 percent of the population, their gender identity and the sex assigned at birth do not match. (Sex assigned at birth is generally established by the person supervising the birth, usually a doctor, examining the infant’s genitalia and pronouncing the baby’s sex for purposes of recording it on a birth certificate.) How this incongruity occurs is beyond the scope of this article, but increasingly scientists and doctors are suggesting genetic and natal, biological factors.

Leaving aside what causes someone to be transgender, the question most people ask me is why, after 55 years of living as a man, did I go through this? I suspect that in many respects my response is disappointing. There was no trauma, no “aha” moment. It was as simple as knowing that after living the way I had for 55 years, I had gotten to the point where I would rather have been dead than continue living a life that in one important aspect was a lie. And let me be clear: At that point in my life, I had a blessed life. There was nothing about my life that I wanted to change—except me. I had a wonderful family, a close extended family, a good career, friends—you name it, I had it. What I didn’t have was peace with who I was. Why at age 40 or 50 I could live with that fact, but by age 55, I lost that ability, I can’t definitively answer. I do think, however, denying an essential part of who you are takes effort and energy, and at some point I was worn down.

I often use this analogy. If you drip water on a rock, it will simply hit the rock and run off. But if you drip water on the rock in the same spot, every second of every day for years, eventually the rock is going to begin to wear away, and ultimately it will crack. The analogy applies to me in that up until I went through the gender confirmation process, I thought about the fact that I wasn’t living in accordance with my gender identity literally every single day of my life for more than 50 years. And not being who I knew myself to be wore at me, and eventually, like the rock, the facade I had created cracked.

So after a year of therapy, and more than a little soul searching, in 2008 I started the process of confirming my gender as female and began revealing to my family, friends, and law partners the journey I was about to embark on. I don’t want to give the impression that at this point my “blessed” life disappeared—it didn’t. However, there were certainly bumps along the way. Having struggled quietly my whole life without ever sharing how I felt, most people were shocked by my news; a few even questioned my sanity. I lost my closest friends. Despite that, I still consider myself incredibly blessed.

In 2009, at the same time I made the firm-wide announcement, I began to deal with my professional responsibilities to my clients. I didn’t know how any of them would react, but having been a litigator my entire career, I knew that I had to give all of them time to secure new counsel, if, on learning about me and my plans, they no longer wanted me to represent them. Fortunately, although some were troubled by what I was about to do, none of them sought new counsel in the cases I was handling.

I also began telling adversaries and judges what I was doing. I honestly had no idea how my announcement would be received, but to a person, they were professional and understanding.

Not everything went perfectly. Professionally, my business suffered. Lawyers who in the past had referred clients to me, suddenly stopped. A few clients asked that other attorneys in the office handle new matters, and several attorneys I knew simply stopped talking to me. But, ultimately, my firm found its way through the various issues.

Going through the gender confirmation process is not easy. For many of us it includes going to therapy, taking hormones, and in my case, undergoing surgery. In that regard, I count myself very fortunate. Unlike many of my transgender brothers and sisters, I had the financial wherewithal to do all the things I felt were necessary for my journey to be successful and allow me to continue my legal career. Not every transgender person has the benefit of what was available to me.

I am also fortunate that the people I love the most in my life, my family, remain my family. This is often not the case. Many transgender people lose their family, their jobs, their friends—the very support systems needed to help survive life’s challenges are stripped away. In my case, although my wife and I separated, we remain close friends. My mom, sisters, and brother, likewise, have come to accept me and continue to love me. And most importantly, my children have handled the changes their “father” has undergone with a grace and dignity that left me in awe of them.

If I could go back and change things in my life, I wouldn’t. I don’t regret that I lived 55 years as a man or wish that I had transitioned earlier in my life. Had I, I would never have had such a wonderful relationship with my wife and I wouldn’t have three wonderful children. I also don’t have any regrets about being transgender. I feel that being transgender has impacted my personality and has helped shape me into the person I am. Despite the challenges I had growing up, I happen to like who I turned out to be, so even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s hard to convey what it’s like after 50-plus years of struggling with my gender identity to finally be at peace with who I am. I remember a day shortly before I returned to work, after my face had healed from surgery, looking in the mirror and crying tears of joy. There, for the first time in my life, reflected back at me, was the person I always knew I was.

I honestly don’t understand why accepting transgender individuals for who we are is such a vexing issue for so many people. In the grand scheme of things, my life is just a speck in time. Why anyone would begrudge me what has brought peace to my life is beyond me. Yet, I speak often on these issues and have been confronted by, and debated, some harsh critics who refused to acknowledge that I am a woman. I understand my life has been different, but I find it a bit perplexing that people who don’t know anything about me are willing to judge me based on nothing more than the fact that I’m transgender.

I’m not perceptive enough to know why I have a female gender identity but was born with a male body. It is who I have always been; it’s not something I discovered at age 55. When I went through the gender confirmation process, what I told people was, “Nothing about me has changed, I have always been this way. What has changed is what you know about me. So if you thought I was normal before, I’m just as normal now.”

I consider myself truly fortunate. I have had the unique experience of living life on both sides of the gender line. I have lived life as a man among men and a woman among women. My journey has taken me on a road that may have been somewhat off the beaten path, and there were times when even I couldn’t see where the road was taking me, but what a glorious road it has been. I can only hope there are many more miles ahead before I reach the end.

Robyn B. Gigl is a partner with GluckWalrath LLP in Trenton, New Jersey. Her practice involves handling complex litigation in both state and federal court, including employment law, commercial and business litigation, estate litigation, and white-collar criminal defense. She routinely advises corporations on all aspects of their employment practices. She is a past chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Section, and she lectures frequently on LGBT issues, in particular on transgender issues in the workplace and schools.