An Act of Liberation

Mia Yamamoto
Mia Yamamoto

Mia Yamamoto

Gary Miyatake Photos

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 old enough to be aware of the rigid dichotomy between males and females, at around five or six years old. This awareness haunted my life from early childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, all the way into middle age. Growing up was torturous, fraught with alienation and suicidal ideation. 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 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. A year later, I reapplied to LACC and was readmitted on academic probation. I 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.

At this time, the Vietnam War was raging, so I decided to volunteer for the draft, serve my country, and, if I died in battle, spare my family from the shame of my secret longing. I was first assigned to the Fifth Army Headquarters in Illinois. My next assignment was to Vietnam. I only spent 3 months in the field before I was reassigned to base camp to work in the Awards and Decorations Section of the Administration Company. While in the Army, I decided that I would apply to law school. 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. In 1985, I went into private practice.

My first job allowed me to afford therapy. I was able to explore my gender identity discomfort, and I was finally able to meet others who felt like me; however, everyone I met in therapy was very unhappy, depressed, and suicidal. Outside of therapy, I only found other transgender people who were living lives on the margins of society. What little I could find in the media treated transgender people with ridicule and rejection. I tried to find my way in the world through the arts. I joined a band and played professionally, danced in ballet companies, and immersed myself in my professional and community organizations. Although I gained some temporary ratification, I never achieved 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 in the end wins. It is inescapable, incurable, and immutable. Moreover, I learned that it gets more insistent as you age. My first gender therapist came to the conclusion that I was transsexual and advised me to plan for sex reassignment surgery. I fired him. Twenty years later I came to the realization that he had been right. I started researching surgeons.

Finding the right surgeon was not that difficult because most of the best gender reassignment surgeons are in Thailand, a country with a tradition of tolerance. 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. Most of them were disturbed by this revelation, but ultimately tolerant and accepting. 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. Goodbye.” He has not spoken to me since. 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. Every 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. I got a number of shocked looks as I smiled and waved. My client 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 California lawyers who wrote letters to the Los Angeles Daily Journal condemning my transition pursuant to their fundamentalist views. 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 prepared for this type of negativity from these segments of society, and really had no trouble ignoring them. However, I was stunned 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 which she had had to overcome. Thankfully, I never encountered anything like her attitude from the many Asian-American women lawyers whom I’ve known or met.

The Los Angeles Daily Journal published a front-page article about me during this very hectic time. This helped immensely because 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 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. As it turned out, there were not as many as I anticipated. After the article, many of the courtrooms I went into were even more welcoming. Often times I would walk into court and the entire personnel would be lined up to give me a hug and a kiss while offering their congratulations for my courage and 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, to come out in such an open, public, and notorious manner. 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.

Reprinted with permission from Out and About: The LGBT Experience in the Legal Profession by Christine W. Young and John T. Hendricks, eds. ©2015 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. 

Mia Yamamoto talks about her decision and her experience on the ABA Journal podcast

Mia Yamamoto

Mia Yamamoto is a former deputy public defender and has been in private practice since 1985 in Southern California.