Mia Yamamoto, 78, did not set out to make history as a transgender trial lawyer. In fact, as a young person Yamamoto was not even sure that she would finish college. Born a boy in the Poston Relocation Center internment camp, where families of Japanese descent were sent during World War II, Yamamoto often felt like an outsider growing up in Los Angeles and initially failed out of college. After getting a degree, she enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. After that, she earned a law degree and later worked for the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office. In 2003, at age 60, Yamamoto came out as transgender, becoming the first openly trans trial lawyer in the state of California. This is her story.
Mia Yamamoto: [My first memories are] a recollection of the resettlement from Poston internment camp. After being locked up, all of us were able to get back to some form of life and start over again. I certainly experienced a lot of the discrimination. Because being Japanese was probably the most uncool thing you could imagine in postwar East Los Angeles.
Trans Activism Moves Ahead
1966: A riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco marked the beginning of transgender activism. The riot took place in response to law enforcement harassment of drag queens and trans and gay people who were in the restaurant. It’s one of the first reported instances of transgender people fighting against oppressive actions.
1969: The Stonewall uprising, a struggle between members of the New York City queer community and cops following a raid on the famous bar kicks off the modern LGBTQ+ Liberation Movement.
1970: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two transgender sex workers, started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and then created STAR House, in New York City, which worked to provide housing for street queer and trans youth.
1975: Minneapolis protects transgender people with a nondiscrimination ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination and equal access to public accommodations — the first such law in the country.
1993: Minnesota extends the nondiscrimination law to the entire state.
2005: California bars medical insurance companies from denying transgender people health care with the Insurance Gender Nondiscrimination Act.
2008: Stu Rasmussen, of Silverton, Oregon, is elected the nation’s first openly transgender mayor.
2014: Obama Administration rules that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to transgender people, affording federal nondiscrimination protections to the transgender community.
The Obama Administration also rules that Medicare must cover gender-confirmation surgeries.
2020: The Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, decision by the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that Title VII protects transgender people from being fired from their place of work for transitioning.
2021: Rachel Levine became the first openly transgender person confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a federal post and was sworn in as the assistant secretary of health. The same year, Levine became the first openly transgender four-star officer across the country’s eight uniformed services.
With the queer identity, of course, you find out that you’re trans about, oh, 5 years old, usually. Your early growing up is torture — you’re trying to fit into a place where you don’t fit in. And you start to believe there’s no place for you. Especially trans kids, because that’s a pretty minuscule minority.
I think just being a queer kid is different. And you grow up differently, and your brothers treat you differently, because you have a different, I guess what you would call, style. My brothers were tough. But I will say this, having to fight my brothers really taught me how to fight. I really learned how to take care of myself on the street.
I lived through those early years, just flopping around from school and being a disappointment to everybody, especially my teachers. My grades were really bad, but I did succeed in graduating high school. Eventually, I graduated L.A. City College and I went to Cal State.
And then I went into the Army because the Vietnam War was going on. I came back from the war and I had to do something. So I went to law school — I wanted to do what my dad did. I wanted to continue his legacy. He was a member of the NAACP. He was an ACLU lawyer. His ideal was to always do the most noble thing, and that was to work for the poor.
I was a part of the anti-war movement because I was really guilt-ridden about what I had been a part of. I think I still am. So the anti-war movement was the first place I went to — but the movement for racial and social justice was all around that. Eventually, I went to the public defender’s office. I needed something to make me want to get up in the morning and needed a sense of purpose. And the work did that for me. Working for poor people in the criminal courts gave me a sense of purpose.
I started going to therapy. I could finally afford therapy. The one thing I did learn being [male-to-female transgender] in therapy, was that it is really a very dangerous and risky journey. But once you realize there are other transgender people in the world, it’s an incredible incentive to stay alive. Just to be able to speak to another person and talk to them about the similarities and their experiences is incredibly cathartic relief.
The decision to come out publicly [as trans] was made when I turned 60, and I realized I might die as a coward and a phony — two things I hate in people. I hated myself even more because I was living in falsity and fear. There had never been a transgender trial lawyer anywhere, at least as far as I knew. Coming out transgender is more in-your-face than coming out as lesbian and gay, because you’re going to look and groom yourself so much differently than before. When it happens in the trial courts, which are, by law, open to the public, then the transition is even more vividly public. Like most LGBT people, I had to consider and contemplate how I would be received by friends and family. But I also had to think about how my clients, colleagues, judges, juries and everyone else was going to react. I decided that I was willing to lose everything and everybody I had ever known in order to live my truth.
It happened on my 60th birthday. I was playing music for a fundraising party for some progressive cause or other, when the people decided to surprise me with a birthday party. I had all these people trying to tell me what a great guy I was, and all I could feel was anger at myself for having deceived them all for so long. I decided then and there that I was coming out — no more hiding, no more lies, no more fakery. I started coming out to people on that occasion.
I was astonished at how people reacted. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of love and support I received from my colleagues and friends. My family reacted very uncomfortably, but most of them are still trying to understand and accept me.
The first time I came to the courthouse dressed as a woman, the reactions were intense. Lots of jaws dropping, eyes popping and stunned silence. Many people just turned away, not knowing what had happened to me. I had gone to my clients, every one, and told them that I was going through a sex change. I had a number of murder cases, and many of my clients were gang members. But though they were all shocked and surprised, they all were incredibly supportive. They told me they wanted to stay with me. I was moved to tears by their love and support for me.
I had a couple of DAs come out as transgender after I came out. I always like to think that I helped others. I never really expected to live this long to get this perspective, but I do feel like the possibilities are really there. Because one of the things I see — because I deal with a lot of youth — is that they’re a lot more open to trans people than their parents.
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I actually think it was easier to come out at my advanced age than if I had done it earlier. My generation is not as open as the younger generation. So, even if my siblings were uncomfortable with my transition, my nephews and nieces have been fantastic. I took it upon myself to be as open and notorious as possible in order to help other people who are going through my struggle.
It is my obligation every single time I have a chance to speak up to make a pitch for “Let’s protect transgender children.” Let’s allow them their freedom of choice with respect to who they are. It is incumbent upon good people to stand up for transgender people, and it’s incumbent upon transgender people, in my opinion, to stand up for the rights of all oppressed people as well. We can never stop caring about the target of the oppressed and marginalized.
Sydney Bauer is a contributing writer who covers sports, politics and major events through the lens of identity and gender. Her work has appeared in outlets including Reuters, them. The Daily Beast and The New Republic.