Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Denise Brogan-Kator, a lawyer, transgender activist, Senior Legislative Counsel for the Family Equality Council, a national LGBT rights organization, the former Executive Director of Equality Michigan, co-founder of the Rainbow Law Center, recipient of the 2009 Pride Banquet Committee’s Choice Award, businesswoman, U.S. Navy Submarine Force veteran. Hello Denise!
Denise: Hello, Monika! Thank you for having me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Denise: Well, the thing that is most present for me, these days, is the birth of my first grand-daughter. So, despite all my accomplishments and activities, being a grandmother is currently my most important and most exciting job. And, family is – and has always been – at the root of my passions. It is such a natural fit for me to work for the Family Equality Council.
Monika: Your professional career was preceded by your service in the U.S. Navy Submarine Force. How do you recall those years?
Denise: I recall those years with great fondness. I enlisted in the US Navy on my 17th birthday, so I was quite young. Which means there are several decades between me and the time I was serving. And, we all know that memory often distorts reality. Still, I am enormously proud of my service.
I began attending reunions of my former boat – the USS Grayback – a few years back and it is my hope and intention to not miss another one. I am delighted to report that my former shipmates have welcomed me.
|Denise on the US Navy boxing team.|
Denise: Yes, that’s true. In fact, at that particular company, I had a written record of exemplary service – the owner of the company once said to me that I “saved his company” through my re-working of the organization’s business and financial systems.
But, after he discovered that I was transgender, he called me into his office and told me I was fired. Another vice president came into the office with a box of my personal effects from my desk drawer and I was escorted off the premises. I consulted an attorney – with my written evaluations in hand – only to be told there was nothing that could be done; the law did not protect against discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression.
Monika: Having experienced discrimination at work, you decided to study law at the University of Michigan Law School. Was it your reaction to the unfair treatment at work?
Denise: Yes, but also more than that. I also experienced a significant threat to my relationship with my children, during my divorce from their mother. During that time, a motion was filed to have my parental rights terminated, for no reason other than my being transgender. I asked my attorney if the threat was real and he assured me that it was.
Those two experiences, combined with my own internal need and desire to “fight the good fight” and give back to a community that welcomed me when others rejected me, are what motivated my decision to go to law school. And, as it turned out, I was the first openly transgender law student to matriculate at that Top-10 law school (I later also became the first openly transgender law professor at the University of Michigan Law School).
Monika: Your activism began in the mid-1990s when you co-founded the Transgender Officers Protect and Serve (TOPS) - a national organization that worked to promote transgender equality…
Denise: Yes. A good friend of mine – a deputy sheriff in the county in which I lived – had the idea and he, my best friend (another transgender attorney) and I started the organization. It only lasted a couple of years as all three of us were pulled in different directions, professionally and wound up in very different parts of the country. But, it was the start of my activism.
|Speaking on a panel about transgender|
service in the military.
Denise: That question is difficult to answer, primarily because it is nearly impossible to separate the issue of transgenderism from other issues of race and class. For example, if you are an African-American transgender woman who lives through sex work, you are in danger of grave physical harm. Very few places offer protections, still, against employment discrimination.
Still, the murder rate of transgender women seems to have slowed, slightly. And, there are more places than ever where discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression is prohibited. And, there have been a couple of good court cases and administrative rulings which help in those cases.
Finally, we are more visible now, than ever before. That visibility is a double-edge sword – the far right often opposes anti-discrimination protections merely on the basis of the protections it offers for transgender women. But, the other side is that people are starting to become more aware of who we are, and see our humanity. In the long run, that will win the day, in my opinion.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Denise: I came out at 38 years old. The physical process of transition was expensive, and time-consuming (the Standard of Care require counseling, for example). There was electrolysis, hormones, therapy all of which cost money and take time. But, in the end, that was the easy part. The loss of my family unit was the most difficult and challenging part. Plus, after my divorce, I often wondered if I’d ever find true love again (I have).
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Denise: Honestly, no. When I first came out to myself, I didn’t realize there were any other people like me, anywhere. Eventually, I came to know many, many others. But, I wouldn’t say any of them were role models, per se. Possibly my best friend, Michelle. She was a probation officer when I met her (we were both relatively new to the transgender world, at the time). She also lost her marriage, shortly after I did. She also went to law school (in fact, she bravely transitioned IN law school). So, she may have been a role model for me.
|With her three daughters at her youngest's wedding.|
Denise: Losing my family. Having the woman whom I married, had three children with, and vowed to love for the rest of my life divorce me was very hard, very painful. Being able, as a result, to see my children only on weekends and holidays thereafter was hard.
And, eventually, losing the relationship with my eldest daughter remains the most painful aspect of my coming out. I also lost two jobs directly related to my transition, but that matters nothing, when compared to the loss of my nuclear family.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Denise: I think it, in many ways, already is.
Monika: Have you ever read or watched any attention-grabbing book or event/film about transgenderism?
Denise: Oh, goodness. Early on, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on! An early work that greatly influenced me was “The Apartheid of Sex” by Martine Rothblatt, whom I later got to know and work with. Years later, I really enjoyed “She’s Not There” by Jenny Boylan. But, truthfully, I’ve read dozens of books. I used to hand out a list of books whenever I gave talks at colleges and universities.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Denise: I think that we are, slowly, starting to see a shift toward positive portrayals. Most of our representation in the media has been stereotyped into sex workers, or evil characters. I recall a line from the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” where a friend is trying to dissuade the female lead from going to meet the male lead by saying “the guy could be a crackhead, a transvestite, a flasher, a junkie, a chain-saw murderer…”. But, some wonderful stories like “Normal” and “TransAmerica” have begun to showcase our real lives.
|Meeting the President of the US.|
Still, in the broader public’s mind, there isn’t much distinction between the letters. And, it’s the broader public whose hearts and minds we must influence, if we are ever to have full lived and legal equality. So, I’m a big fan of maintaining our tight relationship with the LGB community and working to strengthen its commitment to the T community.
|Mary and Denise on their wedding|
day - December 2005 in Canada.
To have finally realized my own sense of self, to have unshackled myself from the bonds of living as a male in a male-dominated society was liberating and joyful. But, even I needed counseling to ensure that I navigated the waters of gender transition carefully. And, when such transition brought tears and fears (as it inevitably must), my therapist was there to help me steer clear of self-destructive thoughts and ideas.