Thursday, 18 September 2014

Interview with Denise Brogan-Kator

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor 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 granddaughter. 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.

Monika: After earning your university degrees, your business career grew through a series of promotions until you became the Vice President of Finance with a Florida medical products company. Then your career came to an abrupt halt when you were fired because of your transgender status.
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.

Monika: How has the situation of transgender women changed in American society since then?
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-edged 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 a 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 Standards of Care require counseling, for example). There was electrolysis, hormones, and 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.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
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 as 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.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Denise: Like all alliances, the answer must be: yes and no. Too often, I’ve witnessed the LGB community leave the T community behind. Even now, I’m working on a non-discrimination bill in Michigan where a prominent gay businessman has said that protections for the LGB community are enough for now, and that such a bill should pass, stripped of its protections for the transgender community.
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.
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Denise: Tough question. Harvey Milk was a first. Out, proud, visible. Many transgender people live such lives today. He also served as a focal point, a rallying point. We have several people who might be that for transgenderism – or who at least aspire to such. I have great admiration and respect for several such individuals. I hesitate, however, to name them, only for fear of omitting someone who deserves to be mentioned.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Denise: I am active in politics personally and professionally. I have considered running for office (several times!) but have always been persuaded that it wasn’t a good option for me. So, I support progressive candidates. Professionally, I lobby regularly on bills that affect LGBT families. In one case, in Michigan a couple of years ago, I lobbied a lawmaker who had introduced a bill to prohibit the state from funding “sex change operations” for prisoners in the state prison system – despite the fact that no such surgeries had ever taken place.
Mary and Denise on their wedding
day - December 2005 in Canada.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Denise: It is the driving force for everything in my life. I love my children beyond words. I love my work. And, I am fortunate to have found a life partner whom I love deeply and who loves me. She has helped me through many trials over the past decade. She is smarter than I am (also an attorney) and is a great sounding board for things I think about.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Denise: Often. But, in the end, “many” – as you say – have already been written and I don’t want to write a “me too” book. If I had something to add to the conversation, I would write one. I may write my own life story, just for use by my family. But, I doubt I’ll ever attempt to publish such a work.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Denise: As I said at the outset, I am focused on being a really good grandmother. And, I’m working hard at my job to try and bring legal and social equality to the LGBT-family community. Currently, I’m working with some terrific activists and advocates in the deep South to provide LGBT-headed families who are living in poverty with basic family-protection legal documents. I’m very excited about that.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Denise: I bristle at the term “girl” unless you’re referring to people under a certain age. But, as to anyone who struggles with gender dysphoria, I can only recommend finding a good therapist. When I was coming out, we used to joke that we didn’t have gender dysphoria, we had gender euphoria. That’s how it felt for me – euphoric.
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.
Monika: Denise, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Denise Brogan-Kator.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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