Photo by Bethany Mollenkof. 

After Years of Fighting for Trans Kids, Lawyer Mia Yamamoto Came Out Herself

Mia Yamamoto was born in a Japanese internment camp and served in the Vietnam War. Then, after she became a leading criminal defense attorney, she came out as transgender.

|
Dec 7 2018, 8:07pm

Photo by Bethany Mollenkof. 

Read more from our Trans Legends oral history project, a growing archive of interviews with transgender icons and pioneers.

Mia Yamamoto, in her own words, was “born doing time.” She started her life in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona in 1946—a circumstance that eventually moved her to dedicate her life to social and economic justice as a poverty lawyer and criminal defender.

Mia identified as trans long before she began presenting as feminine in her 50s. She recalls finding herself while reading about transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in the newspaper as a child, but keeping her identity a secret while later serving in the Vietnam war, and eventually, when she began working with homeless trans youth as a lawyer, covertly going out at night to discover bars catering to trans women on Hollywood Boulevard.

Being exposed to the dangers of trans life in the 20th century and enduring the toxic masculinity of the military may have slowed Mia’s personal coming out, but it did not prevent her from supporting trans people in her capacity as a leading criminal defense attorney. For years, holding her transness deep within, she selflessly sacrificed her own authenticity to better serve marginalized individuals navigating the legal system and the prison industrial complex. Her fierce fighting words for the President (“You’re just a punk politician, I’m not afraid of you”), and her deep commitment to dismantling structures of oppression, are a rallying cry—encouraging us to push through fear to discover our courage and potential for resilience.

1544211448637-Portrait_Broadly_Selecta_BRM017
Photo by Bethany Mollenkof.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

ZACKARY DRUCKER: Tell me about your personal journey around transness.

MIA YAMAMOTO: I was in the closet in terms of being trans until my actual coming out transition, when I I had already been a lawyer for a while. It’s different for me. I came up, though, around trans people who were kicked out of their homes as teenagers. It’s common, at 12 or 13; the family is outraged at your gender expression, they throw you out of your house, and you have to fend for yourself out there. I was always around folks like that; those were the only people that I could possibly identify with—especially coming up as a poverty lawyer working with oppressed and marginalized communities in many colors and different origins. The trans folks were excluded from almost every minority group. I remember my therapist saying that he had various queer clients, but that trans people were the queerest of the queer.

Tell me about what kind of law you practice.

I’m a criminal lawyer now, I started off in legal aid. I always wanted to be a lawyer for poor people; they got an unfair shake from society. I started off at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles working in impoverished communities. I had an initial resistance to practicing criminal law. I think there's a certain level of elitism when you're a law student thinking, Oh, you’re this smart person. You know, why would you give your best to the worst people? But when I went to go work at the public defender’s office, I realized it’s just poor people. It was the same clients I represented at legal aid that were there in the tank that had a different set of legal problems, but it was the same people. [It was] good people making reckless, stupid decisions about their lives—with consequences. Helping them still seems, to me, like a great way for me to spend my life.

[During this time] I saw a lot of the exclusion aspect of being trans. When you're deeply closeted, it’s hard for people to see that, I think. You actually get very good at male impersonation. It’s the only way to survive in the locker room and in the army. It’s a form of toxic masculinity, but you buy into it wholesale when you have extreme questions about your own gender identity and you feel a need to express [masculinity], at least for the people around you and their comfort.

Coming up in the 60s and 70s, the amount of oppression that was directed at gay and trans people… maybe even most directly at trans people. It was illegal back in those days to wear clothing of the opposite sex. The police would raid gay bars and the gay guys would grab a lesbian, trying to look straight. They would actually do things like, if you had your zipper on the side or in the back, you go to jail because you're crossdressing; and that [also] means a woman with the fly in the front. Imagine that is their criteria for taking you to go to jail!

When I was a lawyer, the treatment of trans people in jail was particularly bad because they were seen as likely victims. The cops the way they are, they’re laissez-faire about the prison population; people are going to do what they’re going to do, and they’re going to pretend not to notice. The thing that always struck me was [the] trans people who were brave enough and honest enough and came to court dressed, and having the judge use all of these male pronouns used on the queens, that was particularly infuriating. “Do you accept that disposition Mr. so-and-so,” with that kind of contempt. The ones that had enough guts to do that were defiant in return, “That’s not my name, sir.” They would stand right up to these guys. At some point, I think I sort of admired the idea that you got nothing left to lose. You know, I'm gonna stand up for myself.

Were there any particular people that really touched you?

Trans people generally would avoid me like poison because I [was] trying to learn something about myself by talking to them. I got a lot of hostility. I guess because they’re so used to people asking questions, it must be irritating. These were street queens, usually young teenagers struggling to stay alive. In the tanks—in the jails and the courts—there's a lot of disrespect out there; ridicule and rejection. And people are openly contemptuous. It takes you a while before you are able to shed that mantle of toxic masculinity which is imposed upon you by peers, media, other people around you.

Today is Veteran’s Day, and I am a Vietnam veteran, and those of us who have seen war have seen the absolute most extreme of male toxicity. There’s a glorification of the violence of war and a glamorization of the military, and that, to me, contributes to violent solutions, to conflicts. The embrace of the trans community that I would see within certain enlightened enclaves of our society is a welcome relief from the almost total universal exclusion of my community. Especially from my point of view, the idea that they're trying to exclude trans people from service in the military shows that our contributions to the military and to the advancement of our military interests in history have been erased. It's always been illegal to either be trans or gay in the military, and they would throw your butt out for admitting that you are. They were trying to exclude and deny the existence of the contributions, the sacrifices, and the courage of LGBT people in the military to try to erase them any place where they demonstrated their contributions to society and their community. They would like to pretend that we don’t exist.

It sounds like you've stood in multiple positions. You inhabited this extreme space of toxic masculinity, being in the military, being an ally working towards racial and economic justice...

I've always been somebody who believes in human rights and believes that it was my obligation, my privilege, to fight for human rights not just for for my clients, but for the world—for everybody. One of the organizations that I work with, International Bridges to Justice, we defend prisoners, basically. I’m not talking about political prisoners, just people that are locked up. We do defender training and put together little agencies in each of the places where we work. We do legal aid to the people in jail.

"They would like to pretend that we don’t exist."

We realized over the last 20 years that what we’d really like to focus on is investigative torture. When they first get ahold of somebody, in order to get confessions out of them, to get evidence out of them, governments resort to torture. Most governments, the vast majority of them have rules against torture. They find them to be the cheapest and most available means of resolving criminal accusations — they can beat something out of somebody. In any event, the human rights element of everything that I’ve worked on has been the most important component of the work. [If] you donate your time and work towards something, then international human rights seems to be a pretty valid goal or ideal.

It’s a noble choice. You’re living an ethical life.

We’re given the choice of living that way. So I’ve taken it, and I feel lucky to do so.

Would you tell me, Mia, about your origin story and how that has influenced and impacted your trajectory as an adult?

The fact that I was born in (an internment) camp, right? I was born doing time. I always talk to my clients about, you know, I understand people are thrown in jail because of their race. I was born doing time because I was Japanese.

I was born in Arizona in September 1943 after my family had already been imprisoned and… my dad was a lawyer actually, class of 1929 Loyola Law School here in LA. And he's going around the camp saying, “tThey can’t do this to us, they can’t put people in jail because of their race!” My first lesson about race. I don’t remember camp, but I do remember growing up in post-war America—California. The level of hatred that people still had towards the Japanese was palpable. I was pretty careful about not speaking Japanese. I didn’t want to advertise that. It was just not cool. And, of course, this is something at that age you’re definitely striving for.

You always think about resiliency and the things that you experience that allow you some resilience. It seems to me, starting off with racial prejudice, that's always pretty interesting. And I think it is life-altering in a sense: your experience is basically altered, and thereby your perspective—looking at things from the point of view of the underdog, of an oppressed class.

I would love to hear more about your experience of transness through all those filters. How do you survive so many years not being able to express yourself authentically?

You resort to all kinds of expressions, both artistically and athletically. There's all kinds of things you can do to be an extreme outlet for what feels like an extreme constriction. Trans people are so underground, or certainly they were. I remember being in the military and seeing a piece of trans literature about that and I was stunned. I had never seen anything like that before in my life.

What exactly did you find?

Advertisements for a magazine. They were trans-related and drag, female impersonator magazines.

Like TV / TS Tapestry , Les Girls , Female Mimics ?

One of them. I remember being enthralled by this amazing cut of this culture that’s so elusive for me to find.

Did you know trans folks existed before that?

I was growing up when Christine Jorgensen hit the front pages of the newspapers. I read that as a kid. It was the most amazing relief to me that there was someone else like me in the world.

What did you think when you saw her?

Well, I thought, That’s amazing that something like that is even possible! Knowing that someone felt the same way as I did felt exhilarating. It gave me a sense of euphoria knowing there was somebody else out there.

When did you discover that there were more people like Christine Jorgensen out there?

I was in college when I first came across trans sex workers. On Hollywood Boulevard, there was a smattering of trans bars right there by Hollywood and Vine. In the 60s, that’s when I started seeing them.

"Trans folks were not just a subculture, but a sub-sub culture. Because it was a part of gay society, but it was the abandoned stepchild."

What were they like?

Most of them had female impersonator shows. There was usually a smattering of trans people in the audience. Some of the performers had friends who hung out at the clubs. There was a place I remember that had a show in the front room and a bar in the backroom, which is where the trans clientele were—pretty much straight clientele in the front room. It was very interesting. Trans folks were not just a subculture, but a sub-sub culture. Because it was a part of gay society, but it was the abandoned stepchild. Gay men didn’t like drag queens. They had their own prejudices towards them. [When] you find your way to enlightened people, both trans and not trans, it gives you hope because there are people that empathize, sympathize, and are willing to fight for your cause. Something I learned was an important component about the entire struggle is that we need to convince others that there’s justice in your cause and it is a righteous thing to stand with us.

What did you think when you were in that room? Did you feel like you were disappearing into the wall, or what was the feeling in your body?

You’re afraid you’ll spend your whole evening looking out for yourself. And then after a while, you meet people, you have friends, and they show you how to enjoy the life and how to live it. It’s kind of like, it’s a dangerous life, and you need support and people who can actually give you the warnings about certain people in certain situations.

Did you tell people you were trans back then, when you were coming into it as a total loner and you had nothing to lose?

There were people that I came out to as trans. But they never had to see the evidence of it because I never transitioned around them. Yeah, but the people in my band knew. I was with that band for 25 years. I would speak to my most close friends. I would reveal to them this curse that I felt I had.

That's so interesting because we hear these stories all the time, but it's pretty rare, I think, that folks in your position are honest with the people around them.

But that's the way it was for most of my life. It was a secret life. I started dressing and was going out myself. I’ve been doing that pretty much my whole life. When I was a very small child, after the Christine Jorgenson revelation in the 1950s. I was just dressing up in my sister’s dress and going out at night, like at 2:00 in the morning.

Were you in Arizona still?

We were living in East LA. We left there in '54 or '55. We lived in the Pico Union area around Olympic and Union [during] my teen years. I dressed a lot in those days. I went into the army and then went to law school, and that’s when I saw the full-blown community on Hollywood Boulevard—drag clubs and that type of thing. It was a revelation.

What what do you think prevented you from transitioning back then?

A lot of us get killed out there. It’s common danger, you know, for people on the streets to get killed. The police, too, would not hesitate—because of their contempt for us—to engage in police brutality. They’d hit us.

Also, it’s a sense of duty. I’ve been driven by that. A sense of obligation. Especially when I started practicing law and I had clients and they were counting on me. Their lives, their futures, were on my shoulders. If I transitioned, it would just pull the rug out from all of them. Especially when I started doing death penalty cases. I started doing them in the 80s. My transition was probably imminent back then, but I couldn’t do it. I felt like I had taken on the greatest challenge of my life. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility and felt I couldn’t do it. And then, at some point, I felt like, I refuse to die like this. I would tell people: “I’m coming out to you as trans, I’m going to be going through a sex change, I understand that you hired a dude. You didn’t get one.”

I’d say, “If you don’t want to stick with me, I know some of the best lawyers in LA, I guarantee that you’ll be well represented.” They all said, “No, I’ll stick with you.” It kind of blew me away, actually. I thought somebody someplace would not because I was trans. It was amazing how they stuck with me, matter of fact; amazing how the entire legal and professional community stuck with me. Didn’t expect that either! Think about it for a second, no lawyer had ever been trans in the criminal courts of California.

What year was it when you came out?

2003. 15 years ago.

So you were meeting these trans youth primarily as a public defender, and did you ever disclose to them that you were also trans?

Yeah, but to them, I was a coward for not coming out right then and there. I told them, “I have the same feelings about myself that you do.” They were like, “Then why don't you do something about it?” And the answer was, “Because I'm fearful. You are not, but I am.” I was a coward, I respect that. But I can help you more as Michael than I can as Mia.

So what was life like when you came in to the community as Mia?

It was interesting, I came out and then I came out in court. I came to court dressed and, you can imagine, eyes popping and jaws dropping. I did it anyway, the first district attorney ’s question was, “So what do we call you now?” I said, “That’s a perfect question, I call myself Mia now. Thank you for asking.” When I started this, I got some interesting responses from people. I expected a certain level of ridicule and rejection, but it wasn’t as bad as you might think.

"Every trans person should aspire to everything. "

There’s a legal paper in the community called the Daily Journalist—it’s a daily legal paper here. They wanted to do a profile on me as a lawyer. I said, “Listen, I got this one issue that’s going to overwhelm your profile.” They said, “That’s even better, we’ll make that a feature article.” So they put it on the front page of the daily legal paper.

That was the best thing that could happen, because I didn’t have to come out to 10,000 people. It all came out at once. From my point of view, it was amazing because I'd go to court after that article is published and people then expected me to come to court dressed, which was perfect. But when the article came out, people literally would be lined up at the bar in the courtroom that that delineates the bench from the audience to give me a hug and a kiss and congratulate me. I never expected that, it was amazing! The guys were like, “We got your back homie,” and the girls were saying, “Welcome to the club.”

What are your feelings now, in the Trump era? I mean, you've been living your life as Mia for 15 years and witnessed immense changes within your time as an out trans person.

I feel like what I have to do is be as visible as possible, because I represent a community that’s being targeted not just by bigots but by the president of the United States. I’ve been in solidarity with all the people he’s been targeting, since he’s been targeting them. I always say, I am Muslim, I am a Jew, I’m Black, I’m a woman—I am all the people that he wants to come down on. It’s not like I’m late to this party. He’s been coming after trans people lately, but he’s been going after other people I identify with a lot longer. I’ve been in opposition to him and in solidarity with people who are oppressed. Those are the people I have to care about, because they don’t get cared about enough by people who are privileged, who, you know, are able to make a living. They are struggling and they are reliant on people like me to care about them and have the ability to advocate for them. Even this article is a place where I can say, “they need us, they’re our brothers and sisters in need.” Like even any refugee that ends up at our border, they are our brothers and sisters in need. They are our responsibility and our obligation. Everyone of us who enjoys the benefits of citizenship should be paying heed to the moral aspect of what it means to be American. We have to reach out to migrants, immigrants, all kinds. We’ve got to treat each other better, care more about each other.

I feel like [in] the transgender community, there's a lot of fear and there's a lot of disappointment and despair going on right now. But I've always been the type that says: “Okay, the challenge is great. We have to rise to it.” I always say this: There is no real great courage without great fear.

Okay, if you’re going after transgender people—bring it on, fuck you! I’ve been on the side of all the people you’ve been oppressing this whole time, so I’m glad you got around to me by now. You know, if I’m your enemy, you might as well know it. I’m not afraid of you. You’re just a punk politician. I’m not afraid of you.

Yeah, we are a bunch of tough cookies. I mean, we’re a group of people who have been bullied, humiliated, pushed to the edges of society, and who have lived our lives maneuvering around a status quo that has little conception of our existence and no care of it. We’re ready to fight. We’re tough by nature.

Yeah we’re pretty fierce by nature. We’ve had to survive and that’s an important priority. You grow up as a very feminine boy, believe me, you learn how to fight. I had to learn I couldn’t win all these fights but I could hurt ‘em. Then, they’d think twice about going after me again.

Mia, this has been such an incredible conversation. Your words are so galvanizing in a time when people feel very defeated.

We need each other, we need to love each other. Especially, when you speak about infighting — we need to be kind to each other, to the people within our group, our movement. I’m not advocating for trying to engage some of the Trump supporters, but we need to listen to each other and we need to listen to those people with whom we disagree. We have to put our differences aside for the sake of community. We can’t retake the positions that we’ve given up without it. We’ve seen what happens when we’re not united. It’s really important not to cede power to the fascists, because we know what they will do with it—they’ll misuse power. It’s important to understand: We can’t give it up to them. It’s so lazy for people to not vote, not be engaged, and to look out the window one day and say, “Oh, it’s a war outside. My god, I never saw this coming.”

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Do you have any thoughts on disenfranchised people who don’t know where to put there energy, could be putting their energy?

Every trans person should aspire to everything. Be the greatest lead singer in a band, be the best politician, be the greatest lawyer you can be. All those things are going to be available because people fought for us, people advocated for us, people opened doors and made space for us. And you’re gonna have to return that favor and pay it forward for the next generation. Nothing good happens without all of us doing it together. This is one movement that you have to get active in, not just for yourself, but for the world; for us to experience a measure of justice, equality, inclusion.