Interviewer:

 Mason Funk

Camera:

 Kate Kunath

Date:

 April 07, 2017

Location:

 Office of Mia Yamamoto, Los Angeles, CA

Mia Frances Yamamoto’s parents were among 17,000 American civilians of Japanese ancestry who were interred by the US government at Poston, Arizona after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. (Overall, more than 127,000 Japanese-Americans were interred in ten concentration camps during this period.) This is how Mia came to be born at Poston in 1943. Her family’s experiences in the camp, and her father’s subsequent exclusion from the whites-only Los Angeles Bar Association, shaped her understanding of racial injustice in the legal system from an early age.

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Mia’s family settled in East LA, a predominantly Latinx / Chicanx neighborhood. Mia and her brothers found a sense of shared purpose and identity among the local Mexican gangs. This served to deepen Mia’s sense of solidarity with people deemed worthless by society. Another element in Mia’s compassion for outsiders came from the fact that at birth, she was named Michael – a name and gender designation that did not fit her.

Mia’s gender dysphoria intensified with age. Upon graduation from Cal State University Los Angeles in 1966, searching for any solution or path forward, she enlisted in the US Army and was deployed to Vietnam. Afterwards, in 1968, Mia enrolled in UCLA School of Law, where she founded the Asian/ Pacific Islander Law Students Association and organized with black, Chicanx, and gay law students for social justice causes.

Gradually, Mia began more actively confronting her gender dysphoria. But it was only at age 60 that, in a classic case of “better late than never”, she finally came out as publicly as transgender. Since then, she has been an ardent advocate and spokesperson for the trans community, greatly helping to normalize the trans identity in the courtroom and the world at large.

As a lawyer, Mia’s awards and honors include an appointment by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court to serve on the Judicial Council Task Forces on Jury Improvement and Fairness and Access in the Courts, the Rainbow Key Award from the city of West Hollywood, multiple designations as Criminal Defense Attorney of the Year, and recipient of the Harvey Milk Legacy Award. In 2015, Mia married fellow activist Kimberlee Tellez.

A few months after her OUTWORDS interview in April 2017, we invited Mia to say a few words about the project at our first-ever fundraiser. Mia got up and basically set the room on fire with her speech about the importance of recording LGBTQ history, and defeating the forces that would erase queer history, speech, and liberties from the face of the earth. If Mia runs for President in 2020, she has our vote.

Time Speakers Transcript Text
Mia Yamamoto: Great, yeah.
Mason Funk: ... because it gets a lot. After you've been talking for an hour, I can only imagine how your face gets tired. I'm asking questions and you're having to do all the talking.
Mia Yamamoto: That's okay. It's like being in a conversation with somebody. I'm sure I can do that for a long time.
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Oh, okay. Well, most conversations don't start this way, but please start by telling us your first and last names and spelling them out for us.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay. My first name is Mia, M-I-A. My last name is Yamamoto, Y-A-M-A-M-O-T-O.
Mason Funk: [00:00:43] Okey-dokey, great. And, tell us where and when and under what circumstances you were born.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:01:00] I was born in a place called Poston, Arizona, which is really no longer there. It's by Parker, Arizona. It was an American concentration camp. I was sent there ... Well actually, I wasn't sent there, I was born there. My parents were sent there along with their other three children at the time, relocated from Los Angeles. So, I would have been a native Los Angeleno had it not been for the war. We were there in September of 1943 when I was born. I imagine I was probably conceived there too, because we'd been there since '42. My sister was born there, and after the war when we were released we came back to east Los Angeles. We came back to east LA, where we lived to begin with. We actually came back to Orange County for a short period of time.
Mason Funk: I'm going to interrupt you, just because I want to spend a little more time in Poston, Arizona.
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, sure. Okay.
Mason Funk: So, for those who don't know, tell us about the American government's program of relocating and putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. How did that all come about?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:02:00] It all came about, incited by, provoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. So, by 1942 there was a clamor on the West Coast to lock up all the Japanese Americans who ... all the Japanese people, and then government under FDR issued executive order ... I think it's 1066 or 9066; I forget. In any event, it basically said we had to get out, and they were going to transport us to these camps. 110,000 Americans, most citizens, many who were not, Japanese nationals, were sent to this camp, and we were sent there along with them.
My father who was a lawyer actually used to go around telling people in the camp that they really can't do this to us. I've read the Constitution, and they can't really put you in jail for your race. Of course he was wrong, certainly proven wrong by the Supreme Court they said a military necessity apparently justified the racial discrimination. And that's sort of been the books ever since. That was the circumstances of the camp.
Mason Funk: [00:03:00] Were there ... I've never known this. Were there any lawsuits filed on behalf of the Japanese Americans who were interned?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:03:30] As a matter of fact, there were. It was interesting, because the war fervor at the time precluded people like the Democratic party, even the National Lawyers Guild, from supporting the Japanese Americans. The only group that would support them was the American Civil Liberties Union, and only ones that were basically active in the resistance were ACLU of Northern California. The lawsuits that were brought were for the most part lost.
The first challenging of the order was the curfew and the incarceration both were two cases here by Gordon Hiranbayashi and Fred Korematsu. Both those cases we lost. The Supreme Court held that the military necessity, again, justified the unconstitutional incarceration. One case, Mitsuye Endo, was brought that was actually successful. It was a habeas corpus, but by the time it was decided, many people were already being released from the camps. So, the only validation came basically as a sensed sort of a de facto recognition that it was a mistake. However, the principle still exists on the books, because it's never really been formally overruled. So, a lot of the right wingers are actually relying upon this precedent to oppress Muslims and other groups. So, the precedent does matter in terms of what happened.
But, the camps ... I really can't tell you much about them, because I was too young by the time that we even left to give you any kind of an eyewitness account. I can tell you a lot about anti-Japanese hysteria after we came back.
Mason Funk: Let's get to that in a second, but I have one or two more questions about-
Mia Yamamoto: Sure.
Mason Funk: Just because, this is a chapter of our history that's important to document any chance that you get-
Mia Yamamoto: Sure.
Mason Funk: ... which is in my mind, the most famous, but the only camp that I know about is Manzanar.
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: [00:05:00] Because I think we turned now into a national monument. So, I'm just curious as to why your family went to Arizona instead of Manzanar? How did it all work?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:05:30] Well, my father was a lawyer, so he had to stay behind. When the entire community out of Los Angeles was relocated they primarily went to Manzanar, and that particular facility filled up too fast. My father, who was left behind to resolve the businesses, try to sell the property of other Japanese people who were being relocated. He had to stick around for a much longer period of time, probably two to three weeks. By the time we were to be taken away, the camp was filled up. So, we had to go to Poston in Arizona. So, we actually did our time with a lot of people who were from Central California originally. The entire parish, our church and everything, had been sent to Manzanar. So, we were sort of an outpost with respect to the Los Angeles congregation for the Catholic church that we belonged to at the time.
Mason Funk: [00:06:00] Nice, and give me a little background on your parents. When did they come to the States and under what circumstances?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:06:30] My mom came to the States to do post-graduate work as a nurse. She aspired to be a registered nurse. She has gone to college in Hawaii. My father had also gone to school in Hawaii. He came out here to go to law school. He was the first Asian-American to graduate from Loyola Law School as a matter of fact, 1934. He practiced in the segregated bar his whole life, because he died in 1957. The bar didn't integrate really until 1961, LA County Bar. They knew each other actually back in Hawaii, but they didn't get married until they came out here. She was studying to be a nurse at the time. They had like an internship back in those days at the LA county hospital. And then of course, my dad was going to law school out at Loyola, and then tried to establish a practice in the segregated bar after he got out of school.
Mason Funk: Gotcha. And, they had gone to Hawaii to go to college, but they have been born in Japan?
Mia Yamamoto: Whoa. No, they were born in Hawaii actually.
Mason Funk: [00:07:00] They were? Okay.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:07:30] My father was born in ... Actually, they were both born in the same place, which is in the Hanalei Valley in Kauai. They were both born there actually. My mom's family moved to Honolulu when the steel bottom boats came in when no longer three masters. And, the commerce moved to Honolulu for the deep water port. So, everybody who was living in places like Hanalei in Kauai and stuff like that ... The population pretty much moved to where the commerce was, and by the early 1900s they were in Honolulu ... Oh, well, my dad's family I think stayed in Kauai the whole time pretty much. But, came out here and got married and decided to raise a family in East LA.
Mason Funk: Okay. Yeah, I think, just again, for the record it's interesting to realize that even your parents were born ... They had been born in the United States. In other words, it's just important to recognize these [crosstalk 00:07:56] … they were born in the United States...
Mia Yamamoto: [00:08:00] Oh, I see. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Although, I guess that Hawaii was not technically a state when they were born there.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:08:30] Yeah, they actually had to naturalize. My grandmother had to naturalize actually even though she was born there. So by the time my mom and my dad were born, it was already a territory, and the children of people at that time pretty much were born in America, essentially. So, it became a state, as you know, sometime ... I don't know ... in like the 50s or 60s. I can't remember, but before that even it was recognized as an American territory and all of the people that were there that were born there were granted automatic American citizenship.
Mason Funk: Great, but I'm just wondering for the record there's a door right through this wall. That's probably the next door neighbor, right?
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: I just hear a door opening and closing-
Mia Yamamoto: Correct.
Mason Funk: ... and it's a little bit noisy, but there's probably no way to control for that.
Mia Yamamoto: Not really, and they're sort of a different entity.
Mason Funk: Different office all together. Okay.
Mia Yamamoto: I don't really tell them what to do.
Mason Funk: [00:09:00] So now, tell us about when and under what circumstances did your family come back to Los Angeles?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:09:30] We came back to Los Angeles after the war, obviously, just like the rest of the people who were getting released out of camps sort of eventually. We were the last people out. My dad was considered sort of a dangerous individual, because he had a law degree apparently. And, he was also kind of an activist against the government. Particularly after we came out of camp, my father was employed by the law firm of [inaudible], which was at the time the ACLU law firm. And again, my family owes everything to the ACLU. My community owes a lot in terms of their advocacy against virtually every other organization in the country during that period of time.
So, Father basically had to reestablish his practice. We actually relocated to Orange County, and for a little bit of time we were living on a farm out there, but they kind of ran us out of there. They used to shoot at us at night time. .22 rifle come through the window. The police investigated. My brothers used to have to fight their way home from school every day, because there was a lot of anti-Japanese animosity. They were just the only two there, so of course they got picked on a lot.
Just as an aside ... I'm not sure if it matters to anything, but the Mexican kids after a while got tired or seeing them get beat up every day, and they started jumping in for them. And, it sort of resulted in my family's connection to the Mexican-American community almost forever at that point. My older brother joined a Mexican gang, my mother immersed herself in the East LA culture; she spoke fluent Spanish and cooked all kinds of Mexican food, and she got really good at doing tamales. But, she became very much a fabric of the East LA community. She was very much constant, and was like that until the day that she died. Most of her best friends were Mexican-American, and the same thing with my older brother ... A little bit different in the rest of the family, that influence, but the influence was very powerful at that time.
So, we moved back to East La. We left Orange County. We weren't going to stay there. We became a part of the Mexican-American community there, and my mom stayed there, like I said. So, that was part of a very Catholic culture, and a very intimate culture on its own way, because like most minority communities there's a tendency to self-segregate. When you see that there's quite a bit of animosity towards you on the outside, you have a tendency to kind of coalesce and unite, if for nothing else but for sort of finding a refuge from the outside world.
So, that was my growing up. I grew up in East LA for the most part, and went to Catholic schools ... a typical crazed, transgender youth growing up and getting even more dysphoric with respect to their life, and their identity, and who they were, and whether or not there was a place for them in the world.
Mason Funk: Slow down, because this is such an important ... There's several things I want to talk about here.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Mason Funk: Probably me the whole time like, slow down slow down..
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Mason Funk: So, I want to go back to an incident that ... Last year when I first contacted you through Chris Freeman-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:12:00] Sure.
Mason Funk: ... I think I had heard a story about you having discovered a photograph of Christine Jorgensen, and you showing it to your mom.
Mia Yamamoto: Well, yeah. Yeah. Yes, yes.
Mason Funk: Will you tell us that story?
Mia Yamamoto: Well, Christine Jorgensen shows up in the newspaper, actually.
Mason Funk: Give me a sense of what year this is.
Mia Yamamoto: Got to be 1952?
Mason Funk: Okay, just one sec.
Kate Kunath: Sorry, I just sneezed and the thing fell off.
Mason Funk: Oh, okay. All right, so start there.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:12:30] Oh, okay. I believe it's 1952. I'll have to go back and look it up, but at this point, it comes out in the newspapers that this ex-serviceman had gone to ... Sweden, I believe it was, and had undergone a sex change operation. It became international news that this had happened. I saw this in the newspaper and I had never seen anything else that ever suggested this issue that I had with respect to how I saw myself and how I believed that I was.
Took it to my mom, showed it to her. I said, "Mom, there's somebody else like me out there, and, you know, this is a picture of him." She looked at the picture. She looked at me, and she broke down and started crying. I remember looking at that and just being really fearful, because I realized this is truly upsetting to her, and it just sent her into a deep despair. I just went underground at that point.
I followed Christine Jorgensen in the news every place that I could, and it was interesting what an international scandal it was. I just couldn't understand why it was considered so bad or so evil by so many people until I started becoming acclimated. When you grow up, you start realizing that there are certain taboos, there are certain attitudes and certain perspectives, which is sort of locked into your cultural and there's almost no escape. It's a sort of an inevitable unfolding of a dichotomy. It's just a rigid dichotomy that you're caught in and that you really don't have any control over. So, it just leads to even more burying underground certain perspectives, certain truths. You learn over the course of time.
Matter of fact, probably the most important part of your education is how to somehow cloak and disguise this side of yourself. I went through that, and I think the one thing you do get, if you survive, is ... You actually create an extraordinarily sophisticated system of ruses with respect to how you exist in this underground state and how this separate life developed itself and continues to grow and develop intellectually and spiritually along with the rest of you.
Mason Funk: So, by the time you showed this photograph to your mom, you were maybe ... Let's say about 10 years old.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:15:00] Probably around there. Yeah, I think I was nine. I think I was eight or nine.
Mason Funk: I can't imagine that you had, prior to seeing this photograph, that you had ever been aware of or come across anybody else-
Mia Yamamoto: Or anything else [inaudible]
Mason Funk: ... anything else that reflected what you were feeling on the inside.
Mia Yamamoto: Absolutely. It was an epiphany. It was something completely unique and unprecedented in terms of my experience or anything I could read.
Mason Funk: [00:15:30] How would you describe your experience internally prior to seeing that photograph? What had you sensed, or felt, or noticed about yourself that-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:16:00] That I was a misfit. That I was probably destined to be a pariah. That everybody that ever had any conversation with me about it, would inform me that this is completely inappropriate. That you're not going to get away with this in any aspect of the culture, so just forget it if you can. People tell you those things when you're that age, and they're actually serious. The only reaction I had, was to actually drive this deeper. I figured this is what I have to do, and I've got to please my mom, and I've got to please my parents. I've got to be a credit to my family somehow, and the only way to do that is to successfully bury this particular aspect of myself.
Mason Funk: Meantime, you were being raised in a Catholic school environment. How did that affect you for better, for worse, for otherwise?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:16:30] I think that the Catholic school education ... Now that I'm as old as I am, I look back on it. And, I try to look at the ways in which it actually benefited me, which it actually advanced my education probably. But, the repressive and judgemental atmosphere that existed made it even worse, and also increased the distance between my consciousness and that of the overlay, the Catholic church overlay. The dogma, and the culture that it imposes on you is relentlessly oppressive and relentlessly insisting upon conformity.
During this time, I'm growing up, and I have a conversation with my mother ... Again, my idol and of course my closest confidant, and I tell her, "Mom, what are you doing. You don't believe this stuff anymore. I mean, it just doesn't make any sense" And she says to me, "Michael," ... My name at the time ... "there are some things that you do not question. You're a Catholic. You are given the gift of faith, and that you have to rely upon that. And understand this, there are certain things in your religion that you just don't question, and one of them is the existence of God or the question of the supremacy of the Catholic church." And I just said, "Mom, I wish I could think like you. My life would be so much easier."
At that point, I knew I was going to be leaving that church. Even had a prayer - appropriate to nothing - but at the time I just said, "God, maybe you're there, maybe you're not, but I can't continue to live like this. And, if you've got to punish me then go ahead, because I'm leaving. So, whatever you've got to do go ahead and do it, but I've got to follow my conscience with respect to this." I mean, something like that was coming out of my 13 or 14 year old head, and that was the end of it. I didn't practice anymore. I refused to believe it.
As a matter of fact, I started finding more reasons not to believe it and not to practice it anymore. So, that was my confrontation with my religion. But, in a sense I say I've gotten older ... The discipline of searching for the truth somehow philosophically with respect to: what is moral? What is important? What is good? What is bad? What is our contribution? What is our choice? All those things are now coming to the fore in many ways, because I have to think about: outside of the context of religion what is the most moral way to behave? What is the consequences of our actions? And, do we agree with that? We can make choices about what our contribution is to our world, to each other. I do see that as something that I was brought up with ... and understanding that we are all one people, and that we have to care about each other and we have to fight for each other. Those things I at least got from the church, and I'm thankful for that.
Every religion I've learned to have some respect for, because there's always some aspect of it that is literally for the good and it's for the good of everybody. Therefore, the dogma to me doesn't matter as much as the amount of good we can do for each other through whatever vehicle we have, and that includes philosophy, theology, religion-
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:19:30] ... whatever we come up with in our studies, in our experiences, and in our evolution.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Do you happen to ever met a guy named Richard Zaldivar, he built the first ever publicly funded AIDS memorial in East LA.
Mia Yamamoto: No. Wow.
Mason Funk: He grew up in East LA. His parents are both Mexican-American, and he has such an interesting take on his faith, because he's done the whole thing of being out of the church but more in the church. Someday, it'd be interesting to have you two to sit down and have a conversation.
Mia Yamamoto: And talk about religion.
Mason Funk: He's one of our previous interviews [inaudible 00:19:53].
Mia Yamamoto: [00:20:00] Oh, okay. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah, great guy. Let me see. I think we've covered ... Okay, let's jump ... When did the Vietnam war become part of your life? When did that ... I mean, I know that you enlisted or volunteered-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:20:30] I volunteered my draft actually. I first became aware of the Vietnam war some place in the early 60s when I was starting college. To me, I remember when I was going to college I remember there was this place called Vietnam. I had never even heard of the place before. We were committing troops to this place, and of course being of draft age in those days you sort of we’re aware of it and all that type of thing. The higher profile it became and the more it continued, then of course it became a topic of conversation among college age kids and draft age kids. It became one of those confrontations that you have when ... At that time, you're looking at a war, and you're looking at the draft.
My attitude was I'm willing to go. I want to answer the call. I'm going to do my duty as a citizen, but I want to do it in my time. So, I waited until I graduated college before I went down to the draft board, and I said, "I'd like to go in, but I want to go in around September, so that if I actually survive the war than I can continue my education." So, I volunteered in September '66. That's when I went in.
The war was, from my point of view, not that awful of a thing, at the time, because I was going through a terrible period of depression. And I thought, there's a certain amount of self-hatred that goes on with respect to looking at a society that looks at transgender people as the dregs of the earth. The war was something that ... I thought that if I died in battle that was the end of it. Nobody would ever know, and my family could actually say, "Well, we have a kid who died in the war," so nobody is going to talk any smack about that kid. You know what I mean?
But as it turns out, I go there and basically when they started shooting I ducked; I have to admit. So, I survived and went to law school, but I think that the war and looking at war ... Especially as a participant ... is something that changes your perspective on it. I can't imagine too many people that have seen a war that now look upon this, sending tomahawk missiles to Syria, and looks at it and says, "Oh, great." If you really think that way, I think there's something wrong with you, because if you've seen war first hand then you know how evil it is, how destructive it is, and how nobody gains. Nobody wins, everybody loses. War is evil. I can't imagine veterans who sit there and say, "Oh, boy! We're bombing Syria. How many more troops can we send. How many more people are going to die? Isn't this great? And how much more hatred, resentment, and revenge is this going to incite in the places where it happened?" So, that's my take on the Vietnam war.
I mean, I love the Vietnamese people. I'm not going to lie. I met people over there that I just adored. I thought they were some of the greatest people that I'd ever met. I was very lucky, in a sense, to go there and be there and get to meet some of these wonderful people actually, and to understand why we should not have been there, that we were invading their country. There's people who look exactly like me who are shooting at me, and who I'm shooting at, and it's just too real. It's just too much like this white nation sends people of color to go kill other people of color. And, the whole Malcolm X thing just became so real and so vividly real to me during that experience. So, I come back, and of course I'm an anti-war activist.
Mason Funk: I want to talk a bit more about your attitude going into the war. What you just said was you described a very sort of fatalistic attitude.
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: Almost that getting killed in Vietnam would be a way out of your troubles.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:24:30] The answer is yes. I saw it that way. I mean, I'm telling you honestly right now that I saw that at the time as a way out. It was way easier to do that ... Let's put it that way ... than to not do it. First of all, I don't particularly like cowards very much. I consider that sort of a character failing. So, I just didn't feel like to answer that self preservation answer was definitely ... I mean, I think to a person who is somewhat suicidal and depressed, the idea of going to war is really not that scary.
The idea that I was doing something, I thought, patriotic and even noble was the initial motivation I had to go and do this thing. By the time I came back, I was extraordinarily cynical and damaged and in great pain for feeling what I had just done. I came back feeling as guilty as lot of other veterans felt, that we had contributed to this thing. I was determined to work against war, all war, when I left it.
I'd learned a lot of things. I'd been studying things when I was over there. I actually studied the life of Ho Chi Minh, and realized that Ho Chi Minh had written letters to Truman ... I don't know, seven or nine letters something like that ... saying, "I've read your Constitution. You're going to come in on our side. You fight against imperialization and colonization. That's exactly what the French are trying to do. We just ran these guys out of Vietnam, and now they're trying to recolonize us. I know you're going to come in on our side." I read that and I remember thinking, "That's just like my dad. He's walking around camp saying, 'They can't do this to us.' You know, you can't put people in jail for your race."
Cornel West has written a book called Race Matters. And, race is in a sense an invisible overlay over all of these decisions, including the relocation of the concentration camps and including the war in Vietnam. We were on the side of France, because we are part of the European colonial movement. This was a natural part of it, and to feel like I was a part of that felt pretty dirty, pretty unclean. So, I had a whole lot of things working ... When I got out of the army, I was a very angry, alienated person. I'd felt like I'd just committed some war crime invading this country, and creating the havoc that we did, and watching it just deteriorate.
I can tell you ... This is probably nothing important, but I remember meeting Jacqueline Nquyen, who is now the first Vietnamese justice on the Circuit Court of Appeal ... One level below the United States Supreme Court. She was the first Vietnamese law student I'd ever met, and I just embraced her. I remember thinking that, "I feel so guilty that you're here," especially meeting her dad and realizing he was a major in the Vietnamese army. We had served in the same area of operations, the Central Highlands in Vietnam what we called [inaudible] Pleiku. I looked at that and thought, "This poor guy. His family is here in the United States because we went in that war," and we went in and lost that war. We had to bring these people as refugees back to the States. I just felt two things: I mean, I love those people, and I felt a little bit guilty about what I had done being there. So, I took her under my wing. I tried to help her out as much as I could when she was a law student. In the whole Vietnamese community I try to do a lot to try to see if I can't help them out a little bit.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt you for a second. I just don't want to let this go by. Its interesting to me that the typical term that's used to describe the Japanese camps during World War II is internment camps.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:28:00] Yes.
Mason Funk: But, you're calling them concentration camps. There's a big difference.
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: Is that intentional?
Mia Yamamoto: It is. It is intentional.
Mason Funk: So, tell me about that.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:28:30] Well, part of it too is Roosevelt himself called them concentration camps. Concentration camps actually preexisted all of the way from the 1900s during the American occupation of the Philippines, when the forces of Emilio Aguinaldo and the others who were fighting for Philippine independence were going against the American military, which occupied the Philippines. Then, the American command put together concentration camps. What they were always set up to do, was to remove the assistance of the civilian population from the rebels who would go back to their homes at night and then fight the Americans in the daytime. So, what they did was they created these concentration camps so that the rebels could not get support. They were called concentration camps. It goes all the way back to Belgium and a lot of other places.
But, my mother, who is a scholar, always told me, "They weren't relocation camps. These were concentration camps." She said, "A concentration camp is when you concentrate on aspect of the population in one place." She said, "They're trying to sanitize the experience by changing the nomenclature, and I'm not going to let you do it." My mom said, "You call them concentration camps, because that's what I call them, and that's what you're going to call them, and that's what they were. Don't be a part of their campaign to sanitize and somehow homogenize this experience with other aspects of American action, this was not." So, yes, I do do it on purpose, and I do it in memory of my beloved mother, who taught me everything that I needed to know about being a whole human being. So, yeah, concentration camps is what I call them. That's what they were, and that's my name for them.
Mason Funk: Great. Okay. That's just instructional for me, so I appreciate it in spite of the fact that I was just having a tickle in my throat.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah, okay.
Mason Funk: But, I'd never heard them called concentration camps, so it's-
Mia Yamamoto: Really?
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] Yeah. I mean, I've always heard them called either internment camps or resettlement camps-
Mia Yamamoto: Or relocation camps.
Mason Funk: ... or relocation camps.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:30:30] That was the primary euphemism that had been used when I was growing up, relocation. They changed it from concentration, because the unfortunate sort of confluence with the Jewish extermination and genocide on the concentration camps. It's interesting because there are people that sort of resist by use of that term, by saying that it somehow undermines or devalues the experience of the Holocaust, because their death camps were so much worse. I know I've heard other people say, "Well, you can't call it that, because your experience was not bad enough." I find that kind of interesting, and even though it's true, I don't think it changes the nature of the name, because I think the name is still accurate, still appropriate, and I still think it's something that I have to do to sort of guard against the sanitization of the history that needs to be exposed in all of its vivid atrocity.
Mason Funk: Great. You went to Vietnam feeling sort of depressed and suicidal.
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, yeah.
Mason Funk: You came back angry and bitter. How significant of a change was that? Did you come back, even if you were angry and bitter, did you come back ... Were you not depressed in the same way anymore or [crosstalk 00:31:22] understand that?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:31:30] It was interesting to have a sense of purpose at that point, because when I came back from the army all I wanted to do was to join the anti-war movement. I wanted to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to be a part of this ferment for social change that was going on, and I felt like all of my rage, all of my frustration it could be channeled into this resistance, into this form of ... What we called the revolution in those day, and maybe there was a place for me in the world and that no matter what I saw that was contraindicating that that I could still find a way. I could do it by sheer force of will.
I started organizing in the army; I organized the law students, I organized out of the community, I organized with the anti-war movement, the anti-racism movement. That part of it is interesting, because my focus has always been on multicultural alliances and multicultural coalition. It's not always easy to achieve. In the army for instance, in Vietnam anyway, they wouldn't let me into the black barracks, because I was told by my NCOs. They said, "No, those guys ... They don't want to have other non-black people in there, because they get to be in a refuge of their own. That's their sanctuary, so you can't go in there." I said, "But, I've been hanging around black people my whole life." He said, "Nope. That's the way it is here." And in the army, there's a whole lot of different rules and stuff like that. You don't run with these guys. You don't run with these guys. If you run with these guys then these guys are sort of your adversaries. I mean, there's a lot of racism in exclusion in the army and that type of thing.
By the way, there was of course a lot of homophobia and transphobia, because it was illegal in the army. So, all of the people who are gay and lesbian in the army ... And believe me there's tons of them. Anybody who's been in the service knows there's tons of them all over the place. But, they couldn't come out, because it was unlawful and they would kick you out if they did. And, that was going to be a big disgrace to get a dishonorable discharge, so everybody sort of buried it.
So I think, the one thing In always had in common with a lot of LGBT people is that we bury things very deeply, and sometimes to the point of undetectability. People were absolutely blown away when people come out, and it happens all of the time with people coming out ... Most time they're not. Most times they figured that was the case to begin with.
But, the service ... All these people that I met ... Some great people who have made great contributions, great sacrifices, and they displayed great courage. Gay and lesbian people who could never get credit as a community, because it was completely illegal to be out. But the contributions of those people, I would love to see someday recognized for the achievements that they contributed, for the great bravery many of them exhibited, and self sacrifice for each other ... Which always felt from my point of view, like the most sacred thing was the bond between soldiers that you would do and sacrifice for each other so much just to get each other home.
That part of it, I would like to see military history inquire into the LGBT history for all of these people who had to come out under fire ... That they would somehow get some recognition, certainly as a community, because ... I mean, the lapse in those days ... I mean, it seemed to me that they were like 30 to 40 percent lesbian. And, you're right. They would get kicked out left and right for acting out and that type of thing. But, they were all over the place, and they were making great contributions whenever they weren't detected. Of course, they were being oppressed, and they had prosecuted it, expelled, dishonorably discharged. But, the great things that they were doing, on the other side, in terms of doing their job and answering the call was never recognized. And again, it's been buried in the same way that we buried our sexuality, our sexual preferences, our identities. It's been buried, and I've always kind of decried that. I've always felt that somebody should go in and actually dig that all up.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Well, there's that book. I haven't read it, but have you read the book Coming Out Over Fire?
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah, I've heard of that book, but no I never have.
Mason Funk: Yeah. I think Allan Berube wrote it, and you inspire me to maybe want to actually dig it out and read it. Maybe there's been some recognition, at least to start.
Mia Yamamoto: Hopefully, yeah.
Mason Funk: So, you come back fired up, at least with a sense of purpose [crosstalk 00:35:43].
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, yeah.
Mason Funk: What are you doing with your transgender identity during these years?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:36:00] Oh, no. It was very buried during that period of time.
Mason Funk: In your own mind had you almost buried it to the point of ... Just in your own sense internally almost having buried it as well?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:36:30] Well, you're always trying to obliterate it. I think that that's one thing I always shared in common with a lot of other people that I knew, especially in my therapy groups. You spend a whole lifetime trying to bury this thing so deeply that you can never see it again, but it's always there. And, it always continues to raise your consciousness about it.
So, during that period of time I did a lot of research in libraries. And, while I was in law school actually, I went through all of these medical schools. I went to all of these different libraries and try to look up the issue of transgenderism and through transvestism. I would look up every single term, and I would go deeply into every scholarly archive I could find to go through the case histories and examine them. Because, I guess even later on when I was in therapy you're always looking for a cause and a cure. You always think that because of your analysis of medical phenomena through the years. and physiological phenomena, that there's got to be a cause, and there's got to be a cure.
Your completely misguided search, because if you're looking for a cause you're not going to find it. And, certainly if you're looking for a cure you're not going to find it. So, it's a futile search, but I spent a lot of years doing this. I spent years in therapy, individual and group. I learned many things from that. But, I also learned that looking for a cause and a cure was probably the worst thing I probably could have ever done, and yet that's what I started out doing.
My first therapist tells me, "You're transsexual." Exact words he used. He said, "We have a scale one to ten. You're about an eight or a nine. You're going to end up getting surgery, and you're going to end up going through a gender change." "Thank you. You're fired. I was looking for a cause and cure, and I'm still going to continue looking for that, because I refuse to accept that ... That that's my destiny somehow." Of course, 20 years later I realize he was completely right after going through a series of therapists, and going through more data, and trying to figure out more things, and figuring out that this guy was actually correct to begin with.
Mason Funk: So, the therapists you were going to see, what were you presenting as your reason for showing up at their door?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:38:30] I've got this incredible distress. There's this thing I can't seem to shake. It haunted me my whole life. I have a curse. I have this identity that keeps asserting itself underneath my surface, that keeps threatening to come to the surface. Suppressing it is driving me crazy, literally driving me crazy. So, that's what I presented in therapy. And at some point, I just came to the conclusion that, "You know something? This is actually your truth. This is not ... the overlay is what's not real, and so at some point you're just going to have to have the courage to actually say your truth. And when that happens, you may not live very much longer after that, but at least you will have been true to yourself for whatever period of time you get in this life. And, that's worth it."
Mason Funk: Wow. What was happening in your life relationally during these years? Were you having significant relationships?
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, yeah.
Mason Funk: Tell me about that.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:39:30] Well, I've always loved women. I still do. You know, I guess that makes me a hardcore lesbian. It's probably what I am. But at the time, I was a straight male. I love women. I was in significant relationships which I guess you'd call the typical ... I'd never cheated on any girlfriend I ever had. That's for the record. I never did, because I was always was serially monogamous. I guess, that's the term people use. But, I always believed that if I couldn't stay faithful to somebody I had to get out of that relationship.
So, I had a series of relationships with a series of women. I probably don't want to disclose them right now, because many of them are in prominent places and they don't need to have me as a part of their history. But, I've always been attracted to really strong women. John says you love feisty women. That's kind of true. I mean, the woman I'm married to right now is a ferocious woman. I met her because of a political protest. She's somebody that's absolutely intensely engaged in political protests, and that's part of why I love her. I mean, she's amazing that way.
Yeah, I've been with a series of women, a lot of women lawyers. Yeah, I'm actually very proud of the women I've been with. I think there's some of the most wonderful people I've ever known. I was reluctant to drag them through a transition. I didn't want to have them or a child or anyone else ever have to go through that with me. I would have felt like that would be the most humiliating thing in the world for a family to have to endure. And, it was one of the reasons why I didn't want to come out to begin with. You just want to be able to be yourself I guess without scandalizing the family, but it's not possible really.
You've got to deal with your family. You've got to be willing to give up everything in order to be yourself. You have to be willing to give up whatever, your job, your family, your friends, your profession. It's really kind of a do or die kind of proposition. It really is not something that you can say, "I'm going to sit on this forever," as it turns out.
You have to admit, the reasons I didn't come out ... I was just looking at that Barry Manilow thing. He says, "I was afraid to alienate my fans or disappoint my fans.” I remember that one part of it. I remember thinking, "that's the reason it took me all those years before I transitioned is, because I had clients." I had clients who were counting on me. I had people that I felt ... You know, I didn't want to let them down, and certainly didn't want to disappoint my family, who has been always the most important entity to me.
But at some point, I felt that all of that is important, but I gave them a lot of years of essentially this person that they wanted to be that person. And, that's all they're going to get. The rest of it is all going to be me. If somebody has got to blow me away or whatever ... And believe me, I'm quite of aware what happens to transgender women of color in this world and in this country. I was perfectly satisfied to ... If somebody's going to have to blow me away, because I've got to be myself than fine. I'll live with that. I'll die with that, because at least I would have been true to myself for at least as long as I get. That's the way I looked at it.
But, it's been about ... What ... 15 years or so since I've transitioned, and I'm still here. You know, it's amazing I'm still working. So, I'm very thankful of that. But, yes. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything for your truth, and I think that's going to be true for every single human being on earth. If you get a chance to be yourself, and even if it's only for five minutes, before somebody takes a gun and aims it at you than fine. I'll take it.
Mason Funk: [00:43:00] Wow. What was happening these years professionally? Just give us a kind of an overview. You graduated from law school. I know you're a public defender for a while. Just give us a trajectory.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:43:30] Sure, sure. I started off working at legal aid. My first job out of law school was ... Actually, I worked in Century City for a little bit. I needed a job, but I always wanted to be a legal aid lawyer. I always wanted to fight for the poor. I grew up looking around just thinking that these people never get a fair shake not anyplace, and so I said, "I'm going to be a lawyer. I'm going to level the playing field. I'm going to be fighting for the poor."
So, I got my job at Legal Aid of Los Angeles, and I worked there for three years until I realized that this work bored me to death. I've always sort of wanted to be and English teacher. Excuse me for a second.
Mason Funk: Do you have to answer that or-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:44:00] No, no, she'll answer it. Thank God I got a receptionist. I always kind of wanted to be an English teacher, because all of the English teachers that I had were the ones who truly inspired me intellectually and artistically. This is just on the side, but when I applied for UCLA law school I was out in Vietnam. They were the only school that asked me, "Why do you want to become a lawyer?" Being the crazed individual I was at the time, I wrote down, "I'm a poet, and I'm never going to make any money at poetry. So, I need to have a law degree, so I can have a job so I can support my art."
They actually early accepted me. It was like the wildest answer they could have probably got, and don't forget, I'm the same person that flunked out of college when I first started. So, I had all of those Fs to deal with in my early career, and then finally came back pretty spectacularly. I mean, I got all my As after that. So, they must have seen me as kind of an interesting person. I'm there in Vietnam. I'm applying to them telling them I'm a poet.
I'm a little bit more grown up now. I think I could have said something different, but I mean that's always been ... I always thought, "Well, maybe I can be an English teach or something like that. I really love the language, and I love teaching people this. And, my English teachers have been the greatest people I ever knew." So, when I went to law school, I had a sort of a back up plan. I thought if I didn't pass the bar or something like that then I'm going back to graduate school and becoming an English teacher.
So, I'm working in legal aid. I've got this job, and I'm really not happy there and thinking about going back to graduate school. And then, a friend of mine missed their interview at the Public Defender's Office and said, "Oh, won't you go down there and take my interview, because I can't go." I went down to the Public Defender's Office, filled out the application. It was the greatest experience. Apart from all of the hostility I express towards judges and prosecutors when I first started out, being a public defender was the most important thing I had ever done. It was the ten years I spent after law school that was my post graduate education and how to become a lawyer.
So during that ten years as a public defender, I was absolutely in the greatest job I've ever been and the proudest job I've ever been. Because, to call myself a public defender was just to me the coolest thing ever. And plus that, the people in the tank that I was representing were the same people I had been representing at legal aid. They just had different legal problems. I was able to adjust one that was a lot more interesting, a lot more immediate. I could be a lot more help right away to these folks. I found something I could really love just helping people in trouble. When people are fighting over money or whatever, it's just not as uplifting. When you're fighting for somebody's life or their future, all of a sudden everything becomes way more vivid and way more immediate.
Mason Funk: That was '74 to '84?
Mia Yamamoto: Correct, yeah.
Mason Funk: So, how aware were you in Los Angeles gay history at this time? If things are starting to kind of bubble, were you-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:46:30] Yeah, I mean especially when I was in law school. I'd already started to crossdress, and I would actually go out on the streets. I would mingle with the other drag queens, female impersonators, and I started learning about those people who are out there. Of course when I got out of law school and was able to get a job, I was able to start my therapy. I would not only see some of these people in the streets, and in bars, and in clubs, but I'd see them in my therapy classes also. I'd see them at group therapy, and I was able to get to know them.
It was really an interesting period to meet other people during that period of time, and hearing them tell their stories, which were so remarkably similar to mine. There were all these other people who had basically had the same childhood, the same feelings, and had actually come to the same place. They were all struggling with it, but a lot of people their parents sent them there. Their wives and their children sent them there, to therapy. And, we would talk to each other, and bond, and try to understand ourselves by speaking with each other.
That particular group ... I remember the Hollywood group would had more attrition than any of my units in Vietnam. More people were lost to suicide, to homicide, to reckless behavior than any unit I was ever in in Vietnam. The percentage of people that were there from week to week was just like combat. It was amazing and educational. I really learned a lot about the array of people that are ... At the time I thought, afflicted with a syndrome. The interesting parts of it continue at that point, and I started seeing a certain symmetry, but the one thing that seemed to ...
The recurring theme was virtually everybody who was in therapy ... Everybody I met on the streets, everybody I met in the jails and in the courts ... was very unhappy people, people who had been rejected by their families ... who had been literally thrown out of their houses when they were 13 and 14 years old. You've seen people who were brutalized by their families, literally murdered by their own families when they came out.
So, it was a dangerous, depressing, and ... It's probably a little bit like the AIDS plague and the big epidemic that came down in the 80s that people started dying left and right. And, that's what I witnessed through the therapy. People were clearly dying of that as well, but it really was a depressing sort of scenario. There's a lot of unhappy people out there, and a lot of people who are unhappy with them. And, that was all I could experience during that period of time. So, for me to come out, certainly in the courthouse where there had never been a transgender person any place, was going to be really interesting.
Mason Funk: [00:49:30] Sorry, I had a thought, and I kind of lost it. But, I was kind of struck by you describing these group therapies-
...examples, or stories, or just incidents where someone you knew ended up dead either through suicide or murdered? Do you remember any particular-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:50:00] Well, some of the people I just didn't know. They just stopped showing up. I had to sort of research it, and a lot of cases I figured out who it was and what happened. But, I do know ... At least I know one queen that I knew, and she wasn't in therapy with me as a matter of fact. Well, didn't matter. People we're getting knocked off left and right on the streets.
I remember somebody like a government ... I wasn't quite sure what she did, but I found out from a mutual friend that she had committed suicide, that she had hanged herself or something in her garage. I had gotten to know her really well. As a matter of fact, we had actually gone out together and stuff like that. And, I thought everything was fine, and then I sort of found out near the end that her wife had found out. And, they had jammed her about it, and they had taken her to ... Because, she told me this much, and then I just didn't hear from her for probably a year. That's when I heard from my friend that she had hung herself, and that was one that really hurt. Because, I remember thinking that she was really a very kind person, just one of these people ...
Because, a lot of them were not that hardened, I mean, even the street queens. They could be really very good and very generous with each other, and just amazingly good and kind, generous people. And, they were going down, and it was really heartbreaking from my point of view. Because, it just seemed like it wasn't people that were looking for a fight. It was all people who were just trying to get along basically.
So, I saw a lot of that. There were a few of them that got murdered. I knew some queens that got murdered. I mean, almost everybody who's in the community, in a sense, knows more than one person that's been murdered. You know, you don't really know why sometimes, you just find their body. In many cases, they were the type of person that were basically very out. They would basically assert their identity very boldly. I think a lot of people get taken down from that, and in a sense that's just another aspect of people ... If you push their levels of intolerance too far then it could have tragic consequences.
I did see a lot of that. I think we still see a lot of that today. I can't ignore the fact that it seems like transgender women of color are getting knocked off at the rate of about once a week here in this country, and once a day if you look at it worldwide actually.
Mason Funk: [00:52:00] How did you manage this so called dual life? I mean, you now were going out crossdressing. Would you do it only in private settings? Would you go out publicly? And what went through your mind in terms of like, "What if I run into someone from work?" How did you-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:52:30] You know, it's interesting. I feared it. I feared running into ... Especially when I started practicing as a lawyer. I really feared running into a judge or another lawyer or something what would I say to them? And, I started thinking about ... I think at some point, I remember along the line I just said, "If I run into somebody, I'm just going to say hello," and just deal with the level of shock and everything else that's going to come with it.
The shame that I felt and the guilt that I felt, was always I felt somewhat imposed upon me, because I realized at some point ... Certainly in therapy ... that authenticity was probably the best possible way to go. It was just a question of when you could come out, when you could transition, and that was always the key issue. As I'm going through my cases and going through my clients and everything else, I kept thinking, "Jesus, you know, I can't let these people down. I've got death penalty cases. I've got people whose lives are riding on my decisions and my presentation, so I can't do it."
And for many years, I basically felt held back by my clients. It wasn't even my family anymore. It was my clients. I felt like if I owed anybody anything it was them. Those are the people that I've undertaken to help them, and it's all on me, and I better be good. I better be able to do my best, and I felt like going through transition would be just about the worse thing I could do to my ... If I didn't want to drag a wife and child through it, then I certainly didn't want to drag a client through it either. Certainly as it turns out, the clients didn't mind, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought I would lose them all.
Mason Funk: Right. You mentioned a few people in your questionnaire.
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: Have a sip.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah.
Mason Funk: By the way, can we pause real quick? Because, I feel like you desperately need some water.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:54:00] ...running for office.
Mason Funk: [crosstalk 00:54:00] say Harvey Milk's name.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:54:30] Oh. I remember Harvey Milk running for office, and I remember the ridicule and the rejection that he faced from being an out gay man running for a political office. And then, I continued to read about him, because he never stopped running for office. He kept running for office until he finally got elected and then got murdered. But, he was, from my point of view, a hero, because he was willing to stand out and be alone. He was willing to be the only one. He was willing to come out by himself and take whatever came from it, even if it meant some bigot shooting him down. That was an inspiration to me. I felt like, "Okay, if somebody is going to be that with me, than I'm following in the footsteps of a great leader. And, if I'm in the same campaign and crusade for social justice as him, then I'm honored to be a part of that."
Yeah. So, Harvey Milk I remember talking about him a lot whenever I talked to other people about relentless persistence with respect to ... If you have something an ideal, a value, something that is worth fighting for, you can continue to fight a whole lifetime for it, and you haven't wasted your efforts, not at all. Because, other people will see it. They are touched by it, and they will continue you. They will continue whatever it was that you were trying to fight for, because they will see the justice in your cause, and they will fight for it as well.
So, I think that Harvey Milk has mattered to me just as somebody who stuck his neck out and paid the price for it. Therefore, he is part of a legacy that is so important to the rest of us who are still alive and still continuing that we have to have his courage and his conviction. So, yeah. Harvey Milk in terms of the movement, in terms of LGBT people ... There's a lot of great people. The Sylvia Riveras and the Marsha Johnsons and people like that from Stonewall, I revere them greatly.
But, Harvey Milk did something ... He actually put himself into electoral politics, and therefore he engaged a lot of other people. He went out and got votes, and he got the community united. There was something really important about doing that, and understanding for people like us who are alienated from politics, because most politicians are a bunch of transphobic, homophobic idiots ... that politics is still what we need to be, because we have to be at the table. And, Harvey Milk showed us that, and I think he continues to show us that, that have the courage to come out and be yourself, and be a part of something that you can make better. That's a good enough goal. That's a worthy journey and a worthy goal. So, he's been really important to me, Harvey Milk. I continue to cite him to other people saying, "You know, there's icons in our history who can give us great examples of persistence and devotion."
Mason Funk: [00:57:00] Wow. You mentioned a couple of other people, and I want to ask you about them. Marsha Aizumi.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:57:30] Well, let me talk to you about them together. Both of them, Harold and Ellen Kameya are a couple. They were the first couple I met in the Japaneses-American community that had started a group in the community, a PFLAG group in the community. And, I remember him telling me ... Harold ... We had a conversation and he and his wife said, "We're doing this ... We're coming out to the bar association, because we want your support. Because, we are a couple of parents of a gay child. And, we were disappointed when we first learned that she was gay, because we wanted to have a typical family line with grandchildren and everything else. They said, "When we figured out what was going on with her life, we decided to make this world better for her. And, we're going to join PFLAG, and we're going to organize out in the world."
And, I remember thinking, "The love that they had ..." And, it's the same thing with Marsha Aizumi, who's the mother of a transgender boy, Aiden Aizumi, and they have made it their mission in life to fight against the transphobia and homophobia out in the world to make this a better world for their children. I was so inspired by that kind of love, because I look at that as the same kind of love that allies have for us ... That they understand the justice in our cause, and they love us enough to fight for us.
So, yes. Those two matter to me, because allies matter to me. I believe that there's no minority movement that succeeds without the support of allies. And, we need to educate them, and inspire them, and get them to the place where they understand the justice in our cause. And, they will march with us. In the case of people like Harold and Marsha and Ellen, they will fight for you. They will go out in the world and they will make it their life's work to campaign against bigotry ... To campaign against transphobia and homophobia.
So, yeah. Those are a couple of people … of three people that I find very significant for those reasons, because allies and their love for others and their love of social justice are incredibly inspiring to me. Because, it's not about self-interest, and it never has been. It has to be about social justice, because social justice has to outweigh self-interest. And, these are the people. I love Harvey Milk, but he was fighting for himself in many ways.
I always point to my great ... all right Frederick Douglass, who Trump claims is still around, I guess. But, when he said that he fought against slavery, it was for him. When he fought against racism, it was for his people, but when he fought for women's rights that he found some nobility there. And, that was the point of those people, that we find some nobility there, because we are fighting for others. Because, anything that we do for our own little community is meaningless if it doesn't contribute to the social good ... to the greater good. So, this is why I use those people as my inspiration.
Mason Funk: [01:00:00] It brings up ... You touch on a huge topic that recurs through these interviews. Yesterday we interviewed a man named Gene Le Pietra, who grew up in foster homes in providence Rhode Island.
Mia Yamamoto: Wow.
Mason Funk: Tough, tough, tough background. Came out here a street kid, hustler ... Eventually owned the two biggest night clubs in Hollywood, Arena and Circus, but his goal in life was always to make places for people of color who didn't have anywhere else to go. And, you should have heard him go on about our community and the racism within the LGBT community.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah, and the phobias.
Mason Funk: [01:00:30] [crosstalk 01:00:23] I’ve got mine, I'm all about me. You people over there I don't feel comfortable with you. Because, frankly, if you're a racist white person when your hair is straight, you're a racist white person.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah, it's true.
Mason Funk: And, he was unrelenting in that. So, you're highlighting this issue of identity politics and going after what I want, what I need, and my rights. As opposed to having a broader view, and I guess, I just want you to talk about that more.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:01:00] Oh, yeah. I mean, I feel like we need each other. At a time like this, when everybody's rights are under siege, when we're being threatened and we're being attacked by our own government, then I think we need each other more than ever. People of good will and conscience need each other more than ever before, because we have to be unified in order to defeat the fascists that are knocking at our doors.
I feel like, the one thing that I have learned through ... The organizing I've done has always been coalition organizing, and understanding the interest of other people and trying to put yourself in their shoes ... at least for the purpose of organizing and for the purpose of coalition ... is extraordinarily important. Because, it's the only way we get people to act in unison, and it's the only way we get anything done. We have to be able to get communities on our left and our right to understand us.
Now, the multicultural bar is a really good example, because we had to try to bring together all of the Latino bar associations, women's bar associations, LGBT bar associations, Asian bar associations, and black bar associations. And at least initially, we could see where people were divided. Not everybody from every community was for same sex marriage. Not every community everywhere was interested in justice for immigrants. Not everybody everywhere was interested in affirmative action.
But, those became the three issues that you were either in or you were out. You either had to support all of them or you weren't a part of us. We were going to actually advocate for each other that way, because we recognized, again, the justice in every single one of those causes. And, it was something that outweighed self-interest. Certainly, there were a lot of people from certain places. The Chinese community, the black community a lot of them had deep connections to communities of religion. Essentially, of faith, I guess they call that nowadays. And, a lot of communities were, at the time, opposed to the rights for gay people. So, we had to deal with that, and we had to actually address and isolate that issue and decide for ourselves that it was an inappropriate opposition to the rights of other people.
And, that went down with respect to every issue, including affirmative action, which a lot of people ... Including a lot of the white males from LGBT bar association ... were not necessarily in sync with us essentially on that issue. So, they had to be convinced. They had to learn from each other, and they had to come to their own decisions about whether they could be a part of this or not. Because, if they couldn't then really they would lose out by not having an entire group to support them on their issue.
So, the way it worked is, we start finding that these issues ... Because they are long-held attitudes, prejudices, and perspectives, which need to be addressed and dealt with. And, we have to make a decision collectively whether or not any of these biases make sense in the modern world, and are they really just holding us back, and are they really just pitting us against each other unnecessarily so that we lose power and that we lose self-determination in the process. Because, we are disagreeing with each other over trivial matters that really don't matter.
In the long run justice for everyone can only be achieved by coalition, in my opinion. So, these things have to be dealt with, and they have to be minimized in order for us to continue to go forward. So, it's really the same thing with respect to all of our communities when we talk about racism and that type of thing. We have to deal with that in addition to transphobia, homophobia. And it's got to be a part of it, because it can't be allowed to continue to divide us.
And, that's the reason why I think that all of us have to embrace Black Lives Matter. We have to embrace the people that are actually trying to make a difference. And, we have to fight against the people that are trying their best to maintain the status quo and to continue the oppression, and the division, and the inequality ... Which is absolutely a plague and a curse on the entire society not just our community.
So, I feel like these things in terms of dealing with each other ... Communicating with each other ... Having sympathy and compassion for each other ... Having some understanding of the life that a person lives that brings them to this point of view in this time, and in this place, and in this confrontation, and this conversation ... Once we can do that on a large scale, I believe that we can do things together that can actually benefit all of us and benefit the larger society ... Which, again, I say the entire objective is to move all of this forward in some way. I think it can be done, but it's always going to be done in coalition, in my opinion. And, that's been my experience. And, that's one of the reasons why I focus on that so heavily in terms of my community work.
Mason Funk: There was an article in the LA Times yesterday morning about this case that was won ... I forget which court ... in Indiana. It was, I think, a circuit court affirmed-
Mia Yamamoto: Indiana.
Mason Funk: I know, ironically, surprisingly ... affirmed the use of the civil rights legislation from the mid 60s as protecting LGBT people.
Mia Yamamoto: I saw that decision.
Mason Funk: The article ... Pardon me?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:06:00] I saw the decision. I was surprised it came out of Indiana, which is not the most progressive place.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Right. Again, in this LA times article they kind of went back and forth and they interviewed some African American ... Especially people of faith leaders ... who were opposed to the use of civil rights legislation to protect LGBTQ people.
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: [01:06:30] And, they said such things as ... Well, they were dividing. This one man they quoted was saying ... I'm actually going to love writing him a letter and trying to keep my cool ... But, he was saying, "Well, because gay people ... They're not like African-American people and women, because they can hide their identities, and we can't." And kind of the underlying message was, "They don't have it as bad as we do, because we can't hide our identities." And, the point of my letter is in part going to be, "You're dividing us when we should be on each other's sides."
Mia Yamamoto: [01:07:00] And, the idea of somebody else making a judgment about what's bad enough to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement ... Any individual who points out other people and says, "You should not benefit from this movement or this campaign," is, from my point view, just another irrational prejudice, because the whole point of it is ... You're right, exactly. If you're dividing us ...
But, there's a reason why you shouldn't be dividing us and that's that if you can't actually put yourself in the shoes of these people and have some idea of their oppression, then you have learned nothing from your own experience. You really have learned nothing from your own experience, and if you think about the leaders of this movement, all of the people that go back all the way to the 50s and 60s that started this movement and started the big momentum going forward ... I believe that every single one of them would have said, "Yes, gay people are included in this movement. Transgender people are included in this movement. All oppressed people are included in this movement," and I'm including people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
I can tell you right now, some of the first people that accepted gay people and said there would be no more homophobia, were the black panthers. In the 1960s they proclaimed ... Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton ... They made a statement against homophobia, and they said there would be no more oppression of gay people in this movement. They made that statement in the 60s, and of course I guess the Black Panther movement has had a sporadic evolution since then. But the thing, they were some of the first people that actually came out against homophobia.
The people from every community, unfortunately, are holding on to certain attitudes and values that they've had ever since they were children even if they make no sense in the modern world. Even if the data contradicts everything that they believed in, they will continue to hold fast to things. They remind me of the people who voted from Trump and continue to support him. They will actually operate upon mythological circumstances, and they'll substitute that for the facts. They will try to assert their vision of reality over reality, and insistent upon their hold upon this against all rational intrusions or arguments against.
And, that person that wrote that about how black people are not ... What they're saying, I guess, is that this LGBT movement is not allowed to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, because we are somehow disqualified because I guess before we come out we don't look like it. It's interesting, there are all kinds of identity issues that people don't seem to want to deal with. The transgender transition is the most in-your-face transition. It's true. So, he can't really say to me, for instance, that, "Oh, you get to hide what it is that you are." Not when I come out. After I come out I am transgender, and it's actually very vividly different. It's very in your face with respect to my change of your perspective on me and my perspective on you. So, what about that? You know what I mean? Do you think it's really ... It's certainly not easy, not for everybody.
Anecdotally, when I was in Thailand getting my surgeries (Plural),there were always people from all over the world going to this surgeon, great surgeon Dr. Suppan. But there were people from New Zealand, London, Tokyo, everyplace in the world from what I could see that were getting their surgeries there. And, every single one of us had exactly the same story. We started realizing when we were 5 or 6 years old. We fight against this thing our whole lives. Some of us are very different ages, but in the end it always asserts itself, because it's the truth. And it's like anything else.
Just like from my point of view, if a person tells me, "Well, you're transgender. You can hide out in the women's ..." whatever. I'm very open and notorious with respect to my gender identity, and I make sure that I am in order to help other people. So, I'm not operating in a place of stealth. So, if you're saying that I have some kind if illegitimacy in the Civil Rights Movement because of that, then you have no understanding of the breadth of this movement. The fact that it's not based on any individual community, society, color, religion, it's actually about everybody. It actually deals with everybody and doesn't deal with any particular ethnicity.
I will say this, every single one of us owes a great debt to the movement for black liberation. No question about it. So, I give them that credit, The initial leaders sacrificed, endured brutality and oppression for the benefit of every other person that's coming now, today. And, they have made society better, because they have made it more inclusive, more equal, more fair. Now, that sacrifice had to be made by them. No question about it, I give them credit for it.
But, this movement has benefited women, has benefited people of color, has benefited LGBT people, and we have benefited for it. And on top of that, we have fought for it. We have been a part of the movement from the very beginning. We have been moving forward. There was people like Bayard Rustin and others who were gay people who were right there in the movement, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were contributing to this movement, who were doing the same kinds of work, enduring the same kinds of oppression.
I pay tribute to them along with all of the rest of them to say, "Yeah, you were following the path and you were flying the banner of our community as well as theirs, and I give you credit for that." And, nobody is going to tell me that we're not a part of this movement, because we were a part of the groups who were advancing it, were fighting for it. We've always been a part of it. Just like, we've always been a part of the military and every other movement here in American history. We will claim our place in it. And, you can fight with us all you want about keeping us out, but we're here and a part of this movement. And, we do it by what we do. By the actions that we've taken over the past 50 years and the participation that we've engaged in, we claim our right to be a part of this movement. And, we will continue that.
Mason Funk: Great. Awesome. Kate, have we changed cards already, or should we change now?
Kate Kunath: We can change.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:13:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: Let's just get it switched out then.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Mason Funk: -he expected me just ... Like, on weekends especially ... to kind of-
Mia Yamamoto: Well, that makes all kind of sense, yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah, so I can go by myself too. You know, then we also want to spend time together.
Mia Yamamoto: No, I agree, and then sometimes [inaudible].
Mason Funk: [01:13:30] Exactly. So, let's talk about when, after all those years, when you said, "I can't transition because of my clients. I can't let them down.And at some point, you said, "Screw it," on some level.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:14:00] That's true, actually. You know what's interesting? I turned 60. I turned six zero, and I remember thinking that ... Somebody threw me a surprise birthday party, and all of these people are talking about how wonderful I am. I'm thinking, "I'm just a total asshole." I'm thinking, "I'm a complete phony. I'm a coward," and I was so depressed at that birthday thinking that. You know, I never thought I'd live this long. My dad died at 54, so I never figured I'd last as long, especially with all of the reckless behavior and everything else, and debilitating behavior I've engaged in in my life.
So, I remember saying at that point, "I don't care what happens. I'm going to transition. I don't care what it takes. I don't care what I lose. I'm going to transition," and I started coming out at that point to all of my best friends, my family. I started telling them, "I'm going to change my gender. I refuse to continue like this. If I have to lose everything ..." Again, same thing, "fine. If it's got to go it's got to go, because I can't really continue like this. I can't continue, because it gets worse and worse every day, feeling like whatever shame or guilt is nothing like the shame and the guilt I feel by not transitioning."
So, I had to start coming out to people one by one, to my friends. It was kind of interesting. I guess, I don't know how other people go through it, but it's always interesting, because it's a very litmus test time for your friendships, for your family, for all the connections that you have. It tests all of them, in a sense. And, every one of these people has a different reaction, in a sense. I mean, everybody ... For instance, like my family ... Basically very awkward and uncomfortable the day turned.
I always talk about the one brother who completely rejected when I told him. We went through this whole thing, and I'm not going to go through the whole conversation. But, it ended up by saying, "Don't you ever talk to me again. I'm not your brother. You're never going to hear from me again. I want you to keep away from my family and keep away from my kids and grandkids. And, I'm never going to talk to you again." So I said, "Okay. If I'm never going to speak to you again, I want to thank you, because you were the rebel of the family. You were the one that taught me I didn't have to be what everybody wanted me to be. Thank you very much. Goodbye." And, that was the worst of it. That was my brother who I haven't spoken to at all in the last 15 years, and I don't expect to hear from him, because he's kind of a hardcore bigot.
But in any event, the others, other people that I felt I was responsible to ... And, I was happy to let everybody know. As a matter of fact, coming out is one of the most liberating things anybody could ever do. I always say to people, "It's probably the most revolutionary act you can ever commit, because it liberates not just you but everybody around you and ultimately the world"
So, I started coming out to my clients, the next most important people ... Family, clients. I came out to each one of them individually, and I was amazed. I didn't get a single person who jumped ship on me. I told them, "I know some of the best lawyers in LA. I will make sure that you're taken care of. And if you want to leave, I will completely understand, because I came to you as Michael. I'm going to be continuing on as a woman, and if you can't deal with that I can completely understand it, you know? I'll find you somebody good." Not a single one of them ...
As a matter of fact, it was interesting. I mean, I had some hardcore dudes. One of them was a death penalty case. A lot of gang kids ... And, they were all amazingly accepting and not even questioning. I have to tell you, they all said exactly the same thing. When I explained to them what I was going to do they looked at me and said, "No shit, man. You're really going to do that?" And I said, "Damn, that's the same thing Reuben said."
And after that of course I needed to talk to my adversaries, the prosecutors and the judges. I started sending letters out telling them I'm going to be transitioning, and if there's going to be a problem with a case or a client, please take me off the case. I would ask to be relieved if there's going to be any prejudice to my client. None of that ever happened.
It was interesting, because the Daily Journal, which is the daily legal newspaper, they wanted to do a profile with me. And I said, "Um, I've got this one issue that is going to overwhelm the profile." And so they made it a front page feature about my transition. And, that was the best thing that ever happened, because then I would go to court and people already knew what was going on. So, I didn't have to come out to ... What ... 5,000 people all at one time. And that was a really interesting experience, you know, at some point, because I expected a lot more resistance than I got.
After the article came out ... Well, let me start way back. The first time I ever came to court dressed as a women, it was one of those things where I remember looking at it the night before and thinking, "Okay, I'm going to wear a dress. I'm going to go there the way I feel most comfortable. I'm going to present myself as a woman, and I'm going to continue to work on my cases." So naturally, I walk in first the parking lot and then the court. Even just the elevators where you're going up to the courthouses, I was getting jaws dropping, eyes popping, amazing array of responses from the people that didn't expect that. But when I came into court, the prosecutor on my case looks at me and says, "So what do we call you now?" I said, "Well, I call myself Mia," and I said, "That's the perfect question."
So, I went through all of the various courts and appearances and class and everything else, and every single time ... Especially the first time, because you have to have some kind of a motivation in a sense to get you going. So, my theme was the night before I'm thinking, "Okay, tomorrow I'm going to liberate the criminal courts building, and after I do that I'm going to liberate the jail. I'm going to liberate the prosecutor’s office. I'm going to go to all of these places where nobody has ever seen a transgender woman before in their life, and I'm going to make it normal. So, every single court I went to with that attitude. Every time I was feeling like I was breaking some new ground, I'd feel like, "Okay, this is the liberation of your courthouse. This is a great day for all of you. I'm going to be putting on a case, and I'm going to be completely authentic. And, you're going to have to deal with it."
That was most of it. I mean even when dealing with the judges, they were, for the most part, very gracious. Some of them were incredibly gracious. I mean, I had a judge come down off the bench, in their black robes, to give me a hug and a kiss and to congratulate me. It was interesting, because after the article came out I would start coming to court and people would be lined up at the bar to give me a hug and a kiss.
I have to admit, I was moved to tears by how little I expected of my peers and from the court. The women were like, "Welcome to the club." The guys were like, "I got your back, homey." Everybody was so supportive and so embracing that ... Who could ever expect that? Nobody would have a right to even fantasize of that good of a response, and yet that's what I got. I'm grateful beyond my ability to express it, because they were amazing, and they still are.
It's like my plan has always been, "I'm going to come out. I'm going to do whatever I can to forge a path for other folks," because I realized that there was no path. Certainly, when I was growing up, there was no other person, and the one person who had ever disclosed it and come out openly was denounced as some kind of satanic presence, was barred from the media. They wouldn't allow her to be on television or radio. A lot of people don't know that about Christine Jorgensen, but she was considered so unwholesome and so unhealthy for American youth that she was actually banned from television.
She became an entertainer, and would go to various places and she worked as like a showgirl. It was interesting too, because the people that described her as a fox in the hen house so to speak ... Like, you know, a male in the bathroom was this old issue from back in the 50s. The girls and the showgirls who used to work with and appear with Christine Jorgensen, all gave her unanimous support saying that she was an absolute lady, and they appreciated knowing her. And that, she was completely welcome in any dressing room or any kind of a place where they worked.
But it was always, and it always is, the outside bigots. It’s always the ones that want to impose their value system upon everybody, particularly when it comes to bathrooms and it comes to locker rooms. The targets of their oppression are always the most vulnerable, the smallest minority they can find. It is never has anything to do with safety. It always has to do with oppression. It always has to do with another mechanism, another tool they can use to express their bigotry in a way that oppresses somebody. People need to understand it for what it really is.
This whole bathrooms issue that people have embraced upon is completely a political issue. It is the same thing that is existing ... And, I hate to make this comparison, and people are going to hate me for it, but there are groups like Isis, which are right-wing political movements, which masquerade as religion. And, the same thing is going on in our country. There are right-wing political movements masquerading and justifying what they're saying and doing by religion. They are not religion. They are the farthest thing from religion. They are simply right-wing political movements, and they need to be called out for what they are. They need to also be called out for the damage that they do to people and the lives of other people. So, that's how I view this bathroom issue. It's not even coming from the responsible, rational right-wing. It's coming from the bigots.
Mason Funk: I'm just curious, when you were telling a typical client-
Mia Yamamoto: Yes.
Mason Funk: Can you just like walk my through what you would say to that person?
Mia Yamamoto: You mean, about my gender thing?
Mason Funk: [crosstalk 01:23:25] transition.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:23:30] Oh, I would just tell them. I said, "Listen, I'm going to be changing my gender. I'm going to be going through a sex change operation, and I'm going to be a woman. I'm going to be expressing myself and presenting myself as a woman from here on in. And, I know that's kind of shocking to you." Usually I would start off with the announcement, and they would get... the reaction was usually when I reacted, I described earlier. Then, I would explain to them why. They I would actually explain to them basically just saying, "Okay, and from then on here's what you should be doing with the case. Here's what we're going to be doing with the case."
So, it wasn't ... I would visit my clients regularly, and I still do. I just made it a campaign. Every single client is going to get notified in person, and they're going to be allowed the choice, because I would absolutely find them another lawyer. But, I'm going to be truthful with them. I'm going to be flat out truthful with them. It's more important that I be honest with them than virtually anybody else I deal with, so let's go with that. "Your life is on the line. I'm responsible for you, and I'm going to be presenting as a woman." I mean, it was basically just like that. I would tell them that quickly. I wouldn't even beat around the bush. I made a decision. I'm going to be doing something, and you're going to have to deal with it. That was essentially the way I dealt with them.
You know, with every client now ... I mean, 15 years after my transition I don't even think about it much anymore. I basically just go into the work. I've got to go see a client this afternoon as a matter of fact after I finish with you. And, I'm just going to be talking to them about the case. And, it's interesting, because five minutes after the revelation in most instances it was always back to work. "Let's get back to ... And deal with the issues in this case, and figure out what we're going to do to make a difference in this case."
So in every instance almost, every single time I'd go to court or whatever once the greetings and everything were over ... The congratulations ... let's get back to work. Interestingly enough, I thought at the time I said, "Look, I just want you to get over the shock, and let's get back to business as usual," but it doesn't work like that. It doesn't really work like that.
Coming out is an ongoing process in many ways, because ... Especially with transgender people. People have a history. I've got 30 and 40 year histories with a lot of people I work with, and for them to try to make reference to me with the appropriate pronouns ... Which as we know, transgender people are so devoted and dedicated and so comfortable with their new pronouns they hate to hear the old ones.
But, whenever you're dealing with people that have known you a long time, particularly family and friends, you're going to have to try to forgive them. Because, they're going to be referring to you in the same gender and with the wrong pronouns for what existed 30 and 40 years ago. And, it's only natural. So, transgender people have to be extraordinarily forgiving for people that make the effort at least to be aware of the pronouns that you prefer. And if they make the effort towards working towards it, they deserve your thanks or credit. So, that's the way it is with respect to that aspect of it.
So, I feel like the process is ongoing in that sense. I've met people 10 years ago after I transitioned ... When I first transitioned, they stopped talking to me not because they had any disapproval of it, but they didn't know what the hell to say to me. So, they just pretended they didn't notice. In some cases, they pretended they didn't even know me. I had people come up to me 10 years after my transition and say, "I'm so sorry. I sort of ignored you over the last 10 years, because I didn't know what to say to you. And, I wasn't quite sure if what I said would be welcome or appropriate, and so I didn't say anything." And I thought, "That's understandable. That makes all kind of sense."
So again, the process continues in that sense. Coming out, again, you have to deal with people with respect to the past dealing with their present in terms of the use of language, your name and your pronouns. These are really ongoing struggles that ... From my point of view, I'm trying to make it an acculturation process that transgender people do this. This is something we aspire to is that being referred to with the correct pronouns, being referred to by the correct name. It is important to transgender people, because with spent an entire lifetime longing for this particular state. And now that we have it, we are very embracing of it and even very protective of it. So, people need to understand that about transgender people, I feel. And, maybe that's something I can be going out and spreading the gospel of that every day, if I can, and hopefully in this interview somewhat. Because, it is so important to others and that it's going to be so much more important to the transgender children.
There are so many transgender children who are coming out at five and six year old now. It was not possible when I was child. I'm hoping that anything I might do or say would be helpful to that process and to them in terms of, opening up the world to a possible acceptance of their gender identity and the assertion of the gender identity through an entire lifetime. And, I pay tribute to the parents of those kids who are so supportive, and who are so allied and defending against the outside assaults from the bigots. Those folks are my heroes the Marsha Aizumis, Harold and Ellen Kameyas, they are my heroes, because they are the ones that fought for their kids.
So my attitude is, if they're my heroes I should be doing what they do, which is fighting for their kids and maybe fighting for all of the kids ... All of the ones that are going to be coming up, and who have a chance. Who are not going to get bullied into a suicide ... Who are not going to be murdered, hounded, beaten, whatever. If I can actually alleviate any part of that, even for one person, then everything is worth it. Everything is worth it. Every effort that you make, even if it's just one person, if it allows them to survive, and to continue on, and to thrive hopefully, and to blossom, then transgender people will all be better off in the future. Everything that you're doing, with respect to the archives and actually documenting the lives of people, is so important.
People need to understand that we went from a period of time when we were considered criminals. We just hadn't been arrested yet. Every single gay and transgender person was treated like a criminal. Today, we're only treated as potential criminals. We've evolved at least that far. I think that’s actually as a a result of people like Harvey Milk, Christine Jorgensen. Every person that is fighting for our community and for our kids, is a hero as long as they continue to fight and to continue to assert this identity, this issue, and to fight for the social justice behind the cause. Because, once that happens, once we see the broader issue, the broader value, then a lot of people ... More than just our community ... are going to benefit.
And, that includes black people. And that includes all people of color, and everybody else who's being discriminated against ... Muslim people ... Those people are our brothers and sisters. And especially when they come under oppression, in a sense they become even more our brothers and our sisters. Because, now they are sharing our experience in a way which allows them to embrace us and us to embrace them. And, that makes, for me, the beginning of unity, the beginning of true opposition to the regime. So, I see all of this as working towards the benefit of society. And, I thank you for all the work you're doing, frankly. I mean, somebody's gotta do this, and the fact that it opens people's eyes and educates people is a value to all of us.
Mason Funk: Thank you, hopefully. Yeah, that's the goal.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:31:00] Thank you.
Mason Funk: Hey, I want to take time for Kate to pop in with some questions that we have back there.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Kate Kunath: What are my questions?
Mason Funk: And when you answer, by the way, you'll still answer to me.
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, okay. I'm sorry.
Kate Kunath: I don't have a question to ask.
Mason Funk: No question yet?
Kate Kunath: No.
Mason Funk: Okay. No problem.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:31:30] And now I'm chewing chocolate.
Kate Kunath: But, I'll think about one probably before you finish your last four.
Mia Yamamoto: I think what's got-
Mason Funk: How close-
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, go. I'm sorry.
Mason Funk: I was going to ask, if there was ever a time when you feel like you were really in danger of giving up and just giving in to the despair, and essentially ending your own life or hurting yourself-
Mia Yamamoto: [01:32:00] Yeah, I think my teenage years very much so during that period of time. I can remember specifically when I was 19 trying to figure out a way to kill myself. I had let everybody in my family down and everything else. I had flunked out of school with a 30 units of F. I was no longer in school. I was working at a grocery store, and it felt like everything was slipping away from me. I felt like, again, my gender identity ...
Actually, it's interesting, because it gets progressively more persistent as you age. So, when you're young it's just an identity issue, but when you get older it becomes fiercely assertive of itself. I can remember certainly when I was 19. And I can remember sometime too after I left the public defender's office, and I was in private practice where I went through another period. I was in therapy, but it was really deep. What I was going through was really hard. I kept feeling like there was just not place for me in the world. I just felt like, if the only place for me, the only place I ever knew of transgender people was out on the streets, drag queens and street queens, or on the stage, female impersonators. I couldn't relate to either one of those lifestyles. I felt, "If that's the only thing that's open to me, I think I'd rather be dead." At the time, I remember going through that. And, when I started realizing what was going on ...
As a matter of fact, I think it wasn't long after that that I started in therapy. And actually, I think the therapy saved me, because I think that that was the only way ... Knowing that I had that to look forward to ... That the question was answering itself, and I was at least learning from other people, not in real time. I was studying clinical studies for years and years and years. I got to know those clinical studies as well as I knew my own studies in school.
So, when I was talking to other live people who were going through the same issues in real time in their lives, it actually gave me a certain amount of comfort to know that there were other people that were struggling with this and actually coping with it. And, some people were actually continuing to survive through it all. So, I think that that kept me alive or that period of time, because everybody else was in deep despair, I felt. Everybody was down on them. One of them had gotten fired from their job. Another one, her wife had left her and taken the kids. Everybody was going through something pretty awful. A lot of them, the parents had rejected them. In some cases, their children had rejected them and were ridiculing them. And, they were going through some really rough times.
So in a way, watching them go through that made me feel like it wasn't that bad for me, actually. Because, I wasn't that far out, and I was on my own in terms of living by myself and everything else. I was able to deal with it without having to deal with a lot of community and a lot of family. I don't know. It's interesting how you just keep going. I would say, half of the people I knew in therapy are gone one way or the other. Of course, I'm old now, so I mean, a lot of people just fall by the wayside through just normal natural causes.
I think what's interesting, is having a sense of purpose is really important in terms of keeping going, and as long as I had clients who were depending upon me and I felt like I couldn't let them down, that sort of kept me afloat for a long period of time. Being in community organizations that I was leading ... I was organizing them. I was starting them. I had to be there for them in order for them to keep going, For me to give up that way would have been a terrible example to other people, I felt. Especially taking my own life. I felt like, at that point, that would have been the worst thing I could do to all of the things I had tried to accomplish. I was going to be hurting so many people by doing that, not just my family or whatever. And, it did seem kind of like the cowards way out to me. You know, I couldn't escape the fact that I would pass judgment on myself for even doing that.
So, I had to continue on in some fashion and form no matter what circumstance my life was going to be I had to proceed to some measure of authenticity. I knew at some point I was going to transition. It was the only thing that kept me alive and kept me going. I knew at some point I'm going to do this. I've just got to figure out when. That's the reason why I came to such a level of despair by the time I got so old and hadn't done it and realized that this thing was maybe beyond my reach.
Mason Funk: [01:36:30] Did you at some point start to feel like it was just ... People as they get older ... My mother in law for example, she left a very unhappy relationship at the age of 75, but I'm sure along the way she thought, "Well, I'm just too old. I'm too old to start over now.'
Mia Yamamoto: [01:37:00] Exactly, yeah. A lot of people told me that. As a matter of fact, I remember John, my office partner, when I told him he couldn't believe it. He said, "How can you do this now? You're in the twilight of your life. Why would you throw everything away this late in your life?" And I said, "Because it's the truth. You know, it's just the truth. I've got to deal with the truth and that means everybody else is going to have to deal with it too."
But, yeah. I mean, a lot of people gave me that, but I felt so liberated, and I still do. I have to feel like ... You know, just that revelation it was amazing what a burden is lifted from your shoulders when you finally just tell somebody, "I'm transgender. I'm going to be changing my gender, and if you can't cope with it then I'm sorry. You know, I feel bad for you, but it's not my issue. I've got to do what I've got to do, and your reaction to it is really your problem not mine."
So, yeah. I went through a lot of periods of time, but I think honestly in many ways being a lawyer saved me in that I was always involved with somebody else. Somebody else was always counting on me. Somebody is counting on me right now, and I always feel like I can't let them down. I can't let them down, and that drove me for the longest period of time. I always felt too ... I mean, I got to the point where I understood too, because I've had quite a few friends take their own lives. And every single one of them, I wished I could have stopped them. And that's when I started realizing that, "What about you? You're suicidal. You have all these thoughts all these plans. You're always looking for ways to get out of it. Aren't you a coward. Certainly, you're a coward for not expressing your own truth and your own identity. But, to try to hide from it and to try to run from it by suicide is cowardly."
To die in battle never seemed to feel like a coward. You weren't just trying to get out of life. You were trying to advance something or whatever. Regardless of how the truth of that is, at least it didn't look that way. And really, in a sense when you're thinking about shame, and guilt, and family, it is much more important how it looks, in a sense, than how it really was. So, let me just say that.
So, I went through a period of time where I was terribly suicidal and in a despair, and I think honestly it was getting out of the service and having a sense of purpose ... having a sense that I have to do something before I die. I have to help people. I have to take my privilege, my educational privilege, my community privilege and I've got to try to help the poor. And, if I can do that before I day, I'll be happy.
Mason Funk: [01:39:00] Okay, has anything come up for you?
Kate Kunath: Yeah. I'm very curious about a number of things, and I want to find the right way to ask the questions, so that I'm not talking too much before I ask the question. I guess I'll start by saying this: This year with the Women's Movement and how it galvanized and turned out an amazing amount of people-
Mia Yamamoto: [01:39:30] The march.
Kate Kunath: [01:40:00] ... on the streets it was just so incredible. And I've always ... Not always, but I've been activated by the gay movement and pride rallies and all of that. But, the Women's March was one thing that I really connected to in a way that ... It was amazing just by sheer numbers. So I wonder, is there a movement for you that you feel the most at home in? And how does that relate to your own identity and the multitude of identities that you have? Is there some place that feels most at home? Or, do you feel the privilege of being a part of so many communities? Is that more important to you?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:40:30] I felt the same way about the Women's March, that I was a part of something great, but the reason that I thought that ... Because, the large number, 750,000 people in the streets of Los Angeles meant that there wasn't just one movement out there. There was of course the Women's Movement, and we all care about that. But, there was also environmental people out there talking about water. There were people who were chanting about Standing Rock, and they were talking about the treatment of Native American people.
There were a lot of people out on the streets who had their own take on the movement, and that's what actually gratified me more that anything else, because It meant coalition. It meant that we could all come together, and we could come together on this one day. Nobody expected that many people to come out. We were all inspired by the fascist president that was elected. We needed to get out there and show our support.
And, we all had to understand at that time that we need each other, and that we were there together, and if we could keep that together that we actually had a chance. We had a chance to overturn the rule of this regime, because there was so many different ... I have to say ... self-interests involved. It wasn't just women. It was gay and lesbian people out there. I saw Black Lives Matter out there. We were chanting for Black Lives Matter. We were chanting for immigrants.
For a president to go to war, brings out another aspect of our society, the peace movement ... The people that believe in nonviolent conflict resolution and that this attack is immoral and that it's probably unlawful. We needed to have everybody out there, and that's the reason why coalition has seemed to me like the only way to get it done. There's a lot of people who are targeted by this administration, and if we can all get together we can prevail against this oppression, I believe. The biggest lesson of the Women's March is that we can get together. We can get a lot of desperate people.
It's interesting to me to watch people sort of snapping at each other during the course of that demonstration too. I started thinking, "No, this isn't about just because you resent white, or you resent people that don't want to support the idea of choice, or you don't want to wear a pussy hat or whatever it is." There's a whole bunch of people pointing at each other, and it's the same issue that we always deal with is that my individual issues and agenda is more important that yours. At some point, we have to get those people talking to each other and compromising and saying, "We do have stuff in common. We have common ground, and we know what it is. And, we know how to work together. We have to resolve these other issues." Because, that's what I saw during the Women's March. We were all together, but were we really all on the same wavelength? We were all together for one reason though.
I think it's kind of interesting that it really was the presidential election, I felt, and some of the awful things that he's been saying and doing against our community ... Against women, against LGBT people ... But, looking around me now and I see these missiles flying into Syria, I think he's offended every single aspect of our society except his own sort of hardcore support coming out of the swamps where they come from. The Duck Dynasty voters that he's got are becoming a much smaller and smaller minority of the population given the actions that he's taken against all of the rest of us.
Frankly, I've chosen places where I feel like I've got identity. In other words, belonging to, actually, founding the Asian Pacific American Bar Association was an attempt to try to put all of the Asian-American communities together ... All of us, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese ... Trying to put us all on one page. And, organizing the Multicultural Bar Alliance was, again, the same thing, bringing in the lawyers of color from every aspect, bringing in the Women's Bar Association, bringing in LGLA, the LGBT Bar Association as well ... but everybody. Now, we're bringing in the Arab Bar Association. We have Armenia Bar Association. We have a lot of different people there, but the main thing is through our unity is where we find strength. Our unity is founded upon common ground, and we can find common ground if we search for it.
So, yeah. Just recently, I've been involved with the Asian Pacific American Women Lawyers Alliance. I'm comfortable with them, because I feel like it's a community that needs awakening and organizing, and needs to be able to find a unified voice in support of ... Not just Asian Pacific American women but, again, the larger society and the benefit that we could actually endow with them. Lately, I've been much more involved with the National Lawyer's Guild and with the American Civil Liberties Union ... Two other groups I belong to and I've belonged to my whole life, my whole career, it seems like. But, they've been the most active right now in terms of, asserting and fighting for our constitutional rights and fighting against a lot of the unlawful and unauthorized actions of this regime.
So, I'm comfortable there, because they're active. I'm going to be doing some training in terms of, demonstrating ... I'm going to be doing training at the end of the month on the 29th. I'll do some stuff with the California Public Defender's Association. My workshop is representing protestors and demonstrators. That's an important part right now, because I think there's going to be a lot of agitation against the regime. I think that people are going to be going out and getting arrested in civil disobedience. Lawyers have got to be organized, and we've got to be ready, and we've got to be trained to do a good job to help these people and to help them with the struggle.
So, those are the places I have found myself in lately. I don't know if they're kindred spirits or not. All I know is that I've been with all of them for a long time. I feel like they need activation. They need inspiration. They need support right now. So, I'm most comfortable dealing with and fighting with these people at my side. Yesterday, I went to observe the legal observer training at Southwestern Law School to make sure that our troops are ready to go out and observe these demonstrations and make sure that the police and other people and ... Again, some of these right-wingers that seem to like to attack protestors ... that our people are protected, their constitutional rights are protected, their rights are asserted, and that their ideals and their visions are not diminished or somehow denigrated by the people that represent them.
The crusade that we're all on is something that's going to benefit everybody. So, I feel like, where I need to be right now is ... Right now, I'm an old warrior, but I've got one last fight in me, and that's where I need to be. I'm trying to figure out what are the best communities strategically right now to sort of organize and work in. But, I find myself where I find myself. I'm in the law student and lawyer community, so this is where I work. I try to find ways for us to be useful, and to maintain our ideals and our values, and to stay true to the things that we've committed ourselves to.
Every single lawyer, every single cop, every single soldier takes a vow to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. That means we have to fight against Trump. We have to fight against anybody that is attacking our democracy, our constitution, that is an opponent, an adversary, that is an enemy of the American people. So, that's where I see myself right now. Yeah, I'm a lawyer, and I have a role to play in this struggle.
Those are the places I've chosen to be, but in a sense we are thrown to where we go. We are thrown in the front lines. And now, we're put on the front lines of the peace movement, of the anti-war movement. And, we have to find nonviolent way to resolve conflict, because our leaders don't seem to understand how. We need to find ways to make sure that we can actually resolve our differences without hurting innocent people, and without even engaging our military when they don't need to be engaged. These are acts of aggression. The one thing Russia is right about is this is an act of war, an unauthorized, unlawful act of war.
So, there's a number of different places where we have to be. The good thing about it is it puts us all together. The bad thing about it is it spreads us way thin. There's too many battlefronts in a sense, but the benefit of that ... Again, they are attacking a lot of communities, and right now I think a lot of communities of faith and of conscience have been activated by these missiles that are aimed at these people. And all of this war, and violence, and aggression, I believe, solves nothing ... Zero ... and does actual damage to the peace, to equilibrium, to stability. And every single time we attack, we create more evil and we recruit more people to oppose us, because we are bullies. We are imposing our will where it doesn't belong and where we're not even authorized to do it. Yeah, we're activated by the things that are happening it seems like every day. And every single day, I can think of another community that needs to join with us ... To actually stand up and make statement and make a difference.
Mason Funk: Great. More, Kate? Any question?
Kate Kunath: Nope. That's great.
Mason Funk: These are great, great fighting words. You're activating me.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:49:30] That's me.
Mason Funk: Yeah, I think I have a few final questions.
Mia Yamamoto: Sure.
Mason Funk: And, these are intended to be relatively short sort of like compact answers.
Mia Yamamoto: Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:50:00] One of them is, just as someone who came out in a big way, in your case later in life, what advice do you have to anybody who is just about to make that pivotal ... You know, liking walking out on the gangplank, stepping out into the street from the curb ... coming out? What simple and kind of concise advice would you give to that individual?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:50:30] I would say, "Be yourself. Have faith that you are as valuable as anyone else and that your authenticity is actually more interesting, more involving, and more attractive that whatever else you've been projecting to other people." So, I would say, "Have the courage to come out. Give yourself credit for that much courage, and do not live in the shadows any longer. Come out." I can tell you right now, nobody has tried to kill me yet.
But, I think coming out is actually, again, it's the most liberating thing. It actually is the most uplifting human thing that you can do in a sense. No matter what kind of grief or abuse or everything else you take from it, your authenticity matters. You can take pride in your honesty and your courageousness every single time you come out.
And understand too, that not just the benefit to you as a person. All of us will benefit every single time you do it. Every single one of us encourages you to be yourself, to claim yourself, and to assert yourself everywhere you go. And, you will find that it's a lot more beneficial, a lot more satisfying, and a lot more fulfilling in your life if you make that choice and decide to do it. It takes courage, but once you've gotten past that you will live a much more fulfilling life. Believe me, there is no such thing as great courage without great risk, without great fear. So understand that, overcoming this thing is a wonderful, fantastic thing. And, once you're there, and once you've arrived, you will never want to go back.
Mason Funk: Great, great. What is your particular hope for the future? And then, again, try to keep this kind of concise.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:52:00] Sure. My hope for the future is that all oppressed people will see what we have in common and we will rise up against this regime and assert the interests of our people and the future generations of all Americans. That there will be people who are activated by the oppression that is openly being unleashed against the people of America. And, that we will come together to make this a better society by overcoming and overthrowing the current regime.
We need better, and we know we can do better, because we've seen the past. And this is the reason why I say I look forward to a future of struggle, because that's what's given to us. And, if we don't struggle that means that we are content with the status quo. Anybody who is content with the status quo needs to be opposed, needs to be fought, and needs to be overcome. We need to change this to make this world better. It doesn't happen without struggle.
Mason Funk: Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:53:00] I'm just one person, and I only have one story. But, the one thing I do have is, I was the first transgender trial lawyer in Los Angeles. Even that small little sphere of influence ... Even that small little life I could have, I think, made a difference in my little world. And, that's all I ever ask anybody to make is to do what they can do based upon their own truth, their own authenticity.
Claim your right to be real to start, and then make that your campaign to fight for other people to be real. The facts of the matter is, every time a person comes out somebody else is inspired to come out. Every single time somebody asserts their own identity, asserts their own reality another person is inspired to do that. And, I've learned that myself just in the court house. So, it is something of value. It is something worth doing, and it's not selfish. It is something you are doing. Yes, you are asserting yourself, but you are including yourself in a way which allows you to make a difference. And, the reason why you matter is because you are honest, you are real, you are authentic. You really don't matter if you're not.
Mason Funk: And finally, this project OUTWORDS is the first attempt to kind of capture our entire story at a national level and preserve is and make it available to everybody online. What do you see at the importance of OUTWORDS?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:54:30] OUTWORDS is extraordinarily important, because you don't want these stories to go unspoken and for these individual storytellers to die out before their stories are told. Everybody who hears these stories has to understand that it opens their eyes to the range and the diversity of people and of voices and experiences in our community.
And that means, a couple of different things. It means that it is really a whole community that will embrace you one you come out, but also because you are expanding the reach of the community, expanding the message of the community. And ultimately, this world has to accommodate our people and our community. And, we will be accommodated. We will be included. But, this message has to go out widely. It has to be heard loud and clear for other people to understand their place in the world. And once they do, they can be activated to do it again, to be a part of the revolution by coming out openly, by asserting their identity openly, and hopefully marching with us when it's time for us to fight for a new future for a better America, and for a different government, for a different point of view, and for a more inclusive government, a more equal government.
When that happens LGBT people will be better off, so will the poor people, and so will every other person who's not getting a fair shake in this society right now. We have to fight for all of them. If we can put our lives on the line for that, than I feel like it's absolutely worth it. If even one child someplace ... And the reason why I like this project so much is because that child could be someplace in Providence, like you said, or some other tough place ... or in the mean streets of Boston where Malcolm X grew up. There's a whole bunch of different places where if they hear this message, that all of what they will just say ... Just like I did when I was a little child in 1952 ... "Hey, Mom. There's somebody else like me out there in the world. If I can find that person we can have a conversation. I'll feel like I've got a place for myself in this world."
That conversation is right there in this archive. Someplace, somebody has got somebody that's absolutely resonate with their experience who they never believed existed any place in the world. And, for young people especially, to have this ... I can tell you, if there was something like this when I was a young child searching for my own identity and searching for my own truth, I would not have been as depressed. I would not have been in despair. I would have had something I could look forward to in my life, someplace down the line, where I could be willing to just stay alive for that and stay alive long enough to be able to get to that place. This archive can do that for people, in my opinion.
Mason Funk: Great, great. Thank you.
Mia Yamamoto: My pleasure.
Mason Funk: Anything you feel like we haven't covered?
Mia Yamamoto: No, it's okay. I mean, there's a bunch of stuff in your life that you ...
Mason Funk: Yeah, yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: But I just felt like, whatever you want to talk about is fine with me ... Whatever is going to help out. I actually rely a lot on your planning with respect to what I need to talk about.
Mason Funk: Right.
Mia Yamamoto: So, your prompts are way more important that what I've got to say, I think.
Mason Funk: Okay. Yeah, I feel like we've covered a lot.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:57:30] Yeah, because I'm not good about actually looking back. I mean, all these kind of interviews are great for me, because I get to think about .... I'm always kind of thinking about what's next in the future, and what's happening now. It's always been the way I was. So, I get a lot of these interviews, and I think, "Oh, I've got to go back and think about that, you know?"
Mason Funk: It's interesting to me ... Oh, you were going to say?
Kate Kunath: I was going to ask, how do you know you're the first transgender lawyer in Los Angeles?
Mason Funk: And, answer to me.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:58:00] Oh, yes. The reason I know that is, because I actually looked. I actually check to see whether or not there was a transgender lawyer, as a matter of fact, any place in the country. I met one. I found one on the phone. I called her up in Maryland, and I said, "I'm going to be transitioning." I said, "I understand you're a transitioned lawyer. You're a transgender lawyer." And she said, "Yes." I said, "What should I look forward to?" She says, "Well, look forward to losing a third of your friends, a third of your family, all of your professional contacts, and all of your cases." She said, "I have been unemployed for a year. My wife has supported me. I came out and I was completely rejected by my community, and I haven't worked in a year," she said.
And I remember saying, "Thank you very much," and hung up the phone. I said, "Well, I'm really in for it. This is really going to be tough." But anyways, I found her in Maryland, and after I came out and after the newspaper article came out, a lawyer in Northern California contacted me and said, "I'm a criminal lawyer too." You know, I guess [inaudible]. But, there were two other people in California that said, "We're transgender too."
So, it was great that the article came out. I thought I was the only one. I was certainly the only one in Los Angeles, because nobody has come out since, actually. Well, I take it back two DAs, a couple prosecutors have come out. I like to think that I inspired it, because they came out like 10 years after I had very openly and very publicly came out. But, yeah I think I was the only ... Unless you can find another transgender lawyer someplace in the courthouse that I didn't know about. And I've been doing this for over 30 years, and I've covered the scene pretty much in Southern California. I'm open enough and public enough so that I'm hoping that they would contact me. And actually, the couple that are around have contacted me.
There's actually a transgender judge now in San Francisco. I think her name is Kolakowski. And there's other transgender lawyers now who are coming out more and more. I like to think I helped with it. Who knows whether I did or not, but I definitely was the first transgender lawyer in the trial courts of Los Angeles. Now, I've never heard from anybody else, because I don't know every lawyer in Los Angeles. I would think I would have heard from them by now.
I've heard from a lot of LGBT people, just generally a lot of gay people, after the article came out and after I started becoming much more public. Because, I'm as public as I can be. I feel like I can't help anybody unless I am.
Kate Kunath: Does it affect the kind of work that comes to you, the kind of clients that approach you? Or, has the business stayed pretty much the same?
Mia Yamamoto: [02:00:30] I don't really know. I have a lot more people who are transgender coming to me for help. I try to help them as much as I can, but that's pretty much it. My practice hasn't changed. I still have the same kinds of clients. I still represent criminal cases. I haven't ... Because, I transitioned in 2003, and I haven't really seen a change in the clientele or the practice. As a matter of fact, I was actually amazed at how little reaction I got from prosecutors, judges, cops, everybody else. Most people have been very supportive. I mean, the prosecutors especially are people I beat up on pretty much every day. We're fighting like crazy all the time. Yet, they were incredibly embracing when I finally came to court.
But, no. I think if there had been a transgender lawyer someplace that would have turned up by now. I mean, it's been how many years? It's been since 2003. I would hope that they would have surfaced by now. I imagine there's some people who are living in stealth, and maybe they just don't want to be associated with me, because that takes away their secrecy, I guess. But, god, what a way to live. To me, I could not see that. So, yeah I'm the only out one that I know about anyway. You would have thought in the last 15 years or so I would have figured out there might have been somebody else, but they're not lawyers anyway.
I've had several people call me up, who are thinking about transitioning ... Other lawyers, whom I've never met. But, people say, "Oh, you've go to call Mia Yamamoto." So, they call me, and I talk to them about it. I talk to them about the experience, what they should expect to go through, and that type of thing. I still haven't had one of those people who call me actually transition. The two lawyers from the DAs office that transitioned, both of them have transitioned within the last 5 years. They're both people I knew before they transitioned.
Mason Funk: Among these people you know who have transitioned, have they all been male to female or have there been some female to male in your experience? Like in the legal community here in LA?
Mia Yamamoto: [02:02:30] Well, there's a couple female to male transgender lawyers, I think. God ... Let me think about that. No, I take it back.
Mason Funk: I mean, there's a really famous lawyer named Shannon minter.
Mia Yamamoto: Oh, Shannon, of course.
Mason Funk: Yeah, I interviewed Shannon. You weren't there. Yes you were.
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Mason Funk: We interviewed Shannon last summer in DC.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah, I was going to say Shannon's not from here though.
Mason Funk: Yeah. I think Shannon ... I don't know if Shannon, I guess, used to live in the Bay area now he lives in DC or kind of commutes.
Mia Yamamoto: Yeah.
Mason Funk: But anyway ...
Mia Yamamoto: [02:03:00] For instance, like Jody Marksamer, kind of a famous transgender FTM. Now, works for the public defender's office, but I didn't know about about Jody until I had already transitioned myself. But she's not here in the LA Public Defender's Office. There's people ... He ...I go through the same thing, as you can see, like everybody else. I'm so locked into a thing where before the transition that I still refer to them in that way. So, I have struggles with it too. So, I basically forgive anybody that jams me with respect to that, and tell them "Listen, I understand. I go through the same thing. I'm old, so, I've got a lot of memories in there and they're sort of gender-fixed. So, the pronouns don't come any easier for me than they do for you," kind of thing.
I know there's ... I've got friends who are FTMs. Mason Davis, who actually is up at the San Francisco TLT, worked on a project with me in LA. Mason ... They tend to be really good lawyers, I will say that. You know, Mason and all of the ones I know are really excellent, high-quality lawyers, which is good to know.
Mason Funk: Right. I remember that name. I was talking to a guy named Jamison Green-
Mia Yamamoto: Jamison Green, yeah. He's another famous FTM.
Mason Funk: Yeah, I interviewed him 15 years ago for a discovery documentary. We just recently reconnected, because I want to re-interview him now, but he mentioned Mason Davis.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:04:30] Mason ... There's a few other people who are prominent in how they accomplished FTM. It's interesting. In mean, their cosmetic transition is always pretty ... Because, the testosterone gives you beard, lower voices stuff like that, so they can be relatively cosmetically successful, from what I've seen. Certainly, they have an easier time with that getting the hormonal influence, I think, than MTFs.
Mason Funk: Right. Yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:05:00] That's about it in terms of other transgender ... I mean, I consider myself part of that community. There's a lot of great transgender lawyers both MTF and FTM that I identify with and that I'm a part of. But, they didn't ... No, they weren't around. In 2003, it was really a time when there was nobody. And, people were just blown away by what I did, honestly. So, no, it was completely unusual at that time and completely unique, actually at that time. It kind of still is. There's not a lot of transgender people in the court house anyways.
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: They don't take on trial work for the most part.
Mason Funk: We can cut.
Kate Kunath: Okay.
Mason Funk: The last thing, I was just going to mention-
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Oh, okay. Well, most conversations don't start this way, but please start by telling us your first and last names and spelling them out for us.
Mason Funk: [00:00:43] Okey-dokey, great. And, tell us where and when and under what circumstances you were born.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:01:00] I was born in a place called Poston, Arizona, which is really no longer there. It's by Parker, Arizona. It was an American concentration camp. I was sent there ... Well actually, I wasn't sent there, I was born there. My parents were sent there along with their other three children at the time, relocated from Los Angeles. So, I would have been a native Los Angeleno had it not been for the war. We were there in September of 1943 when I was born. I imagine I was probably conceived there too, because we'd been there since '42. My sister was born there, and after the war when we were released we came back to east Los Angeles. We came back to east LA, where we lived to begin with. We actually came back to Orange County for a short period of time.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:02:00] It all came about, incited by, provoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. So, by 1942 there was a clamor on the West Coast to lock up all the Japanese Americans who ... all the Japanese people, and then government under FDR issued executive order ... I think it's 1066 or 9066; I forget. In any event, it basically said we had to get out, and they were going to transport us to these camps. 110,000 Americans, most citizens, many who were not, Japanese nationals, were sent to this camp, and we were sent there along with them.
Mason Funk: [00:03:00] Were there ... I've never known this. Were there any lawsuits filed on behalf of the Japanese Americans who were interned?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:03:30] As a matter of fact, there were. It was interesting, because the war fervor at the time precluded people like the Democratic party, even the National Lawyers Guild, from supporting the Japanese Americans. The only group that would support them was the American Civil Liberties Union, and only ones that were basically active in the resistance were ACLU of Northern California. The lawsuits that were brought were for the most part lost.
Mason Funk: [00:05:00] Because I think we turned now into a national monument. So, I'm just curious as to why your family went to Arizona instead of Manzanar? How did it all work?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:05:30] Well, my father was a lawyer, so he had to stay behind. When the entire community out of Los Angeles was relocated they primarily went to Manzanar, and that particular facility filled up too fast. My father, who was left behind to resolve the businesses, try to sell the property of other Japanese people who were being relocated. He had to stick around for a much longer period of time, probably two to three weeks. By the time we were to be taken away, the camp was filled up. So, we had to go to Poston in Arizona. So, we actually did our time with a lot of people who were from Central California originally. The entire parish, our church and everything, had been sent to Manzanar. So, we were sort of an outpost with respect to the Los Angeles congregation for the Catholic church that we belonged to at the time.
Mason Funk: [00:06:00] Nice, and give me a little background on your parents. When did they come to the States and under what circumstances?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:06:30] My mom came to the States to do post-graduate work as a nurse. She aspired to be a registered nurse. She has gone to college in Hawaii. My father had also gone to school in Hawaii. He came out here to go to law school. He was the first Asian-American to graduate from Loyola Law School as a matter of fact, 1934. He practiced in the segregated bar his whole life, because he died in 1957. The bar didn't integrate really until 1961, LA County Bar. They knew each other actually back in Hawaii, but they didn't get married until they came out here. She was studying to be a nurse at the time. They had like an internship back in those days at the LA county hospital. And then of course, my dad was going to law school out at Loyola, and then tried to establish a practice in the segregated bar after he got out of school.
Mason Funk: [00:07:00] They were? Okay.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:07:30] My father was born in ... Actually, they were both born in the same place, which is in the Hanalei Valley in Kauai. They were both born there actually. My mom's family moved to Honolulu when the steel bottom boats came in when no longer three masters. And, the commerce moved to Honolulu for the deep water port. So, everybody who was living in places like Hanalei in Kauai and stuff like that ... The population pretty much moved to where the commerce was, and by the early 1900s they were in Honolulu ... Oh, well, my dad's family I think stayed in Kauai the whole time pretty much. But, came out here and got married and decided to raise a family in East LA.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:08:00] Oh, I see. Yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:08:30] Yeah, they actually had to naturalize. My grandmother had to naturalize actually even though she was born there. So by the time my mom and my dad were born, it was already a territory, and the children of people at that time pretty much were born in America, essentially. So, it became a state, as you know, sometime ... I don't know ... in like the 50s or 60s. I can't remember, but before that even it was recognized as an American territory and all of the people that were there that were born there were granted automatic American citizenship.
Mason Funk: [00:09:00] So now, tell us about when and under what circumstances did your family come back to Los Angeles?
Mia Yamamoto: [00:09:30] We came back to Los Angeles after the war, obviously, just like the rest of the people who were getting released out of camps sort of eventually. We were the last people out. My dad was considered sort of a dangerous individual, because he had a law degree apparently. And, he was also kind of an activist against the government. Particularly after we came out of camp, my father was employed by the law firm of [inaudible], which was at the time the ACLU law firm. And again, my family owes everything to the ACLU. My community owes a lot in terms of their advocacy against virtually every other organization in the country during that period of time.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:12:00] Sure.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:12:30] Oh, okay. I believe it's 1952. I'll have to go back and look it up, but at this point, it comes out in the newspapers that this ex-serviceman had gone to ... Sweden, I believe it was, and had undergone a sex change operation. It became international news that this had happened. I saw this in the newspaper and I had never seen anything else that ever suggested this issue that I had with respect to how I saw myself and how I believed that I was.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:15:00] Probably around there. Yeah, I think I was nine. I think I was eight or nine.
Mason Funk: [00:15:30] How would you describe your experience internally prior to seeing that photograph? What had you sensed, or felt, or noticed about yourself that-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:16:00] That I was a misfit. That I was probably destined to be a pariah. That everybody that ever had any conversation with me about it, would inform me that this is completely inappropriate. That you're not going to get away with this in any aspect of the culture, so just forget it if you can. People tell you those things when you're that age, and they're actually serious. The only reaction I had, was to actually drive this deeper. I figured this is what I have to do, and I've got to please my mom, and I've got to please my parents. I've got to be a credit to my family somehow, and the only way to do that is to successfully bury this particular aspect of myself.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:16:30] I think that the Catholic school education ... Now that I'm as old as I am, I look back on it. And, I try to look at the ways in which it actually benefited me, which it actually advanced my education probably. But, the repressive and judgemental atmosphere that existed made it even worse, and also increased the distance between my consciousness and that of the overlay, the Catholic church overlay. The dogma, and the culture that it imposes on you is relentlessly oppressive and relentlessly insisting upon conformity.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:19:30] ... whatever we come up with in our studies, in our experiences, and in our evolution.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:20:00] Oh, okay. Yeah.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:20:30] I volunteered my draft actually. I first became aware of the Vietnam war some place in the early 60s when I was starting college. To me, I remember when I was going to college I remember there was this place called Vietnam. I had never even heard of the place before. We were committing troops to this place, and of course being of draft age in those days you sort of we’re aware of it and all that type of thing. The higher profile it became and the more it continued, then of course it became a topic of conversation among college age kids and draft age kids. It became one of those confrontations that you have when ... At that time, you're looking at a war, and you're looking at the draft.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:24:30] The answer is yes. I saw it that way. I mean, I'm telling you honestly right now that I saw that at the time as a way out. It was way easier to do that ... Let's put it that way ... than to not do it. First of all, I don't particularly like cowards very much. I consider that sort of a character failing. So, I just didn't feel like to answer that self preservation answer was definitely ... I mean, I think to a person who is somewhat suicidal and depressed, the idea of going to war is really not that scary.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:28:00] Yes.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:28:30] Well, part of it too is Roosevelt himself called them concentration camps. Concentration camps actually preexisted all of the way from the 1900s during the American occupation of the Philippines, when the forces of Emilio Aguinaldo and the others who were fighting for Philippine independence were going against the American military, which occupied the Philippines. Then, the American command put together concentration camps. What they were always set up to do, was to remove the assistance of the civilian population from the rebels who would go back to their homes at night and then fight the Americans in the daytime. So, what they did was they created these concentration camps so that the rebels could not get support. They were called concentration camps. It goes all the way back to Belgium and a lot of other places.
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] Yeah. I mean, I've always heard them called either internment camps or resettlement camps-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:30:30] That was the primary euphemism that had been used when I was growing up, relocation. They changed it from concentration, because the unfortunate sort of confluence with the Jewish extermination and genocide on the concentration camps. It's interesting because there are people that sort of resist by use of that term, by saying that it somehow undermines or devalues the experience of the Holocaust, because their death camps were so much worse. I know I've heard other people say, "Well, you can't call it that, because your experience was not bad enough." I find that kind of interesting, and even though it's true, I don't think it changes the nature of the name, because I think the name is still accurate, still appropriate, and I still think it's something that I have to do to sort of guard against the sanitization of the history that needs to be exposed in all of its vivid atrocity.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:31:30] It was interesting to have a sense of purpose at that point, because when I came back from the army all I wanted to do was to join the anti-war movement. I wanted to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to be a part of this ferment for social change that was going on, and I felt like all of my rage, all of my frustration it could be channeled into this resistance, into this form of ... What we called the revolution in those day, and maybe there was a place for me in the world and that no matter what I saw that was contraindicating that that I could still find a way. I could do it by sheer force of will.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:36:00] Oh, no. It was very buried during that period of time.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:36:30] Well, you're always trying to obliterate it. I think that that's one thing I always shared in common with a lot of other people that I knew, especially in my therapy groups. You spend a whole lifetime trying to bury this thing so deeply that you can never see it again, but it's always there. And, it always continues to raise your consciousness about it.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:38:30] I've got this incredible distress. There's this thing I can't seem to shake. It haunted me my whole life. I have a curse. I have this identity that keeps asserting itself underneath my surface, that keeps threatening to come to the surface. Suppressing it is driving me crazy, literally driving me crazy. So, that's what I presented in therapy. And at some point, I just came to the conclusion that, "You know something? This is actually your truth. This is not ... the overlay is what's not real, and so at some point you're just going to have to have the courage to actually say your truth. And when that happens, you may not live very much longer after that, but at least you will have been true to yourself for whatever period of time you get in this life. And, that's worth it."
Mia Yamamoto: [00:39:30] Well, I've always loved women. I still do. You know, I guess that makes me a hardcore lesbian. It's probably what I am. But at the time, I was a straight male. I love women. I was in significant relationships which I guess you'd call the typical ... I'd never cheated on any girlfriend I ever had. That's for the record. I never did, because I was always was serially monogamous. I guess, that's the term people use. But, I always believed that if I couldn't stay faithful to somebody I had to get out of that relationship.
Mason Funk: [00:43:00] Wow. What was happening these years professionally? Just give us a kind of an overview. You graduated from law school. I know you're a public defender for a while. Just give us a trajectory.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:43:30] Sure, sure. I started off working at legal aid. My first job out of law school was ... Actually, I worked in Century City for a little bit. I needed a job, but I always wanted to be a legal aid lawyer. I always wanted to fight for the poor. I grew up looking around just thinking that these people never get a fair shake not anyplace, and so I said, "I'm going to be a lawyer. I'm going to level the playing field. I'm going to be fighting for the poor."
Mia Yamamoto: [00:44:00] No, no, she'll answer it. Thank God I got a receptionist. I always kind of wanted to be an English teacher, because all of the English teachers that I had were the ones who truly inspired me intellectually and artistically. This is just on the side, but when I applied for UCLA law school I was out in Vietnam. They were the only school that asked me, "Why do you want to become a lawyer?" Being the crazed individual I was at the time, I wrote down, "I'm a poet, and I'm never going to make any money at poetry. So, I need to have a law degree, so I can have a job so I can support my art."
Mia Yamamoto: [00:46:30] Yeah, I mean especially when I was in law school. I'd already started to crossdress, and I would actually go out on the streets. I would mingle with the other drag queens, female impersonators, and I started learning about those people who are out there. Of course when I got out of law school and was able to get a job, I was able to start my therapy. I would not only see some of these people in the streets, and in bars, and in clubs, but I'd see them in my therapy classes also. I'd see them at group therapy, and I was able to get to know them.
Mason Funk: [00:49:30] Sorry, I had a thought, and I kind of lost it. But, I was kind of struck by you describing these group therapies-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:50:00] Well, some of the people I just didn't know. They just stopped showing up. I had to sort of research it, and a lot of cases I figured out who it was and what happened. But, I do know ... At least I know one queen that I knew, and she wasn't in therapy with me as a matter of fact. Well, didn't matter. People we're getting knocked off left and right on the streets.
Mason Funk: [00:52:00] How did you manage this so called dual life? I mean, you now were going out crossdressing. Would you do it only in private settings? Would you go out publicly? And what went through your mind in terms of like, "What if I run into someone from work?" How did you-
Mia Yamamoto: [00:52:30] You know, it's interesting. I feared it. I feared running into ... Especially when I started practicing as a lawyer. I really feared running into a judge or another lawyer or something what would I say to them? And, I started thinking about ... I think at some point, I remember along the line I just said, "If I run into somebody, I'm just going to say hello," and just deal with the level of shock and everything else that's going to come with it.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:54:00] ...running for office.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:54:30] Oh. I remember Harvey Milk running for office, and I remember the ridicule and the rejection that he faced from being an out gay man running for a political office. And then, I continued to read about him, because he never stopped running for office. He kept running for office until he finally got elected and then got murdered. But, he was, from my point of view, a hero, because he was willing to stand out and be alone. He was willing to be the only one. He was willing to come out by himself and take whatever came from it, even if it meant some bigot shooting him down. That was an inspiration to me. I felt like, "Okay, if somebody is going to be that with me, than I'm following in the footsteps of a great leader. And, if I'm in the same campaign and crusade for social justice as him, then I'm honored to be a part of that."
Mason Funk: [00:57:00] Wow. You mentioned a couple of other people, and I want to ask you about them. Marsha Aizumi.
Mia Yamamoto: [00:57:30] Well, let me talk to you about them together. Both of them, Harold and Ellen Kameya are a couple. They were the first couple I met in the Japaneses-American community that had started a group in the community, a PFLAG group in the community. And, I remember him telling me ... Harold ... We had a conversation and he and his wife said, "We're doing this ... We're coming out to the bar association, because we want your support. Because, we are a couple of parents of a gay child. And, we were disappointed when we first learned that she was gay, because we wanted to have a typical family line with grandchildren and everything else. They said, "When we figured out what was going on with her life, we decided to make this world better for her. And, we're going to join PFLAG, and we're going to organize out in the world."
Mason Funk: [01:00:00] It brings up ... You touch on a huge topic that recurs through these interviews. Yesterday we interviewed a man named Gene Le Pietra, who grew up in foster homes in providence Rhode Island.
Mason Funk: [01:00:30] [crosstalk 01:00:23] I’ve got mine, I'm all about me. You people over there I don't feel comfortable with you. Because, frankly, if you're a racist white person when your hair is straight, you're a racist white person.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:01:00] Oh, yeah. I mean, I feel like we need each other. At a time like this, when everybody's rights are under siege, when we're being threatened and we're being attacked by our own government, then I think we need each other more than ever. People of good will and conscience need each other more than ever before, because we have to be unified in order to defeat the fascists that are knocking at our doors.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:06:00] I saw the decision. I was surprised it came out of Indiana, which is not the most progressive place.
Mason Funk: [01:06:30] And, they said such things as ... Well, they were dividing. This one man they quoted was saying ... I'm actually going to love writing him a letter and trying to keep my cool ... But, he was saying, "Well, because gay people ... They're not like African-American people and women, because they can hide their identities, and we can't." And kind of the underlying message was, "They don't have it as bad as we do, because we can't hide our identities." And, the point of my letter is in part going to be, "You're dividing us when we should be on each other's sides."
Mia Yamamoto: [01:07:00] And, the idea of somebody else making a judgment about what's bad enough to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement ... Any individual who points out other people and says, "You should not benefit from this movement or this campaign," is, from my point view, just another irrational prejudice, because the whole point of it is ... You're right, exactly. If you're dividing us ...
Mia Yamamoto: [01:13:00] Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:13:30] Exactly. So, let's talk about when, after all those years, when you said, "I can't transition because of my clients. I can't let them down.And at some point, you said, "Screw it," on some level.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:14:00] That's true, actually. You know what's interesting? I turned 60. I turned six zero, and I remember thinking that ... Somebody threw me a surprise birthday party, and all of these people are talking about how wonderful I am. I'm thinking, "I'm just a total asshole." I'm thinking, "I'm a complete phony. I'm a coward," and I was so depressed at that birthday thinking that. You know, I never thought I'd live this long. My dad died at 54, so I never figured I'd last as long, especially with all of the reckless behavior and everything else, and debilitating behavior I've engaged in in my life.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:23:30] Oh, I would just tell them. I said, "Listen, I'm going to be changing my gender. I'm going to be going through a sex change operation, and I'm going to be a woman. I'm going to be expressing myself and presenting myself as a woman from here on in. And, I know that's kind of shocking to you." Usually I would start off with the announcement, and they would get... the reaction was usually when I reacted, I described earlier. Then, I would explain to them why. They I would actually explain to them basically just saying, "Okay, and from then on here's what you should be doing with the case. Here's what we're going to be doing with the case."
Mia Yamamoto: [01:31:00] Thank you.
Mason Funk: [01:31:30] And now I'm chewing chocolate.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:32:00] Yeah, I think my teenage years very much so during that period of time. I can remember specifically when I was 19 trying to figure out a way to kill myself. I had let everybody in my family down and everything else. I had flunked out of school with a 30 units of F. I was no longer in school. I was working at a grocery store, and it felt like everything was slipping away from me. I felt like, again, my gender identity ...
Mason Funk: [01:36:30] Did you at some point start to feel like it was just ... People as they get older ... My mother in law for example, she left a very unhappy relationship at the age of 75, but I'm sure along the way she thought, "Well, I'm just too old. I'm too old to start over now.'
Mia Yamamoto: [01:37:00] Exactly, yeah. A lot of people told me that. As a matter of fact, I remember John, my office partner, when I told him he couldn't believe it. He said, "How can you do this now? You're in the twilight of your life. Why would you throw everything away this late in your life?" And I said, "Because it's the truth. You know, it's just the truth. I've got to deal with the truth and that means everybody else is going to have to deal with it too."
Mason Funk: [01:39:00] Okay, has anything come up for you?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:39:30] The march.
Kate Kunath: [01:40:00] ... on the streets it was just so incredible. And I've always ... Not always, but I've been activated by the gay movement and pride rallies and all of that. But, the Women's March was one thing that I really connected to in a way that ... It was amazing just by sheer numbers. So I wonder, is there a movement for you that you feel the most at home in? And how does that relate to your own identity and the multitude of identities that you have? Is there some place that feels most at home? Or, do you feel the privilege of being a part of so many communities? Is that more important to you?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:40:30] I felt the same way about the Women's March, that I was a part of something great, but the reason that I thought that ... Because, the large number, 750,000 people in the streets of Los Angeles meant that there wasn't just one movement out there. There was of course the Women's Movement, and we all care about that. But, there was also environmental people out there talking about water. There were people who were chanting about Standing Rock, and they were talking about the treatment of Native American people.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:49:30] That's me.
Mason Funk: [01:50:00] One of them is, just as someone who came out in a big way, in your case later in life, what advice do you have to anybody who is just about to make that pivotal ... You know, liking walking out on the gangplank, stepping out into the street from the curb ... coming out? What simple and kind of concise advice would you give to that individual?
Mia Yamamoto: [01:50:30] I would say, "Be yourself. Have faith that you are as valuable as anyone else and that your authenticity is actually more interesting, more involving, and more attractive that whatever else you've been projecting to other people." So, I would say, "Have the courage to come out. Give yourself credit for that much courage, and do not live in the shadows any longer. Come out." I can tell you right now, nobody has tried to kill me yet.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:52:00] Sure. My hope for the future is that all oppressed people will see what we have in common and we will rise up against this regime and assert the interests of our people and the future generations of all Americans. That there will be people who are activated by the oppression that is openly being unleashed against the people of America. And, that we will come together to make this a better society by overcoming and overthrowing the current regime.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:53:00] I'm just one person, and I only have one story. But, the one thing I do have is, I was the first transgender trial lawyer in Los Angeles. Even that small little sphere of influence ... Even that small little life I could have, I think, made a difference in my little world. And, that's all I ever ask anybody to make is to do what they can do based upon their own truth, their own authenticity.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:54:30] OUTWORDS is extraordinarily important, because you don't want these stories to go unspoken and for these individual storytellers to die out before their stories are told. Everybody who hears these stories has to understand that it opens their eyes to the range and the diversity of people and of voices and experiences in our community.
Mia Yamamoto: [01:57:30] Yeah, because I'm not good about actually looking back. I mean, all these kind of interviews are great for me, because I get to think about .... I'm always kind of thinking about what's next in the future, and what's happening now. It's always been the way I was. So, I get a lot of these interviews, and I think, "Oh, I've got to go back and think about that, you know?"
Mia Yamamoto: [01:58:00] Oh, yes. The reason I know that is, because I actually looked. I actually check to see whether or not there was a transgender lawyer, as a matter of fact, any place in the country. I met one. I found one on the phone. I called her up in Maryland, and I said, "I'm going to be transitioning." I said, "I understand you're a transitioned lawyer. You're a transgender lawyer." And she said, "Yes." I said, "What should I look forward to?" She says, "Well, look forward to losing a third of your friends, a third of your family, all of your professional contacts, and all of your cases." She said, "I have been unemployed for a year. My wife has supported me. I came out and I was completely rejected by my community, and I haven't worked in a year," she said.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:00:30] I don't really know. I have a lot more people who are transgender coming to me for help. I try to help them as much as I can, but that's pretty much it. My practice hasn't changed. I still have the same kinds of clients. I still represent criminal cases. I haven't ... Because, I transitioned in 2003, and I haven't really seen a change in the clientele or the practice. As a matter of fact, I was actually amazed at how little reaction I got from prosecutors, judges, cops, everybody else. Most people have been very supportive. I mean, the prosecutors especially are people I beat up on pretty much every day. We're fighting like crazy all the time. Yet, they were incredibly embracing when I finally came to court.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:02:30] Well, there's a couple female to male transgender lawyers, I think. God ... Let me think about that. No, I take it back.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:03:00] For instance, like Jody Marksamer, kind of a famous transgender FTM. Now, works for the public defender's office, but I didn't know about about Jody until I had already transitioned myself. But she's not here in the LA Public Defender's Office. There's people ... He ...I go through the same thing, as you can see, like everybody else. I'm so locked into a thing where before the transition that I still refer to them in that way. So, I have struggles with it too. So, I basically forgive anybody that jams me with respect to that, and tell them "Listen, I understand. I go through the same thing. I'm old, so, I've got a lot of memories in there and they're sort of gender-fixed. So, the pronouns don't come any easier for me than they do for you," kind of thing.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:04:30] Mason ... There's a few other people who are prominent in how they accomplished FTM. It's interesting. In mean, their cosmetic transition is always pretty ... Because, the testosterone gives you beard, lower voices stuff like that, so they can be relatively cosmetically successful, from what I've seen. Certainly, they have an easier time with that getting the hormonal influence, I think, than MTFs.
Mia Yamamoto: [02:05:00] That's about it in terms of other transgender ... I mean, I consider myself part of that community. There's a lot of great transgender lawyers both MTF and FTM that I identify with and that I'm a part of. But, they didn't ... No, they weren't around. In 2003, it was really a time when there was nobody. And, people were just blown away by what I did, honestly. So, no, it was completely unusual at that time and completely unique, actually at that time. It kind of still is. There's not a lot of transgender people in the court house anyways.