Born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Mia Yamamoto knew oppression from the very beginning of her life.
“I was born doing time,” she joked.
It would seem that she was destined for her life as a criminal defense attorney due to her passion for working to help those whom the rest of society would have given up on.
Mia knows about having people give up on you. Her older brother hasn’t spoken to her going on eight years due to the fact that she transitioned from male to female. Mia Yamamoto is a transgender woman.
“My brother is like those old soldiers still holding out on the islands 50 years after the war has ended,” she said. “Unfortunately, he just can’t accept me for being my true self.”
According to the New York Times, 0.3 percent of the population currently identifies as transgender. An Asian-American woman, Mia Yamamoto exists at the intersections of race and gender identity. Yamamoto spoke to a packed house in the Creveling Lounge on October 27th hosted by the Social Sciences division, the Cross Cultural Center and the Asian Pacific American Association.
Born as Michael, Yamamoto served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, then attended UCLA Law School. She co-founded the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, worked as a public defender, and then opened a private practice.
Yamamoto achieved all of this while struggling with gender dysphoria, and hoping to find a “cure” that she later accepted was nonexistent.
After a series of surgeries in Thailand, which culminated in 2005, Yamamoto had fully transitioned. Many people from all over the world came to Thailand for the same reason. This was when she realized that being transgender was not a choice.
“We all started recognizing it at five and six years old and we fought against it,” she said. “I realized that gender identity disorder is an organic phenomenon–it was not an aberration.”
When Yamamoto decided to come out, she called another lawyer in Maryland and asked her what it’s like.
“She said to me, ‘Be prepared to lose one-third of your clients, one-third of your family, one-third of your friends and all of your professional contacts.’”
While her family’s reaction was much more mixed, her clients, surprisingly, were very accepting. She sat each one of them down and told them she would be transitioning and going to court as a woman instead of a man.
“Every single one of my clients stood by me,” she said. “After that, I was ashamed that I’d had so little faith in people and expected the worst from them.”
Although she is a Vietnam veteran, her experience fighting in the war helped Yamamoto realize how stringently anti-war she was.
“When I first came out of the military, it was extraordinarily unpopular, but I thought I was doing my duty at the time,” she said. “One thing it did teach me is that war is evil, war is wrong completely.”
This newfound belief is what made Yamamoto commit to non-violent conflict resolution.
“Non-violent conflict resolution is ten times harder than violent conflict resolution but it’s twice as spiritually evolved,” she said. “It’s the only way we make progress into the future and to a more civilized and peaceful society.”
As a defense attorney, Yamamoto knows what it feels like to constantly fail.
“Being a prosecutor is easy, but representing those accused of a crime—there has to be somebody in that courtroom that sees something in their humanity to give it their best effort,” she said. “Defense attorneys have to be willing to take defeat … You have to be willing to get your heart broken, because you’re not worthy of this court if you can’t put your heart into it.”
Yamamoto’s ultimate goal is advancing the interests of underrepresented minorities.
“The evil of the military was that it was illegal to be gay or lesbian, so they’re invisible,” she said. “That means the contributions, the sacrifices and courage of the gay and lesbian community is completely erased from history.”
The topic of her talk is liberation. She believes that everywhere she goes should be an act of liberation, and encourages the audience to do the same.
“Every place we go to, every court house, every sheriff’s office every jail … what we do for transgender men and women has to benefit all of society,” she said. “Every place can be free from the chains of bigotry by your example.”
When asked if Yamamoto thought she would be remembered for the work she has done, she goes silent for a moment, then gave a brutally honest answer.
“I don’t really matter … I will not be remembered in the struggle, I don’t believe I will and I don’t care,” she said. “I think that whatever ideas we can bring forward is the way to liberate oneself from archaic ideas, even if it’s just one person, one case, one act of kindness, one individual … It can make a big difference in the long run and it certainly makes a big difference in your own life. “
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