Mia Yamamoto was born in a Japanese internment camp and served in the Vietnam War. Then, after she became a leading criminal defense attorney, she came out as transgender.
by Zackary Drucker
Dec 7 2018
Mia Yamamoto, in her own words, was “born doing time.” She started her life in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona in 1946—a circumstance that eventually moved her to dedicate her life to social and economic justice as a poverty lawyer and criminal defender.
Mia identified as trans long before she began presenting as feminine in her 50s. She recalls finding herself while reading about transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in the newspaper as a child, but keeping her identity a secret while later serving in the Vietnam war, and eventually, when she began working with homeless trans youth as a lawyer, covertly going out at night to discover bars catering to trans women on Hollywood Boulevard.
Being exposed to the dangers of trans life in the 20th century and enduring the toxic masculinity of the military may have slowed Mia’s personal coming out, but it did not prevent her from supporting trans people in her capacity as a leading criminal defense attorney. For years, holding her transness deep within, she selflessly sacrificed her own authenticity to better serve marginalized individuals navigating the legal system and the prison industrial complex. Her fierce fighting words for the President (“You’re just a punk politician, I’m not afraid of you”), and her deep commitment to dismantling structures of oppression, are a rallying cry—encouraging us to push through fear to discover our courage and potential for resilience.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: Tell me about your personal journey around transness.
MIA YAMAMOTO: I was in the closet in terms of being trans until my actual coming out transition, when I I had already been a lawyer for a while. It’s different for me. I came up, though, around trans people who were kicked out of their homes as teenagers. It’s common, at 12 or 13; the family is outraged at your gender expression, they throw you out of your house, and you have to fend for yourself out there. I was always around folks like that; those were the only people that I could possibly identify with—especially coming up as a poverty lawyer working with oppressed and marginalized communities in many colors and different origins. The trans folks were excluded from almost every minority group. I remember my therapist saying that he had various queer clients, but that trans people were the queerest of the queer.