Columbia advocate shares transgender experience with U.S. Senate

Monday, June 25, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:40 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 25, 2012
Kylar Broadus, the first openly transgender person to speak before the U.S. Senate, sits in his Columbia office June 18. Broadus officially transitioned to a man about age 30.

COLUMBIA — You could have heard a pin drop.

That's how Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, described the atmosphere as Kylar Broadus testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on June 12.

Broadus spoke in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual and gender orientation. The House of Representatives has had hearings, but this was the first full hearing the act has seen from the Senate.

In the process, Broadus made history by being the first openly transgender person to speak before the U.S. Senate. He shared his experience with workplace discrimination: How he'd been dismissed from his job in the 1990s when he officially transitioned from a woman to a man. 

"You could see it had a powerful effect," said Minter, a San Francisco lawyer who has been Broadus' friend for about 15 years and was seated behind him as his "support person." "I think it was more emotional than he expected it to be." 

Having Broadus speak changed the chemistry of the hearing, Minter said. He said he thinks that now there will be no question that transgender people — who make up about 0.3 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to a study by the University of California-Los Angeles — will be included in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The inclusion of transgender people was not always a sure thing. The original act, introduced to Congress in 1994, referred to discrimination based only on sexual orientation. In 1995, activists began work to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity as well.

"Transgender people would not be in the bill if not for Kylar," Minter said, referring to Broadus' legal work with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for the past 12 years.

Broadus, who earned his law degree from MU in 1988 and still lives in Columbia, has been on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act drafting committee, has lobbied for it in Congress and now has come full circle by testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The act has been introduced in all but one congressional session since 1994. Although Broadus sees no chance for the bill to pass this session, he still counts its appearance in a full hearing before the Senate as a victory.

He said he believes the act can pass during the next session if President Barack Obama stays in office. Obama's administration has indicated that the president would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, he said.

"If you asked me this three years ago, whether we'd get this passed in my life time, I'd have probably said no," Broadus said. 

Importance of family

Broadus sat in his home office in Columbia, dubbed "The War Room," after the week spent in Washington, D.C. On his wall hangs a framed newspaper photo of the Negro Baseball League. He found it after his father passed away.

"I always try to make people pick out my father in the photo," Broadus said, taking the frame down and setting it on his desk. Everybody gets it eventually, he said.

"Bingo," he said when William Broadus, standing in the second row, second from the left, was pointed out. "I've looked like him since the day I popped out." 

Broadus' parents experienced the Civil Rights movement, and were the descendants of slaves, he said. He described how they taught him the value of working hard and being proud of who he was. They also taught him the realities of being black in the U.S.

"My dad was a World War II veteran, but couldn't utilize his GI benefits because he was a black man," Broadus said. He described his father as "the best man in the world," who would often have to enter gas stations and rest stops through a back door when he drove trucks.

Family made him who he is, Broadus said. When he officially transitioned, he described his family and extended family as loving and supportive throughout.

Although his father is deceased, Broadus' mother still lives in his hometown of Fayette. Every evening, Broadus drives to his mother's house and tends to her needs. He drives back to Columbia in the morning.

He might then make his way to Lincoln University in Jefferson City around midday, where he's a professor of business law. He might also do his work as an activist, with various organizations in which he's involved. In the evening, he returns to Fayette.

"I love working until one or two in the morning, and then I'll go to bed and get up at six or seven to start again," he said.

Broadus' work is hardly centralized. He works in statehouses to work on legislation and as a consultant to people navigating employment discrimination issues. He works in training services, lobbying and advocacy. When he needs money, he takes legal cases.

Many times, he's accepted cases involving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people because no one else will take them. Broadus might also act as a consultant to such cases. He's done plenty of pro bono work, he said.

"If you follow me around, I work a bazillion hours a day, I'm always multitasking and usually I'm in a plane, train or automobile doing something," Broadus said.

Official transition

When Broadus began his work with a financial institution in the 1990s, he didn't plan to lead the life of an activist. Broadus described himself as an introvert who was fully invested in his work and trying to fit in.

"I've looked masculine my whole life," Broadus said. He described how he would dress as a woman and "look like an ugly drag queen."

"I have nothing against drag queens," he said. "But I wasn't a pretty one."

Bathrooms and changing rooms presented a problem, because people consistently presumed he was male. People often expressed confusion at his old name, before he changed it to Kylar, and asked why his parents had given a man such a feminine name. He asked that the name not be included here.

"I lived my life outside of work full-time pretty much as a man," Broadus said. "That was how people related to me." He described how it became incongruent to continue to present himself as a woman at work. 

The dichotomy also was heavily taxing his emotional and mental well-being. He described how his inability to bring his full self to work made him "an unhappy person."

"I literally had to decide, do I want to live or do I want to die?" he said.

Broadus decided to make an official transition a few years after joining the financial institution. Because the company had been tolerant of gay people, he assumed he would receive similar acceptance. He began to shift gradually, then hit a wall.

Broadus described a sudden, clear push by the company to "get rid of him" that shocked him. He was eventually pushed out via a "constructive discharge."

He said he still has reviews in his garage from the company that identified him as an "exemplary" and "outstanding" worker.

When Broadus tried to find legal help, he found no lawyers who would work with him, despite the fact that he was an attorney. Furthermore, he found there were no laws that could protect him from the discrimination.

Broadus has yet to recover financially, he said.

"I think he credits his parents for that value of not giving up," Minter said.

Persistence has been needed as Broadus has built his career back up.

"I'm not employable in mid-Missouri," Broadus said. "I can put in resumes galore and I'm not going to get hired, and it's simply because I'm a transgender man and because I'm out."

Accidental activist

Over the years, Broadus has said repeatedly that he's not a crusader. He instead said  the voice was needed and the work needed to get done. In reality, he'd prefer not to be married to the cause.

"I ended up becoming an accidental activist," Broadus said. "When I tried to show the world who I really was so I could be a complete human being and live productively in society, then I was propelled into this because there were no laws. There was no protection."

He described how his involvement in activism became more and more prominent. His legal knowledge and the fact that he was black and out as a transgender man put him in demand with several activist organizations, such as the National Black Justice Coalition, of which he's a board member.

He's worked for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, as well as the rights of transgender people, throughout the years.

Minter met Broadus about 15 years ago, when Broadus was working on a custody case on behalf of a lesbian mother. He called the National Center for Lesbian Rights for information, and got in contact with Minter. They got to know one another better later on through transgender legal conferences.

Since then, they have worked on numerous cases together. They began the Transgender Law and Policy Institute 12 years ago to provide information and assistance to lawyers, legislators and policy makers. 

They also developed a strong friendship, partially based on their similar childhoods in rural areas and love of country music. In January, they took a road trip to see Glen Campbell in concert. 

"I really respect him," Minter said. "He has a great ability to understand others' perspectives and weaknesses and deal with them in a compassionate way."

Broadus established the Trans People of Color Coalition in 2010 to narrow his focus and address the specific issues that face people of color who are transgender. 

"As I worked in the gay movement, I saw the stratification," Broadus said to explain why he founded the coalition.

He described how at activist meetings, he'd often be the only person of color in the room and would be the last one called on to give input. It doesn't help that in the past, some in the gay, lesbian and bisexual community have resisted the idea of transgender people joining their movement, he said. 

Transgender people of color feel like they're invisible and have no one to advocate for them, Broadus said. There's often magnified discrimination based on race as well as gender identity. 

Broadus cited results from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey showing that most transgender people of color have an average annual salary of $10,000. This forces many into underground efforts to find money, further alienating them from society.

Broadus' advocacy work, and his legal expertise, have made him a widely-respected figure both in the transgender community as well as the larger gay, lesbian and bisexual community. Be it for his students at Lincoln University or the people he meets with his work, Broadus said he likes to find people where they are and catapult them forward.

"It catapults me as well," he said. 

Next steps

The appearance of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act before the Senate is an indication that policy and attitude toward transgender people is shifting.

Broadus described an email he received from a young lawyer on the day of the hearing, thanking him for his work. The young lawyer had made an official transition while in law school and, as a transgender man, had found a job. His career, unlike Broadus', could continue uninterrupted.

Broadus also spoke of how many of the students he's taught are now lawyers and legislators who recall him more as their undergraduate professor and less as a transgender man. It's not his defining characteristic to them.

Minter, himself a transgender man who transitioned in the mid-1990s, went to Broadus for support and information on the process. He said that Broadus has acted as a role model for many transgender people, speaking with them and helping them to find jobs. 

"He showed me it's possible to be a transgender man," Minter said.

In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the federal sex discrimination law protects people who are discriminated against because they're transgender. Although courts are not required to follow the ruling, it represents another step toward equality for transgender people in the workplace, Broadus said.  

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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