It was serendipity that Kylar Broadus was born on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington, D.C.
A transgender activist, Broadus grew up in a small rural town in Missouri, the grandchild of slaves. For years, he searched for a way to describe why he didn’t feel right in his skin -- in his adult years, he would discover the word “transgender.”
After transitioning, the attorney and college professor has been fighting for the rights for transgender people of color, including testifying before the Senate and creating the Trans People of Color Coalition.
What are your memories of growing up trans?
I don’t think I ever told anyone else because I knew it wasn’t something safe, that I was different, that I felt different from other people, other kids. I just remember my first memory of knowing the difference between he and she and somebody referring to me as she and thinking, who are they talking to? I would try to read and find and see if there was anything, trying to find people like me. There was no Internet, so you’re out reading and reading and trying to figure it out… I felt like I was dropped into the wrong life that's not mine.
I passed mostly for male most of the time throughout my life, even as a kid. My mother tried to gender me up and it was the most uncomfortable feeling. It was the most ickiest thing ever. My mother commuted to work to a larger town, 40 minutes away. I would change my outfits in kindergarten.
How did being black impact your experience as a transgender child?
We were very color conscious. I’m a very light skinned black American so there were fights. I had both gender and race issues going on. I remember being beat up every day. [My parents] wanted us to go to school to learn, because of course they did not have the opportunity to do that… I grew up very much an introvert.
What about as an adult?
I didn’t feel akin to lesbian, but it was the closest thing to me. I had a hard time identifying with that… I just kind of lived, some people would say, between the worlds. I hid my body and covered it through school to be more masculine. I wanted to stay in school forever so I wouldn’t have to go out and get a job, which is totally gendered, and wear a skirt and panty hoes. I was mortified. I didn’t transition until my late 20s.
My gender expression as I grew into my 20s, it’s always been masculine. I was always considered ambiguous. I could never use the public restrooms without being accosted by police if I went into the women’s room… I spent every day praying to God: fix me, change me.
What was your breaking point?
I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I was then having to dress like someone else everyday in drag to go to work, just to make a living, and it was just so repelling to me, it was the hardest thing I could do -- except for when I got home at night.
Then you transitioned in 1994.
I never hid my transition because people of color are close to families, and my family I was really close to, so I was not going to move somewhere else and pretend to be somebody else even though every single day my life was at risk. When I was out, it really wasn’t cool to be out and trans because the previous teachings had been to blend into society and hide yourself. I chose to be out at whatever cost that meant because I wasn’t going to let people have power over me.
You were working in finance, when did you get into advocacy?
Tons of the movement was recognizable because the Internet became more available. I was starting to connect with other people that were like me, and we had small conferences then that were gender affirming and thought, wow, these people are just like me. I know that I’m not crazy, that I'm not nuts, that I have to be me all the time and not pretend to be somebody else.
I decided to take up advocacy because when I was separated from my job, it was basically because I was coming out as trans because I was already wearing suits and ties at that time to work. Immediately losing your income and your livelihood and how you value yourself, it was just devastating.
You were appointed to your city’s Human Rights Commission and you became a referral for many organizations.
That was to me at least one victory, of being appointed. We were trying to make change, we didn’t get through a trans policy until a decade later when there was a new administration in and after I left, but I started the way for that. If we can get local ordinances and state protections, we can make the case for employment discrimination for trans people.
I would go get people out of jail in different jurisdictions because they were being jailed for being trans. They were trumped up charges, because the whole town had considered [the transgender person] had lied to them.
You founded the Trans People of Color Coalition in 2010, why?
As I continued to do this work, I would meet many trans people of color and we would coalesce at meetings and talk and everybody felt isolated, even though they may have been in a large city and they were a person of color. Everybody had the same story to tell to me and they felt they were not represented by the greater movement, which is typical of greater movements -- the trans movement is quite a bit behind the gay movement in organizing. There have been tons of color groups that have come out, trans special, but there were none when we opened our doors. We saw this need. Who can better represent us than us?
In 2012, you testified before the Senate on ENDA -- the first transgender person to do so. How did you feel?
What I felt was immense responsibility for the community, not even to myself, even through telling my story and trying to broad brush other stories within my stories and weave them together, to make sure they got a clear picture of what all trans people suffer.
What is the outlook for transgender kids today?
I talk to young kids today who have that same feeling [of being alone], and you think it would change because of the Internet and so forth. There’s still lots of changes that need to happen, especially for our youth.
What would you go back and tell young Kylar?
Life can be as you make it. Once I took the bull by the horns and said, I’m going to live life as I need to -- you can make it. Trans is OK, trans is human, and you’re a good person and you’ll help other people live a good, healthy life.