March 4, 2019

Mia Yamamoto was, in her own words, “born doing time” in Poston in September 1943, and spent the first years of her life confined in an isolated prison camp in the Arizona desert. Her father, the first Asian American graduate of Loyola Law School, “went around the camp telling people that they couldn’t do this to us—that he had read the Constitution and you couldn’t just throw people in jail because of their race,” Mia later said. “Of course, he was wrong.”

After the war, the Yamamoto family—Mia, her parents, four brothers, and a sister—settled in East Los Angeles. Mia’s father Elmer reestablished his pre-war law career, practicing in a segregated bar because the Los Angeles County Bar Association was restricted to whites only. (Elmer Yamamoto has his own claim to fame, as the plaintiff in a 1944 challenge to the forced removal of Japanese Americans, later consolidated with the Federal District Court case Ochikubo v Bonesteel.) Growing up in post-war California, Mia and her siblings were often the target of racist taunts and even physical attacks. “The level of hatred that people still had towards the Japanese was palpable,” she said. “I was pretty careful about not speaking Japanese. I didn’t want to advertise that.”

Her race was not the only aspect of her identity that created challenges. From an early age, Mia knew the gender she’d been assigned at birth didn’t align with her true identity. Those feelings solidified when she came across a news story about transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen. “I remember thinking, there’s another person in the world who’s just like me,” she said. But she also felt pressure to hide her real gender identity. When Mia excitedly showed the news clipping to her mother, declaring that she had found a story about a kindred spirit, her mother broke down in tears. It wasn’t until many years later that she would finally feel ready to transition.

After completing high school, Mia enrolled at Los Angeles City College, hoping to pursue a law career like her father, and eventually transferred to Cal State L.A. She graduated at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1966, and enlisted in the army soon after. A year later, while in Vietnam, she applied to UCLA Law School, stating that she was a poet and she intended to support her art by practicing law. She was accepted the following month, and returned to California to join UCLA’s incoming law students in 1968.

Although she had originally volunteered for the army, by the time Mia returned two years later her experiences in Vietnam, witnessing wartime atrocities and what she would later describe as “the absolute most extreme of male toxicity,” had changed her mind. She became active in the anti-war movement—joining many other Sansei who protested the war from a decidedly Asian American perspective, linking violence against the Vietnamese people to their own families’ experiences in WWII concentration camps.

Mia Yamamoto in the 2012 Los Angeles Pride Parade. Courtesy of Hyphen Magazine.

Mia became more deeply entrenched in student activism at UCLA, co-founding the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and working with Black and Latinx student unions to demand the university hire more faculty of color, establish ethnic studies courses, and commit resources to admit more students of color.

Influenced by her own origins in Poston and the virulent anti-Japanese racism she faced growing up, Mia was determined to use her law degree to serve those who needed it most. After graduating from UCLA in 1971, she took a job with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. She worked as a poverty lawyer for the next three years, before moving on to the Public Defender’s Office. Many of her clients were queer and trans sex workers facing drug and prostitution charges. Mia herself wasn’t out at the time, but she would later recall feeling that she could easily have been in their position had she been living as an openly trans woman. There were a few close friends in whom she confided, and Mia would sometimes tell her trans clients that she harbored “the same feelings” about her identity—but ultimately she worried that coming out would derail her career and jeopardize her clients’ cases in the process. “Their lives, their futures, were on my shoulders,” she said. “If I transitioned, it would just pull the rug out from all of them.”

After 10 years as a public defender, Mia left to form her own private practice specializing in criminal defense law. She began taking on death penalty cases in which she had to quite literally fight for her clients’ lives. At the same time, she continued to explore ways to embrace her gender identity in private, going to trans night clubs, as well as group and individual counseling sessions, where she could present as a woman without judgement.

In 2003, Mia made the decision to publicly transition and, at age 60, became the first openly transgender lawyer in California history. She offered to help her clients find a new attorney if they no longer wanted her service, but not a single one asked for a replacement—a testament to her skill and care as a defender. Today, Mia remains a staunch advocate of human rights, particularly for people whose lives have been upended by the criminal justice system and incarceration. She still operates her practice as a criminal defense attorney, and works with International Bridges for Justice to increase legal protections for prisoners in developing countries.

Rooted in her own experiences with incarceration, racism, and transmisogyny, Mia Yamamoto’s decades-long commitment to fighting for the most vulnerable members of our society is a remarkable example for us all. Today and everyday, let’s honor the brilliant leadership of women like Mia by standing with our queer, trans, Black and brown siblings, immigrants, prisoners, sex workers, and all marginalized people. To borrow the words of Mia herself, “Nothing good happens without all of us doing it together.”

By Nina Wallace, Densho Communications Coordinator

Header image: original artwork by Kiku Hughes. Kiku is a comics artist living and working in the Seattle area. Her work has been featured in “Beyond: A Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comic Anthology”, “Elements: Comic Anthology by Creators of Color” and Short Box Comics Collection. She is currently working with First Second Books to publish her first graphic novel, about Japanese American incarceration. Funding for Kiku’s work was generously provided by a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

For more information on Mia Yamamoto:

“After Years of Fighting for Trans Kids, Lawyer Mia Yamamoto Came Out Herself,” interview with Zackary Drucker. Broadly, December 7, 2018.

“Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant: A Profile of Mia Yamamoto” by Jean Ho. Hyphen Magazine, November 20, 2014.