By Roberta (Bobbie) Zenker, Montana's first and only transgender attorney Born and raised in Ohio, Roberta Bobbie Zenker, author of TransMontana: A Memoir of Transformation in Body, Mind & Spirit, has lived in Montana for thirty years. She obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Dayton in 1980 with a BA in Photography and Fine Arts, and minors in English and Religious Studies. She came to Montana as a Jesuit Volunteer, and worked as the Director of a Residential Youth Treatment program for Native American Youth in Eastern Montana until attending law school at the University of Montana, graduating in 1992. In nearly twenty years of public service law, she has been a prosecutor, county attorney, and an appellate defender. Bobbie has submitted numerous briefs to the Montana Supreme Court, and currently is a disability and civil rights lawyer. Bobbie's guest column is taken from a presentation she made at the Martin Luther King Day event held by the Montana Human Rights Network in Helena, MT, on Monday, January 23, 2012.
In the justice arena, every day is MLK day. Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote in a MLK Day email as follows:
"As we commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. today, it is important to reflect on the values he taught us through example - the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility, and service. His belief that we could all be better human beings simply by accepting and respecting others is one we should try to live out daily. We must believe that every person is worthy of equality and fairness."
She hit it on the head.
Dr. King infamously said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
I believe that, such that I think there can be no justice for anyone until there is justice for everyone. So long as any one group or class of people is denied their equal place and status among us, we are all marginalized.
As Montana’s first and only transgender attorney I experienced being humiliated and ostracized. The worst of it was professional employment discrimination. I chose to stay in Montana as I transitioned and beyond because it is the place and the people I love. It is my home. I kept my last name and my profession. Not a big deal? Well, when you are a popularly elected official, an active member of a state bar with less than 3,000 members, and a few years of experience behind you, it is hard to escape notice. Stealth was not an option.
It took me twenty-two months to find professional employment as an attorney in the state capital where state’s attorney positions came open at a rate of at least one per month. I experienced outright hostility at two state agencies, including the highest levels of the Department of Justice. There is a certain irony in that in light of Dr. King’s above statement. I had to take a second job for a while there, but found discrimination in that pursuit as well in Montana’s university system and one of its largest corporations.
So, now I qualify. I know how the other-half lives. I am amongst the marginalized.
Those experiences hurt. But I thank God for them now. They have opened my eyes, not just to the plight of trans people, not even only to the LGBT class to which I ostensibly belong, but to the broader notion of justice.
Justice! It is a good word. I often think of Morgan Freeman in the Bonfires of the Vanities as he describes justice to an angry crowd of onlookers following their disappointment after a high profile criminal trial. He said, "Justice is decency. What your grandmother taught you." He exhorted them to be decent to each other. We must be decent to each other certainly, but that is only the beginning. We must do more.
Dr. King said,
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
In short, everybody matters. We must realize the interrelatedness and commonality amongst all who experience injustice. Dr. King referred to it as a "…call- for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation; it is a reality call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind."
Love? Yes, love! Dr. King drew a distinction between this kind of unconditional love for humanity and "emotional bosh." It involves support, concern and mutual respect that uplifts each member as it uplifts us all. I do not wish to wax gospel-ish here, but really, what would Jesus say?
Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other. It is true, as hate at base is no more than fear; we must overcome this fear of the unknown in one another, for we are much more alike than we are different. We must rely on this as we seek to know each other, even those who oppose us, and make ourselves known to them. I am trans, I am gay, and I want everyone to know it. I want them to know too, that I am a beautiful daughter of God, for all that it means.
As I come to know and love others I begin to lose intolerance. I stop judging and criticizing the wrong I perceive and allow others to be just who and what they are.
Dr. King said,
First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic set of values." Yes we are beautiful children of God!
In somewhat prophetic fashion, Dr. King said about his passing,
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
That is a call worth listening too.
The following is from chapter 24 of my new book TransMontana: A Memoir of Transformation in Body, Mind & Spirit. It describes how I first experienced this call and involves some reflections about the passing of the city of Missoula's non-discrimination ordinance.
On February 18, now four years almost to the day of my moment of truth in Silver Star, I got an email from Jamee Greer at the Montana Human Rights Network.
"I heard about your testimony in Bozeman," he said, "and I'd like to chat about the Missoula, Montana non-discrimination ordinance."
I had not planned to be so public and open about my being trans, but the universe had called and kept calling. The die had been cast. Jamee and I met for coffee at the Firetower on Last Chance Gulch Ave in Helena.
"Can you come to Missoula and tell your story?" Jamee asked.
When people ask for my help there really is only one answer. I say yes, so long as it is in my power to do.
"There may be opportunity for community meetings and radio broadcasts to advocate for the ordinance," Jamee said. The call was clear, like that of a Western Meadowlark, Montana's State Bird, so bright and strong that you can hear it’s song even while driving down the highway at high speeds with the windows closed. I would speak out for justice and equality.
The week before the hearing I was invited to participate in a few public functions that again put me out there in the public arena. As I drove to Missoula from Helena, I played an old John Michael Talbot CD from my first days in Montana, the words and music of which inspire me still.
"Can you give your love to the world; can you give your love?" As I sang along with the words, I wondered?
The first event, on Thursday, April 8, was a panel discussion sponsored by the YWCA and NCBI (National Coalition Building Institute) Missoula, two groups working towards a more just and accepting society. They billed the event as "Everyone Matters: Dignity and Safety for Trans People." They showed a film, which depicted some of the hurdles faced by trans people. I told them my story, as did the other panelists, in an environment that during the discussion I described:
"I feel safe here in this bosom of warmth," I said.
It was a palpable feeling throughout the room of seventy people or so. The Missoula Police Department had hired a young lesbian officer as a liaison between the police and the LGBT community, who spoke as well. I was deeply moved by the humanity I witnessed.
"Yes, I can give my love to the world!" I said silently.
It was a glimpse of how an accepting community works, intent on love and support rather than judgment and condemnation. A person whose thinking and actions are devoted to the latter cannot possibly be filled with the former. I know which my God asks of me, and I pray that someday all persons of faith and good intent will come to the same place in their journeys.
Friday morning featured a radio appearance with a young gay activist and a sexologist, John Blake and Dr. Lindsay Doe, respectively, on a conservative call-in talk show. I was again taken by the passion, vitality and sincerity of my compatriots. As I have become more enmeshed in the LGBT community, I am struck by the inner fires I sense in those around me. Many have overcome great personal struggle to become their own true selves, to become whole as human beings at peace with their own identities within a world all too often hostile to them just because of who they are.
Yet, these are happy people. They have loosed their fears and abandoned their pretenses. They are authentic, without judgment of others and demands for approval. They are passionate and dedicated. What exactly is wrong with that?