Denise Brogan-Kator does not frequently wear sleeveless shirts in public. But August 24, 2012 was no ordinary day.
During a hearing for LGBT civil rights in the military hearing at the Lavender Law Conference, Denise took off her cardigan to expose a tattoo on her right arm with the dolphins insignia of the U.S. Navy that indicates that she served on the U.S. Submarine Force Pacific Fleet.
During her powerful testimony, Denise explained, “I’ve never taken my jacket off in public before because I have always known that since women aren’t allowed to serve on submarines, that it would out me as transgender.”
Denise, who has had an incredibly successful career as a lawyer and LGBT rights activist, is well-acquainted with the discrimination that LGBT people face. Having been fired for being transgender not once, not twice, but three times, Denise’s story, and many like hers, are all too familiar in Michigan.
The first time that Denise would experience this level of discrimination was back in 1993, when Denise, then living as a male, was Vice President of Finance for a medical products company.
At the company’s Halloween party, Denise dressed up as Ginger Rogers, while her wife dressed as Fred Astaire. The problem? “I did a little too good of a job as Ginger Rogers,” Denise explained.
Following the Halloween party, Denise’s boss hired a private investigator to collect evidence against her. Soon after, Denise was fired unceremoniously and without warning, despite helping build up a profitable company for five years.
Without legal protections against employment discrimination for LGBT people, there was little recourse that Denise could take.
Denise would soon be fired from two more jobs after it was learned that she was transgender and almost lost her children during a custody dispute over her gender identity.
But Denise’s story is not one of tragedy; it is one of redemption. After legally changing her name and working for an employer who would accept her and allow her to excel as the Vice President of Finance at a multi-million dollar company, Denise would later enroll at University of Michigan’s law school as the first openly transgender law student and begin a successful legal career.
Today, Denise lives with her partner Mary and her mother-in-law, Kitty. She is a proud parent of three grown adult women and a proud new Grandma. She hopes that Michigan updates the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act soon in order to level the playing field for LGBT Michiganders who, just like anybody else, want to work and provide for their families.