For transgender individuals, not disclosing their transgender status, also known as “living stealth,” has been the norm. Too many transgender folks have lived in fear of ridicule, discrimination, and rejection leading many to live a lie. But today, change is upon us; history is being made. October is LGBT History Month, 31 days that celebrate the successes of 31 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender icons, making now an ideal time to shine a light on transgender trailblazers who have excelled professionally while living openly. Of the icons featured this month, three are transgender: Kye Allums, Victoria Kolakowski, and Amanda Simpson. It’s brave change makers such as these that are propelling North American society toward greater acceptance.
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Kye Allums launched LGBT History Month as “the first openly transgender athlete to play NCAA Division I college basketball.” In November 2010 as a 21-year-old sophomore, Allums made history on the women’s basketball team at George Washington University (GWU) for coming out as a transgender male. Having received a basketball scholarship from GWU and not wanting to jeopardize it, his original plan was to wait to reveal his true gender when his eligibility expired the following season, but Allums explained to USA Today that, “… it just got too tough not to be me. I heard people call me a girl and say ‘she’ and refer to me as something that I wasn’t.”
Apart from his fortitude and courage in staying true to himself, Allum’s story also stands out because of the outpouring of support and acceptance by his teammates, coach, and school officials. GWU’s official statement, which refers to the star shooting guard as Mr. Allum, includes his heartfelt sentiments about the university:
“GW has been supportive during this transition. This means a lot. I didn’t choose to be born in this body and feel the way I do. I decided to transition, that is change my name and pronouns because it bothered me to hide who I am, and I am trying to help myself and others to be who they are… My teammates have embraced me as the big brother of the team. They have been my family, and I love them all.”
Due to several concussions, Allums will not be playing his senior year, a choice GWU respects. At present, he is uncertain whether he will continue his transition by pursuing gender reassignment surgery or by taking male hormones. In the meantime, Allums has been telling his story at various speaking engagements with the goal of spreading the message that “it’s possible to be out and to be comfortable with yourself and still be successful.”
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The second transgender icon featured during LGBT History Month is Victoria Kolakowski, the first openly transgender person to be elected to a U.S. Superior Court. Before graduating with a law degree from Louisiana State University in the late 1980s she underwent gender reassignment surgery from male to female and legally changed her name, which resulted in the Louisiana State Bar Association denying her application to write the bar exam. She challenged the decision and the Louisiana State Court ruled unanimously in her favor allowing her to begin her career as an attorney.
She went on to attract attention for her professional successes as a member on the Oakland Budget Advisory Committee and as an administrative law judge. Subsequently, she received well-deserved accolades including the honor of being named Woman of the Year in 1994 by the East Bay Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, and then in 1995 she received the Outstanding Woman of Berkeley Award. In 2002, she co-chaired the Transgender Law Center, an organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of transgender individuals.
Before winning her campaign to preside over the Alameda County Superior Court in California in 2010, Kolakowski explained to Change.org how her role as an out trial judge could help break barriers for the LGBT community:
“I see the possibility of my presence in the court as a sort of ongoing sensitivity training. Just like people become more comfortable with us as gay and lesbian people when more of us come out (I am a lesbian as well), having an out, visible transgender judge will demonstrate to the judges, attorneys, staff and police who interact with the courts every day that we can be capable professionals, like everyone else.”
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The final transgender icon featured during LGBT History Month is Amanda Simpson, the first openly transgender female presidential appointee. (In 2008, Diego Sanchez was the first transgender male presidential appointee.) Before President Obama appointed her to Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology in the U.S. Defense Department, her resume was beyond impressive.
She boasts degrees in physics, business administration, and engineering (she’s essentially a rocket scientist) as well as being a certified flight instructor and airline transport pilot. For almost three decades, she worked at Raytheon Missile Systems in roles that ranged from manager of flight operations to Deputy Director of Advanced Technology Development. While still employed there in 2000, she transitioned from male to female. Then in 2005, Simpson was instrumental in having gender identity and expression incorporated into the company’s non-discrimination policies.
Additionally, Simpson has supported the LGBT community by sitting on the boards of organizations like the Tucson Corporate LGBT Coalition, Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, and the National Center for Transgender Equality. When asked what her experience has been as the first transgender female presidential appointee she didn’t mince words:
“Being the first sucks. I’d rather not be the first but someone has to be first, or among the first. I think I’m experienced and very well qualified to deal with anything that might show up because I’ve broken barriers at lots of other places.” And she certainly doesn’t shy away from the possibility of breaking a few more:
“As one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government, I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others.”
With increased mainstream media exposure of transgender role models, such as herself and leaders like Allum and Kolakowski, there is little doubt that opportunities will be plenty.