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Dressing in drag for Halloween isn’t usually a life-altering experience. But a particular drag performance as Ginger Rogers sent Denise Brogan-Kator on an unexpected path.
Back in 1993, Brogan-Kator was a 38-year-old vice president of finance for a medical products company in Florida. She had been hired by the company five years earlier to help create liquidity for the struggling firm. She improved the company’s finances and received raving reviews from the owner, who became wealthy thanks to her work. There was a problem though. Brogan-Kator had been hired when she was still living as a male, the gender label given to her at birth.
“As a very young person I knew my gender was different. I thought I had grown through it, but in my late 30s it resurfaced in my life,” said the woman who is now a 55-year-old LGBT-rights activist. “When I came out to myself I thought I could deal with it by expressing my true self episodically, which basically means I was occasionally cross dressing.”
No one at work had a clue, until the night of the company Halloween party when Brogan-Kator and her wife (who dressed as Fred Astaire) won first prize in the costume contest. “I did a little too good of a job as Ginger Rogers,” she said.
Because of her stellar performance as the blond bombshell, the owner of the company hired a private investigator, who followed her around until he had evidence that she was expressing her feminine side for more than just holiday fun. After five years of working as a team and building up a profitable company, Brogan-Kator was called into the office and fired without warning. Someone else cleaned out her desk and threw her personal items in a box. She was escorted out of the building and told not to come back.
A lawyer said there was nothing she could do about it.
She carried on in suits and ties, hiding her true self. She was fired from two more jobs when employers discovered that she was transgender. These situations, along with the struggles she faced in her personal life, helped shaped Brogan-Kator into the woman she is today.
In addition to the workplace discrimination, Brogan-Kator faced family law problems. She had been married and fathered three children with her first wife, and the divorce that followed was a painful one. “During the divorce process they filed to have my parental rights terminated, and to the everlasting credit of my ex-spouse, she finally stood up to her lawyer and told them not to take my kids,” she said.
“I was this close to losing my kids. I lost three jobs. I had gone into bankruptcy, lost my house, my cars … All in the name of being authentic.”
In a Tampa, FL support group, Brogan-Kator realized that she wasn’t alone. “I found tremendous support. I began to fully appreciate who we were and the inherent bias in society.” These connections gave her the support she needed to move forward with transitioning. She legally changed her name, but still sought work as a man.
She was hired by a small, independently-owned software company in Tampa. She had already been working with the company as a man when a background check revealed that she had legally changed her name to Denise. The boss wanted an explanation. He was surprised, yet accepting. He let Denise keep her job as the vice president of finance, and in a few years the company went from doing $5 million in sales each year to about $50 million. The owner sold the company for about $200 million and was so impressed that he gave Brogan-Kator a bonus: enough money to pay off her debt and start her life fresh.
Finally, fearlessly, she faced the world as Denise.
The confident, happy woman who finally showed through wanted to repay the world – to right the wrongs in the legal system and to give back positively to the community that supported her through her transition.
She moved to Michigan to go to law school. In 2005, while going to the University of Michigan she met a former U-M law student, Mary Kator. On Dec. 29, 2005 they went to Windsor and got married. She graduated in 2006 and passed the Michigan State Bar Exam in May 2007.
Later that year the couple started Rainbow Law Center, PLLC, a firm that helps clients with family law, partnership agreements, adoptions, estate & trust planning, medical directives, transgender services, business planning, employment disputes and civil rights violations.
“We’ve done good work,” Brogan-Kator said. “After my divorce I thought I’d never want to do family law, but I was really lucky to have a family law professor in college who was a lesbian who was passionate about using the law to make a difference in people’s lives. I’d always foreseen going to work for one of the bigger national organizations, but Mary was rooted in Michigan. She came up with the idea to start our own law firm, and it is so rewarding being able to help people in the community who need legal help.”
Brogan-Kator’s other big contribution has been to Equality Michigan, which was called Triangle Foundation when she joined the Board of Directors in 2008. Prior to that she had been on the Board of WRAP in Ann Arbor (now named the Jim Toy Community Center), and had been involved in Transgender rights organizations in Florida. At Triangle she became Board Chair, and helped the organization in its 2009 merger with Michigan Equality, and now as Equality Michigan is going through some leadership changes, she has resigned from the Board to become a consultant for the organization. Current Executive Director Alicia Skillman’s resignation will be effective Dec. 31, 2010, and the Board is expected to announce Brogan-Kator as an interim replacement.
“When I joined the Board I knew that it was critical for us to have a strategic plan,” Brogan-Kator said. “The merger took about six months. Once we got through that we embarked on a strategic planning process. We’ve given a lot of talk to being a state-wide organization, but the reality of it is we weren’t serving all the communities as well as we should be. I felt if we were going to be successful as an organization we had to listen to what the communities had to say. That can be from the LGBT alphabet soup, to geography, to economic communities, to looking at diversity. My experience is my experience. I wanted this plan to listen to all of the voices that deserve equality in Michigan.”
Equality Michigan announced Brogan-Kator as the interim director this week. No matter what she does after her year as interim director is up, Brogan-Kator expects to continue to fight for the rights of all to be treated fairly. Eventually though, she hopes to retire and move back to Florida where she hopes to watch her three adult daughters continue to grow and start families of their own.
The actress Ginger Rogers said, “The only way to enjoy anything in this life is to earn it first.” The smile on Brogan-Kator’s face as she talks about her family, her wife, and her advocacy work shows how individual authenticity can be won, and rewarded.