The Future of Equality
Kylar William Broadus, Esq: Seeing All of Me
By Melissa Lowery
Kylar William Broadus, Esq. speaks with a soothing, gentle drawl that I immediately recognize as coming from my part of the country. Kylar spent most of his life in and around Columbia, Missouri, about three hours east of my hometown in Kansas. During our long, sometimes rambling conversation, we bond over growing up in “flyover country” and watering down our “twangy” accents.
Despite our Middle America connection, it’s immediately clear that Kylar’s life experiences are uniquely his own. As an out black trans man, an attorney, an activist, and an entrepreneur, he has transcended time and place, labels and biases to become wholly himself.
He’s not prone to boasting but as we talk, I realize that beneath his calm voice lies the heart and mind of a warrior. In fact, Kylar is a pioneer of trans rights, an activist and advocate who spent decades carving out space for trans people and people of color in the LGBTQ community.Kylar W. Broadus, Esq. is a pioneer of trans rights, an activist and advocate who spent decades carving out space for trans people and people of color in the LGBTQ community. Click To Tweet
“I know it seems like I just popped out of the box to a lot of younger trans people because we have so much more media coverage now,” he says with a chuckle.
For 18 years, Kylar maintained a private law practice in Columbia, Missouri, including the groundbreaking representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender clients in family law, criminal law and other areas. For nearly 20 years, he taught business law and discrimination in employment at Lincoln University of Missouri, a historically black college where he also previously served as chair of the business department.
As an activist, Kylar worked with many organizations to fight for civil rights. He served as the senior public policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force and the director of the organization’s Transgender Civil Rights Project. He served as the state legislative manager and counsel for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), where he worked with state stakeholders to pass LGBT-inclusive legislation.
In 2010, Kylar founded the Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), the only national civil rights organization dedicated to the needs of trans people of color. He currently serves on the board of the National Black Justice Coalition, where he was board chair from 2007 to 2010. He was one of thirteen openly transgender delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention and that same year he made history as the first openly transgender person to testify before the U.S. Senate, speaking in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
I wonder if he realizes how many people he’s impacted, how many lives he’s probably saved directly and indirectly by engaging in this fight. That he’ll probably end up in history books.
“It’s not about the notoriety of the work, it’s about the outcomes,” Kylar says. “I’m always going to be looked to as an activist and an advocate, and that’s my nature. I learned that from my parents – they worked for the greater cause in the community. They helped clean the Black cemeteries with their friends because no one else would. They would go help anyone in need at their home when it was needed. Both of my parents believed in the spirit of giving. I was raised to give back to the community.”
Looking for Someone Like Me
Kylar was born the same day as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, the same day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He refers to himself as an “accidental activist”, an “accidental professor” when talking about all he has accomplished, but I have to wonder – as a Black child born at the same time Dr. King was delivering those powerful words, a speech that has become immortal, is Kylar’s life’s work an “accident” or fate?
Dr. King spoke about coming “to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” Kylar was born at a time, much like today, when people had to choose which side of history they would be on. He was born on the day Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief architect and a gay man, dared to hope for the full realization of Dr. King’s dream to include him.
You could say it was a confluence of events, stars aligning or opportunity meeting preparation. Or, concede that the arcs of the Civil Rights movement, the modern LGBT movement and the more recent Trans movement called some to rise to the occasion. Kylar’s life has both shaped and been shaped by the struggle for human rights.
One of two children of Fannie and William, the children of slaves who were themselves still being treated as slaves in Jim Crow Missouri, at an early age, Kylar felt a dissonance between his real self and what the rest of the world saw.
“I was assigned female at birth,” he says. “As a kid, I woke up every morning, hoping God would answer my prayers to fix me because I knew he intended for me to be a boy.”
He generally presented as masculine and his family related to him as such. He recalls going places with his father as a child and having people refer to him as his father’s son.
“I’d be in the truck with my father and someone would say, ‘Oh, I see you brought your son along,’ and he’d just go with it,” Kylar says. “My father was never judgmental about anyone, and certainly not me.”
Kylar’s middle name is William, chosen in honor of his father.
Kylar first learned about transgender while reading Ebony and Jet magazines at the store – his parents’ budget didn’t stretch to magazine subscriptions – with black trans women like Carlett Brown featured in the pages. These women’s stories resonated with Kylar, but he still didn’t feel completely connected. “I was looking for someone like me,” he says.
He recalls watching televised coverage of the Stonewall riots – he would have been almost five years old – and recognizing himself in the gay and lesbian community protesting oppression and discrimination.
“I would watch the news with my dad as a Black girl and I would be uncomfortable because I knew there was some kindredness of something,” he says. “But that didn’t resonate as much as when I saw Christine Jorgensen on TV.”
Jorgensen, of course, was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery.
As he grew up, Kylar cut his hair short and wore men’s suits to reflect who he was inside, but initially, he came out as a lesbian.
“I came out as a lesbian first, but that still didn’t quite fit,” he explains. “It was a non-coming out, really, because people just needed me to be in a box. I never answered their question. I didn’t feel there was a good answer. None of the boxes fit me. I was me, but that label was the closest thing people could relate to me so that’s what I was given. Then about five years later, I spoke for myself and came out as a trans man and that immediately felt right.”
His mother “took to her bed, like a good Southern woman” but most of the family treated the news as anticlimactic.
“They’d related to me as masculine for years, so this wasn’t really news to them,” Kylar recalls of his second coming out experience. “My mother had some despair at first, but I realized later that she was worried about how others would react. She wanted to protect me, to shield me from negativity.”
When Kylar speaks of his parents, I can feel the love and respect. They were his role models, he says. Despite the experiences they endured, Fannie and William’s love and acceptance gave Kylar the strength and passion to become his authentic self.
“They worked hard, and they taught me to work hard,” he says. “My parents taught me how to be a Black man in America, and that’s how I learned how to persevere. I’m an OG. I don’t fall down. I keep fighting. They were my rock.”
In the Room for the Community
Kylar’s second coming out experience wasn’t all positive, however. At the time he was working for a major financial institution in Missouri. When he informed his supervisor about his gender transition, the work environment grew so hostile that Kylar finally left on a constructive discharge notice in 1997. When he sought legal retribution, the case was dismissed because there were no federal protections and in Missouri, it was, and still is, legal to discriminate based on gender identity or expression.
This experience channeled Kylar’s formidable intellect, energy and work ethic toward what became his life’s work: advancing the policy, legal and legislative concerns of LGBTQ Americans of all colors and genders.
Kylar has experienced a lot of violence, discrimination and bullying in his life, even recently. As we’ve been hearing in the news more and more, most trans and gender nonconforming people still face these injustices every day without proper support. The community has grown greatly but the country is in a difficult place, he says, and he’s fighting for change.
“I never go into the room for Kylar Broadus, I’m in the room for the community,” he says, his voice starting to take on the sonorous tones I associate with powerful courtroom monologues in the movies. “Human rights transcend race, orientation, gender. I’m fighting for my sisters, I’m fighting for my gender non-conforming people, I’m fighting for everybody’s rights.”“Human rights transcend race, orientation, gender. I'm fighting for my sisters, I'm fighting for my gender non-conforming people, I'm fighting for everybody's rights.” - Kylar Broadus Click To Tweet
Talking about the trans movement, Kylar is wistful and nostalgic about the early days, remembering smaller conferences when a handful of people were trying to change the world. He moves into “teacher voice” when he offers advice for the movement today. It’s a combination of authority and genuine affection with the underpinnings of experience, the voice of a seasoned mentor.
“Slow down, breathe and truly take a look inside and outside,” he says when I ask what he would say to the movement’s current leaders. “Take a look at where we came from, where we are and where we want to be. As my teachers used to say to me, and I used to say to my students, ‘You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.’”
He recalls being one of just a handful of trans people known on the national level, and even fewer out trans people of color. The community struggled and fought to add the “T” to the “LG” movement, to be seen and included. It both saddens and angers him that the community has become so divisive.
“There has to be some sort of unity to fight the bigger cause. No we’re not all the same, many of us have suffered, but we don’t need to bring that to every table to discount anyone else,” he says forcefully. “Everyone’s hurt is important. We aren’t here to measure whose is the largest. We’re here to help people heal their wounds so they can move forward and, more importantly, fix this system that breaks people. Let’s make this about love and not about hate, otherwise, we’re acting out the same oppression on ourselves that others are acting out on us. We’re sending a message out that we’re not loving each other so why should anybody else.”
A Musician Sidetracked By the World
Kylar’s third coming out is lighthearted and denotes the next phase of his life. “I’ve just come out as a musician,” he cheekily says via text message on National Coming Out Day.
His first love was jazz music. It was that love that prompted Kylar to move to Washington, D.C. in 2013, “to live in Duke Ellington’s D.C. I really am a musician who got sidetracked by the world.”
One of his early idols was Billy Tipton, a trans masculine jazz musician who grew up in nearby Sedalia, Missouri. Kylar connected with him, even though, he stresses, Tipton played woodwinds and Kylar took up the trumpet and low brass instruments as a child.
Kylar credits Tipton with saving his music, and his life.
“Billy helped me come out,” he says. “I found him when I was 12 or 13 and he taught me that being visible, having someone who looked like you, was important.”
It was nearly 20 years later, after Tipton’s death, that the public discovered he was a transgender man. The connection to another person who “passed”, who transcended their birth-assigned gender, is another glimpse into the many “accidental” circumstances that influenced Kylar. Hiding in plain sight was no longer an option. Fueled by having the world try to marginalize him as a black woman and later render him all but invisible as a black trans man— Kylar’s ethos transcends bias. Besides being a transgender man of color, Kylar is an ally.
Getting Rid of Hate
After almost three decades of activism, Kylar is preparing to launch a new consulting business in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion space. He’s still fighting for his community but pivoting to focus on corporations and businesses where change happens faster than in the courtroom. He wants to mentor the next leaders and advocates, those who will continue the work he and others started. Mentoring is what he loved most about being a professor, and he wants to continue that now that he has retired from academia.
“The trans rights movement ran so fast,” he says. “I’m glad for the momentum and more people in the movement. Now I can find a place and focus on other things that I want to do that are still impactful.”
As an activist and advocate, Kylar has shared his story on college campuses, at companies and with numerous national media outlets. He has presented hundreds of workshops, panels and seminars on LGBTQ legal and policy issues. Now he’s turning all of his legal training, personal experience, advocacy work and leadership into a curriculum that challenges thinking in boardrooms and break rooms.
“D&I turns the light bulb on for people,” he says. “It gets rid of hate. The more people we train, the more we combat things. Once people get educated, I think they get it. Humanity is the bottom line. I think my style of training and connecting people brings out their humanity.”
Kylar connects this new phase in his life’s work to his own experience with Corporate America, generously suggesting that if his colleagues had received D&I training, then his own life’s trajectory would have been very different.
“If everybody was trained properly, most corporations would want to do the right thing,” he says. “The corporation where I worked really misunderstood the issue. I believe they would have gotten it right if the training had been there. A good understanding of the laws and the issues fixes so much. I guess the age-old adage ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is true. I’ve done these trainings for years and they work.”
After decades of transcending time and place, the Black kid from Missouri who grew up to be an out Black trans man is ready to change the world. Again.
“My goal is to change the work and the community for the people who come after me.”
Kylar is here to cash that check Dr. King spoke of, to cash it on behalf of all those who are marginalized, discriminated against and oppressed.
Learn more about Kylar William Broadus, Esq. at www.kylarbroadus.com.