Robyn Gigl (pronounced guy-gill) has been practicing law in New Jersey for over 40 years. She is an activist and author and lectures frequently on LGBTQ issues in the workplace and in schools. Her advocacy comes from a personal place: being a transwoman, she knows from real-world experience the importance of being able to be your true authentic self at work, at school, and at home. Robyn was kind enough to speak to me about her life, before and after her transition, and the importance of not being complacent.
When did you decide you wanted to practice law?
Robyn Gigl: I was in college and trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was the early 70’s and I was young, naive, and wanting to change the world. One of the ways I thought I could change the world was to become a lawyer. There was one professor, Richard Finnigan; he was a bit of an activist and an inspiration in terms of education. He had a philosophy that education should be fun, and you should enjoy learning. To keep making ourselves better, we should continue learning until we draw our last breath. That inspired me.
You state in your writings that after living your life as a male for over 55 years, it was time to deal with the incongruity between your gender identity and your anatomy. Was there a particular catalyst the spurred you on to move forward with your transition?
RG: There was no catharsis, no single event. I use the analogy of water dripping on a rock. If water is dripping on a rock, it just rolls off. But if you continue to drip water over that rock every single minute of every day of every year, eventually the rock is going to start to wear away. I carried this around with me from the time I was three or four years old. I was born in the 50’s and thought I was the only one in the world. It was a different time and place and just assumed I would carry my secret until the grave. You get to the point where the grave looks more attractive than to continue living, that is when you know it is time to do something about it.
I am still legally married to my wife; we’ve been together a long time. We separated 14 or 15 years ago, but we are still the best of friends. I credit her for saving my life. She was the one who said, no, you are off the deep end, you have to do something, you must see someone. In a way it cost her dearly, but it also saved my life and a relationship that is dear to both of us.
Your bravery and honesty in writing about your experiences, both personally and in your novels, gives a sense of belonging and security that we have moved past the difficulties of being treated differently.
“…There wasn’t as much pushback when no one knew anyone. No one wanted to bar me from getting transgender healthcare or this or that because they didn’t know I existed! With visibility comes greater exposure…”
RG: I think people growing up today will have it different. In some ways better and in some ways a lot harder. Look at all the push back that trans folks are getting across the country. When I came out in 2007 most people did not know what transgender meant. I can remember speaking in 2009 at a master’s class in social work and I asked if they knew anyone that was transgender, I think only one or two hands went up. This was at Rutgers! If you asked today, they’d look at you and say, of course I do, what are you talking about?
There wasn’t as much pushback when no one knew anyone. No one wanted to bar me from getting transgender healthcare or this or that because they didn’t know I existed! With visibility comes greater exposure.
In the wake of the reversal of Roe v Wade, do you think people today are too complacent with what we consider set LGBTQ rights?
RG: If the civil rights movement teaches us anything it’s that as you make progress, there will be pushback and it can be dramatic sometimes. Look how long people have been fighting for racial justice and we are nowhere near where we should be. Seems like we take one step forward and two steps back. It’s the same thing with LGBTQ+ issues. We look like we are moving ahead and then comes the pushback.
What should LGBTQ people do to protect ourselves?
RG: If you live in a state like New Jersey, take advantage of the laws in your state, if you’re protected. If you want to get married, get married. Don’t always count on being federally protected. The critical thing is do not assume it’s always going to be there.
Make sure you do everything you can and mobilize everyone you know to protect those rights by voting, by protesting, by doing whatever we have to do to make sure we are not complacent. The most important thing is to get people out and elect people who are going to protect our rights, whether it is in New Jersey or nationally, because they can be taken away.
Roe v Wade’s reversal was such a shock to so many people. My kids are in their 30’s and I happen to have five granddaughters. My son and daughter-in-law were talking about the fact that she, my daughter in-law, had more rights, than her daughters have, today. That’s really scary. It’s just mind boggling.
Congratulations on publishing Survivor’s Guilt, the second in a series featuring Erin McCabe, a transgender criminal defense attorney.
RG: I’ve always wanted to write. It wasn’t something I thought I could make a living off of, but I always wanted to write a novel. I started one in 1980 and it’s my “briefcase manuscript.” It sits in a briefcase on yellow pads, to this day. Never finished it. Three children came along, a growing law practice and with all the time required to do that, the writing career got put in the closet, along with a lot of things.
Fast forward to 2010, my middle son, Colin, is also a published author, he contacted me about this thing called NaNoWriNo, which stands for “Write a novel in the month of November,” 50,000 words. You don’t get anything except the satisfaction of doing it. He said, “Let’s do it!” and although he finished his, and I didn’t, it was the start of something, it brought back that itch to write.
The next year Robyn polished what she had worked on the previous year, and she got an agent. While the agent was trying to sell that manuscript, she couldn’t work on it and started on another manuscript. After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird she got an idea to tell the story from the attorney representing the client and Erin McCabe was born. The series is set in real places in New Jersey. She sent 100 pages of this new manuscript to her agent, and she said, “Finish this. This is going to sell.” And it did.
RG: When the publishers sent the offer sheet, it was for a two-book deal! I remember I told Carrie, “I have a problem, I only have one book!” She said don’t worry, you’ll write a second. And so, I did, and the follow up news to all of that is that in November ’21, Kensington bought books three and four. I just turned in book three and it’s been accepted. That will be published for Pride 2023.
Any final thoughts for our readers?
RG: We have such an amazing LGBTQ+ community in New Jersey that, I think sometimes, we take it for granted. We live in a state that protects our rights. We are protected in terms of employment, housing, public accommodation and so many other things. As we talked about earlier, sometimes we tend to get complacent. We are incredibly lucky, and we shouldn’t forget that. We should take care of each other and appreciate what we have, because as we’ve seen in other places, that can be taken away. And no one is saying it can’t be taken away in New Jersey either. Just because we have it in this great state that does all these wonderful things for us, doesn’t mean someone couldn’t come along and try to take it all back from us. Stay together, stay strong and don’t get complacent.