The Person She Always Was
There were never two sides to Robyn Gigl
Published in 2016 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on March 11, 2016
Updated on October 2, 2019
Q: Tell me about growing up. Did your childhood point you toward the law?
A: I was born in 1952 in a basic middle- to upper-middle-class family; I had two older sisters, a younger brother, and my mom and dad were happily married. My father was a business executive. I saw how hard he worked, and I decided I never wanted to go into the business world. I didn’t realize yet that the practice of law was truly a business.
I saw Inherit the Wind, and read Clarence Darrow for the Defense, and was fascinated by Darrow. But there was no “aha” moment. When I was growing up in the late ’60s/early ’70s, there was lots of social upheaval. Most people of my generation, we just wanted to save the world. I knew I wanted to make an impact, so I applied to law school. My initial goal was to be more into criminal defense, a la Darrow, and while I have done that work throughout my career, it didn’t become the focus.
Other than the one issue that makes me unique, I had a normal childhood.
Q: The “one issue” being gender identity.
A: Right. I have always had a gender identity issue—at the time, I couldn’t put a name on it—since I was a kid. I just always knew that I didn’t feel right in terms of being male. Growing up when I did, you didn’t talk about those things, so I didn’t. That meant, for decades, there was a critical aspect of my life that I hid. I have a family, children; one thing I always preached to them was honesty, being true to yourself. I wanted to set that example, but I wasn’t.
Q: How understood is gender identity?
A: Not very. First, I don’t think of myself as two people: I’m just me. Who I was in terms of my personality [before I transitioned to a woman], what I enjoyed, what I liked—that’s who I am, that’s who I was.
The statistics are, for 99.5 percent of the population, their gender identity matches their anatomy. For them, gender identity isn’t a separate concept; it’s not something that they think about. But for that 0.5 percent where your gender identity doesn’t match your anatomy, it’s something you think about constantly. The general population still doesn’t see these as two separate things: “If you’re born with male genitalia, you’re a male. What’s this ‘gender identity?’”
When I first started coming out—keep in mind, I was in my 50s at the time—the people I told were shocked, like, “Oh my God, why would you give up this great life?” What people need to understand is that there is nothing about me that’s changed. This is who I’ve always been; what’s changed is what you know about me.
I never even planned on transitioning. I was trying to put everything back in the box. I worried about my career, my family, the impact transitioning would have on the people that I love.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: At some point, during therapy, I came to the realization that I was miserable and was making people that I loved miserable. The very thing I was seeking to avoid is what I was doing. When I came to that realization, and the realization that if I didn’t find peace with myself, that I would continue to hurt them, I made the decision in the summer of 2008 that I had to, 50-plus years into life, begin being honest with myself.
Q: What was the reaction like from your peers in the bar?
A: In terms of judges and lawyers, and even clients, it was remarkably uneventful, which was shocking. The judges whom I had to sit down and talk with because of ongoing cases were very understanding. I think they were all probably a little surprised, yet gracious. I would say the same thing about my adversaries. There were things like, “You wear heels now!” but it was more in a good-natured, joking fashion.
Q: Were you afraid to come back to your practice after your transition?
A: It wasn’t so much a fear about my legal abilities, because I had the same faith in those abilities. The concern was not because I’m a woman in the law, but more so, the question of, “How are you going to be perceived because people know you’re transgender?” That’s the subtext of what you’re worried about: What is someone thinking? But it became quickly apparent to me that everything was actually just normal. Look, there were my own insecurities in terms of, “Will I be accepted as a woman? Will people see me that way, or will people see me in some other way?”
Before coming to work as Robyn, I had some facial surgery. Before my surgery, I sat down with a female partner and I said, “How do you think it’s going to be [after surgery],” and she said to me, “Look, if you come back and look like a man in drag, it’s going to be rough. On the other hand, if you come back and you look like a woman, everything will be fine.” Then she kind of smiled and said, “Welcome to our world, where it’s all about how you look.” And it struck me how true that is for women—you’re judged not only on your abilities, but for the way you look. It was my first experience with that double standard and it brought home to me, whether you’re a woman or a transgender woman, how wrong that is.
Q: Have you experienced different treatment in the law because you’re a woman?
A: I can’t point at anything and say with absolution, “This happened because I’m a woman.” I do remember being in a deposition, and my adversary in that particular case was extremely aggressive—screaming at me. I did have to ask myself, “Is that something he’s doing because I’m a woman, or is that just who he is?” I would have never asked that question before. You have to understand when I transitioned, I had 30-plus years of practice under my belt. I was comfortable with who I was as an attorney. I probably was oblivious to things that other women would not be oblivious to. I think I was insulated in the longevity of my practice. If I had come of age as a woman lawyer when I did [as a man], I think my experience would have been very different. I saw the women who graduated law school when I did, who pursued a professional career: their experiences were much different than mine. I say very candidly that I was the beneficiary of heterosexual white male privilege.
Q: That privilege might have helped you become involved in the longest federal trial in U.S. history, the mob case United States v. Accetturo.
A: I started that trial in November of 1986; it ended in August of 1988. Talk about a fascinating case. Mike Critchley, Raymond Brown, Harvey Weissbard, David Ruhnke, Thomas Ashley, Thomas Cammarata—it was like a who’s who of the criminal defense bar, like going to advanced trial practice class. I only had one defendant, Robert Caravaggio. I’ve never seen a lawyer on his feet better than Mike Critchley. He led the 21-month trial from start to finish. I don’t know how he did it, physically and mentally. For me, I just had to be there at those moments important to my client; Critchley cross-examined almost every witness.
Accetturo was one of the most important cases of my career because I learned how critical preparation is. Every single lawyer in that case came prepared. From my perspective as one of the youngest lawyers in the case, it was intimidating just to share space with these lawyers; you didn’t want to let anyone down. There was always the pressure of not being the weakest link.
Q: Super Lawyers spoke with lawyer Maria Noto in 2014 about Accetturo; she mentioned how it felt to be the only woman in the room. You might have an interesting perspective on that now.
A: I remember Maria well. I certainly understand Maria’s perspective now; but I didn’t then. I was once in a case in Monmouth County, there were 11 or 12 other co-defendants, and we were all in a big conference room. Besides me, every other attorney was male—the clerk was male, the prosecutor was male. I remember looking around and having that Maria Noto experience. If when Accetturo took place I had been the only woman in the room, [then] that would have been like, “Wow.” But when I was the only woman in the room, I’d been practicing law for 37 years.
Q: How did you come to build your practice?
A: My practice is 50 percent commercial litigation, 40 percent employment and civil rights, 10 percent miscellaneous, with criminal and some other areas thrown in.
My role at [previous firm] Stein, McGuire, Pantages & Gigl, for a long time, was a litigator. I became proficient in the litigation that needed to be done. I gained a great deal of trial experience. Lawyers who did corporate and commercial transactions but didn’t necessarily have a litigator who did that type of work would educate me in terms of the substantive law, and I could go out and litigate cases.
Q: Who has been your most difficult opponent?
A: I don’t know who I’d single out as my toughest opponent, but I will tell you about one attorney who stood out to me for a different reason: Mike Glasheen, at McCarter & English. He’s a really good lawyer, a tough adversary, a gentleman. He was an adversary in a case that I had when I transitioned, one of those cases where I had to talk to adversaries—four or five lawyers who I was up against, as well as a trial judge in the chancery division. During this case, I was leaving as Robert and coming back as Robyn. Mike took the time to write me a letter, wishing me well. It was really heartfelt. What I appreciated maybe even more was that when I came back, Mike was the same tough opponent: we went at it, just as hard as we had before.
Q: What conversations should we be having about transgender issues?
A: Well there’s a national dialogue, and there’s a local dialogue. On the local level, being on the East Coast, being in this state, we have laws that protect people based on gender identity or expression. There are rights that we have, but I think there’re still needs to be a greater understanding on the part of the [national] public in terms of the LGBT population because there is still this sense that we are “other,” as opposed to we’re your brothers, your sisters, your aunts, uncles, next-door neighbors, co-workers. We’ve kind of passed the tipping point in terms of the LGBT community in New Jersey. There is more acceptance: it is my friend, my coworkers, my aunt, uncle, cousins.
With transgender issues, I still don’t think we’re there yet, just this disconnect that most people have in terms of gender identity and what it really means. So even here in New Jersey, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of education. We tend to be isolated here, though, because we do have laws that protect us and don’t often face open and hostile discrimination; in other parts of the country, that’s not the reality, and a different dialogue has to happen. Sure, it’s kind of recognized that yes, this is America! People shouldn’t be discriminated against for ethnicity, age, gender; yet, in large segments of this country, that same philosophy doesn’t seem to apply to the LGBT community.
Q: Has your practice seen an uptick in LGBT issues?
A: I’ll get a few. For example, the parents of a child who wants to change his or her name and identity documents.
Q: What are the law-specific details surrounding that kind of change?
A: A legal name change is a pretty simple procedure. In New Jersey, unfortunately, the law, in terms of changing a birth certificate, requires that you have had [gender reassignment] surgery. When the law was passed in ‘86, it was totally state of the art, allowing someone to undergo gender reassignment surgery to change their birth certificate. In New Jersey, both the Senate and Assembly have twice passed bills to change the gender marker on a birth certificate just from paperwork by a treating doctor or therapist, as long as the individual has gone through the appropriate treatment. The governor has vetoed it twice; so the surgery is required. For a driver’s license: no surgery; with confirmation from a treating therapist or counselor, you can change the sex designation on your driver’s license. You can also change your passport without having surgery.
Q: What most do you want your story to do for others?
A: I hope people can just point and say, “Look how normal she is!” I have lived a productive life. I have a family that loves me. I have three kids whom I adore. I have a great career. All I did was take my internal struggle and find peace with it and become the person I always thought I was. If I could just get people to understand that, that we’re not different than anyone else, we’re just human beings trying to live our best lives possible.
This interview was edited and condensed.