A smiling Kael McKenzie [BA/03, LLB/06] is doing his best to describe his wedding dress from 10 years ago.
“Oh gosh… It had a long train, it was kind of off the neck…”
In his conservative grey suit, McKenzie stops mid-thought and grimaces like something just turned his stomach.
“I don’t even like to think about it,” the 44-year-old father of two says before his baritone laugh fills the rec room of his suburban Winnipeg home. “Don’t ask me!”
And then he blurts out: “I wore a tiara.” And again, laughter.
There are no photos of McKenzie from before his gender transition on display in the house he shares with his wife and teenage sons. Canada’s first openly transgender judge, who was born a female and five years ago underwent hormone replacement therapy and gender reassignment surgery to become a male, says he figured it was time to take the old photos down when his young niece pointed at one and asked: Who’s that?
Today, McKenzie says he knows exactly who he is—but it took nearly four decades to get here.
Along with a new gender, he gave himself a new name.
At 39, he was online searching baby names, looking for one that started with K (to match his wife, Kristine) and one that had Gaelic origins (which he’s always kind of fancied). “I tell everyone Kael means Warrior of Change. I may or may not have made that up,” he jokes.
The change he speaks of has brought a lot of firsts. The first time his kids called him Dad. (“It was magical.”) The first time a waitress snarled at him when he ordered before his wife. (“I had no idea what just happened.”)
The first time a sales clerk touched his chest and tugged on his belt while sizing a suit. (“They don’t do that at women’s clothing stores.”)
McKenzie won’t reveal the identity he used as a woman, both a different first and last name. “I don’t share it with anybody. It’s not me anymore. It’s not relevant to my life anymore. It was just a name that was convenient to me because that’s what my parents gave me.”
EMBRACING THE WOMAN
He grew up a girl, a tomboy in Transcona, playing baseball and ringette and tagging along behind two older brothers. His parents separated before he was born: his dad was a long-haul trucker who moved to the West Coast and his mom worked in banking and property management while raising three kids.
As a little girl he would run back upstairs to put blue jeans on every time his mom put him in a dress. McKenzie says he knew even then he should have been a boy; he just didn’t know it was an option.
Enrolling in sea cadets at 13 helped ease the discomfort.
The uniform offered a reprieve from feminine clothes and a sense of safety because everyone dressed the same. But by 17 he was ready to let everyone know he was different and came out to family and friends as a lesbian. “It was like this big a-ha moment. Okay, that’s what this is, that makes sense. So I lived my life as a lesbian for a very long time.”
But soon after coming out McKenzie would retreat, enlisting in the navy at age 19 when it was against Canadian Armed Forces’ regulations to be gay or lesbian. McKenzie served as a communications research analyst, intercepting and interpreting Morse code messages from targets around the world. The job took McKenzie to faraway posts, including CFS Alert on the Lincoln Sea—the most northerly tip on the globe—where he spent six months in around-the-clock disorienting darkness.
“I don’t know that my life was perfect at the time but I liked being in the military,” he says. “It just helped me to focus on being a good person, on being motivated and dedicated, making sure I had a good appearance, and self-control, all of those things.”
McKenzie pushed his self-control to the limits as a student at the U of M. The first and only member in his family to go to university, he juggled night classes to earn his arts degree with a day job as one of the campus security supervisors. He had left the military six and a half years into his service, ready for a new challenge, but not before meeting his first wife in the Forces. Transitioning to a man was still far from his mind when his wife gave birth to their two sons.
The couple divorced when the children were still little. Single parenting while in school presented a new, even greater, test. “I did a lot of studying and writing papers at the McDonalds’ play structure,” McKenzie says.
But these circumstances didn’t stop him from going on to pursue a law degree. McKenzie saw being a lawyer— a prosecutor, in particular—as another way to serve his country. But it became immediately apparent it would be a difficult go. “I had so much on my plate. I was exhausted and financially it was really tough,” he says.
McKenzie had been accepted into law school in the Aboriginal consideration category—he’s Métis—and remembers being close to tears in the office of Professor Lorna Turnbull.
“I said ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he recalls. Turnbull convinced him to stay the course. He quit his job to dedicate himself fully to his studies, pursuing loans and bursaries to make it possible. All the while McKenzie struggled to fit in as his gender dysphoria—the condition of identifying with a gender that is different from the one assigned at birth—became harder to ignore.
“All of a sudden, I realized I was the only woman in the class who was wearing a beer T-shirt.”
“I wore uniforms and had no cause to wear women’s clothing or to be feminine in any way but when I went to law school that was a game-changer. All of a sudden, I realized I was the only woman in the class who was wearing a beer T-shirt,” he says.
In an attempt to blend in, McKenzie went against his intuition and decided to embrace the idea of being what he calls “a professional woman.” He figured: I’ll grow out my hair, put on some eye shadow, slip on some heels. “I was just going to live with it but it just got harder and harder. The more I tried to assimilate to society’s norms of what women are supposed to be like, the worse it got for me.”
McKenzie married fellow law student Kristine Barr [LLB/05] in his third year, putting a $500 ring on her finger—everything he had in his bank account. They exchanged vows on the banks of the Assiniboine River as two women.
“At the time I was very early into my ‘embracing being a woman’ and I was going to act the part, dress the part, feel the part,” he says. “It was probably the calm before the storm.”
MAKING HIS MOVE
McKenzie describes his basement as The Boy Cave.
Two days earlier it was chock-full of gangly teenagers and video game controllers for his son’s surprise birthday party. “Sixteen-year-olds are a different breed,” he says. “The basement was littered with kids. It was pretty awesome.” The family’s yorkiepoo, Mac, is snuggled up beside him, while McKenzie explains that he’s always been the rough-houser with his boys, that he’s always been more like a dad even when he was Mom.
When he told his kids he was going to begin the process of becoming male, they seemed to be onboard right away, which surprised McKenzie. The conversation happened sooner than he intended; he jumped in when he overheard them talking about a transgender student at school.
“I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer or to try to have courage. It just happened that way.”
“The kids are great. The kids get it. One of them was like, ‘Why couldn’t you have done this a long time ago? I wouldn’t have to explain why I had three moms.’”
Barr, a lesbian now married to a transgender man, knew of McKenzie’s wishes long before and was also steadfast in her support. As were his parents, even though his mom at first felt like she was losing her daughter. “You know how moms and daughters are. We’re pretty close,” he says.
McKenzie had graduated and was working in private practice in family law when he decided to make the bold move. He had been living two lives: By day, he was a female attorney with a female name, accepting invites to wedding and baby showers.
“I didn’t belong there,” he says.
And by night—at home—he was a man. He was Kael.
“If I thought it was hard before, that was excruciating,” he says.
It was the final, frustrating blow in an internal saga that stretched decades.
In 2011, a decisive McKenzie began the year-long medical process of becoming male—an idea he’d tucked away since meeting a transgender man in the military.
He started wearing men’s shirts under his women’s suits, asked his hairstylist to chop his shoulder-length hair into a brush cut and went to work without a stitch of makeup.He found guidance from online support groups that offered tips on everything from how to tell your mother you’re transitioning to how to shave your face. His excitement grew with each physical change. He loved how low his voice became and would exaggerate it just for fun.
Yet the uncertainty of how colleagues were going to react couldn’t help but dull his enthusiasm. Would he lose everything he’d worked so hard to achieve?
“I thought when I transitioned my career was over. I thought any likelihood of my being a judge was over. I really did,” he says.
Some of his colleagues were in their 70s and 80s. “I said to them, ‘I’ll leave if you want me to leave’.” Their reaction stunned him. They said: “Absolutely not. It’s fine.”
McKenzie’s fear then shifted to the lawyers beyond his firm. He took the proactive route and had a judiciary memo sent out, requesting colleagues refer to him with male pronouns going forward. The reaction? Acceptance.
His clients also didn’t judge—not the rugged construction worker, not the devout Catholic woman new to Canada. This was before stories of transgender celebrities regularly hit the headlines: three years before we rooted for Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black as the first transgender person nominated for an Emmy; four years before reality star/Olympian Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) gained one million followers on Twitter in only five minutes after proudly introducing herself on the cover of Vanity Fair.
“I think she’s not been everyone’s role model but I think anytime people are out there and open about it, it’s a positive thing,” McKenzie says.
That’s why he stepped into the spotlight himself—an unconventional move for a judge. On Feb. 12, McKenzie was sworn in, in historic fashion, with a ceremony livestreamed to the masses. He feels a responsibility to send a message: “Transgender people can be anything they want to be. And the only barriers are ourselves.”
It’s a message one Ontario woman, a mom worried about her transgender child’s future, was waiting to hear; she sent a thank-you note to McKenzie. Gestures like these outnumber the angry comments attached to online news stories, challenging his appointment, declaring it wrong or even biased. One vowed death to the entire McKenzie clan.
He shrugs it off.
“Basically my whole bloodline is tainted now. There were a couple of Americans who were like ‘What’s next?’ I kind of laughed because Americans appointed transgender judges before we did,” says McKenzie, just days after the targeted attack against the LGBTTQI* community in Orlando, FL. “I know you’re not supposed to read those comments but I wanted to know what people were saying. I didn’t set out to be a role model. I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer or to try to have courage. It just happened that way.”
Living as a man has opened his eyes to how differently society receives women versus men. He’s had to adjust his behaviour, picking up on social cues like: don’t make eye contact with other men while walking down the street, don’t be too friendly with women with boyfriends or too chatty when you see a mom with a cute baby on the bus.
“You can’t do that as a man; they think you’re creepy,” McKenzie says. “How I interacted as a woman, I can’t interact the same as a man because it seems to be perceived as something different than it is.”
All little things on a much bigger journey for McKenzie, who unwinds by playing competitive scrabble or watching action movies. His favourite? Hunt for Red October.
“Although truth be told, Pretty Woman is probably a close second,” he says.
The toughest part so far, he admits, has been the internal battle. He wishes he had found the confidence to transition sooner. Self-doubt is a powerful thing.
He says his new mantra is to live with honesty, integrity and openness. You never have to cover up a lie if you don’t tell one. There’s a freedom in that.
McKenzie stopped expending energy on his gender identity, leaving him time and energy to focus on other things: becoming the best lawyer he could be, the best advocate for the LGBTTQI* community he could be, and now the best judge.
“I’m just so comfortable in my own skin and with who I am. Everything became better.”
“I’m just so comfortable in my own skin and with who I am. Everything became better,” he says, noting the transgender community as a whole is gaining greater acceptance. “I feel like it’s out there and people are getting it.”
McKenzie plans on renewing his wedding vows in a recommitment ceremony sometime soon to the woman he counts as his inspiration (and who inherited much of his wardrobe).
When is the big day?
“I don’t know! You’ll get me into trouble—it should have been last year,” he says.
The couple isn’t looking to recreate the ceremony as it happened a decade ago.
“I don’t want to change it. That was our wedding and it was perfect in its own way and flawed all at the same time,” he says. “This renewal of our vows will be a good opportunity for a photo op, for new pictures for our household, but it’s also the making of Kael and Kristine.” He pauses.
And this time he’ll be ready with his black tuxedo.