By SARAH MERVOSH
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS (AP) — When lawyer Katie Sprinkle works at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, she occasionally runs into an acquaintance who, trying to place her, asks whether she has a brother who once worked in the public defender’s office.
“No,” she replies. “That was me.”
After 16 years as a public defender, Sprinkle started her own firm a year ago — practicing law for the first time as a woman. While no organization formally tracks such things, Sprinkle is the only known openly transgender lawyer in Dallas County and one of just a handful across Texas.
In addition to her criminal defense practice, she’s become a go-to lawyer for transgender issues at a time when transgender people are getting more attention than ever in mainstream media, yet remain one of the most misunderstood groups in the LGBT community. Sprinkle, 47, uses her unique perspective to empathize with clients and guide them through the legal challenges of transitioning genders.
Not all people who are transgender — which means your personal sense of being male or female doesn’t match your assigned sex — choose to transition. For the 0.25 to 1 percent of the general population that does, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transitioning is a years-long, emotionally intensive process that includes hormones, counseling, and in some cases, surgery.
When ready to live full-time as their new gender, transgender people need legal documentation to get a driver’s license with their new name and sex on it. The paperwork isn’t just a symbolic milestone; it’s also a practical step that lets them present ID without fear during job applications, airline travel and credit card use.
Sprinkle works with three or four transgender clients a month and also hosts free legal clinics, offering a “critically important” service to transgender people, said Sprinkle’s roommate Leslie McMurray, also a transgender woman.
“Getting your ID changed isn’t a vanity plate,” McMurray told The Dallas Morning News. “It’s safety, security, affirmation.”
Sprinkle said she first realized she wasn’t like other boys at age 4 when she watched the original Batman TV series in the 1970s and idolized the superhero’s female counterpart, Batgirl. By 11, she was trying on her sisters’ clothes and makeup in secret.
“I didn’t have the vocabulary to say, ‘I’m transgender.’ I had no idea what that was,” Sprinkle said. “There was just this persistent sense something was wrong.”
Sprinkle said she learned to suppress her true self until she graduated law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in 1993. That’s when she moved back to Dallas, got her own place and began dressing as a woman when home alone. After a few years, she ventured out in women’s clothing to run errands, or when she felt brave, to the movies.
Publicly, she maintained her persona as a straight man. Once, a girlfriend asked why Sprinkle had women’s clothing covered in trash bags in her closet. Sprinkle told her she stored them for her sister.
By the mid-2000s, however, Sprinkle’s denial had morphed into severe depression. She ballooned to 220 pounds, which layered heavily on her naturally thin frame. She went to counseling, but for years she couldn’t work up the nerve to confess why she was really there.
In 2011, Sprinkle finally accepted she was transgender. She was 43.
“I was expecting the fireworks to go off, the grand epiphany to blast my world apart, and it wasn’t,” she said. “It was just this peaceful acceptance.”
That year, Sprinkle moved to Marble Falls, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Austin, to work in the Burnet County public defender’s office while she transitioned.
She went on hormones and sought hair-removal treatment for her beard. She started highlighting and growing out her hair. She wore earrings and painted her toenails. But she still wore men’s suits to work.
Locals thought she was a “crazy hippie boy from Dallas,” she said. Inside, she felt like a 13-year-old girl, exploding with new hormones and gleefully checking out her new bust line in the mirror.
In 2012, she changed her name with the State Bar. The following year, she returned to Dallas to start her private practice out of her Carrollton home.
On a recent morning, Sprinkle lay on a reclined chair and winced as an electrologist wove a needle in and out of the skin along her jaw. She squeezed her hand into a fist and wiggled her toes, painted bubble-gum pink with white polka-dots on the largest one.
She endures such pain regularly for the results: a smooth, scruff-free face. Electrolysis procedures are among the ways Sprinkle maintains her appearance and propels her transition toward permanence.
These days, Sprinkle is 6-1 and lean, with shoulder-length blond hair and an angular face. She speaks in a light voice she’s mastered through practice, striking a balance between her naturally deep pitch and what she calls the “Minnie Mouse” voice some transgender women use. Her style is feminine but understated: bareMinerals foundation, subtle eye makeup, loose dresses and a men’s watch she’s had for years.
In her free time, she enjoys watching movies and bowling with her roommate. And she’s exploring the complicated world of dating. Since sexual orientation is distinct from gender identity, Sprinkle remains attracted to women. She was a straight man; now, she identifies as a lesbian.
At work, Sprinkle is one of six openly transgender attorneys licensed to practice in Texas, according to Houston municipal judge Phyllis Randolph Frye, the nation’s first openly transgender judge. Frye said the timing of Sprinkle’s transition was particularly unusual: Most trans lawyers transition before they graduate law school — or not at all.
“There aren’t very many that I know of who transitioned after they’ve established a law practice because they’re scared,” she said, adding that she knows of about 40 lawyers who haven’t come out because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
Sprinkle chose to start over under her new name when she opened her own practice, and now prefers not to publicize her former moniker. She said she felt petrified the first time she returned to the criminal courthouse, which she had once frequented in a suit. Most people, however, welcomed her back without issue.
“The only difference I see is she looks like a woman,” said state District Judge Rick Magnis, who worked with Sprinkle in the public defender’s office. “She’s got longer hair and her voice is softer but other than that, she’s the same person to me.”
Sprinkle agreed. “I’m still the same smart ass I was before — I just have cuter shoes,” she joked.
But these days, Sprinkle does more work in the civil courthouse as she takes on transgender clients looking to change their name and gender marker, the ‘M’ or ‘F’ at the bottom of Texas driver’s licenses.
Recently, she sat in a courtroom and sifted through papers, preparing for the judge to call her case. Nearby, her client — a woman in a pant suit who works as a programmer analyst — waited out the final moments of her given name in silence.
The woman had already submitted fingerprints for a criminal background check and obtained recommendation letters from her doctor and therapist. This appearance before the judge was the final step in a two-month process to legalize her transition. Soon, she would officially be Helena.
Many judges across Texas, particularly in conservative counties, don’t regularly grant gender marker changes. But Sprinkle said about a dozen judges in Dallas do — more than anywhere in the state.
At Helena’s hearing, Sprinkle approached the bench, wearing a coral wrap dress and nude ballerina flats. “Good morning, judge,” she said. Sprinkle then called on her client and asked her to confirm that she wasn’t seeking a name change to avoid criminal prosecution. Helena vowed she wasn’t.
The judge asked no questions and granted their request within seven minutes. Helena looked relieved. Sprinkle smiled.
“It’s a very liberating moment for many,” Sprinkle said. “Because now they feel like, ‘OK, I can now move forward and be me.'”