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Transition of Power

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Patent lawyer Danielle Healey hopes her remarkable story inspires others.

By Lourdes Zavaleta 

If she could not live openly as a woman, she did not want to live at all.

“I felt like I was falling apart,” recalls Danielle Joy Healey, one of Houston’s top patent attorneys. “I was willing to lose everything besides my family to transition. I was prepared to give up my job, my practice, and my friends. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

On July 20, 2017, Healey came out publicly as a transgender woman during a speech at the State Bar of Texas Advanced Patent Law Seminar. Since then, Healey says she’s received overwhelming support from her firm, Fish & Richardson, as well as from the legal and LGBTQ communities.

She also became an overnight media sensation when her story was picked up by outlets including CW 39, Houstonia magazine, and
Law.com. “I’m glad that my story is out there,” Healey says. “I want my experience to show trans people—whether they are young, old, closeted, or not—that if I can do this, so can they.”

The day after her speech at the law seminar, Healey testified in Austin against Senate Bill 6, which would have restricted trans people’s access to public restrooms. Healey says the support that she has received has given her empathy for those who have not had the same experience. “I have been re-energized and refocused, in civil rights [work] as well as in my own patent practice,” Healey says.

Healey is an active supporter of Equality Texas, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group. She is also currently working pro bono on cases involving a woman allegedly discriminated against based on her sexual orientation, and a gay man seeking asylum from Russia.

Though she now fights for the acceptance of others, for 40 years Healey had trouble accepting herself.

As a child, Healey constantly questioned her gender. In elementary school, she secretly wore girls’ clothing at home. At 12 years old, she read an article in Time magazine about a trans woman who underwent gender-confirmation surgery. That was when she first thought about transitioning, although things did not fully make sense to her until 30 years later when she watched an HBO documentary about a trans boy.

The documentary inspired her to call her cisgender friend, Cynthia, to ask if she had ever thought she had been born into the wrong body. Healey was surprised when Cynthia said she hadn’t. “I couldn’t believe it,” Healey says. “I thought everyone was constantly thinking about changing their gender as much as I was.”

In her 40s, Healey sought out therapists and psychologists because she wanted the feelings she had about her body to go away. Instead of getting the “conversion therapy” she wanted, she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Her psychologist encouraged her to start accepting that she might be transgender.

Healey started living part-time as a woman for 15 years. During the day, she went to court presenting as male, and at night she went out as herself. At 57, she finally transitioned. “The more I spent time as a woman, the more peaceful I got,” Healey says. “The background noise that I lived with in my mind for my entire life was finally silenced.”

After graduating from Brown University in 1982, Healey moved to Texas for law school. She graduated from the University of Texas School of Law with honors in 1985. She then clerked for a federal judge in Houston for two years and went on to work at a national law firm for seven more years.

Healey then focused on patent litigation with a major regional patent firm. Later, she had a short stint running her own patent firm of 13 lawyers. Healey gave up her own firm to develop the Texas patent litigation practice of a large international firm, where she managed domestic and global patent disputes for Fortune 500 companies.  In 2008, Healey opened the Houston office of Fish & Richardson P.C., the largest boutique intellectual property firm in the world. Healey has since refocused her life and her practice, taking senior counsel status to allow herself more time with her family, and to pursue other interests, while still practicing cutting-edge patent law.

When Healey told Fish & Richardson that she wanted to live as a woman, they took her seriously. The company notified her clients, and one of her coworkers helped her change her name on Texas Bar Association records. Healey says she expected Fish & Richardson to assist her because they are a forward-thinking firm with an LGBTQ affinity group. “They have an enormous commitment to inclusion and diversity, and they do right by it,” says Healey. “Had they not accepted me, they would have lost a productive senior lawyer and my clients. But by accepting me, they now have a reenergized member of their firm.”

Aside from practicing law, Healey has written a book and produced a movie. A near-death experience in 2009 inspired her to pursue those endeavors. “I was literally drowning in my own lungs,” Healey says. “Near-death experiences sort of broaden your horizons.”

Healey was diagnosed with valvular congestive heart failure, an infection that was eating away at her aorta. She came within hours of dying, but her illness was caught just before it was too late.

After surviving her surgeries, she wrote Kindness for the Damned: Intrigue, Love and Redemption in Sicily, which was later developed into the film Leaves of the Tree. The film is in distribution in the U.S., after a highly successful run in film festivals in 14 states and several foreign countries.

While it has been difficult, she remains with her wife and is still close to her two daughters. Healey says she overworked herself as a way to cope with the depression that her dysphoria caused.

Noting that her life has more meaning now that she can completely be herself, Healey says she wants her transition to inspire others. “I am much happier now, and it shows in my work,” she says. “I want my story to show that LGBTQ people are stronger when they are accepted and supported.”

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is a staff writer for OutSmart magazine. She recently graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism. When Zavaleta isn’t at OutSmart, she tutors writing at UH-Clear Lake. She also runs a comedy Twitter account with over 34,000 followers.
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