Joanne Bland and Jack Conway. Image courtesy of JoAnne Bland
JoAnne Bland and Jack Conway | Image courtesy of JoAnne Bland

In 2009, John Bland was on five different prescription anti-depressants and suffered debilitating migraines.

On the outside, however, Bland looked every bit the success. He had been a well-established attorney for 40 years, and was so highly regarded he’d served as a special justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court. (A special justice is appointed by the governor to act as a judge on state Supreme Court cases when justices must recuse themselves.) He also was in a longtime marriage and was an active member of his church.

There was a problem, though: John identified as a woman but was terrified to tell anyone. It made his life close to unbearable, so much so that he was contemplating suicide.

Bland recounted this point in her life during a recent interview inside her light-strewn apartment on Frankfort Avenue. Today Bland, 70, has completely transitioned from male to female and goes by the name JoAnne Wheeler Bland. And JoAnne is not only Kentucky’s highest-profile transgender attorney, she’s also an activist for transgender rights.

Though all LGBT individuals are likely to experience discrimination to some degree, Bland said, she believes transgender people endure mistreatment the most: “There’s an awful lot of discrimination facing the LGBT community, and as much as that is faced by the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, you multiply it by about 10-20, and (that’s) the discrimination that faces the transgender community.”

Growing up in rural Kentucky

Bland grew up in Sonora, Ky., a small town in Hardin County. She first realized she was a girl on the inside upon starting kindergarten at age 5. For most of her childhood, school was torture. For example, she didn’t feel comfortable using the boys’ restroom, and so she often avoided eating and drinking during the school day.

Bland spent much of her adult life trying to stay busy to forget her problems. She graduated from the University of Kentucky’s College of Law, practiced law in Elizabethtown for most of her career, directed and sang in her church choir, and wrote her church’s newsletter. She married a woman. She bought a big house. But she could never make herself busy enough.

Bland lived her life in the closet, with diminishing returns.

By Thanksgiving 2009, Bland — now desperate — realized there was one other option instead of suicide, but this daunted her almost as much: surgically transitioning from male to female.

For the gender-changing surgery to commence, she was required to get the approval of two therapists. In early 2010, Bland made an appointment with the first therapist in Louisville. Upon arrival, fear overcame her and she started to drive away, but then changed her mind. “I thought, ‘If you do this, you won’t live another two weeks,'” she said. “So I turned around.”

Up until that point, she had never told anyone that she identified as a woman. “I told her, reluctantly, what was inside (me). And she’d heard this before, so it wasn’t any big deal to her. But it was a big deal to me.”

She met the second therapist three days later and repeated her story. Then something surprising happened. Her depression and her suicidal thoughts subsided, as did the migraines, which she’d had since she was 8. “I thought, ‘You mean, carrying all this around inside is what’s caused all of this?’ It was earth-shattering to me to realize that.”

Both therapists agreed Bland was a perfect candidate for sexual reassignment surgery.

Bland flew to Scottsdale, Ariz., and underwent the first surgery on Feb. 8, 2011. Within that first week she had 26 hours of surgery. It was highly traumatic physically, and for a brief period, her surgeon, Dr. Toby Meltzer, was concerned she wouldn’t survive.

All told, Bland had 32.5 hours of sexual reassignment surgery, at great personal expense.

Her marriage didn’t survive her coming out as a woman. They divorced in 2010, after 39 years together.

Life as an activist

Once recovered from surgery, Bland wasted no time working toward greater equality for transgender people, racking up a number of successes along the way.

Perhaps her most noteworthy success came on April 29, 2014. That’s when JoAnne, as a board member of the Kentucky Counsel for Postsecondary Education, led the charge to ensure all of Kentucky’s state universities and community colleges changed their nondiscrimination policies to give gender identity equal footing with sexual orientation.

Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign — where Bland is a board member — said Bland’s efforts ensured transgender people enjoy the same protections as lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.

“JoAnne continually helps drive our LGBT rights movement forward with her many speaking engagements across Kentucky … helping inspire others to be their authentic selves and strive for the rights of others,” he said.

Bland was a featured speaker at the 2013 Governor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Conference, a gathering of the state’s human resources personnel and administrators. Bland spoke about transgender worker issues and rights. Here she put on her lawyer hat, explaining the legal basis for ensuring transgender workers have equal protection under the law.

“I told the HR people that if they discriminate in the hiring process against transgender people they would get sued,” she said. According to Bland, there’s a lot of precedence in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, to back this view. The HR administrators listened.

In April, Bland spoke at the Kentucky Bar Association’s first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Summit, educating attorneys as to the ongoing discrimination faced by transgender people. “Most lawyers do not understand who transgender people are,” she said. “As a result, most lawyers do not want to represent transgender people.”

Bland will meet soon with KBA President Douglass Farnsley to discuss legal issues faced by transgender people.

“She’s a significant person. I want to get to know her better and establish a relationship,” said Farnsley, adding that before Bland’s speech at the KBA summit, he’d never met a transgender person.

So what’s next for Bland?

At the conclusion of our recent conversation, she indicated marriage was on the horizon; that has since taken place.

Last week, Bland married her partner, Bernice Bennett. Since both Bland and Bennett are women, they were awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision granting equal marriage rights to LGBT couples.

“I have done more living in the last four years than in my first 66,” Bland said.

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David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.