The Importance Of LGBTQ Representation In Law
Romario Conrado Student, UC Berkeley
Image by: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
On June 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that a 1964 civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination on the basis of the sexual orientation or gender identity.
Before this decision, it was legal in more than half of the United States to fire an employee simply on the grounds of this identity.
This decision allows for workers, who were fired on the basis of discrimination, to file lawsuits against employers.
ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio was on the team representing Aimee Stephens, a trans woman fired from her job at a funeral home for her identity.
Chase Strangio came out as transgender man while attending Northeastern University School of Law. Strangio has said that Dean Spade, the first openly trans law professor in the United States, inspired him during college. Strangio would later work for Spade as a public defender.
Spade’s inspiration to Strangio is important. It speaks to how when seeing members of the same marginalized community occupying positions of power, we are able to see and actualize our own potential.
But representation does more than just inspire.
Strangio explained in an interview with Broadly that the presence of a trans person in a courtroom “makes a difference”.
The difference made is defying the associations and assumptions from those who have never encountered a trans person.
A repeated argument in the courtroom during LGBTQ legal battles is that trans people do not exist. But seeing a trans person, over and over again, erodes from this notion.
Time and time again, this representation shows it matters.
For another landmark Supreme Court decision, Mary Bonauto was the gay lawyer on the legal team that successfully legalized gay marriage in 2015.
Twenty years before the landmark Supreme Court decision, Bonauto was approached to represent an early case to fight anti-gay marriage legislation.
She strategically denied to represent this case, with the understanding it was too early to make such a national move.
Her work and understanding ensured that the case for gay marriage was bulletproof.
Another powerful LGBTQ lawyer is Court Buddy’s own, Jennifer McGlone.
“The legal profession is not as diverse as it should be, not as diverse as it aspires to be. But representation does matter; knowing one LGBTQ colleague, client, or attorney moves the needle, and moves the scales of justice in the right direction, because LGBTQ rights are fundamental human rights," McGlone says.
“I remember my most heartbreaking case. A trans woman was filing for political asylum here in the U.S. back in the early 2000s. Her petition for asylum was denied, when her fear for her personal safety in her country of origin was every bit, if not more, well-founded as other clients for whom I had won asylum,” says McGlone.
“Going through the process with her, watching the way she was treated and the questions she was asked, I realized that I was experiencing prejudice of an overt kind, whereas I, as a relatively privileged, highly-educated, bisexual white woman, faced a much more benign sort of prejudice, when and if I experienced it at all. My life was not on the line.”
"My heart broke when my client decided to try to disappear rather than appeal the denial of her petition for asylum. But my entire firm voted to take that appeal to the Ninth Circuit, for free, whatever the time and cost. That was something I was proud of. And they wouldn’t have felt that way, understood the issue and injustice, and fought for her had they not gotten to know her. Every person matters.”
We need more Strangios, Spades, Bonautos, and McGlones.
According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2019 Report on Diversity in US Law Firm, 2.99% of lawyers identify as LGBTQ — 3,028 people.
For context, according to a 2017 Gallup Poll, 4.5% of adults in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ — roughly 14 million people.
While almost all pollings have issues, an added concern with polling LGBTQ topics and demographics is the nature of closeted identities. We can expect the total percentage of American LGBTQ adults to be higher.
Unfortunately, LGBTQ Americans are overrepresented in hate crimes; almost one 5th of American hate crimes in 2018 were committed because of a bias against sexual orientation or gender identity.
UCLA’s Williams Institute found that LGBTQ community members reported much higher rates of bullying, discrimination in firing and hiring decisions, lack of work promotion, or lease denial compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
Hatred towards LGBTQ is still rampant but the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states gave a false sense of security to the community.
Since gay marriage is such a public deliverable, that is, it’s easy to fight for a specific ask like marriage, other types of discrimination are harder to explain and make visible in a courtroom.
How does one properly explain the animosity and violence trans women face in bathrooms in a courtroom? Or explain how bigoted adoption agencies can be?
As the nation continues to grapple with how to create a more equal union, we need lawyers in courtrooms who share and understand the identities of LGBTQ citizens.