Donna Rose

TransLaw at Harvard: Discussions of Law, Justice and Equality

Filed By Donna Rose | March 02, 2008 10:40 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: civil rights, Donna Rose, ENDA, Harvard University, justice, law, LGBT civil rights, transgender

I'm in chilly Cambridge, MA at Harvard Law School this weekend (yes, that Harvard) participating in a Trans Law conference organized by Harvard Law School Lambda. It's comprised of a number of panels led by an impressive TransLaw.jpgarray of nationally recognized leaders on legal and justice issues particularly relevant to transgender and gender variant communities. It provides a unique opportunity for Harvard Law students and others, some of whom may be leading our next wave of legal activists, to learn and - just as importantly - to share.

The panel discussion topics have relevance to many who express their gender in perhaps unique or non-traditional ways regardless of whether they self-identify as Trans or not: The Trans Legal Landscape, Sex Segregation/Gender Regulation, Trans(in)justice, Trans Youth and Families, Issues in Health Care, and Issues in Employment. All were fascinating. To top it off, last night a large very queer group of us enjoyed the conference-ending Awards Dinner at the posh Harvard University Faculty Club. I'm willing to wager they've never seen a group quite like us there before. And, I'm willing to wager they've never had "Gender Neutral Bathroom" signs up on all the restrooms there before, either.

The fact that these kinds of topics are getting this kind of visibility in this kind of forum with the involvement of these kinds of national leaders is indicative of the critical nature of this work. It's not glamorous, and it's deceptively complicated because these are all far-ranging and emotion-laden topics, but at the end of the day Justice (and its evil twin Injustice) affects everyone everywhere.

Justice is a critical component of Equality. Laws are developed to establish and maintain some norm of Justice and in a perfect world perhaps all would work in harmony. Unfortunately, our system is far from perfect and something often goes terribly wrong along the way. Personal bias, ignorance, and notions of privilege and worth pervade our legal system to the point where our laws often seem to have very little to do with noble notions of "Liberty and Justice For All" that inspired them.

Part of the problem is that defining what Justice is or how it should be applied has become a privilege of the majority. They're using their sheer numbers, under the veil of democracy and thinly guised as holier-than-though morality, as a hammer to institutionalize in-justice on an expansive scale. It's everywhere: Marriage ammendments, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. Passing laws to deny these things has little to do with democracy, morality, or Justice and affect all of us, no matter what letters of our alphabet soup might apply. This mentality is little more than legalized bullying where the most defenseless of us are victimized. A majority without a conscience is simply a mob.

Dean Spade was talking about privilege and the need to use privilege responsibly. It's a concept that I've been thinking about since I heard it because it's oh so true. I can think of any number of ways to apply it.

Part of the discussion over these past couple of days focused on the fact that many institutions in our culture have established "rules" that are foundationally based on the typical male/female binary. As a result, any perceived variance or incongruence in that regard can pose serious challenges. The most obvious of these is bathrooms, but gender-based segregation is embedded in our institutions and throughout our day-to-day lives in ways many never consider. Jobs. Hospitals and Health Care. Bathrooms. Nursing Homes. Marriage. Homeless Shelters. Schools. Foster Care. Personal identification issues. Simple practical things like getting a bank account (usually requires two forms of ID), a passport, or joining a health club can be an insurmountable challenge. All too often the nature of our situation puts us in a position where at the very least dignity and self-respect are denied, and at worst where health and personal safety are seriously compromised.

One panelist raised the statistic that 50% or more of homeless youth are GLBT youth, often expelled from their homes and with no place to go. They end up either in a foster system that is not designed to support them, or on the streets. Unable to get an education they cannot get a job so they're at significant risk of ending up in the prison system that, again, isn't built to handle their needs. They're unable to get access to health care necessary for their physical and mental well being. It's a vicious cycle of dehumanization that provides a horrifically bleak outlook for so many in our community.

Many of the early panels briefly touched on ENDA before moving gingerly away. It was the elephant in the room, but you knew it couldn't stay unspoken for long. It finally burst to the forefront during the Q&A session for the panel on Transgender Youth and Families. One panelist used part of her time to chastise HRC and Barney Frank about itheir actions on ENDA, pointing out that the impacts of what happened are far-reaching and are still being realized. Needless to say, it prompted a spirited discussion.

Justice has an inherent personal-worth component that often gets overlooked. To truly believe that you deserve Equality or Justice is to believe that you're valued enough to get it. Many in our communities suffer from impaired self-worth and live within a system of victimization that hammers into our heads that we're somehow less worthy than others. We're not, and the antidote for that isn't more lawyer or laws. It's PRIDE.

This conference probably provided as many questions as answers for many who attended. That's okay. The fact that these discussions are even happening at all is an answer in and of itself. The fact that attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the Task Force, and others were there shows that we're not alone in this fight. The fact that supportive legislation is on deck at the state level in Massachusetts and in Connecticut, and that efforts to roll back protections in Montgomery County MD are being met head-on is indicative of our commitment to take and keep our Equality. The fact that plans are well underway for historic testimony before Congress in April to educate lawmakers about Transgender Workplace issues is a huge deal.

But all the laws and justice in the world won't bring back Lawrence King, the 15-year old Jr. High Student killed in Oxnard several weeks ago, or other innocent victims like him. Laws can only go so far. The things we're talking about are culture shifts where the prevalent winds aren't driven by fear or intolerance, but by empathy and compassion. Until that happens - and it will - we will continue to humanize ourselves through education, to mourn our fallen, to celebrate our victories, to empower our communities, and to remain true to the higher ideals that drive us.

Thanks to Lee, Sarah, and all the folks at HLS Lambda for making this event such a success. You rock!

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Thanks to you and the other panel members for justly representing our legal and social needs at such a visible, educational, and high level.

I am so grateful!

April Darling

Alas, Donna;
Fear and intolerance have become political tactics. Every Republican vote and victory is paid for in LGBT blood.

This is great stuff, Donna. It's heartening to know that they're discussing trans-relevant law at Harvard in the first place, and that there was such a high level of participation. Also, great to know that the ENDA got some good discussion. The more people are talking, the better it is.

Oh and hey everyone, be sure to tune in for my show this week when Donna will be my guest in the second hour. You know it's going to be some great conversation! :)

diddlygrl | March 3, 2008 4:46 AM

Welcome to Bilerico Donna.

It is good that these type of discussions are taking place. We need to get the message out to the future leaders of our country about the prejudice and injustice faced by the LGBT community, especially the trans community.

This paragraph should be required reading for all law school and criminal justice students.

Justice is a critical component of Equality. Laws are developed to establish and maintain some norm of Justice and in a perfect world perhaps all would work in harmony. Unfortunately, our system is far from perfect and something often goes terribly wrong along the way. Personal bias, ignorance, and notions of privilege and worth pervade our legal system to the point where our laws often seem to have very little to do with noble notions of "Liberty and Justice For All" that inspired them.

Donna: Thank you for your important leadership in these issues. Thank you for all that you do for the gender variant community, not only at functions like this, but for all the work you do behind the scene.

I feel so privileged to be able to consider you a personal friend.

The Harvard bathrooms finding a “Gender Neutral” signage is a step towards change. Will the sign stay up, or come down in a week?

At Harvard, like anywhere else, bigotry and hate exists. The question is whether it can be addressed and diffused? I would hope that the halls of Harvard, and the up coming minds who will populate the leadership of the coming generation, will have been educated and have formulated some sense of treatment and compassion. Yet, will the school adopt a gender neutral stance? Should they adopt such a position? I am not sure that that is the best approach, it is still a form of segregation, if not exclusion, which fosters hostility by traditional thinking.

If anything is to change the minds of those who seemingly hold hate towards the Transgender, then it is the Transgender who hold the key to abolishing it. No question those in Montgomery County who have bathroom phobia have a serious point in securing their safety. No different in Harvard and its ongoing efforts to maintain a safe campus. Insecurity and lack of knowledge are both common and held within those who wish to promote a nonspecific gender world, as much as it is in those who are trying to protect their safe gender world. Does a parent have the right to be concerned for their daughter’s safety? Women of course desire to have their privacy and security assured when they are vulnerable and, perhaps, exposed. Agents of an institution are also wary of the risks they may face, and liability for wrongful management. Yes, all are valid!

However, in the description of the event at Harvard, a question is raised; how were the different elements of the Trans-panel and Trans-attendees portrayed? I am concerned that when we have an opportunity to educate, we many times end up becoming a display of diversity, a challenging assault, rather than credible witness to the concerns of those we meet. Much like DRAG performances, which I despise**, we are the joke and not the ones to take seriously.

(** I will insert here why I oppose DRAG, or HAG DRAG specifically. I was having dinner and enjoying a burlesque review in a gay oriented club. It was one of better dining and drew the public as well. After the jazz performance a trio of DRAG began their act. The vulgarity and misrepresentation of those truly in a gender struggle was apparent, and they singled me out as I was the only Transsexual apparently there. I am assuming that they were informed by the owner who knew me and my change. They mocked the Transegender and portrayed us as freaks to be avoided. I was embarrassed and went to the women’s room, which was closed for the exclusive use of the gay “guys” doing the DRAG show. I was denied the use of a women’s restroom, and was told to use the men’s. They laughed as did the rest of the audience! The bathroom is a perfect example of the hate, bigotry, and ignorance which we face. It is even found within the ranks of the gay community.)

Again, I question the manner in which the Transgender are portrayed and were received by the Harvard culture? Has the discussion left a memorable, but understandable message and motivation to act favorably, or was it another freak show?

I would hope if nothing else the Transgender community could establish itself, espousing the concerns that the Montgomery County mothers, the TVC, and many others hold. We have exactly the same concerns and fears. Can we safely use a bathroom? Can we safely walk across the lot at night with our groceries as we leave Wal-Mart? Will our children be safe at school? Can we expect privacy and anonymity so as to live secure lives? All of the same concerns, and yet, we are seen as the enemy!

Please, someone take a walk through Harvard, a month from now, and tell me if the “Gender Neutral” signs are still up?

Donna, thank you for the article and for your continued efforts. Gender continues to be the single largest factor in determining privilege and rights within our society. Of course, that should not be a surprise in a nation that denied women the right to vote for 144 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

As you stated, gender expression and privilege affects a broad spectrum of our daily lives, most of which are taken for granted or ignored.

There is a very interesting legal argument concerning many of these issues written by Randi Frankle of Fordham University. It can be accessed at:

I believe most will find it informative and pertinent.

Welcome to Bilerico! Looking forward to reading your insights here and hopefully seeing you at some transgender community event this year.

Donna, thank you for this. I think it's amazing that an institution like Harvard Law School would sponsor a trans law conference. (I'm sure the fact that Dean Spade taught the first trans law course there ever -- probably one of the first at any law school -- a year or so ago had something to do with it.) Perhaps it's especially unimaginable to me, on a personal level, because I graduated from Harvard Law School myself in 1979 -- a time when there were barely any out gay students, and open homophobia was hardly unheard of. Naturally, I kept my transness secret. And I don't think there have been too many other transsexual graduates of Harvard Law School, even now. (I'd be curious to know if you met any trans law students when you were there.)

Would you mind mentioning who some of the panelists were? I organized and moderated a trans legal rights forum at the New York City Bar Association a little more than a year ago; we had some wonderful panelists and I wonder if any of them were at your panel.

Anyway, it's terrific that you were involved in this.