BY ANNE GIBSON
Despite the frigid temperatures, there was a flurry of activity this past weekend at HLS Lambda’s third annual Harvard Lambda Legal Advocacy (HaLLA) Conference. For the past three years, the HaLLA conference (previously called GaLLA) has brought together legal professionals, scholars, activists, and students from around the country to examine complex legal issues facing members of the LGBT community. Past conferences addressed topics including the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, same-sex marriage, and homophobia in the Boy Scouts of America.
This year’s conference, TransLaw, focused on the intersections and interactions between transgender communities and the law. The conference was organized by co-chairs Sarah Rodriguez and Lee Strock, and brought together over 190 attendees. These included students from Boston College, City University of New York, Duke, Yale, Penn State and others, as well as activists and community members from the Boston area.
The weekend was characterized by truly diverse opinions on these important issues, and the panelists were not afraid to leave the attendees with more questions than answers. The first panel, “The Trans Legal Landscape: An Overview,” which began as an overview of the field, turned into a debate over the merits of national nonprofit-driven impact litigation versus grassroots direct services work and the “trickle-up” approach, to create positive change. The panel included Paisley Currah, an associate professor at CUNY-Brooklyn, Richard M. Juang, a member of the Committee for Transgender Inclusion at the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association, Sharon McGowan, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, and Professor Dean Spade, Williams Institute Law Teaching Fellow here at Harvard Law School, and was moderated by M. Barusch, co-founder of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.
The second panel on Friday, “Sex Segregation/Gender Regulation,” focused on issues such as name changes on official government documents such as birth certificates and sex segregation in public spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms. Moderated by Donna Rose, an author, educator, and advocate, this panel included Kylar Broadus, an associate professor at Lincoln University, Phyllis Randolph Frye, a partner at Simoneaux, Frye & Thomason PLLC in Houston, TX, Elizabeth Rivera, the program coordinator for TransJustice at the Audre Lorde Project in New York, and Lisa Mottet, the director of the Transgender Civil Rights Project at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington DC.Saturday’s panels started early and in the midst of a fierce snow storm, but attendance was still high at the first panel, “Trans(in)Justice,” which examined issues facing transgender individuals who are caught up in the prison system. The sex segregated nature of prisons and the policy of housing transgender women in men’s prisons leads to serious violence and harassment by other inmates and guards.
Some of the panelists, including Z Gabriel Arkles from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, focused their comments on concrete policy changes which could help trans people in prison. Others, such as Nat Smith of the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, concentrated on the way that trans issues in prisons highlight the failings of the prison system in general. This panel also included Professor Spade as moderator, Rivera, Alex Lee of the TGI Justice Project, and Melanie Rowen of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The second panel, “Trans Youth and Families,” explored the problems faced by trans children in adoption and foster care. One of the panelists, Ksen Pallegedara of the William J. Clinton Foundation, who had himself been through the New York City foster care system, reported that approximately 50% of homeless youth are LGBT. He also stated that, because most LGBT youth do not come out to their families until their teens, those kids who are abandoned enter the foster care system when they are older than 12. This is generally the cut-off after which children are not placed into adoptive families, but are instead housed in group homes until they age out of the system. This can be a significant barrier to having a happy and healthy childhood, and also presents its own host of sex-segregation issues for trans youth in these group homes.
Other panelists discussed legal issues surrounding representation of trans youth in foster care, as well as the importance of mentors for the kids in these circumstances. These panelists included Leslie Farber, Esq., Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal, and Rowen, with Barusch moderating.
The panel “Issues in Health Care” covered a wide range of health care topics. For example, Arkles discussed the effect of lack of coverage on trans individuals who are documented or undocumented immigrants, and individuals in immigration detention, while Dr. Nick Gorton from the Martin Lyon Clinic in San Francisco discussed the merits of private versus universal government-provided healthcare for the coverage of transgender people. Other panelists discussed problems relating to LGB-friendly healthcare organizations leaving trans people out of their planning or blatantly mistreating them. Also on this panel were Diego Sanchez of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Charito Suarez of the Transcend Project at Cambridge Cares About AIDS, and Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.
The final panel, Issues in Employment, was moderated by Carl Sciortino of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sciortino is one of the few openly gay members of the legislature and is one of the sponsors of House Bill 1722, which will include gender identity and expression in Massachusetts’ hate crimes and non-discrimination legislation. The panel focused on the ways in which trans people are discriminated against in employment, and the legal tactics that can be used to combat that discrimination. Cecilia Chung of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco discussed a study which showed a shocking disparity between high education levels and very low annual income for transgender individuals. McGowan discussed a current case of discrimination in federal employment and talked about constitutional law approaches to that case. Mottet spoke about legislative approaches and the best drafting tactics to win legal protections for trans people.
The conference ended with an award dinner and reception at which Professor Spade was awarded the HLS Lambda Leadership Award. In accepting the award, Spade spoke about the importance of recognizing personal privilege and using that privilege responsibly, by always being aware of and uncomfortable with it. The attendees and panelists agreed that the conference was a great learning opportunity and that the large turnout was an encouraging sign of interest and support. “Trans identities have been ignored and erased from cultural and political dialogue for far too long, which is one of the reasons why this conference was so important,” said 3L Vanessa Hettinger, HLS Lambda Political Co-Chair. “A lot of people are out there doing great work, and a lot remains to be done. It is my hope that by providing a forum for this discussion, HLS has helped to shed light on this fact, and to bring Trans communities the attention they deserve.”