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 array 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!