Coming Out: A Reflection on Making the Practice of Law More LGBTQ-Friendly

October 23, 2019Articles The Legal Intelligencer

I remember sitting at the top of the stairs. I remember the feeling: Heart beating impossibly fast, unable to find my breath, nausea, sweating and an all-encompassing anxiety that slowed down time to a crawl. It was fall 2002. I was 17, a senior in high school.

At the bottom of the stairs, my mother sat in a chair in front of a boxy old computer monitor, typing away. I’d written out what I would say and how I would say it, furiously revising dozens of times. I’d rehearsed it in my mind more times than I could count—on the bus to school, in the shower, at the mall.

“Mom?” I began. She looked up. I froze; my mind blanked. “I’m gay,” I blurted out, all my meticulous planning gone right out the window in the stress of the moment. Then, a pause that seemed to last an eternity. “That’s nice, honey,” she replied, turning her head back to the screen. “Now, go clean your room.” Dazed, I left and began to tidy with a vigor never before seen in our home.

Later that day, she found me to explain. She appreciated my honesty and openness. She hadn’t meant to be abrupt or to minimize the moment, only to say that it didn’t change anything between us. I was her son; she loved me no matter what; and nothing would ever change that. She told me that the world was not always kind, but that she would do anything in her power to support me in this journey and to protect me from those who held hate in their hearts. Even today, I still get emotional thinking about it.

In the weeks and months that followed, I repeated the process over and over again—to my dad and my brother, to my extended family, to my friends, classmates and teachers. With only a few exceptions, it was received with encouragement and support.

Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day and at 34, I’ve only just reached the point where I’ve spent as much time out of the closet as I spent in it. As an attorney, I’m sharing my story because the legal profession and the court system must do better to understand, support, and protect LGBTQ people.

I’m blessed to have had an “easy” coming out story. I am male, cisgender and grew up in an economically secure household, with almost universally supportive family and friends, in a relatively progressive community. Many people don’t have these advantages.

Far too many LGBTQ people are cast out by their families for living their truth. Indeed, Lambda Legal estimates that as many as 40% of all youth experiencing homelessness in the United States identify as LGBTQ.  LGBTQ people disproportionately face discrimination, harassment and violence. LGBTQ people also disproportionately experience adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and more. These struggles are often compounded for queer women, queer people of color, queer immigrants, queer people with disabilities, and people who are transgender or gender nonconforming.

The legal profession and the court system can better support and protect LGBTQ people in a number of ways.

First and foremost, we must protect LGBTQ people from violence. LGBTQ people disproportionately suffer from bias-motivated violence. FBI data show a startling trend—with hate crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity rising sharply in recent years. Even more alarming is the epidemic-level of violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.

Indeed, in 2019 alone 20 transgender people have been murdered, almost all of whom were trans women of color. This is a crisis that demands leadership and action at all levels of our justice system. Aggressive enforcement of hate crimes laws alone will not solve this violence, but it is a crucial component of protecting the safety of LGBTQ people.

Second, the legal profession needs to become more LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming. Legal employers can do this in a number of ways: by improving diversity in hiring and retention and by devoting budgetary and mentorship resources to diverse attorneys and employees. In addition, legal employers should engage in implicit bias, LGBTQ-specific competency, and nondiscrimination/nonharassment training to affirm their commitment to their LGBTQ employees.

Moreover, legal employers should review their personnel policies and practices—including promotion and disciplinary policies, parental leave policies, health benefits, and dress codes, among others—to ensure they are LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming. On these items, LGBTQ employee resource groups often provide valuable insight. Indeed, Fox Rothschild’s own LGBTQ & Allies Initiative has played a key role in this regard, helping lead the firm to a 100% rating in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 Corporate Equality Index.

LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming principles aren’t strictly limited to the legal system in its capacity as an employer, though. Rather, regular LGBTQ competency and nondiscrimination trainings are critical for judges, court personnel and law enforcement who—whether they realize it or not—interact with and affect the lives of LGBTQ people on a daily basis. Such trainings should be implemented at all levels and in all jurisdictions. In addition, we can and should make efforts to improve supplier diversity, uplifting LGBTQ-owned businesses in the commerce streams of our profession.

Third, the legal profession should be at the vanguard of advocacy in making public policy more LGBTQ-affirming. This means expanding nondiscrimination protections and access for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and health care, which do not currently exist in all jurisdictions. It means repealing prejudicial laws, like laws that criminalize people based on their HIV status. It means lending our voices and our advocacy—both in the state house and the courthouse—to eliminate the scourge of so-called conversion “therapy” that seeks to “fix” LGBTQ people by promising to make them heterosexual or cisgender—a practice that has been universally condemned by every professional medical and mental health association of any repute.

Fourth, our profession should take a strong stance against bigoted legal tactics in our justice system. Chief among these are so-called gay or trans “panic” defenses. Raised in criminal proceedings, these defenses, argue that that those who commit violent crimes against LGBTQ people should have their culpability or sentences mitigated under the theory that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the perpetrator’s violent reaction.

If that sounds preposterous, it’s because it is. It’s also unjust. In 2013, in New York City, a man murdered a transgender woman named Islan Nettles. He confessed that he had initially flirted with Islan, became enraged upon realizing she was transgender, and brutally beat her to death as a result. Despite pleading guilty, this defense appears to have worked to some extent, resulting in a sentence that was far too lenient for a horrific, bigoted murder.

Gay and transgender panic defenses ask our judicial system to minimize the murder and maiming of LGBTQ people based on their assailants’ bigotry. These defenses weaponize our identities to excuse violence against us. They’re not only repugnant victim-blaming; they’re immoral and unethical. While such defenses should be prohibited by legislation, bar organizations and bodies governing professional conduct should also speak out and take meaningful action against those who invoke them.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of issues. Members of the legal community can (and should) continue to educate themselves about the challenges facing the LGBTQ community and what we can do to help. Here’s the rub: even under ideal circumstances, coming out is hard enough to do. But we do not live in an ideal world. As members of the legal profession, we enjoy respect in our communities and our voices are influential and impactful in public life.

We may not be able to create a perfect world for LGBTQ people. Nevertheless, we’re obligated to try to create a better world—a world that lives up to the promise of justice for all.

Reprinted with permission from the October 23 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.