Transgender Law and Policy Roundtable

In December, CLAGS convened a roundtable on transgender law and policy that brought
together activists, attorneys and academics at the forefront of transgender rights advocacy, as
well as a handful of lesbian and gay rights attorneys more recently involved in the area.
Conference organizers decided to pull this group together because transgender rights
advocacy has gained a lot of momentum in the last two years, with successes on both the
legislative and litigation fronts in the U.S. and internationally. “Right now, there really is no uniform,
agreed-upon way to pursue transgender advocacy. Most of us think that’s a good thing — it’s a
sign of how broad-based and participatory the trans rights movement is at this point,” said Paisley
Currah, CLAGS board member and one of the roundtable organizers. “The purpose of the
roundtable wasn’t to forge consensus about how to proceed, but to bring together people who’ve
done a lot of thinking on these issues from a variety of perspectives to compare notes and discuss
some hard questions.”
During four packed sessions over two days, the 28 people in attendance brainstormed about
topics including the implications of using the disability rights model for transgender advocacy, how
to put social science research to work in litigation on behalf of transgender people, the perennial
“tough issues” of the transgender rights movement (bathrooms and dress codes), ideas for federal
legislative strategy, and international approaches to “transgender” human rights.
One of the things that made the discussions so productive, according to roundtable coorganizer
Shannon Minter, the Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was that
people were invited as individuals, not as representatives of the organizations they work for or the
constituencies they usually represent as activists. “We asked people not to ‘run the tape,’ that is,
not to rehearse their usual positions on various issues, and that freed people up to be able to think
out loud, push the envelope and our imaginations about new possibilities for transgender
advocacy,” Minter said.
According to participant Suzanne Kessler, professor of psychology at Purchase College and
author of Lessons from the Intersexed, “It’s rare that
social scientists–who deal too often in the
theoretical realm–are invited to sit down with
activists and lawyers–who are confronted by the
constraints of reality. In one session, the
roundtable organizers asked us to grapple with two
possibly irreconcilable approaches: debunking
versus exploiting medical models about gender.
Given that everyone in the room was committed to
serving intersex, transex, and transgender people, it
was important to learn how both approaches have
been useful and to acknowledge the real tensions
between the approaches. My thinking benefited; I
hope the activists and lawyers’ did as well.”
To ensure a common basis for the discussions, everyone came to the table having read in
advance a briefing packet that included articles by activists and social scientists, legal updates, two
amicus briefs submitted in the Brandon Teena case that represented different approaches to
describing transgender identity in impact litigation, as well as a negative Minnesota supreme court
decision in a transgender rights decision handed down a few days before the roundtable.
In the final wrap-up session, participants made plans to move forward on multiple fronts, and
discussed institutionalizing a transgender law and policy institute, working more closely with social
scientists to generate much-needed research on specific issues, producing up-to-date resources for
activists and policy makers lobbying for transgender inclusive human rights laws, and exploring new
arguments in transgender-related litigation. (Resources will be posted at http://www.transgenderlaw.
org.)
The meeting was funded by a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Action Foundation. Roundtable
participants included: Kylar Broadus, a transgender attorney from Missouri; Dallas Denny, longtime
transgender activist, scholar, and founder of Gender Education and Advocacy; Chai Feldblum, a law
professor at Georgetown Law School who was one of the primary authors of the Americans with
Disabilities Act and is involved in much GLB federal legislation; Jamison Green, a transgender writer,
advocate, and former president of FTM International; Julie Greenberg, a law professor at Thomas
Jefferson School of Law who has written widely on intersex and transgender issues; social scientists
Peter Hegarty, CLAGS board member and visiting professor of GLB Studies at Yale University; Liz
Seaton, a transgender activist and attorney with the Human Rights Campaign; Surina Khan,
executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Jennifer Levi,
senior staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who has litigated a number of
successful cases on behalf of transgender people, including a case involving a transgender student in
a Massachusetts school district; New Orleans-based transgender activist Courtney Sharp; UK-based
trans activist and scholar Stephen Whittle; gender rights advocate Riki Wilchins; Willy Wilkinson, a
California-based public health consultant, writer, and trans advocate. GLB rights litigators Ken
Choe, Nan Hunter, and Jennifer Middleton were also in attendance.