Abby Louise Jensen was living in the Arizona mountains and working at home as a contract attorney for a public defender’s office when she made her transition, 10 years ago, at age 53.
“When the time finally came—and I needed not to be switching back and forth, depending on whether I was at home or at the courthouse—I had to work out a plan to announce what was happening,” said Jensen, a Pima County, Arizona, public defender. “I was able to work with the presiding judge, county attorney, and public defender to simultaneously send out an announcement on a Friday afternoon. As of Monday, I was ‘Abby.’”
Jensen was among representatives from the legal community—including lawyers, law students and law professors—who last week signed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Virginia transgender teenager whose discrimination case was pending at the U.S. Supreme Court. More than 100 transgender persons signed the brief in what had been the term’s major civil rights case.
The justices sent the case back to an appeals court for further review—following the Trump administration’s abandonment of Obama-era guidance that favored greater rights for transgender persons. Numerous amicus briefs from religious groups and conservative legal advocates were filed in support of the school district.
The law students and lawyers who spoke with The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate, about their personal experiences said their voices will continue to resound.
Jensen said her transition largely has been a nonissue in the legal community. In 2007, she recalled, she argued before the state Supreme Court as a man and came back in December and argued as a woman. “As far as I know, I’m the only trans person who ever argued before the state Supreme Court and I’m pretty sure there will never be another person who argued before that court as a man and a woman,” she said. “My claim to fame.”
Howard Zelbo, a partner in the New York office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who was counsel of record on the amicus brief in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., predicted the Supreme Court is “eventually going to get this issue, either this case or another.”
Zelbo, an international arbitration and commercial litigation lawyer, worked with Ezra Young, the transgender director of impact litigation at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. Young said he conceived of the brief, recruited signatories and cowrote it with the Cleary team. The amicus brief filed last year by 113 female lawyers—who told personal stories of their abortions—served as a model for the brief, Zelbo said.
“The purpose was really to bring to life for the justices who may not know many trans people that transgender people are really like everyone else and have positive stories and make positive contributions to the country,” Zelbo said. “We wanted this to be uplifting, not negative.”
Zelbo called the brief “probably the most rewarding and fulfilling brief that I’ve worked on in 30 years of practicing law.”
Law Students’ Perspectives
Emma Caterine, a second-year student at City University of New York School of Law who signed the amicus brief, said the female lawyer’s brief in the abortion case, written by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, inspired her participation in the transgender filing.
“The whole debate around abortion got very abstracted from what it means in people’s lives,” she said. “That brief really sort of presented in a clear way with several examples the reality of the situation. I thought that’s not obviously exactly the same but it is very similar to the way transgender issues are debated in our society.”
Harris Mason, a second-year student at the University of Georgia School of Law who also signed the amicus brief, said this week: “The waiting game has commenced. Time means a lot to trans people. We carry a lot on our shoulders. The sooner we can make it easier on trans youth, the better.”
Caterine and Mason said their law school experiences have been generally positive. Mason came out as transgender a month before starting law school and notified the administration that he wanted to be called “Harris” and to be addressed as “Mister” Mason.
“We kind of have this reputation, mostly undeserved, of being conservative at the law school,” Mason said. “I’ve found it incredibly open and welcoming—which is not to say there haven’t been some bumps in the road. I’ve shed a few tears along the way, but every time something has knocked me down, there’s been folks who have lifted me up.”
Some of the bumps included professors who called him “Miss” Mason. The law school’s administration, he said, has adopted a policy that now allows students to pick their name and prefix for enrollment rolls.
“Professors don’t have that problem anymore,” Mason said.
Caterine did not go to law school immediately after college. Instead, she worked for various nonprofits on LGBT, labor and feminist issues. When she entered CUNY, she said, she didn’t know what type of law she wanted to practice. But she knew what communities she wanted to serve.
“It’s an enormous privilege to come to a school where I can be openly transgender and not worry about that being a problem with my professors and most of my classmates,” she said. “We regularly have events that include speakers who are transgender or speaking on transgender issues.”
Still, issues do arise, she said. “The legal profession is particularly a very gendered one,” Caterine said. “One issue that I’ve seen affect some of my classmates is confusion or misunderstanding of what it means to not fit in the gender binary and not respecting people’s choices to use gender neutral pronouns.”
‘Just Regular People’
Jensen, the Arizona public defender, and Blake Liggio, a partner in Goodwin Procter’s real estate industry group in Massachusetts, said they signed the amicus brief to show the justices and the public that transgender people offer significant contributions to society.
“One of the most effective things trans people can do is to allow people to get to know us, to be out in the public,” Jensen said. “One of the things that really helped gay rights and the marriage freedom issue was that today 80 percent of people in the United States personally know a gay or lesbian person.”
Public education, Jensen said, “whether in person or in the media or through an amicus brief, is the best shot we have to break down the stereotypes of who trans people are.”
Liggio, one of the first students to transition at Northeastern University School of Law and the first attorney to do so at Goodwin Procter, said his personal journey at the firm has turned out to be a success.
“As legal professionals, I think we tend to think more thoughtfully about these sort of things than society at large does,” he said. “In some ways, I’m protected in terms of my professional life from some of the other challenges transgender people face. We don’t have an emblem on us and it doesn’t necessarily come up in conversations with clients. I’m not as separated and protected on a personal level.”
Jensen and Liggio said the transgender community is far from enjoying the understanding and acceptance that gays and lesbians have achieved. But they said they are confident legal advances will continue to be made.
“We’re just regular people trying to live our lives,” Liggio said.
Marcia Coyle (@MarciaCoyle) reports for The National Law Journal, an ALM affiliate of the Daily Report. Copyright The National Law Journal.