(Left to right) Sharon McGowan, Ethan Rice, Karen Loewy, and Paul Castillo with Lambda Legal. Photo: Steven Shires Photography

Top LGBTQ attorneys are speaking out on how the Trump administration has forced them to rethink where they file complaints and how they engage with the justice system.

On Monday, roughly 200 litigators and advocates representing  lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities gathered at the NSU Art Museum’s Horvitz Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale for the eighth annual Fall LGBTQ Leadership Forum. The panel was hosted by South Florida-based and LGBTQ-oriented philanthropy group, Our Fund Foundation, in partnership with Lambda Legal, the oldest LGBTQ legal advocacy group in the United States.

The discussion, led by Lambda Legal’s chief strategy officer and legal director Sharon McGowan, centered around the civil rights organization’s strategy for achieving legal victories during — as the forum referred to it  — “The Time of Trump.”

Two years into President Donald Trump’s tenure, many of the federal agencies that sought to  protect LGBTQ citizens from discrimination under the Obama administration have pulled back from their roles. Instead, the transgender military ban announced in March and the recently leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo on gender identity seem to illustrate that some agencies have lurched hostility toward individuals identifying as queer or homosexual.

Paul Castillo, Lambda Legal, senior attorney and students’ rights strategist. Photo: Steven Shires Photography

“The federal government, a place where students turned to seek assistance, is sort of closed for business,” said Paul Castillo, Lambda Legal’s senior attorney for the association’s eight-state South Central Regional Office.

McGowan agreed.

“I think that the progress we experienced during the last administration created an expectation where people thought and came of age thinking the federal government had an obligation to protect them,” she said. “What we are experiencing now is a withdrawal of that protection and an abdication of that responsibility.”

McGowan and her fellow panelists said this shift has resulted in a reorientation of priorities for the organization and other LGBTQ groups. Rather than trying to secure protections and favorable verdicts on the federal level, social justice litigators have instead refocused on trial courts and in “being strategic about where we bring cases.”

“Sometimes we turn to state courts when federal courts become hostile or claims become more difficult to win,” she said, attributing these localized legal gains to states whose constitutional provisions “have more robust protections for equality and liberty.”

“We use that to build the garden … that will turn to progress on the federal level when we have more hospitable environments in which to work,” she continued. “Not as sexy as the big wins, but it’s a really important part of preserving the playing field to make sure we have the ability to continue to make progress going forward.”

Ethan Rice, a former child welfare attorney who serves as Lambda’s Fair Courts Project attorney, said many recent of the LGBTQ community’s recent legal gains have come from efforts to inform judges, prosecutors and larger legal groups about the realities of discrimination against queer people in the U.S.

Ethan Rice, Lambda Legal, Fair Courts Project Attorney. Photo: Steven Shires Photography

“I’ve seen such an amazing change in the last three or four years,” he said. According to Rice, most judges and prosecutor in the past would not have raised their hands when asked if they’d worked with LGBT groups. But things have changed.

“Now at least half of people raise their hand when asked about working with LGBT youth,” Rice said, adding that a multiyear push to educate the court system has been “a successful project.”

“Trial level judges are interacting with our community the most,” Rice added, noting that trial judges are likely to ascend to the appellate bench down the line. “I’m hoping that by talking to judges at the trial level — as they are going to be hearing Lambda Legal cases perhaps later on in their career — they’ve had this education about LGBT issues.”

Speaking on Lambda Legal’s July 2018 victory in their lawsuit against a Jacksonville school board for discriminating against transgender teen Drew Adams, the panelists affirmed the importance of humanizing their clients by sharing their stories. McGowan said she knew the organization’s legal team “moved the needle” when hearing the judge presiding over Adams’ case deliver his ruling.

“You can hear the voice of the judge talking about this young man and this judge was changed,” she said. “He now knows something that he did not know before, and he knew it because [Castillo] and all the amazing lawyers from Lambda and our co-counsel … shared that story and changed it from an abstract legal issue into a story about this young man and his ability to go to school.”