In the classroom: Transgender issues

March 27, 2018Duke Law News

Kamm Townsend '19 worked in diversity and recruitment in higher education before law school, and he has engaged deeply with issues of marginalization, inclusion, and intersectionality — the multiple factors related to race, class, and gender that can alternately fuel societal acceptance or exclusion. And Townsend, who anticipates going into private practice after graduating from Duke Law, feels strongly about “making space” for these issues in any professional workplace. “It’s important to be aware of these types of issues and how you can make your work space more inclusive and how you can leverage the resources of a firm to really improve people’s circumstances, outside of just doing pro bono work,” he said.

Prof. Carolyn McAllasterProf. Carolyn McAllaster

Getting a better understanding of how to make that happen was part of Townsend’s motivation for enrolling in Clinical Professor Carolyn McAllaster’s fall-semester seminar on transgender issues. It also fit neatly with her motivation for putting the class together.

“I wanted students to think about the challenges that people of transgender experience face in this country and, really, in the world,” said McAllaster, the Colin W. Brown Clinical Professor of Law and director of the HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic. “I have met many transgender people who are living with HIV in the course of my work, and ‘trans’ status seems to accentuate the stigma and discrimination that all people living with HIV experience.” Two notable developments made her feel the course would be particularly timely: the controversy surrounding both the passage of North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill that set rules for bathroom use by transgender individuals and the terms of its repeal, a compromise that restricts cities and counties from passing anti-discrimination ordinances, and the election of President Donald Trump, whose administration, she thought, was likely to attempt rollbacks on some recent advances in transgender rights implemented by his predecessor.

McAllaster found the subject lent itself well to the Law School’s “readings” design for courses that explore connections between the law, the practice of law, the legal system, and issues of current societal importance. “I felt that students would need a lot of background,” she said. “They would need to understand the vocabulary and they would need to understand the history of the transgender movement, as it isn’t a matter of general knowledge for most people. I also thought of the class as being not just for lawyers, but also a class for people making policy in the world, so I thought it was important that they be exposed to a broader range of issues than just legal issues.”

McAllaster, her six second-year students, and a variety of guest lecturers often found themselves discussing news events along with the readings in her syllabus. Among the developments that arose through the semester: the Trump administration’s ban on transgender troops in the military, which was subsequent-ly enjoined by a federal judge; the announcement that the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer interpret Title VII sex discrimination as based on sexual orientation or gender identity; the fatal September shooting, in Charlotte, of Derricka Banner, a black, trans woman and the 20th transgender person murdered in 2017; and the November election, to statehouses and city councils, of at least three openly transgender candidates.

“It was a busy time,” said Gabrielle Goodrow ’19, who had conveyed her interest in a course on transgender issues to McAllaster last spring and “heavily recruited” friends and classmates to enroll. The requirement that students write reflection papers on matters of interest instead of a final exam offered them flexibility to delve into unfolding news, she said. And the readings and sessions McAllaster planned on such matters as health disparities, employment discrimination, bathroom laws, and gender dysphoria in children led to thoughtful conversations in and out of class, said Goodrow, who serves as president of OutLaw, the Law School’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) affinity group.

“I had discussions with my friends that I don’t think I would have had without this class,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how invested everybody got in it. I think it really challenged people.” When she hosted an extracurricular screening of a documentary titled “Transgender Histories,” all of her classmates in the readings course came.

Guest lecturers offered practical insights into specific topics, such as a social worker in the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic who led a discussion on transgender children that addressed when the law should let young people make medical decisions. Maryellen Madden ’72, of counsel at Buchanan, Ingersoll, Rooney in Philadelphia and a former member of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Board of Directors, led a class on transgender history that moved Townsend to focus a reflection paper on the exclusion of transgender people from the “second-wave feminism” of the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasized equality for women. “I was aware of that tension, but didn’t fully grasp how difficult it was for trans people to get a voice and to try to navigate their way into the feminist movement in order to advocate for themselves,” he said.

Ames Simmons, director of transgender policy for Equality NC, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights, taught classes on health disparities and bathroom bills, respectively. Simmons’ insights as a trans man, lawyer, and advocate who spoke frankly about the difficulty transgender people face in navigating hospitals, clinics, and health-related documentation, as well as the impact of anti-trans bathroom laws, contributed enormously to the class, said Townsend. “He was able to show us, ‘Here’s what I dealt with going through my transition and the legal issues — while being white and having a law degree — were still difficult.’ So imagine what that looks like for a low-income person, a person of color, someone who has no formal education or, at the very least, no law degree.”

Simmons said that participating in the class helped advance his own understanding of a rapidly developing area of civil rights law and areas of the field that were unfamiliar to him, such as the international human rights framework that was the focus of a session led by Laurence Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick Sr., Professor of Law, and Clinical Professor Jayne Huckerby, who directs the International Human Rights Clinic. More importantly, Simmons said, the class gave him the chance to “whet any desire” the students might have to serve transgender clients.

“There’s such a need for trans people to have the assistance of legal practitioners,” he said. “So many people in the trans community have no means of paying for legal assistance or for health care.” He was impressed by the students’ engagement and depth of understanding of the issues. “In every class that I attended I heard, at a minimum, questions asked that enlarged my understanding of the ways the law could be applied to these situations.”

Both Townsend and Goodrow noted the lasting impact of the semester’s final class, when the students met with several black transgender women at a local social services agency who reflected on their everyday challenges and offered advice for serving transgender clients with dignity. This included, said Goodrow: “Don’t assume that they use the pronouns that immediately come to mind when you look at them. Make it a rule to state your own pronouns, even if you are cisgender. Don’t sound surprised on the phone if their voice is deeper, or higher, than you expected. And don’t assume you know what your client wants just because you know what the ‘transgender community’ wants. You could have a client who is transgender who just wants you to work on a regular employment case and doesn’t want gender identity to come into play.”

The women also addressed the issues of intersectionality that came up throughout the course, Goodrow said. “Being transgender might not even be the aspect of identity that has the greatest impact. It might be that they are low-income. It might be that they only have a high school education. It might be that they’re non-white. They are being impacted by a lot of different aspects of their identity. It might not matter if you can get access to hormones if you can’t get transport to it on a regular basis. So we realized that you can’t silo yourself and say you’re only working on transgender issues. Everything is connected.”

Both Townsend and Goodrow think the course should be offered again and encourage students to consider enrolling. “Regardless of how people feel about trans rights and trans issues,” said Townsend, “it will get you to think critically about the beliefs you hold and how you view what the law should or should not do. It will help stretch your thinking.”

That attitude is gratifying to Madden, one of very few — just two, she believes — transgender women to hold senior positions at major U.S. law firms. With “the rules about what our place in society is still being written,” she welcomed the opportunity to lead the class on transgender history and to discuss the challenges faced by transgender Americans.

“People are making decisions in lawsuits and legislation without knowing much about us, so the opportunity to talk about my community to young people who may someday be influential is important,” she said. “My time at Duke was the most intellectually challenging of my education experience, so I’m not surprised that it is one of the first to wade into these waters. I wish more universities did this.”