Public Interest Litigation Organizations
While the line is somewhat blurred between organizations that seek equality for LGBTQ+ people through litigation and those that do so through legislative channels and public advocacy work, these two approaches represent distinct areas of practice, as they involve a different set of skills and a substantially different focus to the work, though the underlying goals and preparation may be similar.
Public interest litigation organizations use litigation on local, regional, and national levels to protect LGBTQ+ rights. They generally focus on impact legal work, meaning that they pick cases that will break new ground or otherwise affect a community wider than the parties to a particular suit. An emphasis on precedent-setting cases means that lawyers in such organizations are likely to work on a smaller number of matters and have less client contact than a direct services lawyer. In New England, GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is the primary LGBTQ+ litigation organization, and nationally, organizations like Lambda Legal and the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project do substantial litigation work.
Because there are relatively few organizations dedicated in whole or part to the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, competition for such jobs is considerable. Lawyers who get a chance to work with these organizations express great job satisfaction. If a case they try is successful, it can make big strides in accomplishing the goals of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. The work of these organizations also ensures that their lawyers will be on the forefront of any new issues that arise.
Legislative & Public Advocacy Organizations
While attorneys doing litigation work challenge unjust and discriminatory laws in court, other lawyers work on the legislative front, advocating for the passage of inclusive laws that protect the rights of all and working to defeat discriminatory and divisive laws that take away freedoms and protections. Only a few legislative advocacy organizations focus solely on LGBTQ+ rights, but many progressive organizations include LGBTQ+ issues among the agenda items for which they lobby. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National LGBTQ Task Force are good examples of national organizations that do both legislative advocacy and public outreach and education work.
Advocacy and lobbying can occur at local, state and national levels. Not all jobs are specifically law-related. The work can also be frustrating, as legislators may be unresponsive or even hostile and an excellent law can be voted down. With the frustration, however, also come great rewards when a coalition is formed and new protections are signed into law.
Many states and cities employ attorneys to help enforce LGBTQ+ people’s access to civil rights. Such an enforcement position can be a rewarding choice for someone who wants to work on LGBTQ+ issues, although not exclusively. If elective office is the way you choose to pursue your career in LGBTQ+ rights, there are organizations offering financial assistance and support, including some specific to members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Human Rights Campaign Political Action Committee and the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund are two such resources.
While this guide focuses on public interest work, attorneys in private practice can also pursue significant LGBTQ+ advocacy. Attorneys who want to concentrate on LGBTQ+ rights in private practice usually go one of two routes.
Some go into small private firms or solo practice that handle LGBTQ+ rights cases. Much of the focus for such private practitioners has been in the area of family law. This work can be very rewarding. As one solo practice attorney noted, “It’s very exciting because I help people with the legal issues that affect their every
Even working with a larger law firm, or one that does not specialize in LGBTQ+ rights, an attorney may pursue LGBTQ+ advocacy. Interested attorneys can handle pro bono LGBTQ+ cases, either individually or as a cooperating attorney with a public interest legal organization like Lambda, GLAD or the ACLU.
International Human Rights Organizations
International human rights groups work to ensure that the basic rights of LGBTQ+ people are protected around the globe. A number of major human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, include the fight against denial of human rights due to sexual orientation as part of their mission. In addition, there are LGBTQ+ specific international organizations. Most of these organizations do not litigate, but instead advocate for LGBTQ+ rights by petitioning governments and other multi-national organizations.
AIDS Direct Service Organizations
HIV/AIDS work and LGBTQ+ rights work have historically been closely related, but HIV/AIDS work is a specialized field and may not offer the diversity some attorneys wishing to focus on LGBTQ+ rights seek. For attorneys interested in concentrating on advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS, the work can bring great personal rewards in connecting with individual clients and helping to improve their lives.
Legal Aid / Legal Services
Legal aid or legal services are public interest practices that are often funded by government monies. These organizations handle many different civil legal issues and most often represent clients at no cost. Typical representation includes cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation in addition to writing up contracts, wills and trusts for LGBTQ+ people.
Many legal services lawyers have a large amount of client contact and gain litigation experience. They can reap great job satisfaction from representing clients who could otherwise not afford legal representation. The drawbacks often include lower salaries and heavy caseloads. Only certain legal services offices will have a significant number of
Academic work as a law professor is another avenue by which to pursue LGBTQ+ work. A professor might specialize exclusively in LGBTQ+ rights law, or work more broadly in a field in which LGBTQ+ issues emerge such as family law, civil, or human rights law. Academic work also does not have to be pursued at the expense of a traditional legal career. Practicing lawyers may teach part
Working From Within an Organization
Many areas of public interest practice can involve work with LGBTQ+ issues. Family law, elder law, and youth law all can address specific issues that LGBTQ+ people face. Joining an organization and then developing its ability to do legal advocacy on behalf of the community is one more way to pursue LGBTQ+ rights work. Many firms and organizations are eager to hire someone with the experience to work in their main issue areas while also having the skills and initiative to develop new specialties.
If research into different organizations and practice settings turns up nothing that fits just right, a lawyer may consider starting their own LGBTQ+ rights organization. Generally, new organizations start with a plan focusing on a specific area of LGBTQ+ rights where there is an unmet legal need. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, for instance, was founded by Michelle Benecke to remedy the issues she faced in her military service. Start-up funding can be secured through fellowships, among other sources. OPIA has considerable information regarding fellowships, as well as a fellowships adviser.
The LGBTQ+ rights field encompasses a vast number of issues. Legal barriers and discrimination must be chipped away one law and one case at a time in a large number of areas. The descriptions below provide a brief overview of some of these issues.
While there are now many states and municipalities with LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination laws in the United States, there is no comprehensive federal anti-discrimination statute. LGBTQ+ rights lawyers work to expand protection in such areas as private employment, public accommodations, housing, credit, union practices and education. Where the laws do exist, anti-discrimination lawyers work to enforce them.
Elder & Healthcare Law
LGBTQ+ elders face discrimination in assisted living facilities and health care. LGBTQ+ rights lawyers work with elders to put together the proper wills, health care proxies and other legal documents to ensure that their wishes are carried out. Advocacy groups work with nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities to develop antidiscrimination policies.
Often LGBTQ+ people are fired, harassed and denied promotion for no reason other than their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Building on existing laws and precedents, LGBTQ+ rights lawyers seek to enforce and expand employment protections.
More and more LGBTQ+ people are becoming parents than ever before through birth, adoption, and foster care. Family LGBTQ+ rights lawyers work to repeal discriminatory adoption statutes to secure second parent adoptions, child custody, inheritance rights and dual-mother or dual-father birth certificates. They also deal with the difficult issue of partnership breakups that involve children by trying to establish custody based on “de facto parenthood.”
All Americans have the rights of free speech and free association, but LGBTQ+ people and allies have had trouble exercising these rights. Some workers have been fired simply because they joined an LGBTQ+ rights group after work, participated in a march, or were otherwise involved in the LGBTQ+ community. Attorneys work to secure the right of any person to associate with LGBTQ+ people and organizations without fear of retribution. There are, however, tensions in the First Amendment area, as anti-LGBTQ+ comments are also protected, and some organizations, such as the ACLU, which advocate for LGBTQ+ causes also work on freedom of speech cases.
From the brutal death of college student Matthew Shepherd in 1998 to repeated, ongoing violence against transgender women of color, more nationwide attention has been focused on anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes. Yet some states have no mention of sexual orientation in their hate-crimes law, leaving members of the LGBTQ+ community with limited legal recourse. Attorneys work to prosecute hate crime perpetrators while policy advocates work to pass hate crimes law in all states.
HIV/AIDS-related legal issues may be considered an independent issue area, but are included under the LGBTQ+ rights umbrella here because of their historically disparate effect on the LGBTQ+ community and the historical stigma of HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease.” Because of this erroneous perception, and the fear stemming from misunderstanding of how HIV is contracted, some cases in the HIV/AIDS area are also sexual orientation discrimination cases involving denial of employment, public accommodations and other services. Other issues include the rights of HIV/AIDS patients to keep their conditions from being revealed without their consent, their right to refuse mandatory HIV/AIDS testing, which may be motivated by perceived sexual orientation, and their right to receive medical care and insurance.
Housing discrimination – including being denied housing or being charged higher rates – remains a significant barrier for LGBTQ+ people, including same-sex couples and transgender people. Attorneys challenge cases of discrimination in court while advocacy groups fight to add more non-discrimination laws to the books at the local, state and national level.
Immigration and Political Asylum
The United States allows people to apply for asylum based on fear of persecution due to their membership in the LGBTQ+ community, and skilled immigration advocates are needed to assist them. In addition, bi-national LGBTQ+ couples can also face challenges. Attorneys and policy advocates work with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Congress and the courts to ensure that those who need protection are granted asylum in the United States and that couples are able to stay together.
Though the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 ushered in a new era for military service by lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers without fear of losing their jobs, hurdles to equality have persisted for transgender servicemembers in particular, and some LGBTQ+ servicemembers still face discrimination in their units. Advocates assist these servicemembers and work for better inclusion and change.
Transgender people have faced not only the battles described above in housing, employment, and more, but additional legal issues as well. Attorneys and policy advocates work to include gender identity and expression in non-discrimination statements, laws, and hate crime statutes. They also focus on rules and regulations regarding sex designation on passports, drivers’ licenses, and other identity documents; segregated facilities such as bathrooms, gyms, and prisons; and healthcare access and coverage.
Many LGBTQ+ youth face discrimination and abuse in school as well as at home. Attorneys and advocates fight for the rights of youth to be free of harassment while attending school, to form LGBTQ+ organizations in their schools, to receive accurate information in schools, and to have equal representation of LGBTQ+ people in school curricula. Out of home care settings are another significant issue for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, and lawyers fight for provision and protection for LGBTQ+ youth in foster homes, group homes, and juvenile detention facilities.
Finding a Job
Law school graduates and attorneys seeking to practice LGBTQ+ rights law will find a tight market, but obtaining employment is not impossible. Gaining relevant experience, researching the job market, and presenting your job qualifications most favorably are your best tools for tackling this search.
Know the Issues
Familiarity with the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community faces is essential, but it does not need to come from scholarly or even purely legal research. You can gain this knowledge through lived experience, involvement with a local or national organization, coursework and clinical work, and more. LGBTQ+ organizations look for a demonstrated commitment to the issues, so staying involved is important, either through volunteering, pro bono work, writing, or connecting with LGBTQ+ organizations.
When making course choices with the aim of a career in LGBTQ+ rights, seek a balance between courses that will introduce you to relevant subject areas and courses that will help you develop overall lawyering skills. Courses that specialize in the substance of the field will obviously be informative and helpful. Do not overlook procedural courses.
“I know students are going to hate me,” one impact lawyer said, “but take Federal Courts. I use what I learned in that course every day.” Another lawyer who lobbies federal government agencies comments, “Administrative law is essential for what I do.” Talking to a practicing lawyer with the organization with which you hope to be employed or in the specialty in which you hope to practice might be helpful for advice on other courses.
Know Yourself and the Kind of Work You Want to Do
Employers look for not only knowledge of the issues but also comfort with and dedication to clients. You should know what kind of work most interests and satisfies you, whether it is working with AIDS patients on healthcare access, advocating for the needs of at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in foster care, or lobbying members of Congress for new legislation. The variety of work in LGBTQ+ law is considerable, and different areas require different skills. Preparing yourself for a small LGBTQ+ family practice will be different from trying to obtain employment with a major legislative advocacy organization. Research the organization or practice settings that you hope to join. Go to websites and webinars, and talk to lawyers in such practices. This research can help you define what you want to do, learn how best to build experience, and may even help you identify where there may be new opportunities.
There are two basic types of experience you will have to demonstrate when seeking a job in LGBTQ+ law. The first is experience working with LGBTQ+ organizations or causes, which can be developed by doing clinical or summer work in law school, as well as pro bono, government, or volunteer work after law school. Second, it is important to develop a specific skill set for the kind of organization you want to join. For impact organizations, litigation experience is essential, while for legal services work, direct service experience and skills are key. Because significant LGBTQ+ litigation experience is often hard to come by, many people develop their litigation experience outside of strictly LGBTQ+ work, building their legal experience and LGBTQ+ bona fides separately.
Choose your law school jobs carefully, based on the type of LGBTQ+ rights law you wish to practice. If you do not enter strictly LGBTQ+ work directly out of law school, stay involved in LGBTQ+ work through bar associations, pro bono work, writing articles and op-eds, or doing volunteer work for LGBTQ+ organizations.
Get to Know People
The LGBTQ+ rights field is tightly knit, and when the time for hiring rolls around, knowing the people in an organization can help you get your foot in the door. Good ways to make contacts include summer jobs, pro bono, extracurriculars, and law school alumni. Having connections with LGBTQ+ rights lawyers can also help you narrow down your options and figure out what practice areas and kinds of advocacy most appeal to you. Speak with people you know about their experiences and ask questions. Strong contacts are also essential for learning about unadvertised openings and for securing valuable recommendations.
Landing a Job
National public interest litigation organizations are often what most people think of when they think of LGBTQ+ rights law, but there are many other opportunities to do LGBTQ+ rights work. Lawyers looking to make contributions to LGBTQ+ rights should also consider opportunities at private public interest firms, legal services offices, and in the government.
To be a competitive candidate, it is important to develop a track record of work in the area of LGBTQ+ rights through research and writing in related areas, extracurriculars, summer jobs and post-law school employment. Attorneys currently working with LGBTQ+ organizations emphasize that experience makes all the difference in making an applicant stand out in a pile of excellent resumes.d During the summer while in law school with an LGBTQ+ organization that interests you is an excellent way to gain this vital experience and make good contacts. Research and writing skills are important, and a demonstrated commitment to public interest is a must.
Because impact organizations look for litigation experience, LGBTQ+ rights work at one of these large organizations may be almost impossible to obtain right out of law school. Some entry-level lawyers manage to break into these groups through fellowships. In addition, most LGBTQ+ litigation organizations work with cooperating attorneys on a wide variety of cases. While employed elsewhere, those interested in the field can do pro bono work as a cooperating attorney. By working working so closely with these organizations, full-time employment may be easier to hear about and obtain. Furthermore, someone who already has litigation experience will be a more attractive candidate.
New lawyers should remember that although there is steep competition for jobs in large national LGBTQ+ organizations, there are still many opportunities to work on LGBTQ+ or related issues and develop advocacy skills. Working at a legal services office or doing work in racial justice or disability rights—or in useful contexts such as education, political organizing, or campaigns—can be helpful in building public interest experience toward the goal or working at an LGBTQ+ organization.
Legislative & Public Advocacy Organizations
Legislative and public advocacy organizations look for many of the same characteristics and experiences that litigation organizations seek. Experience and familiarity with the issues are still extremely important, and credentials like clerkships and law review can also hold a lot of weight. Since advocacy organizations do a lot of policy work and lobbying, interpersonal skills are critical. “Coalition building,” said one lawyer with a national advocacy organization, “is key.” In contrast, litigation experience is de-emphasized, since few legislative advocacy groups go to court.
Gain experience by working in a related civil rights area or doing other policy work. Advocacy groups, like public interest litigation organizations, use cooperating and pro bono attorneys, so perhaps consider doing this as a way to get your foot in the door.
Note that all personal narratives in this Guide reflect titles and legal issues that were current when the narratives were collected.
Health Care Division, Gay Men’s Health Crisis
I was born and raised in Cape Town, at the tip of the African continent in apartheid South Africa. Growing up in an environment where the struggle for equality was so pervasive, profound, and at least at the time, seemed so impossible to attain, has been the greatest driving force for my work in the area of LGBT rights, poverty issues, and HIV/AIDS.
After immigrating to the United States, I decided to attend City University School of Law, attracted to its mission of“law in the service of needs.” Having come from a country that had no constitution, no bill of rights and no principles of equal protection under the law, I immersed myself in issues of constitutional law, criminal law, and federal courts. The course that impacted me most was a second-year concentration course entitled, “Equality and Inequality and the Role of Lawyers and Lawyering.” While interning at the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’soffice, I studied the Supreme Court’s battle with whether to recognize particular fundamental human rights. I was fascinated and frustrated by the Court’s complex interpretation of a particular civil rights act and what the equal protection clause protected.
Experiencing racism, stigma, and poverty in both South Africa and the United States, was a powerful backdrop for my own struggle with coming out as a gay man. In 1986, the year that I graduated from law school, the AIDS epidemic was in its fifth year and had already claimed the lives of thousands of gay men. I witnessed an entire new wave of discrimination and social ostracism targeted towards the gay community. Coming of age as a gay man in this environment was extremely challenging. However, with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, a social movement was born that taught me the possibilities for both individual and global social change through personal reflection, lawyering, and advocacy.
After law school, I clerked in the pro se office of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, spending hours reviewing the briefs of incarcerated litigants. Without legal representation litigants are almost always deprived of a just outcome and my role, which was to interpret these briefs liberally, was extremely rewarding. I then worked at the New York City Department of Law bringing affirmative litigation against residential and commercial landlords who were harassing their tenants. I gained courtroom experience and the satisfaction that I had kept a fairly large number of New Yorkers in safe and affordable housing and, later, the opportunity to supervise new attorneys. During this time, I started volunteering in the legal department of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the nation’s oldest nonprofit, volunteer-supported, HIV/AIDS community-based organization. Writing wills and other legal documents for the then predominantly gay clients of GMHC was one of my most compelling life experiences. Frequently, my clients were very close to death and wanted their healthcare decisions to be made by their long-term same-sex life partners if they were unable to do so. They were also clear that their soon-to-be-survivor same-sex partners should be accorded all of the same legal rights that heterosexual survivors would have been. Unfortunately, since same-sex partnerships were not legally recognized, even with all of the written documents in place, we witnessed discrimination in health care settings and challenges by estranged next of kin who claimed that their legally recognized relationships superseded those of surviving same-sex partners.
In 1995, I joined the legal department of GMHC, later became the director of that department in 1998, and in 2000, was promoted to managing director and general counsel of program services. In 2006, I was promoted to chief operating officer of the agency. In this position, I provide strategic direction, leadership, and vision to a diverse, multi-disciplinary staff of over 200, and ensure that all agency services and advocacy are infused with the organization’s core values of quality, social justice, and human dignity. GMHC’s mission is to reduce the spread of HIV disease; help people with HIV maintain and improve their health and independence; and keep the prevention, treatment and cure of HIV an urgent national and local priority. In fulfilling this three-pronged mission, we remain true to our heritage by fighting homophobia and affirming the individual dignity of all gay men and lesbians. Twenty-six years into the AIDS pandemic, five million people are newly infected each year, and 40 million adults and children live with HIV/AIDS worldwide. In the United States, the disease disproportionately impacts poor women of color; gay and bisexual men of color; gay, bisexual and transgender youth; substance users; immigrants; and people with histories of incarceration. GMHC targets these and other vulnerable and marginalized communities throughout New York City, providing a full range of clinical, legal, and other supportive and prevention services, as well as the opportunity to engage in peer-driven public policy advocacy with lawmakers and other government officials.
HIV/AIDS is a true equal opportunity virus that anyone can get. It is 100% preventable, and despite access to the advances in medical treatment for a miniscule percentage of those infected worldwide, AIDS is years away from a cure or vaccine. In the LGBT community, the largest number of new infections is amongst men who have sex with men, and yet there is an enormous complacency and lack of attention paid to this devastating trend. There are 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and of those, 500,000 are not receiving medical care. Approximately 250,000 are infected with HIV, but do not know their status. Because HIV/AIDS hits low income communities of color disproportionately, GMHC and other domestic AIDS organizations are committed to finding effective models of service and advocacy that have the most impact in specific, targeted communities. We have focused our attention on HIV testing and connection to medical care and supportive and prevention services. Not only does this allow newly diagnosed individuals to get the medical care and support that they need, it also ensures that they do not transmit the virus to others. There is considerable evidence that shows that knowing one’s HIV status leads to safer sexual and needle sharing behaviors. Recognizing the importance of building resiliency and a sense of personal“agency,” we have built programs that ensure economic self-sufficiency such as job training, job placement, and job retention services. We have also ramped up our mental health services, to address the deep psychological complexity of an HIV diagnosis which is frequently accompanied by stigma and shame. In the public policy arena we continue to fight the federal government’s policies of abstinence until marriage, which prohibits effective HIV prevention tools such as condom distribution and life-saving needle exchange programs. These are truly the only effective HIV prevention tools that we have, and tragically, the current leadership of our country condemns them both.
In my day-to-day work, I witness multi-layered epidemics that all collude around the overwhelming challenge of HIV infection. More than 70% of our clients present with multiple serious psychosocial conditions predating their HIV diagnosis: substance use, mental illness, homelessness and histories of domestic violence and trauma. Many continue to present with legal challenges. Employers still discriminate against HIV-positive gay men because of their health status and sexual orientation; landlords still try to evict surviving same-sex partners; and immigration law continues to separate bi-national lesbian and gay partners from living together legally in the United States. These are just a few of the legal areas that we deal with on a daily basis at GMHC.
Unfortunately, the list of “unequal rights” accorded to lesbians and gay men remains extensive. Although the LGBT movement has made considerable legislative and judicial advances in the past several years, same-sex couples still cannot marry in 49 states, and the federal government refuses to honor the marriages that same-sex couples validly enter. Only 20 states plus the District of Columbia include sexual orientation in their anti discrimination laws, 12 of which also cover gender identity discrimination. The federal government still refuses to pass an LGBT antidiscrimination law, thus perpetuating homophobia in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
In reflecting on the challenges ahead in the LGBT legal arena, I remain convinced that lawyers must use their skills in diverse environments beyond litigation and traditional advocacy. Education and dialogue still remain the key ingredients to any social change. Unfortunately, we are years away from a society that treats LGBT individuals the same as their heterosexual counterparts. The majority of our federal lawmakers – and this becomes even more evident during presidential campaign years – are blatantly homophobic in their refusal to recognize same-sex partnerships as similar to different-sex partnerships in any sphere of family life, perpetuating discrimination, human suffering, and a non-pluralistic world that fails to embrace the reality of human diversity. I encourage those of my colleagues who are studying to become lawyers and entering the workforce to speak out against instances of inequality and to recognize that they have the power to reshape the LGBT legal landscape by looking at the law through a human rights lens. There are opportunities for this work in every legal job. Wherever one works, one can make a difference by joining forces with both LGBT and non-LGBT colleagues who believe in Thurgood Marshall’s definition of equality: “Equal,” he said, “means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.”
GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD)
GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders is the Boston-based public interest legal organization that works through the courts and public education to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status and gender identity.
I came to GLAD in 1990, after two years in private practice at a mid-sized firm in Portland, Maine. How did I get the job? Part of it was good timing. There simply wasn’t the same level of interest in these issues at that time. Part of it was that I had fairly broad experience despite only two years of practice. I had handled litigation in state and federal court, as well as in administrative agencies, and had also worked on legislative issues. Part of it was that I had experience dealing with the problems of gay people. I was out as a new lawyer and had handled everything from AIDS discrimination cases in the late 1980s, to negotiating employment contracts for gay clients, to navigating property and parenting disputes. My commitment was obvious from both pro bono litigation and volunteer activities at the ACLU and Volunteer Lawyers Project.
A typical day at GLAD has changed over the years, in part because what is precedent setting has changed over the years. We try to open new doors for folks, or stated another way, to ensure that there is one standard of justice for all. Once we helped to establish joint adoption rights in Massachusetts, we moved on to other issues, leaving private practitioners to put those rulings into practice. While we still do individual representation at the trial level, much of our work is appellate, or taken with the understanding that the matter will be decided on summary judgment and then appealed.
What will I do in the course of a month? First and foremost is focusing on our clients and their litigation. Since much of our work is appellate, it is not uncommon to spend most of our time writing briefs, but we also take and defend depositions, draft motions and agreements and all the other business of litigation. We receive a steady stream of calls from attorneys, both in New England and nationally, about how to handle their matters, what arguments they could or should make and analyzing the desirability of their appeals. We also talk to non-lawyers through our website, public education programs and our legal information hotline. Strategy discussions with our colleagues at other organizations whether about unfavorable trends, legislation, litigation, appeals, petitions for certiorari and the like are a regular part of our work. We draft and update publications, and speak to both lay and legal audiences. We work in coalition with other civil rights organizations on matters of local and national concern ranging from racial profiling to transgender rights to family policy. Last but not least, we talk to the media since we need to make our arguments in court as well as in the court of public opinion.
For the thirteen plus years I’ve been at GLAD, we’ve seen sea changes in the field. In 1989, more experienced lawyers cautioned me against taking the GLAD job because I would be throwing away my career. Once I had the job, in the first years, I was often turned down when I sought cooperating counsel to work with GLAD on our new cases because they were “too militant.” Most of the cases involved litigating under the newly enacted lesbian and gay civil rights law barring discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit. In 1990, I spent a great deal of time dealing with personal security issues, ensuring that people had a right to work and trying to persuade police departments and district attorneys to deal with hate crimes. The range of issues on which it is productive to work has grown every year to the point now where every issue is on the table, including the issue of ending discrimination in civil marriage. It’s odd, but the military and marriage are the two institutions that remain privileged based on sexual orientation. The question of whether same-sex couples can marry, in my experience, roots out the remaining societal biases about the basic worth and citizenship of gay people. What counts as a family is one of several defining civil rights issues that will dominate the landscape in the years to come.
If you want to get a job in this field, you can do a few things to help yourself along. Don’t necessarily eschew private practice since you can learn lawyering skills and do both paid and pro bono work that can help you build an attractive resume. Along the way, you can also gain valuable negotiation and persuasion skills in convincing a firm about why it is right and good for you to take on such work. At the same time, don’t be a lone ranger. If you have a case that raises issues of first impression, then talk to someone at GLAD, Lambda Legal, or the ACLU in order to learn more about what arguments are better or worse in the short and long terms. You can also gain valuable experience as aboard member of community or advocacy organizations. Last but not least, stay up on the issues. Read the decisions and read the briefs in the cases that interest you. The bottom line, though, is to learn to be a good, trustworthy, hard-working and likeable lawyer.
National Center for Lesbian Rights
Since September 2000, I have been working as a staff attorney and New Voices Fellow at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). My primary focus is on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, exactly the type of work that I hoped to be doing upon graduation from law school. My experience at NCLR has far exceeded my expectations. On a daily basis, I have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge substantive legal and policy issues, collaborating with an amazing array of public interest advocates. Moreover, I provide desperately needed information and technical assistance to individuals and attorneys throughout the country. My two-year New Voices Fellowship will soon end, at which time I will be continuing on at NCLR as a staff attorney.
As many other fellows can no doubt attest, the fellowship process can, at times, be a tedious, frustrating and even demoralizing process. As I sought to do an LGBT-specific project, misunderstanding about the LGBT community, a failure to see LGBT issues as civil rights issues or homophobia made the fellowship process even more difficult. Despite these difficulties, however, having gone through the experience and watched friends and colleagues experience similar struggles, my advice is to be patient. If you are determined and persistent, with faith and hard work it will work out.
When making your initial job choice, remember that no decision locks you into one particular career path (although it may seem that way at the time). There are always ways to do the work you want to do, regardless of the job you take right out of law school. If you take a public interest job in another area, the skills you acquire will be an asset if you later decide to focus on LGBT issues. If you begin your career at a firm, it is also possible to move to the public interest realm, even years later. While working at a firm, there are still ample opportunities to be involved in LGBT legal work, either through participating in the firm’s pro bono program, working with your local bar’s LGBT committee or volunteering your services to nonprofit legal organizations.
Working at NCLR has been a great experience – both professionally and personally. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do the work that I feel most passionate about and that is also extremely challenging.
Although one might think that LGBT advocacy requires only a narrow set of skills and knowledge, I have had the opportunity to litigate a huge array of substantive issues, including child custody and visitation, torts, sex discrimination under Title VII and IX and a range of constitutional issues. Because most laws were not drafted with LGBT people and families in mind, we are forced to use the law in creative and innovative ways, which keeps my work exciting and intellectually challenging.
One of the cases I litigated with NCLR is the Sharon Smith case. Sharon Smith is the surviving partner of Diane Whipple who was mauled to death by vicious dogs in the hallway of the couple’s San Francisco apartment building. NCLR represented Sharon in her wrongful death lawsuit. Last year, a San Francisco judge held that Sharon’s case could proceed to trial. This ruling marked the first time in the country a court has held that excluding all same-sex partners from the right to bring a wrongful death suit violates the constitutional principles of equal protection. Sharon’s testimony was also instrumental in the passage of California Assembly Bill 25 (2001), which provides same-sex partners in California with a number of important protections including the right to bring a wrongful death action as a surviving partner.
In addition to litigation, I am also involved in legislative work – drafting and commenting on bills and advising local activists from around the country who are working to amend local school board policies and city human rights ordinances to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
For example, this past year I have been working with the Center for Young Women’s Development, a San Francisco organization run by and for young women who have lived on the streets and/or are involved in the juvenile justice or foster care systems. My primary objective has been to get San Francisco’s juvenile jail facilities to adopt an anti-harassment policy that provides protection for youth who are harassed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Thanks to the testimony and direct action on the part of the youth involved at the Center, the policy, which is the first of its kind to be enacted anywhere in the country, will go into effect in September of this year.
While my job has been incredibly fulfilling, it can also be very emotionally difficult and troubling. Because I have a personal connection to the work I do, the losses are sometimes devastating. In addition, because the law is so bad in some areas and/or there are so few resources available, there are times when there is little we can offer to people who contact us. Particularly where children or a person’s home or livelihood are involved, it is very difficult to tell people that they have no legal rights or protections.
That said, however, it is a tremendous privilege to be a part of an incredibly dynamic area of the law that is developing to help LGBT people and their families across the country protect themselves and their families. Perhaps the day will come when LGBT people and their families are equally protected and this kind of work is no longer needed. In the meantime, however, “[i]t is not upon you to finish the task, nor are you free not to begin,” Pirkei Avot 2:21.
Attorney at Law
I did not grow up with a burning desire to practice law. I wanted to be President of the United States and make the world a better place. Going to law school seemed like a practical way to begin such a journey. Although I had been out sexually since high school, I continued to date and maintained the outward manifestations of heterosexuality; it wasn’t until I experienced the full force of the women’s movement and the gay movement here in Boston while I was attending law school that I came out as a lesbian politically. The realization that I could no longer hide who I was and be fully integrated as a human being carried with it the equally potent realization that, at the time, mainstream politics would be impossible. This was in 1975, well before Barney Frank and Gerry Studds acknowledged their homosexuality in a storm of scandal.
Rather than accept the judicial clerkship I was offered out in Ohio, I decided to stay in Boston and start my own law practice on the day I was sworn into the Bar. I was the first openly gay person to practice law privately in Massachusetts and thus threw myself into the challenge of addressing homophobia in the legal and political world. Although I created what is known as a general practice – accepting a variety of cases from wills to divorces to criminal defense – my focus was on gay and lesbian issues and feminist issues. I had no money, huge law school debts, and no family connections (everyone I knew was back in my home state in Michigan), and used my teeny apartment on Beacon Hill as an office. Because there were no openly gay lawyers, I got a lot of clients just by the mere fact that people were looking for a lawyer with whom they could feel comfortable. I was also fortunate in that I had made the acquaintance of one of the few feminist attorneys in town, now a federal judge, who referred me cases she did not want.
One of my first cases was as a volunteer for the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts where I helped defend two women thrown out of the Army for their sexual orientation. (Then, the Army conducted aggressive campaigns to rid their ranks of suspected lesbians in a surreal and ugly reprise of The Crucible.) I also volunteered at a shelter for battered women – one of the first in the country – and ended up providing 24-hour-a-day legal advice to women fleeing abusive husbands. As a result of both those affiliations, I became an “expert” and participated in many seminars, panels, television and radio shows talking about homophobia and wife abuse. The resulting personal publicity and networking helped grow my practice, although that was not my intention.
When former Mayor Kevin White refused to issue a permit for the annual gay pride parade in the early 80s, I was one of the attorneys who sued him; when a prize-winning lesbian journalist was fired from her job at the Christian ScienceMonitor, I represented her; when a married doctor with children was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior at a rest stop, I represented him; when gay couples worried how they would protect each other in case of death or illness, I drafted their wills and powers of attorney; when a gay man with AIDS was brutally beaten by a homophobic teenager, then charged with A&B with a dangerous weapon, I represented him. When politicians ran for office or were in office, I worked with groups pressuring them to publicly support gay issues, or issue executive orders, or adopt anti-discrimination legislation. When demonstrators chained themselves to seats in the State House protesting the failure of the legislature to pass our anti-discrimination law, I represented them. When a group of lesbians staged a “sleep-in” at the entrance to the Governor’s office protesting the removal of foster kids from the home of two gay men, I represented them. I also produced and co-hosted “Closet Space,” one of the first and oldest radio shows with gay content in the U.S.
I was the co-founder and first co-chair of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. I was one of the original people who created the Lavender Law Conference, geared toward the practical training of LGBT lawyers. I wrote and self-published Do Your Own No-Fault Divorce, and training manuals for shelter advocates helping battered women. I co-authored the Abuse Prevention Act, a national model for obtaining restraining orders and was the principal lobbyist in the state house for the coalition of groups that support edit. In 1993, I won a landmark case, Adoption of Tammy, which established the right of gay people to jointly adopt in Massachusetts. I was an adjunct professor at Northeastern Law School where I taught their first Sexual Orientation and the Law course and at Suffolk Law School where I taught family law and made sure to cover lesbian and gay legal issues in my classes.
In 1994 I was elected to the City Council of Cambridge (the first openly lesbian elected official in Cambridge) and served for six years. Just prior to my election I helped the Mayor draft a Domestic Partnership Ordinance. When I was in office I advocated for the implementation of domestic partnership health benefits. I helped amend our Human Rights Ordinance to include transgender rights.
The 20 years between 1975 and 1995 were an exciting and heady time, with endless opportunities for creative lawyering and I was privileged to have been a part of it. There was so much to do and so few people doing it. It is hard for new lawyers to imagine a period of our history when one could read every law review article written on LGBT issues in an hour. Or even the sad fact that a liberal Democratic Governor could promulgate a regulation that foster children not be placed with homosexual parents.
Although the times have indeed changed and many of the major legal battles have been won here in Massachusetts – and to practice law in Massachusetts is akin to being in gay nirvana – I truly believe there are abundant opportunities for new lawyers to litigate cutting edge cases or to be of service to the LGBT community. One of the drawbacks of our success has been the professionalization of the movement and thus most civil rights litigation is now handled through large organizations, both nationally and on the state level. But this does not mean the only way to practice gay law is to be a staff attorney for one of those organizations. Live in a smaller city and establish a general practice; cases will walk in the door that cry out for your advocacy and empathy.
Move back to your hometown or state, wherever that may be, and make changes and be “the gay lawyer” there. Workin a large downtown law firm, but be “out” and encourage the firm to handle the legal work of some of our organizations pro bono or make loads of money, giving generously to the organizations that are fighting on our behalf. Volunteer for a LGBT non-profit or be on the Board and draft by-laws that make sense and help the organization meet its mission. Consider running for office, including those “lower” levels, such as school committee where many of the important decisions affecting LGBT youth arise.
In 1996 I closed my law practice, which by then had grown to five attorneys, a paralegal, a once-a-week bookkeeper, two administrative staffers and $50,000/month overhead, to concentrate on doing something different with my career. It was afar cry from the $125/month studio apartment on Beacon Hill, but I felt that it was time to move on to other social issues and I was burned out. We had scores of gay attorneys, more than a handful of gay judges, dozens of LGBT organizations, and newspaper articles stopped using “lesbian” or “gay” before the word “lawyer” or “city councilor” when I was quoted in an article. We had achieved many of our goals, at least in Massachusetts, and I reasoned that there were plenty of newer folks who could take on the remaining legal challenges while I concentrated on my political career.
However, in 1999 I lost my reelection to the City Council. Fortuitously, I also graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, having become reacquainted with my love for international relations and foreign policy. Thereafter, I started consulting on civil society projects overseas, including trying a criminal case in Kosovo, building political parties in Bosnia and evaluating local government projects in Azerbaijan. I didn’t do gay rights when working in developing countries, but became more aware of how difficult it is just be gay in many foreign countries. If foreign affairs are your passion, then look into the international organizations that deal with advancing gay rights issues or start pressuring the UN to confront homophobia.
Because of my mother’s declining health in 2003, I settled back into the United States for what I thought was a temporary basis, starting up my law practice again until I could get back overseas. I joined the Board of MassEquality mostly because I was deeply concerned about the backlash from the marriage decision and what a disaster it would be for our community to have the issue up for a referendum vote, even in Massachusetts. In addition, I was fearful that everything I had worked for would go down the tubes in a wave of fundamentalist fury. The choice surprised me because I thought those years of “gay activism” were behind me, but it also reminded me that one never knows where this journey of life will take you.
The LGBT legal landscape has changed considerably since I graduated from law school, but as I reflect upon it now I think that transgender issues present the same challenge that gay issues did, as will the myriad of issues that will be litigated as a result of the conflict between DOMA type legislation and gay marriage rights. More battles will also be fought over children and young adults, especially in the schools. There are countless ways in which LGBT lawyers can make a difference, some of which you won’t know until you commit yourself to the “cause” and pay attention to the large and small ways in which individuals with your training and intelligence can make a difference.
Thus, my overriding advice to new law school graduates is that you should always be open to new experiences, don’t be afraid of changing your mind, and as the ancient Greeks said, “know thyself.” If your goal is to help others, truly help others, then there will always be opportunities for you to change the world and make it a better place.
Legislative, Public Advocacy & Impact Litigation Organizations
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) does litigation and public policy advocacy.
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is an entertainment advocacy organization that lobbies newspapers, television studios and movie executives to and accurate ways. The group also performs community education and studies the effect that media has upon perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community.
GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD)
GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is a public interest law organization, based in Boston, working for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in New England.
GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network)
GLSEN works with school systems, teachers and students on advocacy and education projects aimed towards LGBTQ+ teachers and students.
Human Rights Campaign
The Human Rights Campaign is a large advocacy group in Washington DC fighting for both societal and legislative acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund
Lambda Legal pursues impact litigation in all parts of the country on behalf of LGBTQ+ people.
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights promotes a just and inclusive society that works for everyone through advocacy for LGBTQ+ community members and others.
LGBTQ+ Victory Fund
The Victory Fund is devoted to raising money for and supporting openly LGBTQ+ candidates for office at all levels of government.
Modern Military Association of America
The Modern Military Association of America (MMAA) is the nation’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to advancing fairness and equality for the LGBTQ+ military and veteran community.
National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR)
Organized in 1977 as the Lesbian Rights Project, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) is a national nonprofit public interest law firm that litigates cases concerning the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to doing education projects on LGBTQ+ rights.
National LGBTQ+ Task Force
The National LGBTQ+ Task Force is a grassroots organizing and advocacy entity as well as a think tank on LGBTQ+ policy issues. Task Force organizers work at the local and state levels for civil rights, organizing voters, drafting legislation and educating lawmakers.
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is an organization for family members of LGBTQ+ people. The group does Congressional advocacy, community education, grassroots organizing and provides support for families all across the United States through local chapters.
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) is a national nonprofit headquartered in Washington DC dedicated to increasing access to comprehensive sex education information.
Amnesty International fights for women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, and the rights of all to enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch is an international organization based in New York City that defends the rights of LGBTQ+ and other people worldwide through research and advocacy.
Based in New York, Immigration Equality runs a pro bono asylum project to assist LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive asylum seekers to find free or low-cost legal representation. They also provide technical assistance to attorneys who are working on sexual orientation, transgender identity, HIV status-based asylum applications, or other immigration applications where the clients’ LGBTQ+ or HIV-positive identity is at issue in the case.
International Lesbian and Gay Association
The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) is dedicated to advancing human rights worldwide by increasing awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and advocating for the rights of all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
Outright International documents discrimination against LGBTQ+ people worldwide to promote human rights on a global scale.
Community United Against Domestic Violence (CUAV)
Founded in 1996 to meet the needs of lesbians and gay men in Pennsylvania, Community United Against Domestic Violence (CUAV) provides direct services, impact legal work and public policy advocacy.
Transgender Law Center
Transgender Law Center is a civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities. TLC utilizes direct legal services, public policy advocacy, and educational opportunities to advance the rights and safety of diverse transgender communities.
Related Direct Services
AIDS Action Committee
AIDS Action is New England’s oldest and largest provider of services for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. AIDS Action provides legal services, housing advocacy, and other direct support in Boston.
AIDS Legal Referral Panel
Based in San Francisco, the AIDS Legal Referral Panel (ALRP) connects people with HIV and AIDS to free and low-cost legal services.
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is a not-for-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based organization committed to national leadership in the fight against AIDS.
Los Angeles LGBT Center
The Los Angeles LGBT Center provides document preparation, hate crime victim assistance, HIV/ AIDS-related legal issues, lawyer referrals, no- or low-cost legal advice.
Vivent Health has been in the fight against AIDS for over forty years, advocating for policy change while offering free and low-cost services for people with HIV/AIDS.
Whitman-Walker Health is a community health center based in Washington DC that specializes in healthcare for LGBTQ+ people and HIV/AIDS-positive community members.
WilmerHale Legal Services Center
The WilmerHale Legal Services Center hosts an LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic that engages in advocacy and litigation on behalf of LGBTQ+ people; especially for underrepresented members of the community.
Human Rights Commissions
Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD)
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) enforces anti-discrimination laws in Massachusetts.
New York City Commission on Human Rights
The New York City Commission on Human Rights enforces the New York City Human Rights Law, which prevents discriminatory practices.
Office of the General Counsel
The Office of General Counsel deals with legal issues involving labor and employment law, contracting, health care privacy, risk management, real estate, not-for-profit taxation, reimbursement and corporate policy.
San Francisco Human Rights Commission
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission works to uphold anti-discrimination laws in order to further equity.
National LGBTQ+ Law Association
The National LGBTQ+ Law Association connects LGBTQ+ lawyers, judges, students, and activists across the country.
Written by Peter Hill, Summer Fellow. Ilana Wind, Summer Fellow, was the author of the original edition of this Guide, and Summer Fellow Luke Habbserstad updated it. Many thanks to those who assisted: Rob Salem, University of Toledo School of Law; Robert Bank, Gay Men’s Health Crisis; Kasey Suffredini, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Janson Wu, GLAD; Evan Wolfs, Freedom to Marry; James Esseks, ACLU Gay and Lesbian Rights Project and AIDS Project; Sharon McGowan, ACLU Gay and Lesbian Rights Project and AIDS Project; Lara Schwartz, Human Rights Campaign; Katherine Triantafillou; Joan Ruttenberg, Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, Harvard Law School. And special thanks to Alexa Shabecoff, Assistant Dean for Public Service, for her guidance and generous assistance.