‘We are always working for greater inclusion’
HLS Lambda Co-presidents John Dey ’14 and Shane Hunt ’15 on what they owe their predecessors and where the movement is going
Thirty-five years after José Gómez ’81 founded the Committee on Gay Legal Issues at Harvard Law School, or COGLI, the campus welcomed a slate of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer activists and alumni to reflect on the ground that had been gained over more than three decades, and which battles were left to win.
On Oct. 18, COGLI’s successor, Lambda, joined with the Journal of Law and Gender to host a colloquium that featured three former Lambda presidents, a slew of Harvard Law School alumni now working in the LGBTQ arena, and a set of litigators who had argued some of the most important gay rights cases in front of the Supreme Court, including United States v. Windsor, Lawrence v. Texas, and Bowers v. Hardwick. [Watch video]
At the alumni panel, former Lambda presidents Amanda Goad ’05, Bradley Sears ’95, and Jóse Gómez ’81, joined current Co-president John Dey ’14 to discuss gay rights at Harvard and beyond over four decades. Gómez discussed his experience as one of the few openly gay people at Harvard and the effort to have the law school exclude employers who discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Sears talked about how, by the 1990s, Harvard’s gay community had grown but the law school remained a conservative place, where openly gay students often preferred assimilation to activism. By Goad’s time, the visibility of LGBT students had improved, and the new battle focused on whether to allow military recruiters on campus while the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was still in place.
Afterward, current Lambda Co-presidents Dey and Shane Hunt ’15 sat down with a reporter for the HLS News office to reflect on the event.
Did anything at the colloquium change the way you think about LGBT issues?
John Dey: One thing that struck me was the issue of conflating sexuality with gender identity. Whether we should be arguing for equality by framing it as an issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation, or use the sex discrimination paradigm because [gender] is protected under the 14th Amendment.
Shane Hunt: They weren’t just talking about a legal strategy going forward, since [gender] already is a protected category. But specifically saying that sexual orientation discrimination is in fact gender discrimination and what they’re discriminating against you for is that you are not conforming to your gender.
[We also heard from] Pat Brady, the former chair of the Illinois GOP who had to formally resign from his position after he started making calls this spring to a bunch of Republican senators in the state senate to support the marriage equality bill. At HLS, everyone’s pretty much for marriage equality. It’s a non-issue here. It’s useful to have the perspective of someone for whom it is not a non-issue.
JD: He also had some interesting points on how the movement should reach out to conservatives. The reason why he thinks that a lot of Republicans are starting to come on board with marriage equality is because people are being more open and out in their families, and when it’s that personal, it’s hard to maintain a line against something.
Did you come to Harvard to focus on LGBT issues?
SH: Almost every member of our board spent their 1L summer at an LGBT-related job. We, on the other hand, didn’t.
JD: I was at a firm last summer and I’ll be going back. But that said, I would like to maintain some kind of work in LGBT issues
SH: I came in having done very little LGBT work in college and my graduation year was 2012. I went to Duke, and my lovely state, before my graduation, gave me a graduation gift of passing the marriage amendment, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. So I came to HLS really wanting to get more involved.
I was impressed with how many of our colloquium participants were HLS alumni, how many are actively involved in doing really great things in the LGBT movement.
Isn’t being able to make this kind of choice —to work wherever you want—a large part of what achieving equality is about?
JD: This is where we owe Jóse Gómez a debt of gratitude. Those efforts made the environment such that today it’s pretty much a plus to be LGBT in terms of firm recruitment. Firms pride themselves on their diversity ranking and their efforts in retaining the best talent.
SH: Even on a more local level at HLS, whether or not your dream career is LGBT litigation, you feel safe coming to Lambda, being out at the law school. Whether you’re interested in a firm, government, direct services, impact litigation. We have members who want to do public service that is not LGBT-related. You can do anything and you can be out while you’re doing it.
What do you think is the next frontier for LGBT rights?
JD: Some things that have been around still need to be addressed. ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], for example. It’s been introduced nearly every Congress for the last 20 years or so and has gotten nowhere, which is a travesty.
Other than that, a lot of people could use some education on trans issues, and that includes people at Lambda and here at HLS. People aren’t transphobic or anything of that nature, but it would be great to have more conversation about what the trans community needs.
SH: And with respect to the next frontier for LGBTQ at HLS, we’re always working for greater inclusion. One of the things that most impressed me was that our co-presidents last year were a bisexual, Asian female and an Indian gay guy. Coming from the south, gay groups were run by a bunch of white men, and they were all gay. No one was bi, no one was trans and no one was a minority. Whereas here it’s odd that we have two male presidents this particular year.
A lot of the gay rights movement of the last 35 years has focused on very discrete legal goals and accomplishments. When it comes to trans issues, do you think the obstacles are mostly legal or cultural?
JD: I think it’s a mix, but I think that was true of the marriage equality movement as well. To get to the point where we can have the legal rights of marriage, there had to be a social, cultural change and understanding. It took people coming out to their families to change minds and hearts and get people behind the idea of equality for all.
To a similar degree I think the same thing has to happen with trans. Part of it is numbers—the visibility isn’t as high for the trans community. But more people are talking about it and it’s getting profiled in the media. Once there’s this cultural mainstreaming, that will be a big part of it. But we are seeing some results. It’s interesting that the trans community in a few categories has done better or has advanced faster than the LGB community. Some courts have ruled that transgender people can have their claims upheld under Title VII sex discrimination, while sexual orientation isn’t widely recognized as such. There are some creative arguments that are made that work better for the trans community than the LGB community.