Transgender Law and Policy Roundtable

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #98, Summer 2002.

by Paisley Currah

In December the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) of the City University of New York convened a roundtable on transgender law and policy, bringing together activists, attorneys, and academics at the forefront of transgender rights advocacy, and a handful of lesbian and gay rights attorneys recently involved in transgender law.
Conference organizers decided to pull the group together because transgender rights advocacy has gained momentum over the last two years, with successes on both the legislative and litigation fronts in the U.S. and internationally. ?Right now, there really is no uniform, agreed-upon way to pursue transgender advocacy. Most of us think that?s a good thing?it?s a sign of how broad-based and participatory the trans rights movement is at this point,? said Paisley Currah, CLAGS board member and one of the roundtable organizers.

?The purpose of the roundtable wasn?t to forge consensus about how to proceed, but to bring together people who?ve done a lot of thinking on these issues from a variety of perspectives, to compare notes and discuss some hard questions.?

During four packed sessions over two days, the 28 people in attendance brainstormed about topics including the implications of using the disability rights model for transgender advocacy; how to put social science research to work in litigation on behalf of transgendered people; the perennial ?tough issues? of the transgender rights movement (bathrooms and dress codes); ideas for federal legislative strategy; and international approaches to transgender human rights.

One of the things that made the discussions so productive, according to Shannon Minter, roundtable organizer and Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was that people were invited as individuals, not as representatives of the organizations they work for or the constituencies they usually represent as activists. ?We asked people not to ?run the tape?? that is, not to rehearse their usual positions on various issues, and that freed people up to be able to think out loud, pushing the envelope and our imaginations about new possibilities for transgender advocacy,? Minter said.

According to participant Suzanne Kessler, professor of psychology at Purchase College and author of Lessons from the Intersexed, ?It?s rare that social scientists?who deal too often in the theoretical realm?are invited to sit down with activists and lawyers?who are confronted by the constraints of reality.

In one session, the roundtable organizers asked us to grapple with two possibly irreconcilable approaches: debunking versus exploiting medical models about gender. Given that everyone in the room was committed to serving intersex, transex, and transgender people, it was important to learn how both approaches have been useful and to acknowledge the real tensions between the approaches. My thinking benefitted; I hope the activists and lawyers did as well.

To ensure a common basis for the discussions, everyone came to the table having read in advance a briefing packet which included articles by activists and social scientists, legal updates, and two amicus briefs submitted in the Brandon Teena case, representing different approaches to describing transgender identity in impact litigation. Also included was a last-minute decision (negative) decision by the Minnesota supreme court decision in a transgender rights case.

In the final wrap-up session, participants made plans to move forward on multiple fronts, and discussed institutionalizing a transgender law and policy institute, working more closely with social scientists to generate much-needed research on specific issues, producing up-to-date resources for activists and policy makers lobbying for transgender inclusive human rights laws, and exploring new arguments in transgender-related litigation. (Resources will be posted at

The meeting was funded by a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Action Foundation. Roundtable participants included M?Bwende Anderson, of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition; Kylar Broadus, a transgendered attorney from Missouri who is now at HRC; Dallas Denny, longtime transgender activist, scholar, and co-founder of Gender Education and Advocacy; KT Cumiskey, CUNY doctoral candidate and youth advocate; Paisley Currah, Associate Professor of Political Science and co-author of Transgender Equality; Chai Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown Law School, who was one of the primary authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act and is involved in much GLB federal legislation; Taylor Flynn, a law professor from the Western New England College of Law who has litigated a transsexual marriage case in California; Jamison Green, a transgendered writer, advocate, and former president of FTM International; Julie Greenberg, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, who has written widely on intersex and transgender issues; Sheryl Harris, an attorney with the Employment Law Center in California; social scientist Peter Hegarty, CLAGS board member and visiting professor of GLB Studies at Yale University; Richard Juang, also a NYAGRA member; Lisa Mottet of the Transgender Civil Rights Project at NGLTF; Liz Seaton, a transgender activist and attorney with the Human Rights Campaign; Suzanne Kessler, Professor of Psychology at Purchase College and author of Lessons from the Intersexed; Surina Khan, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Jennifer Levi, senior staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who has litigated a number of successful cases on behalf of transgendered people, including a case involving a transgendered student in a Massachusetts school district; Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Pauline Park of NYAGRA; Jennifer Richard, legislative director for California State Senator Sheila Kuehl; Liz Seaton of the Human Rights Campaign; New Orleans-based transgender activist Courtney Sharp; Carmen Vasquez, Public Policy Director of the NYC Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center; UK-based trans activist and scholar Stephen Whittle; gender rights advocate Riki Wilchins; and Willy Wilkinson, a California-based public health consultant, writer, and trans advocate. GLB rights litigators Ken Choe (ACLU), Nan Hunter (Brooklyn Law School), and Jennifer Middleton (Lambda) were also in attendance.