February 1, 2016
The transgender movement has been gaining momentum over the past several years. With magazine covers featuring Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox, and TV shows such as Transparent, more people are acknowledging that the transgender community exists.
But despite this increased awareness, transgender individuals still face numerous barriers and challenges, from daily indignities to life-threatening and sometimes fatal attacks.
According to a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, discrimination is pervasive, and the combination of transphobia and racism is especially devastating. For example, 15 percent of transgender individuals said they were sexually assaulted in police custody or jail. That figure more than doubles (32 percent) for African-American transgender people. Many transgender people also face high rates of employment discrimination, unstable housing, and harassment by officials.
“Policies are changing at a high level, but the impact isn’t trickling down to our clients,” says Nadia Qurashi (’08). “Daily living for trans people is still pretty dire.”
Qurashi and several other CUNY Law alumni have taken up the fight in cities across the country for what has become this century’s civil rights struggle.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities to work as an attorney for the betterment of trans people in a concerted way,” says Milo Primeaux (’13). “The fact that so many of the positions available are filled by CUNY Law graduates is remarkable. It shows that CUNY Law is attracting people committed to this work, for an exceedingly marginalized community, and is preparing us for positions where we can provide some benefit in a systemic way. I think that’s really phenomenal and noteworthy.”
Owen Daniel-McCarter and Avi Rudnick
Owen and Avi of Name Change Mobilization
Owen Daniel-McCarter (’07) cofounded the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois (TJLP) in 2008 and works with Avi Rudnick (’08) to provide legal services for low-income and street-based trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.
“We provide support and holistic advocacy for clients,” says Daniel-McCarter. “We want to build and mobilize networks and resources, and to identify the needs of transgender, transsexual, gender-variant and gender-nonconforming people.”
TJLP has three main projects: a name change mobilization effort, a creative publication called Hidden Expressions, which features creative writing contributions from current or formerly incarcerated transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and “Write to Win,” a pen-pal project for transgender, transsexual, gender-self-determining, and gender-variant people inside Illinois prisons.
Once a month, the organization hosts a free Name Change Mobilization clinic in downtown Chicago with volunteer attorneys, who help dozens of transgender individuals file legal documents to get waivers for and approval of the name change process and its $500 fee. In 2015, the program helped 114 transgender people through the name change process.
“For many trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, completing the name change process can help remove one of the barriers they face when seeking employment, housing, and education,” says Rudnick, an attorney and coordinator of the organization’s Name Change Mobilization legal clinic.
“After the legal name change is completed, we help them change their names and gender markers at the Department of Motor Vehicles; Social Security Administration; and on passports, birth records, et cetera.”
TJLP has been a strictly volunteer organization until recently. “We’ve just received our largest grant to date from Chicago’s new LGBT Community Trust,” says Rudnick. “We’re on our way to doing more for the community.”
Nadia Qurashi and Megan Stuart
Nadia Qurashi and Megan Stuart
For the past four years, Nadia Qurashi (’08) and Megan Stuart (’09) have served as a critical buffer between their clients and the bureaucracies and discrimination they encounter on a regular basis.
As part of the five-person team at the Urban Justice Center’s Peter Cicchino Youth Project, the pair help homeless and street-involved people under age 25 navigate social service agencies, civil legal issues, and, when they can, the criminal legal system. The majority of the homeless youth the project serves identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ). Many, they say, identify as transgender, are people of color, have recently aged out of New York City’s foster care system, and often end up homeless.
“Oftentimes,” says Stuart, “we meet clients after every other system has failed them.”
“When somebody is already experiencing homelessness, the added hostility they may face as an LGBTQ individual can exacerbate some of the violence they’re experiencing,” adds Qurashi. For example, for many trans people, staying in a shelter can mean heightened violence and harassment, in an already unsafe environment.
From day to day, the team provides advocacy and a host of civil legal services for their clients; these include help with immigration, public assistance, name changes, updated I.D. documents, or representation in family court. Many times, Stuart and Qurashi simply serve as a sounding board so their clients feel that they have someone who’s listening to them.
“It’s important to remember that there’s not one narrative that our clients have,” says Stuart. “There are multiple narratives, and every narrative is the right narrative for that person. My job is to always remember that each client has their own story and their reasons.”
An equally important piece of Qurashi and Stuart’s work is with judges and court employees, helping train them—formally and informally—to better understand how to refer to a trans person in the courtroom. It may be as simple as calling out only a person’s last name in the courtroom, rather than their given first name, to avoid safety issues of being “outed” in public as transgender.
What may seem like small changes—a new name and gender reference on an I.D., a separate area in a homeless shelter or prison, being referred to by one’s last name in court—can have a huge impact in systems where trans youth are met with a daily barrage of disrespect, discrimination, and harassment, says Qurashi.
“You have these administrative systems in place that are so damaging to certain people,” she says. “The people criminalized, targeted, arrested, and really harmed by these systems are the people who are supposed to be supported.”
Milo Primeaux has found his calling.
“Serving the transgender community was the reason I went to law school,” he says. “To have a job written for me to do this every day was a dream come true.”
Primeaux is speaking of his current position as head of the Empire Justice Center’s LGBT Rights Project, in Rochester, New York, where he started in September 2015. But he just as easily could be speaking of his previous job as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C.
Having come out as transgender about 12 years ago while in college, Primeaux says “it became very apparent, very quickly, that the world was not a welcoming or affirming place for trans or gender-nonconforming people.”
He became active in the community, volunteering during and after college, becoming an avid public educator, and learning how to lobby and organize.
At Whitman-Walker, Primeaux helped more than 250 transgender individuals, in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, obtain legal name changes and gender marker changes on their identity documents, a task that was not as easy as it may sound. Requirements for the name change process vary from state to state and, in some cases, from county to county.
“Obtaining accurate identity documents can be an enormous barrier for trans folks,” he points out. “Discrimination runs rampant when one or more of those documents don’t match the others, particularly for trans women of color.”
At Empire Justice Center, Primeaux provides a variety of free legal services to low-income LGBTQ individuals across upstate New York and works on policy advocacy to advance the rights and protections of LGB and transgender communities statewide. He is currently advocating for a regulation that will clarify the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals under the existing protected statuses of “sex” and “disability” in the state’s human rights law.
“This is really a great opportunity for some forward movement and clarity in the law, but there is still so, so much more work to do to address the racial and economic disparities that systematically and disproportionately impact our communities,” he notes.
As he looks toward the future, Primeaux says he would like to use his position to help vulnerable LGBTQ people who are aging and/or who are veterans, and to build a network for resources in more remote areas of New York by training attorneys and community advocates across the state, where there are few, if any, resources for trans and gender-nonconforming people.
“I think I’m in a really prime spot to potentially make some widespread impact for folks across the state,” says Primeaux. “It may take some time, but I’m up for the challenge.”
CUNY Law alumni working in the field: There are far more CUNY Law alumni working on issues in the transgender and gender-nonconforming community than could be featured in this article. Some are noted below.
- Eugene Chen (’13) is in the second year of a two-year fellowship with NYLAG’s LGBTQ Law Project.
- Brendan Connor (’13) is a staff attorney at Streetwise and Safe.
- Yasmine Farhang (’13) is the LGBTQ legal coordinator for Make the Road New York.
- Belkys Garcia (’06) is a staff attorney with Legal Aid Society’s Health Law Unit.
- Mik Kinkead (’13) and Rage Kidvai (’14) lead the Prisoner Justice Project and the Immigration Justice Project, respectively, at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
- Danny Kirchoff (’09) is the legal helpline manager at the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.
- Anya Mukarji-Connolly (’02) is a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defenders Services, Family Practice. Until December 2015, she was supervising attorney for the New York Legal Assistance Group’s (NYLAG) LGBTQ Law Project.
- Elana Redfield (’08) is director of LGBTQI Affairs in the Office of Client Advocacy & Access at the NYC Human Resources Administration.
We want to hear from you: If you’re a CUNY Law alum working with the transgender, gender-nonconforming community, we’d love to know about your work. Please contact us at email@example.com.