Jeffrey Trachtman ’84, OUTLaw’s Alumnus of the Year, speaks about future of LGBT rights

On February 27, for the third consecutive year, OUTLaw, NYU Law’s organization for LGBT students and their allies, held a reception honoring an alumnus, which followed an expert panel discussing urgent LGBT issues. The OUTLaw Alumnus of the Year, Jeffrey Trachtman ’84, spoke to reception attendees about his longstanding experience with LGBT rights and the importance of public service in addressing current and future issues involving the LGBT community as the Supreme Court prepares to consider the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

Jeffrey Trachtman '84 (right) with OUTLaw co-chairs Alok Nadig '16 and Hillela Simpson '16

Adjunct Professor Michael Kavey, who teaches the LGBT Rights Clinic, moderated the panel “Post-Hobby Lobby: The Future of LGBTQ Employment Discrimination.” The speakers considered the repercussions of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., in which the Supreme Court ruled narrowly that a nationwide chain of crafts stores could refuse to provide medical coverage for certain female contraceptives because they ran counter to the owners’ religious beliefs. The panelists pointed out ways in which the opinion could be extended to provide religious justification for unequal treatment of LGBTQ employees, zeroing in on the hotly debated religious exemption in the long-languishing Employment Non-Discrimination Act legislation.

“Frankly, we’re fed up with having LGBT people being singled out for this special narrative that you can be discriminated against in the commercial sphere, in the public marketplace where we come together as a society,” said Susan Sommer, senior counsel and director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal. “Not where we are exercising our religion, but where we are engaging together in commercial enterprises, in publicly funded endeavors.”

Following the panel, OUTLaw co-chair Hillela Simpson ’16 presented the Alumnus of the Year Award to Trachtman. The recipient’s pro bono work has included serving as lead co-counsel with Lambda Legal in Hernandez v. Robles, the historic case seeking marriage equality under the New York constitution; leading a team that co-counseled with Lambda Legal in a series of cases establishing recognition in New York for out-of-state same-sex marriages, including that of Edie Windsor; and overseeing the creation of or drafting amicus briefs in numerous federal cases involving LGBT rights. Trachtman, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel specializing in bankruptcy litigation, also coordinates his firm’s pro bono general counsel relationships with the LGBT Community Center and Freedom to Marry.

Despite nearly two decades of pro bono LGBT advocacy, Trachtman surprised many a couple of years ago when he came out at age 54; he had been married to a woman since 1986 and had two grown children. Growing up in NYU’s Silver Towers, he recalled, he was in fourth grade when the Stonewall riots, widely considered the most important event leading to the widespread LGBT rights movement, occurred only blocks from his school in 1969. “But actual equality seemed really far away,” he added, mentioning Lambda Legal’s being denied nonprofit status in the early 1970s and the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the following decade, followed shortly thereafter by the Supreme Court’s affirmation of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick.

“I was kind of watching from the sidelines in a longtime, monogamous, different-sex relationship,” said Trachtman, “and to look back now and realize that not being in touch with my true self may have saved my life is a little weird.”

Remembering a classmate who worked on a law review note about the idea of gay people’s adopting their own partners to establish some kind of legal recognition of their relationship, Trachtman reminisced: “We finally said, ‘You know, this is not going to work. The only real answer should be marriage equality.’ And we laughed hysterically, because that wasn’t going to happen in our lifetime. But it did happen. It took another 30 years, but it happened because so many people—hundreds and hundreds of litigators and organizers and lobbyists—worked year after year, going door to door, legislator to legislator, court to court.”

Now that marriage equality is on the horizon, Trachtman said, it is time to turn to other pressing needs, such as the elimination of anti-LGBT discrimination in employment and public accommodations. “The reason it will get done is that those kinds of issues affect people like us. It affects privileged people as well as less privileged people. The real test for our community is to bring the same level of energy and focus and funding and passion to tackle issues that don’t, by and large, affect each of us directly. Problems of homeless youth, low-income elderly, transgender people. It requires empathy and selflessness and sociological imagination…. You don’t have to be writing a dissertation on intersectionality to get this. It’s really just saying we’re all in it together, and we’re not leaving anybody behind.”

Posted March 11, 2015