Symposium on legal needs of transgender community explores multiple aspects of trans experience

OUTLaw, the NYU School of Law’s organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer law students, held a daylong symposium, “Justice in Transition: Serving the Transgender Community in Law and Practice,” on November 4. Beginning with a trans awareness workshop, the symposium, focused especially on the intersection of trans identity with race, class, disability, and age, continued with two panels, “Challenging the Criminalization and Detention of Trans Communities” and “Challenges Facing Trans Youth.”

The final panel, “Disability Justice and Trans Liberation,” started with an introduction to disability justice by Sebastian Margaret, co-founder of Disability Justice Collective. Referring to the problem of “ableism,” or “material, social, and attitudinal conditions in the world that restrict, limit, and oppress people with impairments,” Margaret spoke of a “supremacy-based system” in which “disabled people simply are inferior to non-disabled folk.”

Margaret explained, “Disability rights, trans rights, women’s rights, whatever you want to say.... If we don’t look out for each other, the state is not going to. We are flawed if we go the state legally and become complicit in a supremacy system in order to gain a very specific narrow legal gain.... When we’re going through a legal gain and it’s legislative, who are we losing? Who are we standing on? Whose backs are we on?... As a resistance, we have been pushed to the periphery, made to be just about individual bodies, the need for ASL interpretation, these particular individual things. That’s not where it’s at.” Margaret cited as examples of disability injustice Buck v. Bell, a Supreme Court ruling upholding a compulsory sterilization statute, and the case of “Ashley X,” a girl with severe developmental abilities whose parents decided to stop her growth through estrogen therapy and have her uterus and breasts removed in order to improve Ashley’s quality of life.

A transgender client advocate and case manager at Positive Health Project, Rev. Moshay Moses talked about her experiences at New York City’s Midtown Community Court, where she has advocated on behalf of transgender defendants. Profiling was a problem, Moses said; a majority are women of color, with many arrested on the street when they are not doing sex work.  But, she added, “I’m going to Midtown Court less and less because we have good lawyers who are fighting for them and making the judge more aware of the idea of profiling.”

Chase Strangio, an Equal Justice Works Fellow and staff attorney at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, focused on the intersection of trans justice and disability justice in the context of detention. Strangio argued that the legal system, prison-industrial complex, and medical-industrial complex mutually reinforce one another: “The law relies on medical standards and medicalization and at the same time legitimizes a lot of the medical practices and medicalization of bodies—things like forced sterilization, allowing pharmaceuticals to patent certain drugs and then re-patent them, making them totally unavailable to people who might want them, and at the same time allowing doctors to force treatment on other people under the auspices of fixing people. The law condones these things through legislation, through the regulatory schemes especially.”

Strangio pointed to economics as the ultimate focus. “Within all of these things, the legal structure that we’re operating in which our Constitution lays out for us is one that is really designed to maintain capitalism and the market economy, and within that the law really thinks about bodies and ability in relation to productive regulated work, and how much work someone is able to do within that system. We’re talking about systems that are designed to maximize productivity with a very specific agenda and a history of exploitation of people’s bodies.... With that frame, I don’t see how we can build a movement without centering disability justice because of how interconnected all these themes are, how systems are so designed to target specific bodies and to really predispose people to violence and death through state-related systems of regulation.... What might we do as lawyers, as people, as activists to really shift power rather than just reproduce the narratives that have built the state this way?”

Posted on November 11, 2011