Li Nowlin-Sohl ’11 on finding meaning and hope as an advocate for LGBTQ rights

Growing up, Li Nowlin-Sohl ’11 (she/her) says, she thought of lawyers as “just angry people banging tables on TV.” But in 2006, while working on the first congressional campaign for now-Senator Peter Welch from Vermont, Nowlin-Sohl says, she began to see the ways that the law could be used to further the rights of LGBTQ people. “I started to see how debates about same-sex marriage were playing out in important ways through litigation,” she says. “I realized that I could use the law as a tool to protect the rights of LGBTQ people in my community.”

Li Nowlin-Sohl
Li Nowlin-Sohl

After graduating from NYU Law, where she was a Hays Fellow within the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, Nowlin-Sohl spent three years as a litigation associate at Paul Hastings before taking a clerkship with Judge Gladys Kessler at the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Seeking to litigate in an advocacy capacity, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington as a staff attorney in 2017. After five years at the organization’s Seattle-based branch, Nowlin-Sohl took what she describes as a “dream job,” becoming a senior staff attorney for national ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project in February 2022.

In this Q&A, Nowlin-Sohl talks about the ways her work has felt meaningful and the hope she has for the future of LGBTQ rights.

Can you tell me about your decision to practice at a large firm before moving into public interest work?

After law school, I worried about finding a job and about being pigeonholed in my practice if I jumped right into public service, particularly because of the economic recession in 2009, so [I] worked for a few years at Paul Hastings, where I ended up doing two pro bono LGBTQ asylum cases. The asylum cases were really the highlight of my time at the firm. After a few years, I knew I wanted to do this kind of work more full time, but I also felt like I needed stronger litigation chops, so I took a clerkship. It really honed my skills, but you do have to be more neutral in that role, and I missed being an advocate.

What kinds of cases did you work on at the ACLU of Washington? What did you enjoy about this work?

At that time that I joined [in 2017], the national landscape for LGBTQ rights was really changing. Obergefell [v. Hodges, which guaranteed the fundamental right to marriage for same-sex couples,] was decided in 2015, but there were all sorts of other related and important cases in this space. That position [at the ACLU of Washington] was great in that I got to work on LGBTQ issues, but also other issues that I really cared about. I was working on access to opioid treatments in jails, working on a Black Lives Matter protest case against the City of Seattle. I really loved the diversity of the work. But, you know, LGBTQ issues were still my passion. When the position came up at the national ACLU to work specifically on these issues, I knew that it was a dream job.

Have there been any cases that have been particularly significant for you?

I had a recent case called Igelsias v. the Federal Bureau of Prisons that had to do with a transgender woman who has been incarcerated in federal custody for quite some time and who was being denied gender-affirming medical care. She’d had to fight every step of the way to be housed with women, to get her hormones, and now, because of our successful settlement, she was one of the first people to receive gender-affirming surgery in federal custody.

I think that it has been meaningful both in that it’s successful—we were able to get a good result for her—but also how transformative it was for her and for her life. She had her surgery at the end of March, and the impact on her mental health has been significant. She talks about the future in a way that she didn’t before, and her ability to kind of plan her life and move forward has been really incredible to see. As so many states now have laws banning gender-affirming medical care for youth, this case really brings home the importance of this care and helps me to really feel it and to know what a difference it can make in somebody’s life.

How has the LGBTQ legal landscape changed since you’ve been practicing?

I was sitting in law school in 2008 when Prop Eight had passed in California, you know, limiting same-sex marriage, and I felt so much uncertainty about where things were going for LGBTQ rights. Ultimately, things improved substantially with cases like Obergefell and Windsor, and the push for LGBTQ rights has moved more quickly than just about any modern civil rights movement. But right now, it’s a pivotal moment in history, and attacks [such as those against gender-affirming treatment] are unprecedented. What happens next in the courts—the Supreme Court but also lower court decisions—I think, will be really determinative of where we go.

One thing that gives me hope is that the LGBTQ community and the trans community is not going away. We will continue to fight. I see more people speaking up at young ages, advocating for their rights and being lovingly accepted by their friends and families and communities, and that gives me a lot of hope that we’re going to win this in the long run. We are and always have been here, and we are resilient.

When I left law school, I had this feeling of, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the moral arc of the universe being long but bending towards justice—like we’re moving in the right direction, even if setbacks happen. Just because we’ve made so much progress in the last 20 years doesn’t mean that we’re going to keep moving in that direction with every step, and there is always the risk of really losing hard-won rights—sometimes temporarily, and sometimes for decades. Ultimately, it is a race that we have to keep fighting with everything we’ve got. It’s our job as lawyers and activists to continue that arc of the moral universe.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted October 23, 2023.