Shana Knizhnik ’15, OUTLaw’s Alumna of the Year, discusses the Notorious RBG and coming out a second time

Addressing the annual alumni reception hosted by OUTLaw, Dean Troy McKenzie ’00 recalled the time when a joke among 1L students turned into an improbable and enduring online meme—thanks to his former student Shana Knizhnik ’15. The NYU Law student group, which brings together self-identifying LGBTQ students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and their allies, honored Knizhnik with its 2024 Alumna of the Year Award.

Shana Knizhnik
Shana Knizhnik '15

“Shana and some of her classmates began talking about this idea: Notorious RBG,” said McKenzie. “It was born here at NYU School of Law. I assumed that five people would get the joke and maybe 10 more people would know about it, but Shana, being Shana took it, ran with it and became co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was able to take a moment of hilarity in 1L and turn it into something substantive and quite moving.”

Accepting the award at the January 30 event, Knizhnik, now a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice, explained that “what started as mostly a joke took off in a way that I could never have imagined and came to define my life in many ways.” It is a life that encompasses much more than viral internet fame, including Knizhnik’s decision to come out as intersex—another component of her already public LGBTQ+ identity.

Notorious RBG was a joke rooted in something serious. Knizhnik created the first post on her Notorious RBG Tumblr account the day the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required certain states and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to seek federal preclearance before changing voting laws or practices. Knizhnik’s inaugural post quoted from Ginsburg’s notorious dissent, which spotlighted the majority’s reasoning that the decrease in voting discrimination since 1965 had rendered the provision unnecessary. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Ginsburg wrote.

The Notorious RBG Tumblr went viral, leading to a book deal with HarperCollins. Knizhnik and co-author Irin Carmon wrote their millennial-flavored tribute to Ginsburg during Knizhnik’s 3L year, and it was published just a few months after Obergefell v. Hodges gave same-sex couples nationwide the right to marry. Notorious RBG became a meme-spawning New York Times bestseller, and Knizhnik landed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

“All of this felt surreal in so many ways,” said Knizhnik. “It was particularly strange in that it became such a part of my identity, and certainly my public identity, even though being the creator of Notorious RBG was always very much a side gig…. If you can believe it, I did not come to law school to become a Ruth Bader Ginsburg meme creator and biographer. I came with an interest in civil rights and in doing what it is I do now, being a public defender.”

Knizhnik, who was involved with OUTLaw as a student, also participated in the Defender Collective, the Suspension Representation Project, the Racial Justice Clinic, and the Juvenile Defender Clinic. She found Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice Bryan Stevenson’s Eighth Amendment Law and Litigation course particularly inspiring: “I wanted to fight against an unjust system of mass incarceration stacked against poor people of color, and being able to use my skills and trial advocacy to do so felt like a perfect match.”

Watch Shana Knizhnik’s remarks at OUTLaw’s alumni reception:


Even as LGBTQ rights advocates racked up major legal victories during Knizhnik’s time at the Law School, racial injustices continued to flood the headlines, with violence against individuals such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Brown, and Michael Garner serving to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.

“These names and stories and countless others that came before and since came to encapsulate the system I wanted to fight against, a system that grew out of our country’s original sin of chattel slavery—a system that allows police and other officials, through qualified immunity and other legal and institutional insulation, to get away with egregious misconduct with no consequences,” said Knizhnik. Referring to her work, she said, “Public defenders are using our skills as lawyers in collaboration with social workers, investigators, paralegals, and impacted family and community members to do more with less. I’m proud to stand by my clients in their full humanity every day.”

While Knizhnik was already open about her sexual orientation before matriculating at NYU Law, she still withheld another personal truth: “In my own life, I found it much easier to advocate for those whose experiences are different from my own than to tell my own full story…. I was hiding a part of my identity, of my experience from almost everyone I knew.”

In October 2020, on Intersex Awareness Day, Knizhnik published “I’m Coming Out as Intersex After Years of Keeping it a Secret” in Teen Vogue. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not conform to the male/female binary. “Like many intersex children, as was the standard practice since the 1950s, I was operated on without my consent and also lied to about my condition,” said Knizhnik. “And when I was finally told a version of the truth, it was impressed upon me that I didn’t need to—i.e., shouldn’t—tell anyone.”

Knizhnik went on to help develop the youth advocacy group for InterACT, the largest organization in the US dedicated to the rights of intersex youth, but hesitated to reveal her intersex identity as her public profile increased. “Coming out publicly as intersex finally allowed me to remove the shroud of secrecy and shame that had defined so much of my life,” she said. “Being intersex has given me the opportunity to see beyond prescriptive binaries of all kinds,” Knizhnik added, “and coming out publicly allows me to talk about the need for trans intersex solidarity and fighting for bodily autonomy for everyone, particularly in the midst of a widespread legal assault on queer and trans people simply existing like I have never seen in my lifetime.”

At the beginning of 2021, no states banned “evidence-based, consensual, gender-affirming medical care for minors,” she noted. Three years later, 22 states have banned it. “Almost all of these bans contain explicit exceptions for non-consensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex kids,” Knizhnik said. “In other words, trans kids can’t get the health care they need and want, and in the same breath, intersex kids are being forced to get medical interventions they don’t want or need.”

The challenges of LGBTQ+ identity also bring strengths, Knizhnik said. “Queerness is about imagining a world other than that which exists, whereas the law is about precedent. But I think that that’s what makes us queers such good lawyers,” she said. “Not because we are able to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, as Audre Lorde warns us that we cannot do, but because we have all had to learn to use the tools that already exist and to make our own to survive and thrive in this world, and to envision a better one while doing so. That’s incredible to me.”

Posted February 15, 2024