I once prided in earning more than some lawyers. While many young lawyers and law school grads, including a few in my social circle, had to take nonprofit jobs for less-than-desirable salaries in a city saturated with lawyers, I worked my way through the ranks in the restaurant industry. I was an executive chef working 74 hours a week (yes, neglecting self-care and mindfulness) in Washington, DC in 2009.
A first-generation immigrant, person of color and college dropout, I believed my creativity emboldened me to take such a high position that reality television glamorizes and my work ethics rewarded me financially. When Taste of Home published a recipe of mine, the magazine’s editor had a 500-dollar check coming my way. In addition to my drive and determination, what also helped me was my perceived cisgender privilege. I realize that now as my personal experiences constantly remind me of my lack of it in the past few years.
Starting in late 2017, I felt as if someone had pulled a rug out from under me. I came out as trans and immediately began to face employment discrimination, resulting in struggles to pay rent. I got my share of trans backlash for braving transphobia, coming even from some other members under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, as I began living my authentic life. My friends ignored me. Simultaneously, my former spouse filed a complaint in Maryland requesting sole legal and physical custody of our only child. All at once, I was tasked with finding employers who would make hiring decisions based on my abilities and see me as a human being, getting a lawyer to represent me and preparing for the worst.
Whitman-Walker Health’s Legal Services, that supported my U.S. citizenship application, reached out to FreeState Justice (FSJ) on my behalf after DC and other Maryland-based pro bono legal services organizations had declined my request for representation. During my interaction with these other nonprofits, I encountered their negative bias against my gender expression. Additionally, my separation from my child, as a result of my immigration and personal circumstances, was judged.
Transgender job applicants face discrimination in the District:
To learn about transgender employment discrimination in the U.S:
I felt relieved when FSJ accepted my case. That was in January 2018, but I still recall the conversation with the FSJ attorney who would later represent me. I told her, “You know I never got a chance to finish college. I’d like to go back. I want to be a lawyer.” At that time, I already knew that parents get sent to jail or have driver licenses suspended for having lapses in child support payments, and I questioned how preventing these parents from keeping their jobs justifies the children’s best interest. I anticipated the opposition requesting the court to assess a default rate of child support in excess of what I earned through odd jobs and temp work, with their assertion that I voluntarily impoverished myself. The FSJ attorney told me, “The court cannot punish you for bettering your life.”
Two months later, I would check in at a homeless shelter located three blocks from the campus of Georgetown University’s law school, to which I would later apply. Exhilarated, I even emailed my FSJ lawyer that I could see the law school from the shelter. My resilience was further tested in the following months as I encountered discriminatory treatment in accessing homelessness services, often orchestrated by those in power at taxpayer-funded nonprofits.
These “saviors” of the unhoused or housing-unstable folks may continue to operate discriminatory, oppressive and power-unbalanced publicly-funded services as housing instability and homelessness remains an urgent crisis in the years to come, especially for transgender and gender nonbinary folks. I was denied appropriate placement in a space that would be less un-dignifying, less intrusive of my privacy and more conducive to my job search and studies, in an email message. The fact that they communicated to me via email, specifying my trans-ness as the reason, struck me as their confidence in not being held accountable for violation of the DC law and my rights.
Scroll down at the link for a video of Dominique Jackson (in red) speaking her mind about so-called “housing advocacy.” Skip to 23:00 min to 24:32 min and listen to a minute and a half of truth: https://www.transgendermap.com/politics/housing/
Transgender people struggle in homeless shelters:
Problems with DC’s rapid rehousing program remain after years of concerted reform efforts:
Advocates say new “Bridge Fund” shows DC can find money for businesses but not for poor people:
To learn about transgender homelessness in the U.S:
I happened to read that message right after taking an oath as a naturalized U.S. citizen, putting an end to my battles in immigration court. I thought to myself there were legal battles ahead, through another legal process. I kept the email from the publicly-funded homeless services provider stating that their partner church has “never worked with someone who’s transgender.”
I fought for 10 years for my existence as an immigrant. Next, I was forced to fight for my equal right for access to basic services everyone else is entitled to. These lived experiences reaffirmed my determination to pursue a career to remedy injustices in society. Some injustices occur in the justice system itself and others are rooted in the issues of marginalized voices being ignored within the nonprofit industrial complex and the whitewashed, pinkwashed and corporate-sponsored LGBTQ+ movement. I know of nonprofit organizations that exploit LGBTQ+ youth homelessness because many funders support programs that benefit at-risk youth whereas adult trans men’s homelessness does not necessarily get the attention it deserves. Gays and lesbians won their right to get married and change their names legally. Trans people in states like North Carolina can get arrested simply for using a restroom that aligns with their gender. Murdered trans get deadnamed in death by the police and news media.
Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails Transgender People. Center for American Progress, Movement Advancement Project (pp. 19-20): http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/lgbt-criminal-justice-trans.pdf
The picture of me above was taken in 2017 at a break stop on the last day of the “Confront White Supremacy March” from Charlottesville, Va. to Washington, DC, led by an immigrant trans woman of color. I still remember the chants, “Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, DREAMERs do matter.”
In April of 2020, after being forced to share an old warehouse turned homeless shelter with more than 170 other people, I contracted COVID-19. While recovering from COVID at a quarantine site that I was transported to, I finalized my application to Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. Within two weeks, Georgetown accepted me. Upon moving into a campus housing unit, ending 29 months of my housing and sleep deprivations, I filed a lawsuit against the two parties that used my transgender identity as the basis for housing denial.
At least 21 unhoused folks died from COVID by July 2020:
Transphobia and rudeness experienced by trans folks in quarantine:
To learn about income disparity and mistreatment and discrimination in shelters, see Executive Summary of the Report of 2015 U.S Transgender Survey (pp. 10-11):
I experienced injustice throughout my civil legal processes and my interactions with our legal system. During the proceedings of my child custody case, I was referred to by incorrect pronouns — ones I had taken enormous courage to put behind me — by the judge and opposing counsel. My attorney from FSJ asked the judge and demanded the opposing counsel to respect my pronouns. Furthermore, when the counsel asserted that I “made a choice to be unemployed,” the judge sided with the counsel. As for my housing discrimination complaint against a DC social services agency and a church, one of their lawyers made an uninformed argument on the “facts” that I checked off “Male” and “LGBTQ” boxes on one intake form and “FTM Transgender” on another. Because of this out-of-context statement, I was forced to explain myself as a male to these “educated” cis folks, after they collectively questioned and invalidated my gender with no one voicing objection to the argument.
To learn why these intrusive terms “FTM” and “MTF” (most commonly used on intake forms by federally-funded programs) are no longer considered appropriate in contexts other than healthcare, see Moving beyond bias: How to ensure access to justice for LGBT people. A training curriculum prepared by Lambda Legal’s Fair Court Project for Judges, Attorneys and Other Legal Professionals (p. 10): https://www.lambdalegal.org/sites/default/files/publications/downloads/ll_moving-beyond-bias_guide_final_singles.pdf
Laverne Cox: ‘By truly embracing transgender equality, I believe we can all begin to define what it means to be a man or a woman on our own terms and liberate ourselves from the gender oppression we impose on ourselves and each other’
As I reflect upon this, I know my privilege as a non-Black person does not entitle me to ask someone why they check off Black and non-Hispanic/Latinx on a form and African/African American on another. We each have a responsibility to inform ourselves. Legal professionals need to hold themselves to a high ethical standard in their work, and it is up to legal professionals to hold each other accountable.
To learn about trans people’s experience in court and legal systems, see Moving beyond bias: How to ensure access to justice for LGBT people. A training curriculum prepared by Lambda Legal’s Fair Court Project for Judges, Attorneys and Other Legal Professionals (pp. 11-12): https://www.lambdalegal.org/sites/default/files/publications/downloads/ll_moving-beyond-bias_guide_final_singles.pdf
Accompanying presentation slides:
For competence practice with transgender clients, see Tips for lawyers working with transgender clients and coworkers. (2016). Transgender Law Center (p. 2): https://transgenderlawcenter.org/resources/employment/tips-for-lawyers-working-with-transgender-clients-and-coworkers
From my personal experience with legal professionals who do not necessarily have the same level of cultural competence with transgender clients as FSJ staffers, and me having read the coverage by many mainstream media that often misrepresents transgender subjects, I often self-advocate. In the face of adversity, I researched news media outlets to identify the select few that I believed could report on transgender rights with accuracy and without victim-blaming (really, in 2020!).
When the housing discrimination case settled, I changed the public relations person’s press release title, “Transgender Client Achieves Settlement in Gender Identity Discrimination In Housing Case Against Church and Service Provider,” to my “Client Achieves Settlement in Transgender Discrimination in Housing Case against Church and Service Provider.” The reason was that the focus should be on the discrimination, not my authentic gender, that when “gender identity,” the term necessary in legal filings, gets overused or used in place of gender in various contexts, invalidates one’s gender and that one’s trans-ness is never at fault but the defendents’ action and inaction in this case warranted the blame.
At Georgetown, my tuition is covered by four scholarships I earned for my voluntary work and advocacy for LGBTQ+, labor and immigrant rights. My evening courses allow time for an internship or job opportunity during the day. To many employers, soon after I started to live as my authentic gender, I was automatically disqualified for jobs. Now, at FSJ, I am honing my journalistic and communication skills.
It fills my heart with immense joy to give back as an intern with FSJ! I feel a sense of pride from being included and getting to partake in FSJ’s work. I believe access to services by culturally-competent lawyers is a part of indigent LGBTQ+ clients’ basic right. If my involvement with FSJ in my capacity helps secure additional funding to allocate toward direct services for more low-income LGBTQ+ Marylanders, then that would be one of the best things I would remember about this internship years from now.
The latest news on FSJ’s impact:
Donate to FreeState Justice:
Written by Seth Canada, Communications and Development Intern, Spring 2021
Seth is a junior in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. He returned to his undergraduate studies in 2020, after working in food service for several years _ as a vegan chef in recent years _ and in marketing. He is an individualized major, taking courses in journalism, communications, business and theater. (He believes trans characters should be played only by trans actors to tell trans stories accurately). Having had many personal adventures, he can talk his head off about his cycling journey across 10 states (4,262+ miles) in 2016 as a 98-pound person primarily eating plant-based foods.
His experiences in the last 10 years also include advocacy, outreach, grassroots organizing, public relations, small business startup, branding, social media marketing and blogging, etc. He interned as a paralegal at the Law Office of Irena Karpinski in summer 2019 and gained experience in the areas of immigration and family laws. Having fought personal battles in immigration and family courts, he recognizes LGBTQ+ clients’ need for legal representation by culturally-competent attorneys. He is thrilled about the opportunity as an intern with FSJ and hopes to develop skills transferable to the legal profession that he aspires to enter as a civil rights and immigration lawyer someday. He plans to start law school in 2022.
To learn more about issues facing the transgender community specifically:
The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (Breakout Reports):
The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (DC): https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTSDCReport%281017%29.pdf
The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (MD):
No widget added yet.