Jennifer Levi '92: Fighting for Equal Rights, One Case at a Time

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2012

Earlier this year, Jennifer Levi, ’92, received the highest honor bestowed by the National LGBT Bar Association, its Dan Bradley Award, for her leadership toward equality under the law. Her civil rights advocacy on behalf of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people includes arguing the Massachusetts same-sex marriage case at the trial-court level, bringing a challenge to Massachusetts’ sodomy law, and establishing important protections for children born to same-sex couples.

Her work today focuses principally on the rights of transgender people—those whose internal sense and external expression of who they are, as male or female, is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. As the director of the Transgender Rights Project at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a nonprofit law firm that works throughout New England, she has been instrumental in winning favorable rulings for transgender people in employment, healthcare, lending, public accommodations, and education.

When Levi joined GLAD in 1998, none of the six New England states had statutory antidiscrimination protection in place for transgender people; today all but one of them do. She drafted statutes and testified many times before state legislatures as part of that effort, as well as litigating precedent-setting cases at all state-court levels. There was also no federal case law favorable to transgender people in 1998, and most federal laws and policies explicitly excluded transgender people from their protections. Levi has been a leader in changing that, through litigation and administrative advocacy. She celebrates the ruling earlier this year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that transgender people are fully covered under Title VII. Levi came out as lesbian in college, and her experience as a gay rights activist during her postcollege years prompted her to decide to attend law school. “I realized that I wanted the skills to make the most significant difference I could in the fight for civil rights,” she recalls.

The first time she was called on in a class at the Law School, the professor addressed her as “Mister Hertz.” (Hertz was her surname when she was at the Law School.) “That wasn’t upsetting to me, or even surprising, because I had been presenting myself in a way that most people read as male for much of my life,” she says, “though I didn’t come to identify myself as transgender until after law school, when I realized that my experience of difference was related much more to my gender expression than to my sexual orientation.”

Her time at the Law School was foundational for her success as a litigator and advocate, she says: “Some of the professors I respect most and learned the most from were ones with whom I strongly disagreed. They made me think hard about what I believed and helped me learn to express my thoughts clearly and persuasively. It’s interesting that more than a few of the preeminent national advocates for LGBT equality, such as Beth Robinson [’89], Heather Sawyer [’91], and Dale Carpenter [’92], graduated from the Law School around the same time I did. I think Chicago influenced us—at least I know it did me—to work passionately for social justice.”

In addition to her work at GLAD, Levi teaches law at Western New England University School of Law; she co-founded the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and the Transgender Law and Policy Institute; and she is co-editor of the first book about transgender family law, which was published earlier this year.

Having been with her partner, to whom she is now married, for nearly 15 years, and having two young children, Levi is particularly attuned to the effects on families of discrimination. She sees her book, Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy, as a complement to her work—a way to make it more likely that transgender people can exercise the rights that she has helped them obtain, and a path to the full integration of transgender people into communities. “Discrimination hurts families no matter what form it takes, whether it’s a divorced person being denied custody because he or she has come out as transgender, or someone being denied an employment opportunity because of how they express their identity, or a child who is stigmatized or even disciplined in school for dressing in a way that confounds gender stereotypes,” she says. “Everybody has a family. Nobody wants to see their loved ones harmed because of bias and misunderstanding.”