LGBT Week Focuses on the “Fringe”

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
April 14, 2014

When people hear, “LGBT legal issues,” they first think of the right to marriage. After all, it’s the cultural battleground that has been most closely associated with gay rights for decades. But when Kara Ingelhart, ’15, sat down to plan OutLaw’s LGBT Legal Issues Week, she decided to focus on other topics.  

Ingelhart, OutLaw’s president, said the marriage fight is crucial but also moving decidedly in the LGBT community’s favor, both legally and in public opinion. What the Law School needed, she thought, was a focus on “fringe issues” that are critically important to sexual minorities but get little to no attention.

“We’re law students, and we know all about marriage equality and DOMA,” Ingelhart said, referring to the Defense of Marriage Act, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year in U.S. v. Windsor. “But there are many more issues people don’t know much about. They don’t get a lot of play. I felt like it was kind of my job to push the school a little bit farther.”

To that end, OutLaw hosted five days of speakers from March 31 to April 4 focused on the theme “Trouble at the Fringe.” Almost all the events were co-sponsored by other student groups with an interest in that day’s topic.

Professor William Baude, who writes extensively on gay rights, said OutLaw’s different focus “might be a useful reminder that the right to marry is not the only important LGBT rights issue in America. And this may show that the movement for marriage equality has done so well that it needs less help at this point.”

On March 31, Congressman Michael Quigley, D-IL, advocated for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on blood donation by men who have sex with men. The prohibition, which dates to the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, is flawed and unnecessary, Quigley said. It restricts healthy donors from the blood supply for life because of orientation, not behavior, and blood-screening technology has evolved adequately to protect the population.

The next day, Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal senior attorney and HIV Project national director, talked about the problem of the HIV criminalization laws in effect in many states. These laws make it a felony to know you have HIV and to engage in a sexual act without informing the other party of your status. They might sound like a good idea, Schoettes said, but in reality these laws perpetuate stigma and fear and don’t increase safety. They rarely take into account whether safer sex practices such as condoms are used, and whether HIV was actually transmitted; transmission of HIV is very unlikely when the HIV-positive partner knows his or her status, is in treatment, and uses protection, Schoettes said. But HIV-positive people are still sentenced to prison time – sometimes for many years – because an uninfected partner finds out about their status and decides to press charges.

Marriage equality wasn’t ignored; on April 2, lawyers from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP who represented Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, gave law students an insider’s view of the Supreme Court oral arguments. Joshua Kaye and Alexia Koritz played clips of arguments from both sides, and described in great detail the atmosphere in the Court and the legal strategies at work.

Judge Pamela Chen, the first openly gay, Asian-American federal judge, talked on April 3 to students about her serendipitous rise to the bench of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Chen said the judiciary happened almost by surprise as she worked throughout her career to advance civil rights. Before she was nominated to the district court by President Barack Obama last year, she was an assistant U.S. attorney, focusing on civil rights and public integrity, and deputy commissioner for enforcement for the New York State Division of Human Rights. She also worked as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and as an associate in private practice in Washington, D.C.  

After her speech, Chen said she was “honored” to talk to this generation of law students. “It was gratifying for me, and hopefully heartening to the students, to be able to tell the next generation of lawyers that the legal profession, including the judiciary, is rapidly becoming more diverse with respect to race, gender, and sexual identity and orientation,” she said.

(For what it’s worth, the students were impressed. Emma Cone-Roddy, ’15, said of Chen: “I want to be her. It’s really amazing and inspiring you can have a career doing all these cool things.”)

Finally, the students heard from Jennifer Levi, ‘92, director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders). Levi talked on April 4 about the difficulties faced by transgender inmates, such as transgender women who are forced to live in a male population and are denied hormonal treatment and surgery. Levi has served as counsel in several cases fighting for transgender rights, and before that she litigated important family law cases on behalf of gays and lesbians. In particular, she successfully litigated right-to-marry cases in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the first states to permit same-sex marriage.

When the week was over, Ingelhart said she was thrilled. “The speakers disseminated a lot of knowledge I couldn’t have on my own,” she said. “I’m really happy we got to learn about these fringe issues from the experts.”