Speaking of Women's Rights: 2017

Thursday, September 7, 2017

This Administration is Moving in the Wrong Direction on Campus Sexual Assault

By Olivia Ortiz

Title IX guarantees students an education free from sex discrimination. In 2011, the federal Department of Education clarified the application of this law in its Dear Colleague Letter, requiring schools to “take immediate action to eliminate . . .harassment [including sexual violence], prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” This document provides crucial guidance as to what Title IX means in practice—that is, what sex-equal access to education actually looks like, for students, at schools.

Today, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s announcement that the Administration intends to make new rules rather than maintain the Dear Colleague Letter’s guidance, the principles and protections of Title IX are under threat. With no sexual assault survivors present and with very little input from people whose right to be free of gender discrimination in education is at risk, DeVos claimed that the current guidance does not adequately protect the rights of accused students.

I offer my experience as a student to illustrate the critical need for the principles in the Obama Administration’s guidance.

As a student at The University of Chicago, I first found myself reviewing my school’s sexual misconduct policy in 2012. While the policy was purported to have been written for students, it was confusing and internally inconsistent. In talks with the administration, even seasoned administrators failed to state what these policies actually were. A simple question persisted: what were our rights?

The Dear Colleague Letter concretely illustrates what the law affords by requiring policies and procedures that are equitable to all parties involved. An academic environment free from sex discrimination means equal access to: engaging in class, accessing campus resources, and participating in extracurricular activities, all without injury resulting from sexual violence. When such injuries occur, schools must address the violence promptly, with clear policies and effective remedies. It also prescribes basic measures that allow students to continue their education after experiencing violence. After trauma, access to counseling, increased security measures, and academic accommodations are often the difference between students thriving academically and dropping out. Finally, the Dear Colleague Letter requires that schools take preventative action in the form of trainings for faculty, staff, and students, so that all members of the campus community understand what their rights and responsibilities are.

The Dear Colleague Letter transforms a law into a concrete tool that students can wield for justice. Equipped with this guidance, my classmates at the University of Chicago and I demanded clear, centralized, and streamlined policies. These efforts have resulted in two policy overhauls and a user-accessible university website that actually communicates to students their rights at the university, civil, and federal levels. We demanded that our professors and classmates receive comprehensive training as to how to prevent and address sexual violence, resulting in mandatory Title IX training for the entire community. We showed survivors that they deserve more from their university than an incomprehensible webpage and illusory rights.

Title IX states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, . . . be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity . . . .” However, sex inequality in education does not live in statutory language alone. It walks with survivors as they pass their assailants on the quad; it sleeps with them in their dorms as their perpetrators lie rooms away; it sits with them in a dean’s office in mediations with their abusers. The Dear Colleague Letter gives voice to the violent realities of the very discrimination the statute prohibits.

But the Trump Administration is wrong if it believes today’s announcement will end the effort to prevent and address campus sexual assault. Title IX is still the law of the land and the Dear Colleague Letter only clarified what the law already provides. Survivors and advocates for their rights will not stop demanding the full protections of a law designed to make education free from discrimination, including gender-based violence.

Olivia Ortiz is a Legal Voice volunteer, currently serving as a member of the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup. Olivia has been a leader on the Workgroup's soon-to-be-released project: a "Know Your Rights" resource for survivors of sexual assault on Washington State campuses.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Leveling the Playing Field Beyond the Gender Binary: How Title IX Must Continue to Evolve

Jillian Bearden, pro cyclist and transgender woman. Photo: Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
By Lulu Klebanoff

Title IX was signed into law in 1972, during a time of political and social upheaval, as the US felt the effects of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, gay rights, and second-wave feminist movements. It validated decades of women’s rights activism and secured improved education for the women of the future. It states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under an educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Forty-five years have passed, and we are yet again in a time of political and social upheaval, with the Black Lives Matter, reproductive justice, and trans rights movements coming into conflict with a federal government that is increasingly hostile to social justice. It is a fitting time to re-examine Title IX—how it has improved education for people of all genders, and where it still fails.

Title IX requires educational institutions that receive any federal funding (i.e. public elementary, middle, and high schools, and nearly all colleges and universities) to provide equal access to all educational programs for all people, regardless of gender. Title IX allows women to earn degrees in medicine or law at graduate schools that previously wouldn’t have admitted them, to study disciplines like math and science that were previously considered beyond their abilities, and to seek remedies from their schools for the previously unspeakable harms of sexual harassment and assault experienced on campus. And, perhaps most notably, it allows them to play on school sports teams, something almost unheard of before Title IX was passed.

Title IX requires that schools provide equal athletic participation opportunities, equal athletic scholarships, and equal access to resources such as locker rooms, equipment, coaching, etc. These requirements are necessary to provide women with access to the benefits of sports that they were previously locked out of: opportunities to exercise, build strong friendships, practice teamwork and leadership, and compete. And participation in sports has benefits off the field as well. Studies show that athletes are less stressed, are more likely to graduate, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to smoke or use drugs. So it is a great victory for women that Title IX caused girls’ participation in high school athletics to increase tenfold and women’s participation in college athletics to increase sixfold between 1972 and 2012.

But Title IX’s work is not yet done. 80-90% of all educational institutions do not meet Title IX’s athletics standards (though they can still retain federal funding by claiming they demonstrate a history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for women, or that they are effectively accommodating women’s interests and abilities). And, according to the National Women’s Law Center, 1.3 million fewer girls play sports in high school than boys, and only 28% of the money spent on athletics at NCAA schools is spent on women’s athletics. 

The situation for trans students is even more dire.

The fight for gender equality has expanded since 1972 to include transgender and nonbinary people, but Title IX has not expanded to protect trans students. Many argue that Title IX should apply to trans students, because sex includes gender identity, and thus discrimination against trans people is discrimination “on the basis of sex.” Several cases regarding Title VII—which focuses on employment rather than education—have set a precedent for this concept. In one such case, the Justice Department refused to hire Mia Macy, a trans woman, specifically because she was transgender. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in her favor, declaring that “intentional discrimination against a transgender individual because that person is transgender is, by definition, discrimination ‘based on… sex.’” It seems logical this would apply to education as well, but no Title IX cases have yet set such a precedent. This means Title IX currently does little for the many trans students who are excluded from high school and college athletics.

Young trans men and women are often kept from playing on teams that match their gender identity. Some are barred from competing by coaches and administrators, who act as unregulated gatekeepers to the world of sports. Some, like Mack Beggs, a trans male wrestler who won the 2017 Texas state championship, are forced to compete on teams of their assigned gender by state athletic associations. And some are kept out of competition for at least a year (or sometimes entirely) by the NCAA’s policy for trans women that requires a level of medical transition difficult for many to achieve. And young nonbinary athletes are ignored by policies entirely, forcing them to make a difficult choice between competing on a gendered team and not playing at all.

Trans Americans face no shortage of serious issues, such as alarming rates of physical and sexual assaultsystematic criminalization, and dehumanization by “bathroom bills” and military bans. But the way we treat trans people in sports is an especially powerful litmus test for not only the status of trans rights, but also the status of gender as a whole in the US. Policies like the International Olympic Committee’s and similar US state policies, that require extensive legal and medical transition for trans women to compete in women’s athletics, reveal an underlying assumption that “male” bodies are inherently superior to “female” bodies. While such physical differences do exist on average (the average cis man is stronger and less flexible than the average cis woman, advantaging men in sports like sprinting and women in sports like gymnastics), this is a very limited view of human biology and of what factors contribute to athletic ability.

Biological sex is less binary than most people believe. Erin Buzuvis, a professor at the New England University School of Law, describes sex as a continuum, rather than a binary, in her paper “Caster Semenya and the Myth of a Level Playing Field.” Even ignoring gender identity—which may actually be inappropriate, as scientific study increasingly suggests that gender identity is biologically ingrained, and thus a part of biological sex—sex is a combination of chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia. All of these, especially hormone levels, vary widely—even chromosomes can be XO, XXY, XYY, XXX, or differ on a cell-by-cell basis—and can match up differently in intersex people. (Like people with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome who have XY chromosomes but lower testosterone levels than the average woman, and thus externally appear female, or like Dutee Chand.) Professor Buzuvis further points out that segregating people by sex doesn’t control for other athletic advantages of birth, like height, longer or shorter limbs, or extensive access to coaching from a young age.

So while dividing sports by sex does make sense as a strategy to maintain a level playing field, we must recognize that it is an imperfect and arbitrary system. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that enforcing the gender binary in high school and collegiate athletics doesn’t truly promote “fairness,” and instead just excludes trans students from the physical, emotional, and educational benefits of sports. 

This is clear to the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association, whose policy on trans athletes is one of the most progressive in the country. All athletic organizations in Washington State are required by the WIAA to allow every student athlete to compete on a team consistent with their gender identity, and to follow a non-invasive, psychologically based investigation process should the need to verify a student’s asserted gender identity arise. Establishing similar policies in other states would be a vital step towards extending Title IX to people of all genders and truly eliminating gender as a factor in education.

Lulu Klebanoff is a legal intern at Legal Voice, and a rising sophomore at Yale University. In her free time she loves doing improv, writing, petting dogs, and slowly dismantling the heteropatriarchy. She once broke her toe by dropping a 25 pound weight on it, and subsequently stopped weightlifting.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Here’s the Sex Ed Lesson the Trump Administration Missed in Class

By Nina Dutta

Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, you may have heard some remarkable words from your pharmacist or healthcare provider: “There’s no co-pay.”

That’s because the ACA included a mandate for most insurance companies to fully cover FDA-approved contraception – regardless of method or price. While there is a religious exemption for insurance provided by churches and closely-held companies, millions of insured women in the U.S. have been getting their contraception without a co-pay for several years now. In 2013 alone, women saved more than $1.4 billion dollars on out-of-pocket costs because of the mandate. They’ve also taken advantage of the coverage by seeking out pricier but more effective methods like IUDs.

Now, however, the Trump Administration is poised to remove this coverage. A document leaked on May 31st described a plan to expand the religious exemption so that it applies to any non-governmental employer that wants to opt out of covering contraception due to religious or moral opposition – meaning that nearly any employer could choose to drop coverage. (And all of this is assuming the ACA isn’t repealed outright, anyway.)

No surprise there. Women predicted a rollback on their contraceptive access and abortion rights after the election and have been seeking long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) methods – many of which can outlast a presidency - in record numbers.

What is surprising is that the Administration justified expanding the exemption by questioning whether contraception prevents unintended pregnancies at all.

Yeah, you read that right.

Apparently, key members of the Administration missed that day of class where many of us learned that contraception works. And the advice from their doctors. Not to mention the last 57 years of women’s progress.

So let’s break it down for them:

Alternative Fact: Increased usage of prescription contraception hasn’t decreased the rates of unintended pregnancy – so we shouldn’t require insurers to cover contraception.

Reality: Unsurprisingly, contraception does what it’s supposed to, and its increased use has been repeatedly linked to decreases in unintended pregnancy rates since the birth control pill was invented. In fact, a recent increase in the use of prescription contraception between 2008 and 2012 was associated with the lowest unintended pregnancy rate in 30 years.

Alternative Fact: Increasing access to prescription contraception doesn’t mean that women actually use contraception more – so it’s fine to reduce access.

Reality: Actually, a wide body of research shows that women whose insurance covers contraception are more likely to use prescription contraception, while women without that coverage rely more on less effective methods like condoms and are more likely to have unintended pregnancies.

Alternative Fact: Increased access to prescription contraception increases the teen birth rate – so we should not trust contraception at all.

Reality: History clearly shows that as the birth control pill became more accessible throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, teen birth rates across the U.S. decreased. Modern research shows that same effect: In the CHOICE study that took place between 2007 and 2011, St. Louis teenagers at high risk for unintended pregnancy were given their choice of any prescription contraceptive at no cost – and they experienced abortion and teen birth at less than half of the national and regional rates.

It’s a scientific fact that contraception works and that better insurance coverage helps prevent unintended pregnancies. Decreasing contraception access by weakening the ACA’s birth control mandate can only result in more unintended pregnancies, more unnecessary abortions, and higher healthcare costs. That’s something that we can all agree we don’t want – regardless of religious or moral convictions.

Nina Dutta is an advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights and a former Obstetrics & Gynecology researcher. She is a rising 2L at the University of Michigan Law School and is currently a Legal Intern for Legal Voice.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Paid Family & Medical Leave Means to Me—and What It Means for You

By Janet Chung

Some 25 or so years ago, I was just out of college and about to start law school, excited to be an intern at the then-Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now, the National Partnership for Women & Families). I was tasked with researching state family and medical leave laws as part of the effort to pass the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

To be honest, the research was somewhat academic to me at the time; interesting, but academic. I learned that the U.S. lagged behind almost every developed nation because we lacked (and still do) even paid maternity leave, let alone other forms of paid leave. I learned that some states had passed laws that protected people’s jobs when they had to take time off from work to care for their families or for themselves. I learned that it was important to make these laws gender-neutral, because even if women are in fact still most often the primary caregivers in their families and the ones to give birth, and therefore, the ones who need the time off, a law limited to maternity leave would keep that status quo and reinforce stereotypes. (I am quite sure I was not aware of the idea of transgender men becoming pregnant until 2008. [And to the naysayers: I stand by the utility of my People magazine subscription!])

In short, I knew being able to keep your job when you experienced a family health crisis or a new baby was important. Yet still, unpaid leave for those reasons wasn’t something I personally needed. Moreover, the idea of paid family and medical leave was, if you will, still but a gleam in my eye. Pie in the sky.

Several years later, I was back at the National Partnership as a legal fellow. At that point, after multiple vetoes, thanks to a change in the executive branch, the Family and Medical Leave Act had finally been signed into law (in 1993). I still remember my boss, the visionary Donna Lenhoff, telling me, “Now, we need to start working on paid leave.” She referred to it as “family leave insurance,” or “income” – because the idea was that funding wouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the individual, or any one employer. Rather, it would be like the unemployment insurance system – a system that relied on pooled funds to help soften the blow when the unpredictable rainy days came to pass.

Fast forward a few years. At this point, I am no longer a carefree single person, with parents in good health, with a good stable income, whose primary concern was where to go on my next vacation. I am now a working lawyer, a mother who’s experienced two pregnancies, one with some complications and that ended in a C-section. I am no longer part of a high-earning dual-income couple. My parents and children have been diagnosed with serious health conditions. I’ve watched close friends and colleagues experience caring for their parents through declining health and, often, up to death. They’ve also miscarried, been placed on bed rest, and had children, some with serious health conditions. Friends have had brain tumors, cancer diagnoses, hip replacements. Because that is life. 

So the passage of paid family and medical leave law in my adopted home state of Washington is particularly meaningful to me. I still consider myself lucky, privileged. But after those intervening decades, I now know – this isn’t just academic. This law is not merely a statement piece for gender equality. This is an important progressive policy that will transform thousands of lives. Like yours. Like mine.

Because let’s face it: America simply hasn’t been that great to too many of its denizens. So it’s wonderful, on the eve of the celebration of our nation’s birth, to have something to celebrate that shows the best of what our democratic process can create: a law that values the people and their families who are at the country’s heart.

Highlights of the new law:
  • Once the law goes into effect, you will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family caregiving and 12 weeks of paid medical leave, with a combined annual cap of 16 weeks of paid leave. For those with pregnancy-related health complications, the cap is extended to 18 weeks. 
  • A key feature is portability; to be eligible, you have to have worked a threshold number of hours (820 hours in the qualifying period, which in most cases is the first 4 of the last 5 quarters), but the hours can be with different employers. Moreover, even self-employed individuals and independent contractors can elect coverage. 
  • The law also defines “family” broadly to include children, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, and spouses – in recognition of the reality of family caregiving. 
  • The benefit is a progressive benefit; in other words, those who earn less will receive a larger percentage of their wage, while high-earning workers will receive a smaller percentage of their wage. 
  • The program will be funded by contributions from both employers and employees. Someone working full time at $13.50 an hour and making about $28,000 a year will pay $1.36 a week and the employer will pay $.80 a week. Employers with 50 or fewer employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the premium. 
  • Employees of employers with 50 or more employees are entitled to be restored to the same or equivalent job, as with the FMLA. 
For more information, check out our Washington Work & Family Coalition website, which will be updated with the most current information about the new law. You can join us in thanking the key legislators who made this policy a reality by signing our community card.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sense8 and Netflix's Questionable Commitment to Diversity

By Lulu Klebanoff

I watch Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican action movie star, take the stage at the São Paulo Pride Parade. Recently, sexually explicit photos of him and his partner were publicized without his permission, launching him out of the closet and into public scrutiny. His film career is collapsing around him, but he accepted the invitation to speak at the parade. He looks nervous and exposed, framed by a rainbow of balloons. But then, he finds his courage. “All my life I’ve had to pretend to be something I wasn’t,” he begins. “And to become what I wanted to become I couldn’t be what I am.” He hesitates, looking over to his partner. And then: “I am a gay man.” He smiles. I can see the relief in his eyes, the freedom of finally being out on his own terms. “I’ve never said those words in public before. I am a gay man!” He shouts it over and over, embracing any potential consequences for his career, his safety, and his relationships, as the crowd cheers. I am moved to tears by his courage, his joy, and his love.

Lito is fictional—he is a character on the Netflix original series Sense8, played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre. But his story has real and powerful effects, and his pride parade speech did make me cry. The second season of Sense8, released in May, was the perfect relief from today’s political climate: a diverse, hopeful story about love, empathy, and the power of human connection. Sense8 is the story of eight people across the globe who become psychically linked, and use their connection to fight against a mysterious organization that’s determined to hunt them down. But it’s the characters and their compelling personal journeys that have given the show its passionate following. Even when the storytelling may slow or the mythology may get jumbled, the ensemble, which is exceedingly diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and life experience, can still capture viewers’ hearts.

Which is why it came as such a shock when Netflix cancelled Sense8, less than a month after the release of the second season. Fans were furious, and even started a petition to get the show renewed, or at least to get an explanation for the cancellation. Netflix has been very cagey about the decision. Cindy Holland, VP of Netflix original content, said in a statement that there has never been “a more truly global show with an equally diverse and international cast and crew” but that the show “is coming to an end.” There’s some speculation that the show simply didn’t have a large enough viewership. Netflix doesn’t release its viewership numbers, but Netflix CEO Reed Hastings implied that the shows that get cancelled (of which there have only been four) are the ones people aren’t watching. But when combined with Netflix’s recent cancellation of The Get Down, a musical series about the birth of hip hop in 1970s New York (which doesn’t have a single white person in the main cast), the decision seems suspect. People are wondering why Netflix is cancelling shows with such important minority representation. Sense8 starred Jamie Clayton, a trans actress, as Nomi Marks, one of the few trans characters on TV. At the end of the second season, Nomi had just gotten engaged to her girlfriend Amanita. Now we will never see their wedding.

In the past, Netflix has been praised for its commitment to diversity, demonstrated by shows like Narcos and Orange is the New Black. But is Netflix any more committed to diversity than the competing cable networks? I looked at the shows from the 2016-17 season that Netflix is renewing, and compared them with the shows that The CW is renewing on three metrics of diversity: LGBTQ representation, racial minority representation, and female leads. On the first two counts, Netflix clearly does worse. While the CW has a queer character in the main cast of 55% of their renewed, scripted shows (plus a recurring queer character in an additional 27%), Netflix has a queer character in the main cast of only 29%. And while the CW has at least one person of color in the main cast of 91% of their renewed, scripted shows, Netflix meets this low bar with only 57%. Ideally, half of shows should have a female lead, and 48% of Netflix’s renewed, scripted shows do have a female lead (as compared to 45% of the CWs). But women aren’t very active behind the scenes at Netflix—less than 20% of Netflix’s writers, directors, and creators were found to be women in a 2016 study.

Netflix is getting better. In the 2016-17 season, it put out some amazingly progressive shows like One Day at a Time (about a Cuban American single mother, with a lesbian daughter), Grace and Frankie (about two 70-something women who are thrown together when their husbands declare their love for each other), Marvel’s Luke Cage (about a black, ex-con, bulletproof superhero), and Dear White People (about a group of black students at a primarily white Ivy League university). But the commitment to diversity they claim to have, means they need to stick by bold, diverse shows like Sense8 and The Get Down, even when the ratings aren’t what they hope. These stories are important—they treat people of color and queer people like human beings, in a world where these people are increasingly marginalized. As Lito Rodriguez says in his speech at the São Paulo Pride parade, “whatever it costs to be able to [kiss my boyfriend in public], I know in my heart that it is worth it.” Netflix needs to decide whether telling the stories of marginalized people is worth the risk. Because if Netflix only tells these stories when the ratings are good enough, that’s not really commitment to diversity at all.

Lulu Klebanoff is a legal intern at Legal Voice, and a rising sophomore at Yale University. In her free time she loves doing improv, writing, petting dogs, and slowly dismantling the heteropatriarchy. She is, admittedly, an avid bingewatcher of television, especially when that television has queer characters.

Photo courtesy of BagoGames | Creative Commons

Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Legal Voice Journey: Maddy Rasmussen on Her Internship & Creating The Safe Place Project

By Maddy Rasmussen

When I started at Legal Voice in the fall of 2015, I was filled with a level of excitement that nearly overran my whole body. I was immensely excited and proud to be involved with an organization that played a role in aiding all women. I knew when walking in that I wanted to make an impact on women in some way. I never realized exactly how much of an impact my project would make.

I would sit in on the staff meetings every Tuesday and I was able to hear about cases that Legal Voice was representing and discussions about news stories regarding women's rights. However, the one issue that always stuck out to me was access to reproductive healthcare, specifically abortion.

After many months of hearing about the issue and doing plenty of research on my own, I wanted to find a way to help women be able to find abortion clinics near them. In my junior year, I created a very rough google map pin pointing abortion clinics. When I reached my senior year, I wanted to be able to do something with this research. With abortion clinics and funds for abortion dwindling, the need for a resource like mine grew daily. After many weeks of brainstorming, I realized that the best possible way to present all of my information would be through a website, rather than making my map a public entity. And thus, the idea for The Safe Place Project was born.

The first few months were quite difficult. On the eve of an incoming president who was firmly opposed to abortion, I became afraid that my resource could be used against me and that I could potentially face the future that some abortion providers have to face daily.

There were days where I wanted to give up. Building a website and compiling all the data was no easy task, but I moved forward knowing that if my website was able to even help one woman, my whole project will have been worth it.

I am so proud of the project I’ve created, and so thankful to Legal Voice and Cedar River Clinics for supporting me. The Safe Place Project has already received such positive and powerful feedback from others in the reproductive health access community. Some of them are even interested in helping me keep this site going! I’ve learned so much in my two years with Legal Voice—about women’s rights, abortion access, even about myself—and I know I will continue to learn and grow as I head to college.

Please visit The Safe Place Project at www.safeplaceproject.com and let me know if you have any feedback! You can reach me at contactsafeplaceproject.com.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fear as a Barrier: Why Immigrant Victims of Violence Can’t Access the Justice They Deserve

By Sara Ainsworth

In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, Legal Voice has teamed up with the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence to highlight the impact of anti-immigrant policies on immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

The Northwest states are home to more than a million immigrants, many of whom are Asian American and Pacific Islander. Advocates from API communities – a diverse group facing diverse disparities – have led the way in promoting state and federal policies to make it safer for immigrant survivors of abuse to report the abuse against them and seek the protection of the courts.

But new federal anti-immigration policies – including raids, increased arrests, and targeting immigrants with no criminal history – threaten to undo decades of work to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault go to the police for help when they are in danger.

A nationwide survey of legal programs and domestic violence agencies, published last month, found that fears of reporting to the police were up a shocking 78% among immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Today NPR reported on this survey in a story about Latino immigrants in Texas fearing deportation if they reported crimes. As the NPR story noted, these fears are particularly harmful to victims of gender-based violence; in Houston, for example, sexual assault reporting by Latina immigrants is down 43% from last year. In a related report, a Denver prosecutor described having to drop four domestic violence prosecutions after the travel ban was signed in January – all four victims were immigrants who feared they would be taken by immigration authorities at the courthouse if they testified against their abusers.

Punishing immigrant victims for coming forward means violent abusers can continue to threaten, harm, and intimidate their victims. It creates a two-tiered system of justice, where only some of our communities are protected.

How you can help:
  • Call your city council members, wherever you are, and demand that law enforcement and other public officials not inquire about immigration status. 
    • Here's a script: "Victims of violence should not have to fear being deported or separated from their families when seeking help and justice. But countless immigrant survivors are living in fear of just that. When local police collaborate with immigration enforcement, victims are discouraged from seeking safety and cooperating with the criminal legal system. Please pass policies barring local officials from inquiring about victims and witnesses’ immigration status.”
  • Contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and demand that they stay away from courthouses
  • Support the organizations that are moving this critical work forward: 

Photo courtesy of Janko Ferlic | Unsplash

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Doing What it Takes: Maresa's Perseverance and Journey to Legal Voice

By Phil Bouie

“I don’t like when people refer to me as being a strong mom. I’m just doing whatever I need to do to provide for and protect my children. I signed up for this when I became a mother.” 

– Maresa Harden

Maresa Harden had been in a relationship with the father of her children for several years before things took a turn for the worse. He became violent, verbally abusive, and would use intimidation tactics such as breaking her cellphone as an attempt to subjugate her. Maresa’s former partner began using their children as a tool of spite. He would withhold the children from her, sporadically change the times when they were picked up and dropped off, continuously be inconsistent about his availability and conceal information about his visits with the children. He felt he could get away with this blatant lack of accountability because she didn’t have an official parenting plan.

Even though the Washington State Parenting Act helps protect domestic violence survivors and ensure a safe and healthy upbringing for their children by requiring certain restrictions on the abused parent, domestic violence survivors are routinely told to “work it out” through a divorce or custody case. It’s also very common for survivors to be wrongfully granted short-term protection orders rather than a long-term order that suits the situation appropriately. Legal Voice works in Olympia to pass strong laws to protect survivors, but creating those laws is only the first step. We monitor Washington courts to ensure those laws are being followed properly.

Maresa could not afford a lawyer. She was unsure and somewhat frightened of how the process would play out. Could she put her trust in the courts to do the right thing for her and her children? Maresa went to the Pierce County court to file for a temporary parenting plan and found out that she could not put her full trust in the judicial system. The judge granted Maresa a temporary parenting plan and acknowledged her former partner’s history of domestic violence. However, the judge refused to include the father’s history of domestic violence in the court documents. The judge claimed that the charge would “follow him around like some ghost.”

Unsatisfied with the court’s decision, Maresa determined that she needed legal representation if she were to file an appeal.

Legal Voice represented Maresa in her appeal of the parenting plan, arguing that the trial court’s error removed a critical protection created by Washington law. The court’s initial decision left Maresa and her children at risk of further abuse. The decision also left communication guidelines between Maresa and her abuser unresolved. The Court of Appeals agreed with us, reversing the trial court’s decision and demanding a new parenting plan that included restrictions on the father’s decision-making and custody time.

Although the trauma of being a domestic violence survivor is something that never fully subsides, Maresa and her children have persevered, continued to move forward, and are doing well. Maresa recently got a job in her children’s school district that gives her work hours that are more compatible with the lives of her children. Maresa’s oldest daughter is involved with several sports teams and participating in a program for excellent students. She is one of three students that was selected from each school in the district that will have an opportunity to meet with Mayor Jim Ferrell of Federal Way as part of a Communities in School fundraising event. Maresa’s youngest daughter has had perfect attendance for the entire school year while excelling in all of her classes, and has recently earned a student of the month award.

“Legal Voice made it financially possible for this to happen. It wasn’t an option without them,” said Maresa when I met with her recently to discuss her case. “The way that David [Ward] approaches things, his demeanor and his professionalism are awesome.

“I want people to know there are organizations like Legal Voice that fight will for you and victims experiencing trauma in Washington State. I want to thank Legal Voice and the donors and supporters of Legal Voice who made this all possible.” Fighting for Maresa has allowed her family to focus on life and achieve success.

Phil Bouie is the Development Officer for Legal Voice. He is inspired by Maresa's story and urges you to participate in GiveBIG to support this ongoing, critical work.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Empowering Survivors to Achieve Justice: Meet Legal Voice's Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup

An Interview with Olivia Ortiz

Like most nonprofit organizations, Legal Voice relies on the generosity and enthusiasm of our amazing volunteers. One way members of our community help advance our work is through our policy workgroups and committees, where volunteers give their time and expertise to advance the law, defend existing protections, and educate people in the Northwest about their rights.

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we asked a few questions of Olivia Ortiz from our Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to learn more about the important work this group is doing. Read on!

Legal Voice: Who makes up the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup, and what is the group's goal?

Olivia: The Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup is a diverse group of lawyers, students, advocates, and recent grads all working to one goal: empowering student survivors of sexual violence with knowledge of their rights. Sexual assault is devastating, and has a huge impact on access to education. When you're trying to balance school with just trying to survive, it is hard to know what to do, let alone figure out and research what long and confusing policy means. Survivors deserve an education and deserve justice, whatever that may mean to them, and we are here to help.

Legal Voice: How is the workgroup working toward this goal?

Olivia: Our group is creating an easy-to-access online Know Your Rights guide for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest to access in times of crisis. This guide breaks down state and federal laws in a way students can access and empower themselves in different scenarios following sexual assault. Whether that means preparing for a school hearing, going through the criminal process, or learning what accommodations are available for attending class, we've got you covered. We want this guide to be an intersectional one, including rights and concerns particular to undocumented students, LGBTQ students, disabled students, and students of color. We will release our Washington State guide soon, with guides for other Pacific Northwest states to come.

Legal Voice: Can you tell us about your background and what led you to join this workgroup?

Olivia: While I was in college, I noticed my university had sexual assault policies that were difficult to understand and that were not being enforced in the letter nor spirit of Title IX. I decided to take action and create a survivor advocacy group on campus. One of our very first projects was to create a similar resource guide for students on our campus, and we eventually pushed our administration to create a more streamlined process with an easy-to-understand website to go with it. When I heard that Legal Voice was doing a similar project for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest, I was excited to find another, similar way to continue my efforts after graduation. I am passionate about empowering survivors to achieve justice, and I firmly believe that being able to attend and fully participate in school can be one of those ways.

Legal Voice: Why do you think it is so hard to turn the tide on campus sexual assault?

Olivia: Sexual assault is a huge barrier to getting an education, and all students deserve to go to school where they can learn free from sexual violence. If a student survives sexual assault, schools must do their job to make sure that the survivor is still able to fully participate in classes, student jobs, extracurricular activities, and any other school-sponsored event. Much of the difficulty in turning the tide is the unwillingness to listen to what survivors need to feel able to access their education and then act upon it. Whether that be congresspeople introducing misguided bills forcing schools to report to the police, or schools not honoring survivors requests for accommodations or inclusion in influencing campus policy, survivors are often left unheard. In order to change our culture, we must meaningfully listen to survivors and ensure they are leading these efforts.

Legal Voice: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about sexual assault?
Olivia: Two of the greatest myths that I've encountered is that sexual assault doesn't happen at one's institution and that it does not happen frequently. Sexual assault affects people of all identities and particularly the most marginalized. Sexual assault happens at large institutions and small institutions, for-profit and non-profit, religious and non-denominational, and public and private. Although it is convenient to brush these things aside, we must accept this reality in order to change it.

Legal Voice: How can students help get the word out about the upcoming Know Your Rights guide?

Olivia: Our guide is a living document for students, and thus is very much open to student and survivor feedback. We want this guide to be a tool for students and it is really important that we tailor our guide for their interests and needs. And, of course, we could use student help publicizing the guide. We would love for students to bring us to their campus to discuss the guide, or have students reach out to their campus wellness centers or other important partners to distribute our guides.

If you are interested in bringing the Legal Voice Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to your school or have ideas on how you can help promote the Know Your Rights guide, please contact us!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interconnected Parts of Me: Deepening Intersectionality for Women’s Liberation

By Anonymous
Trigger warning: racism, sexual assault, child sexual assault

Every year around this time I get sick. I can’t sleep, my eating schedule is off, I am no longer in touch with my body, and I constantly feel vulnerable. This year, I was hoping that something would be different because a decade has passed. I thought that I could “celebrate” my growth and strength as a survivor of racialized sexual assault. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Sexual assault in the United States is far more common than most people realize. It happens in the workplace, with acquaintances, walking on the street, in the home, and everywhere one could imagine. Many women report feeling rape anxiety—a feeling of impending sexual assault—during normal daily activities. This invisible fear may become evident when a woman lashes out at a “hey beautiful” comment or unwanted physical contact, such as a stranger’s hand around her waist in a crowd.

Personally, I feel rape anxiety when I am around racists. Racism is a huge trigger for my anxiety because my sexual assault may have been racially motivated. I was raped by a racist who actively hated immigrants, people of different religions, and anyone non-white. No one can know if that is what caused him to take out his rage against me in such a dehumanizing way, but I suspect that motivated the attack.

Ten years later, I still feel sick when I hear “harmless” racist jokes because I never know if that racism could be directed at me in a dangerous way. I experience all the fears that white women do in public and walking down the street, but I also feel an added layer of fear because of my skin tone. Even though I’m a successful, independent adult, I am still acutely aware that I am no safer now than I was as a high school sophomore. The weight of this vulnerability is constant and deep.

Racialized sexual harassment and assault is common for women of color and is even more widespread for transgender women, gender nonconforming people, and disabled women of color. But why does it commonly go unaddressed when we talk about women’s issues? And why do some groups avoid it when they talk about systemic racism? Women’s rights organizations must fight for racial justice or acknowledge that they only fight for white women. As a woman of color, I see no compromise on this issue.

I admire Legal Voice greatly for their willingness and effort to change the conversation from sexual assault as imagined from a white perspective to a more comprehensive view of the issue. I’m glad that they have chosen to participate in the Black Lives Matter march this weekend, and that they are learning from people of color-led organizations. Unfortunately, they had to cancel the sign-making event for the Black Lives Matter march due to lack of interest. This was not the case with the sign-making event for the women’s march. My hope is that Legal Voice and their supporters will show up for communities of color with the same love and enthusiasm as they have shown other movements.

As someone who has suffered from both racism and sexual assault, both independently and together, I can say that I do not feel more connected to my gender identity than my racial identity. I feel them both as interconnected parts of me—the same applies to my queer identity and my multiple privileges. I experience the world as one human being who lives at the intersection of various identities.

Just because I am a minority* and a woman, does that mean my sexual assault does not matter because it was racially motivated? I hope you would say, “Of course not!” Then it should require no leap in logic to fight for people of color with the same enthusiasm that you fight for women’s rights. Each person with a marginalized identity has a window into others’ experiences with discrimination. While this does not mean they have a mirror into that discrimination, it should be enough to hold empathy for women of all races, abilities, religions, and citizenship status. Our experiences may not be the same, but our movements must be united.

* I am a racial minority in the United States. It is important to acknowledge that women of color are in the global majority.

Photo credit: Tachina Lee

Friday, March 31, 2017

Women Making History: Sojourner Truth

By Philip Bouie

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, feminist, evangelist and women’s rights activist, was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in upstate New York around the year 1797. Blessed with a powerful voice, inspired by religious conviction, and standing almost six-feet tall, Truth used an aggressive platform style of engaging her audiences that attributed to her personal charisma. Legend has it that Truth would bare her breasts before crude audiences who challenged her womanhood. Harriet Beecher Stowe once said that she had never met anyone who had more of a subtle and powerful presence than Sojourner Truth.

The state of New York began emancipating all slaves on July 4, 1827. However, Sojourner Truth didn’t wait for her freedom to be granted. In late 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia, while her other children stayed behind. After her escape, Truth learned that her five-year-old son Peter had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She eventually took the issue to court and won the case. The trial was one of the first cases in the United States in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a court of law.

In 1844, Truth joined forces with notable abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and David Ruggles at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The members of the Association lived together on 500 acres as a self-sufficient community and supported a broad agenda that also included women’s rights and pacifism. The Northampton community disbanded in 1846, but the legend of Sojourner Truth was just beginning.

In 1850 her memoirs were published under the title of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the book’s preface and Truth’s friend, Olive Gilbert, dictated her recollections because Truth could not read or write. After Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, she began touring the country, speaking to large audiences about slavery and human rights.

In May of 1851, Truth delivered her most famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, a speech that would later be known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The original version of the speech that was published in the Ohio newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle did not contain the phrase at all. The phrase would not appear in print until 12 years later, when a “southern-tinged” version of the speech was reprinted.

Truth toured Ohio from 1851 to 1853 and as her notoriety grew, the abolitionist movement grew with it. Even among fellow abolitionists, Truth’s positions were considered radical. Sojourner Truth was sagacious and outspoken, she sought political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for not actively seeking civil rights for black women as well as men. Truth was also a staunch advocate for prison reform and the elimination of capital punishment. She eventually settled in Michigan where she would testify before the Michigan legislature as an opponent of capital punishment.

During the Civil War, Truth recruited troops for the Union Army, collected food and clothing for black regiments, and met with President Abraham Lincoln, who gave her permission to become a counselor at Freedman’s Village. After the Civil War, Truth immersed herself in securing land for ex-slaves during Reconstruction and dictated many letters, which would later provide pivotal details about Reconstruction.

Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. Embraced by a community of reformers including Amy Post, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, her funeral and burial in Battle Creek was the largest the town had ever seen at the time. That her journey began as an 11-year-old slave who was sold for a flock of sheep and $100, and her life was commemorated with an unveiled statue at the U.S. Capitol in 2009, is a testament to her character and her place in the history of the United States. Sojourner Truth was the personified confluence of women’s rights, civil rights, prison reform, property rights, and universal suffrage. She is one of the most remarkable people this country has ever known.

Philip Bouie is the Development Officer for Legal Voice. He is steadfast in his commitment to women’s rights, marginalized communities and eating desert on a daily basis. He’s also black like Sojourner Truth.

Photo from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Extraordinary Ordinary: One Korean 20th Century Life

By Janet Chung

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

You wouldn’t know it, to look at her. This tiny, wizened, polite lady, with age spots on her face and hands. She loved to dress in the fanciest suits for church, her size 5 feet clad in fine Italian leather. She ate slowly, precisely, like a bird, carefully selecting each bite with chopsticks. Unfailingly patient, she tended her African violets, turning snips from one plant into many more, until they covered nearly every windowsill.

You wouldn’t know that those hands had washed thousands of grains of rice. That those feet had walked hundreds of miles, from village to village, escaping encroaching Communist soldiers. That there were many days that a small bowl of rice was a blessing.

Born in 1910 in Japanese-occupied Korea, she probably could easily escape notice, as the second girl in a family with five children. Nothing in particular was expected of a girl in that time, in that place, but to get married. Maybe it was that ability to be hidden in plain sight that got her, at age 14, on a boat to Japan, determined to get an education.

Some dozen years later, she was a widow with a young daughter. Her husband’s family, in keeping with tradition, was obligated to provide for her. She could have spent her days among the other females in the family, consumed by the daily chores as part of a large multi-generational household. But she knew her daughter would be far down the pecking order among the many cousins when it came to resources.

So she worked, for pay, outside the home. This world was unknown to most of her women kinfolk, who rarely had occasion to leave the house or interact with strangers. The stories came out slowly over the years, the exact chronology uncertain. Your grandmother was a tutor to her brother’s children in Japan. She worked at a U.S. Army base, helping cook for the Korean workers. She was a telephone switchboard operator. She taught at a local school. She was secretary to the head of the largest hospital in Seoul. And somewhere in there, she managed to get a pig, fatten it up, and sell it for extra income.

Slowly, slowly, she squirreled away her paychecks so that she could send her only daughter to school – so she would have more opportunity than what her gender and her fatherless state would otherwise have allowed.

There were no stories about my grandmother in a dramatic moment – fighting off an attacker, giving a rousing speech, or even having a confrontation. I can’t remember a time when she so much as raised her voice or had an argument.

So this isn’t a story about your typical heroine. No one will ever make a movie about my grandmother. In point of fact, Eun Soon Lee was quite ordinary. But the life she led was also extraordinary. There are probably many like her, now, then, throughout history: each life unique in its details, but sharing the plot line of survival.

Eun Soon Lee with Janet's son (2001).
There is an aspect of the Korean character, a cultural and psychological characteristic widely accepted as central to “Korean-ness,” called han. Described as “a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency,” han manifests itself at the social and national level, as well as the personal. It is a deeply felt sense that some injustice has been wrought. On the one hand, it is a “mixture of angst, endurance and a yearning for revenge,” yet also, “a sense of hope, an ability to silently endure hardship and suffering.” Han is also the name of a major river flowing through Seoul that has played a major role in Korean history.

My grandmother’s life was replete with this Korean essence, this han. She didn’t choose the circumstances that befell her – born into an occupied state, subjected to early widowhood, living through two wars resulting from forces well beyond her control. Yet she retained agency over her own life and, like a river, created a path that moved inexorably forward. That backbone, erect as ever, even well into her 90s, must have been forged of pure steel – strong, yet tempered by resiliency. Han.

Janet Chung is Legal & Legislative Counsel for Legal Voice. She did not inherit her grandmother's green thumb, but tries to channel her work ethic and steady persistence. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities for women through her advocacy for health care access and employment justice.

Photos courtesy of Janet Chung.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Women Making History: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

By Sara Ainsworth

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, born in 1862, was an activist, teacher, and writer who, despite death threats and the destruction of her self-built newspaper, never stopped demanding an end to racial injustice. She was one of the leading voices in exposing the terrorism that white people inflicted on Black families through lynching, threats, and Jim Crow laws.

At a time when women editors, journalists, and newspaper owners were rare, she was all three. After publishing an exposé of the lynching of her friends, white mobs destroyed her newspaper and threatened her life.  She fled to England, where she continued to campaign against lynching. She gathered extensive evidence of the lynching of Black Southerners, and authored and published a widely-distributed pamphlet, “Southern Horrors.”

After returning to the U.S., she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women, and was one of two women who helped found the NAACP. She died in Chicago in 1931.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett contributed greatly to the future civil rights movement, to the end of Jim Crow laws, and to the movement to end lynching. Yet Black families continue today to experience threats, struggle, and violence—whether state-sanctioned or from individuals. Modern voices that echo Ida B. Wells-Barnett are critical.

Thankfully, the amazing leaders at Forward Together have provided a platform and a place of activism for the modern “Idas.” You can find their brilliant analysis on topics ranging from reproductive justice to the 2016 election to criminalization and public policy at Echoing Ida. Here, Black women writers and leaders in reproductive and racial justice provide insight, analysis, and brilliant writing on issues affecting Black women and LGBTQ people and their communities right now—and they publish that work in media outlets all around the country. As they explain, they are, like their namesake, “truthtellers.”

Women who have made history influence women who will make history, and Ida is surely no exception. I encourage you to read from Echoing Ida's ever-growing body of work, and support the women who are continuing Ida's legacy of justice.

As Advocacy Director for Legal Voice, Sara Ainsworth is committed to reproductive and racial justice, and to honoring and following the leadership of people of color. She is a huge fan of the Idas and jumped at this chance to promote their work.

Photo of Ida B. Wells-Barnett from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Women Making History: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera (right) at the Christopher Street Liberation Day,
Gay Pride Parade, NYC in 1973.
By Lucy Sharp

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sylvia Rivera was an activist fighting for racial and gender equality, the rights of transgender people, incarcerated people, and sex workers. While she had a very difficult life, she showed incredible dedication to her communities.

Sylvia Rivera had a difficult childhood. Her birth father abandoned her; her mother’s second husband was a drug dealer who showed little interest in her. When she was three, her mother killed herself with poison, and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill Sylvia along with her.

While she was assigned male at birth, she adopted a feminine gender presentation from a young age. She was subjected to colorism by her Venezuelan grandmother who disliked Sylvia’s dark skin that she inherited from her Puerto Rican father. Sylvia faced repeated verbal, physical and sexual abuse from her family and at school due to a combination of colorism, homophobia, and transphobia. This abuse eventually led her to run away from home and drop out of school. In Sylvia’s words she “basically grew up without love.”

At 10 she began working on the streets as a sex worker, later moving to live on the streets with other queer and transgender sex workers. In addition to abuse from her birth family, she faced racist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination in employment, which kept her having to work as a sex worker. She simply couldn’t find a job that allowed her to express herself. Unfortunately, she was eventually arrested and wound up in jail for 90 days with men, who tried to rape her. As a preteen she attempted suicide and wound up in a mental hospital for two months.

However, during her teen years Sylvia also found meaning in participating in activism including on civil rights, the women’s movement, and protesting war against Vietnam. At 17, Sylvia Rivera claims to have been involved in the Stonewall riots, a rebellion against police and criminalization of queer sexuality which served as a focal point for a significant part of the gay rights movement.

Out of Stonewall formed many gay rights organizations including the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which Sylvia Rivera began attending. She soon found herself in conflict with other activists, however.  As one founding member of GAA described: “the general membership is frightened of Sylvia and thinks she’s a troublemaker. They’re frightened by the street people.” Syliva was also shunned by many lesbians who accused her of “parodying womanhood.” Sylvia once said, “[P]eople I called comrades in the movement, literally beat the shit out of me.”

Following her abuse and silencing by allies, Sylvia attempted suicide and dropped out of the more mainstream gay rights movement. She went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) whose goal was to help kids living on the street by providing food, clothing, and housing at a home known as STAR House. STAR also participated in demonstrations against police abuses. While Sylvia attempted to get other organizations including the GAA to help fund STAR’s efforts, they showed little interest. Instead Sylvia and her friend Marsha P. Johnson funded the project through their sex work. Unfortunately, STAR house was forced to close after an intermediary embezzled months of rent and STAR was evicted.

Sylvia Rivera also worked on a campaign to enact a New York City civil rights law that would protect queer and transgender people. She again faced disappointment when politicians and queer rights activists made a deal to remove the transgender protections from the final law. Sylvia, further disillusioned with the movement dropped out, and spent years being homeless.

Her life temporarily stabilized when she developed stable housing, a catering job and a relationship with her supportive transgender partner, Julia Murray. However, in 1992, when her friend Marsha P. Johnson died, she attempted suicide and returned to drug and alcohol addiction that had plagued her much of her life. She also returned to activism, criticizing the mainstream gay rights movement: “[A]fter all these years the trans community is still at the back of the bus”. In 2002 she died of liver cancer.

There is a tendency to try to oversimplify Sylvia’s story and make it simply about exclusion of the transgender community within the larger queer community. But this approach buries systemic problems of racism, poverty, severe trauma, and mistreatment of incarcerated people and sex workers that plagued her life as well.

Recognizing the tendency to oversimplify, nonetheless, I would offer a brief explanation of why I chose to write about her. There is a tendency in movements for the movement to be accessed and dictated by the most privileged within an oppressed group. Just as LGB people often exclude trans people, white trans-women often exclude or ignore concerns of trans-women of color. Often, the most marginalized or scarred people have their traumas buried and left unseen or unaddressed.

Sylvia’s experiences with drug addiction, suicidality, sex work, and incarceration marginalized her, and would leave her marginalized in many activist spaces today. But in spite of her suffering, she did not let that marginalization be the final word. She struggled with all of her heart to help her community, and those like her. She made it to New York City Hall to advocate for the trans-community, even if according to her, she needed to shoot up heroin in the restroom to get through it. I deeply admire her perseverance in the face of her pain, trauma, and oppression.

On a final note, discussing Sylvia Rivera as part of Woman’s History month might seem a bit odd, to those who know her history. While Sylvia Rivera is commonly labeled as an early transgender woman activist, it’s unclear whether she would feel comfortable with this.

Sylvia Rivera was assigned male at birth, and presented with a feminine gender expression that under many definitions would make her transgender. However, she bristled at being labeled as transgender or a woman. She tried hormone therapy, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. Like many transfeminine people I know, she found the label of “woman” restrictive, as it implied measurement against a cis-woman norm. Or as she put it: “I don’t want to be a woman. Why? That means I can’t f*ck nobody up the ass. Two holes? No, no, no. That ain’t going to get it.” Instead she eschewed labels altogether: “I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I want to be Sylvia Rivera.”

So there is some irony in writing about Sylvia for Women’s History month, when Sylvia rejected the label of “woman” for herself. It is not to undermine or disregard that decision that I chose to do so. It is more that, she spent so much of her life suffering, being scarred by abuse for simply wanting to express herself as who she was, and help others do the same. I feel like that struggle deserves to be honored, even if the label “woman” per se is inaccurate. Maybe at some point in the future Woman’s History month will be relabeled to be more inclusive of more non-binary identities, but I do not wish to wait for that moment to honor Sylvia Rivera’s courage and sacrifice for her community.

Lucy Sharp is Volunteer LGBTQ Legal & Policy Analyst for Legal Voice. Her research focuses on some of the issues that are most pressing for the transgender community, including health care, discrimination, restroom equality, and access to legal documentation accurately reflecting gender identities.

Photo of Sylvia Rivera by Leonard Fink. Featured with permission on OutHistory.com.

Additional sources:
  • Transgender History (2008), Susan Stryker
  • Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera's Struggle (2007), Jessi Gan. From The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013).