The Trans Lawyer Fighting to Keep His Community Alive
As an attorney at the ACLU, Chase Strangio works every day to combat discriminatory legislation that targets trans people and other marginalized communities.
All photos by Leah James
In the United States, transgender people have historically not had representatives defending them against prosecution; instead, they've have had their humanity itself criminalized. There is a long history of state discrimination and violence against transgender people, from the anti-cross-dressing laws of the 20th century to the current anti-trans "bathroom bills" spawning across the nation.
Chase Strangio is working to change that. As a lawyer at the ACLU, he has fought against an onslaught of discriminatory anti-trans legislation, represented iconic whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and worked with grassroots organizations to radically alter the status quo. Many of the conservative lawmakers working to codify bigotry into law do so without coming into contact with a single trans person. As a trans man, Chase's presence in the courtroom fundamentally alters that troubling dynamic.
"The presence of a trans person actually does make a difference," he told Broadly in an interview in early September. "Otherwise these conversations about trans people are taking place without trans people there: conversations in depositions, in court rooms, in legislatures."
"We really want to be sure that actual trans people are there so that when [our opponents are] making the argument that being trans is a delusion, or that trans people don't actually exist, they're going to have to say that to the face of an actual trans person over and over again," he continued. "Maybe they're fine with that, but at the end of the day, it is going to make their arguments a lot harder if they're looking at our trans clients, or looking at trans people in the courtroom or a trans lawyer. We need to be in those spaces to make the arguments they're trying to advance less palatable."
In the past year, 19 states have considered legislation that would prevent trans people from using restroom facilities that correspond with their gender identity; Chase has fought tirelessly and effectively against these so-called "bathroom bills." The ACLU and agencies across the country have successfully opposed these laws, with one notable exception: House Bill 2 (HB2) in North Carolina.
HB 2 was signed into law during a special session called by governor Pat McCrory in March. The bill was in direct response to an expansion to Charlotte's anti-discrimination policy, which gave protections to a broad range of groups throughout the city—including transgender people in public spaces like restrooms. McCrory's actions were swift, and the bill was surrounded with false rhetoric about the so-called danger that transgender people, particularly transgender women, pose to cisgender people in bathrooms.
In addition to the obvious constitutional violations implicit in anti-trans legislation, such laws—and the hateful rhetoric surrounding them—stoke animosity and fear of transgender individuals. Though lawmakers cleverly package anti-trans laws as if they're for public safety, these laws are wrought in prejudice. "HB2 was one of the most insidious anti-trans laws that we saw," Chase said. "It became law in such a horrific manner, and the rhetoric around trans bodies and trans people has been horrible."
In the wake of HB2 and proposed laws like it, prejudiced discourse surrounding trans rights has proliferated. One organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom has been "filing cases across the country on behalf of cisgender individuals [who have] alleged harms by virtue of having to share spaces with transgender individuals," Chase noted. Similarly, a grotesque ad from Texas draws a parallel between transgender people and child molesters, suggesting that anti-discrimination policies will cause little girls to be assaulted in restrooms.
Of course, none of this fear mongering is based in reality, and, in fact, transgender people are more likely to be victimized because of this kind of rhetoric. In studies, the majority of transgender people have reported "serious discrimination," according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. While there are no reported incidents of trans people assaulting people in public restrooms, there's a documented pattern of trans people suffering because of societal prejudice and harmful government policy.
The rhetoric around trans bodies and trans people has been horrible.
While politicians may enforce their intolerance through the law, others enforce it through violence and overt discrimination. For example, in May, a transgender woman was assaulted by a security guard because she used a woman's restroom, and, as reported by the Advocate, some conservatives have threatened to assault transgender people who try to use public restrooms, some saying they'll bring a gun with them to keep their children safe from trans people.
In addition to the devastating effect that such legislation has on transgender people, it also subjects anyone who fails to conform to outdated gender norms to discrimination. In 2013, for instance, a cis woman in Miami was jailed with men and subjected to photographic examination of her genitalia because law enforcement officers believed she was trans. In June of 2015, a cis woman was thrown from a women's restroom because someone believed she was a trans woman.
This has permeated legislations across the United States, unleashing a torrent of panic-driven and hostile bills. Conservative politicians across the country now see nothing objectionable about publicly arguing that trans people present a risk to their children, or that they should not receive equal rights or health care. "Right now, in state governments, you have many of them arguing that providing healthcare to trans people is unlawful and infringes the rights of others, that sharing a restroom with trans people infringes on the rights of others," Chase said. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently filed a brief against the US Government, arguing that doctors should be legally allowed to deny crucial healthcare to transgender people. Paxton is also leading a legal fight against the US government for trying to make schools stop discriminating against transgender kids.
Though these laws are weakly masked in so-called public interest, Chase says they send a clear message: "If trans people can't get health care and go to the bathroom it's kind of hard to conceptualize what kind of role we can play in public life," he said.
In college, Chase was influenced by the work of Dean Spade, a lawyer and professor at Seattle University School of Law. Spade is also a transgender man, and he has written extensively about the limitations of law reform, specifically when it comes to racial justice and LGBT rights. As an undergrad, Chase knew he wanted to be involved in social justice—but back then he didn't believe that working within "the system" would be effective, because he felt that American law is complicit in much of the violence that transgender people, and people of color, are subjected to.
Throughout his time at college and law school, Chase focused on radical political aims. This was the early 2000s, when much of the LGBT movement was focused on marriage equality and ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy—aims that some queer critics have opposed on the grounds that they simply seek to assimilate oppressed populations into the status quo. Chase shares this criticism: In such ideological battles, he said, there's "no real emphasis on resource distribution, [and] no real emphasis on moving those most impacted to the center of the movement."
After Chase obtained his undergraduate degree, he got a job as a paralegal at GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), a legal organization in Boston that aims to end discrimination against gay and transgender people. As a paralegal at GLAD, he saw the immense resources devoted to their cause, and witnessed both the positive and negative consequences that law and policy have on people's lives. Though his politics were "more radical" than GLAD's, Chase told me, he realized he wanted to be able to effect real change in this country the way that he saw organizations like GLAD do during the fight to achieve marriage equality.
"When I was in law school I definitely would have considered working at the ACLU some sort of reform-based 'selling out,'" Chase said, though his position on that has clearly changed. After graduating law school in 2010, he got a fellowship at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a collective organization that provides legal services for low-income transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people, where he honed his legal skills for social justice and deepened his understanding of radical legal aims, like prison abolition.
"He was already doing much better work than most lawyers when he was still in law school," said Gabriel Arkles, a professor of legal research and writing at Northeastern University and a former colleague of Chase's at SRLP. Arkles cited an early case he had worked on with Chase, in which SRLP successfully appealed the disciplinary conviction of an incarcerated trans woman. "He was indispensable to our even filing the case, much less winning," he recalled. "It's not just that his work was brilliant—which it was—but he was so collaborative, humble, flexible, creative, compassionate, and, of course, deeply committed."
Another example of Chase's unwavering commitment to the cause, Arkles said, was the foundation of the Lorena Borjas Community Fund: In 2012, Chase, along with trans activist Lorena Borjas, established a fund to help pay bail for transgender people. Bail funds are one of the most tangible resources to aid the most at-risk members of the trans community—who are often sucked into the prison system. "I can't imagine it would have gotten off the ground without him and Lorena," Arkles said. "That organization has gotten people out of jail and immigration detention and put them in a stronger position to fight their case. That's not flashy work that you get a lot of attention for, but it's very meaningful, sometimes life-saving work," he explained.
"Chase has become a crucial leader on trans issues," said Libby Adler, on of Chase's professors in law school. "In particular, Chase's devotion to addressing the poverty and criminal justice dimensions of trans law have made him one of the most important and forward-looking professionals in the field," she noted, adding that Chase is a perfect representation of what a lawyer should be, though the system doesn't idealize some of the qualities that make him such an important figure.
"The work Chase is doing on HB2 is smart, important, and difficult, and I can't think of anyone I would rather have taking a lead on these legal issues," Arkles affirmed.
For lawyers who are working for social justice, it can be very difficult to hold the legal system responsible for discrimination that results from a law when the law doesn't explicitly discriminate. For example, Chase explained, there are laws across the country that prohibit loitering, "particularly loitering for the purpose of prostitution." Though these laws don't explicitly target trans people, Chase says that law enforcement officials often use such to profile transgender people—particularly trans women of color—in public spaces. However, Chase says, it's difficult to make a legal case against the discriminatory application of such laws. "The law is not sympathetic to the idea of making claims of discrimination based on [the law's] impact," Chase said.
"Our whole system is constantly adapting to find ways to harm and discriminate against the same communities that have always been discriminated against," he continued. "It just adapts to become less explicit about [discrimination] and becomes harder to litigate challenges [to that discrimination,] which is one of the many reasons why legal work has to be connected to organizing work."
Chase cites the marriage equality fight as an example of the importance of foregrounding grassroots and pop cultural movements. "In 2005 and '06, everyone was losing every court case. Then, by 2015, we won in the US Supreme Court," he said. Within a decade, marriage equality became widely accepted, although none of the legal arguments surrounding the issue had changed. According to Chase, the LGBT community—and lawyers advocating for them—successfully centralized the personal narratives of LGBT Americans, humanizing them and the issues they face in the United States. This change was most clearly visible in pop culture, where a surge was seen in the visibility of gay people.
"You can't be a lawyer without engaging in popular discourse of the people that you're advocating for," Chase said.
Chase sees the law as an important tool, but he emphasizes that "it certainly can't be the endgame of any social change movement." By centering the work of community organizers, legal activists like Chase are able to work more effectively for the most vulnerable members of marginalized social groups.
This is a tactic he will continue to use in the fight against anti-trans bills across the nation. Though the ACLU successfully shut down nearly the entire onslaught of hateful legislation that appeared during the 2016 legislative session, Chase says that we are likely going to see many more bills appear in 2017. Right now, he and the ACLU are preparing for that. The moment of calm is ending, and Chase will soon be fighting again, from North Carolina to the country's capital.
"We have an obligation as a society to ensure that our systems of health care, of documentation, of public accommodation don't serve to erase [transgender people]," he said. "Until we grapple with the truth and complexity of our bodies—trans bodies and cis bodies—our culture will continue to situate trans people as a threat. Once we can recognize that our bodily formulations are diverse and beautiful and we don't have to banish people from public spaces because they are different, we will start to see societal attitudes about trans people—and all people—shift."
While he's optimistic that such a massive cultural change can and will occur, his short-term goal is to directly protect and serve marginalized people across the gender spectrum. "Every day," he said, "I ask myself: Are there things that I can do to keep more people in the trans community alive?"