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Transgender lawyer's appeal for justice

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Dean Spade is trying to change policies that discriminate against transgender people.
Copyright © Photo by Rich Schmitt

In the decades-long fight for gay and lesbian rights, one group has been left standing on the sidelines. Transgender people are still struggling for their livelihoods and, in extreme cases, their lives.

As a transgender man and a pioneer in the nascent field of transgender law, Dean Spade is firmly anchored at the forefront of this less visible fight. A teaching fellow in the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, his alma mater, Spade is one of a handful of legal scholars in the nation looking at issues critical to transgender people.

Last year, he taught Harvard Law School's first transgender law seminar, and this past semester, he led UCLA's first law scholarship class in sexual orientation and gender identity. Spade journeyed to England last week, where he is teaching gender, sexuality and the law for a month to law students there.

"It's difficult in some ways to be in the first wave [of scholars] to introduce a new topic," Spade said. "Some may think it's a very marginal area … But somebody has to push it across the threshold for it to be established."

Spade, 29, started advocating for transgender rights even before 2002, when he founded a nonprofit organization in New York that offers free legal help to the most marginalized of transgender people — those who are poor and of color.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project has served about 1,000 clients, among them people who have been fired from their jobs because of a gender change. Only nine states have laws that explicitly protect transgender people from job discrimination, Spade said.

Other issues involve the complex state and federal laws and policies that prohibit or make difficult the changing of gender on ID cards, ranging from driver's licenses to welfare cards. "If your ID says 'female,' but you're presenting as male, that's a real obstacle. This is a key issue for us and affects where we can work and live," Spade said.

But the most heart-wrenching issue for him is the predicament of trans-women inmates who are assigned to men's prisons, where they are subjected to sexual assault or forced to join prostitution rings. "There is no safe zone for them," said Spade, who is researching the laws and policies related to sex-segregated facilities, such as prisons and homeless shelters.

Spade was once arrested simply for trying to use a men's restroom in Grand Central Station. Even though he broke no law, he was held in jail for 23 hours. "We have to walk through the world with a lot of fear and trepidation, not knowing when someone will victimize us," he said.

Raised in rural Virginia by a single working mother on welfare, Spade was exposed early to injustice, poverty and sexism. When he was 14 and his mother died of lung cancer, he was left in the care of two sets of foster parents.

He began his activism at age 11 when he organized a sit-in at school to protest the cutting of educational programs. He graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College with a B.A. in political science and women's studies.

In 1999, when only two African Americans entered the first-year class at the UCLA law school, he joined other students in a sit-in at the records office and was arrested. As he became increasingly involved in transgender activism, "it became very clear to me that our voices weren't being heard by the gay/lesbian rights movement.

"I have been working ever since to raise that voice," he said.

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