Legal advocates stand on the front lines of the fight for transgender equality. Whether they are transgender or cisgender, LGB or straight, these professionals represent clients, crunch statistical data, lead organizations, analyze issues, direct policy, and build coalitions that produce social change for the truly disadvantaged. Many donate their time for the public interest outside of lucrative posts in corporate law. Others work within corporate law as forces for good. Here are 25 out of hundreds of legal advocates fighting for trans justice today.
Donald R. Dunn Jr.
Donald R. Dunn Jr. is representing Marlow White, an African-American transgender father of four daughters, in a pioneering $2 million federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department for discriminating against White based on his gender identity. The NYPD allegedly mistreated White by refusing to file a police report and ignoring his pleas for help after his neighbor, Napoleon Monroe, purportedly harassed and threatened his family.
Dunn (pictured here with his daughter) is a father just like his client, and the two bonded as dads before Dunn took White's case.
Mia Yamamoto is one of the most distinguished and successful criminal defense attorneys in Southern California, with more than 200 jury trials and thousands of clients. A veteran of the Vietnam War, former deputy public defender, and the owner of her own 30-year old private practice, Yamamoto is a seven-time Southern California Super Lawyer, as elected by her peers in Los Angeles Magazine polls. The chief justice of the California Supreme Court appointed her to serve on the California Judicial Council Task Forces on Jury Improvement and on Fairness and Access in the Courts.
Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and AIDS Project, is one of the attorneys for WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning. In an op-ed for The Advocate last year, Strangio argued that his client's treatment in prison is both reprehensible and similar to that of other incarcerated trans women. Strangio is also one of the attorneys representing a 22-year old black trans woman named Meagan Taylor in a complaint before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission against the Drury Inn hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa, for harassment and discrimination by hotel staff, which led to Taylor’s suffering while incarcerated on false charges of prostitution — which were ultimately dropped.
Shannon Fauver is representing Vanessa Gilliam, a transgender nursing student, Army veteran, and single parent who has custody of her children, in a lawsuit against Kentucky’s Galen College of Nursing for discriminating against Gilliam when school administrators allegedly referred to her as a "man dressed as a woman." Administrators also allegedly denied Gilliam access to women’s restrooms on campus, resulting in her leaving the school, thus interrupting her education and interfering with her ability to support her children. Fauver is joined in the lawsuit by Dawn R. Elliott, another attorney at Fauver’s firm, which originally filed a landmark lawsuit to recognize same-sex marriage in Kentucky.
M. Dru Levasseur
M. Dru Levasseur is the transgender rights project director for Lambda Legal, which bills itself as the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to LGBT equality. Levasseur’s cases have landed significant victories for trans equality: Levasseur represented Robina Asti, a then-92-year-old transgender war widow, World War II veteran, and flight instructor, in a successful challenge to the Social Security Administration’s denial of her spousal survivor’s benefits. Levasseur also won settlements against a South Dakota market and the state of Oregon for discrimination against transgender people.
Michael D. Silverman
Michael D. Silverman is the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, where he has fought to advance LGBT civil rights as an attorney for more than 20 years. He sets the direction of an organization that hosts innovative legal programs for transgender Americans like the TLDEF's Name Change Project, which links trans individuals who seek to change their name with law firms across the country who will aid the individual for free.
Dean Spade is an innovative legal theorist and law professor at Seattle University School of Law who 13 years ago founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a trans rights nonprofit collective. His 2011 book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law, argued for a radical approach to resistance in the fight for trans people. The book debated whether current approaches to advocating for trans equality can fully tackle the intersectional problems of underemployment, police brutality, incarceration, violence, homelessness, and socio-economic deprivation. The book’s arguments have proved to be prescient, as more and more attention has been paid to trans resistance, prison reform, and trans people of color’s lives.
Sara Schnorr is a pioneering transgender attorney and of counsel at Locke Lord LLP in Boston, where she handles complex real estate acquisition, development, land use, and financing matters, particularly for clients in the affordable housing, life sciences, and telecommunications industries, according to the firm's website. She is also an incisive legal analyst on transgender issues, consistently sharing commentary that carefully and compassionately parses issues with an eye for accuracy and detail. In April, Schnorr spoke movingly about her life and work on the Take Away’s radio program entitled “Coming Out as Trans Later in Life.”
Sandy E. James
Sandy E. James is the survey project manager for the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, a groundbreaking collection of data on gender-variant people in the United States. In this role, he helped lead the development, fielding, analysis, and presentation of the study, which is the second version of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. With a juris doctorate from Georgetown University, James has been a forensic toxicologist and the Urvashi Vaid Research Fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force. In an article for The Root last September, James wrote movingly of growing up in England as a child of Caribbean immigrants and how “trans people have been thrust into the cultural conversation of the moment, but our actual lives and what we do to survive and thrive have not made the cut.”
Christopher B. Dolan
Christopher B. Dolan is consistently ranked as one of the most effective trial attorneys in California, earning accolades like the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award. His 20-year-old law firm has successfully represented trans individuals in some of the most important trans rights cases of the past decade. Among these cases were Charlene Hastings’s lawsuit against Seton Medical Center for denying her gender-affirming surgery and Lana Lawless’s action against the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which led to the LPGA’s historic change in its policy barring competitors unless they were “female at birth.”
Shannon Price Minter
Shannon Price Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a trans man, and an attorney who won the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award in 2005, is one of the country’s superlative litigators for LGBT rights. He was the lead attorney arguing before the California Supreme Court to overturn California's Proposition 8, an early attack against marriage equality in the state that was eventually ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 2010, a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Minter has also advanced trans-affirming family law: He represented Michael Kantaras, a trans man, in an attempt to gain custody of his children, and the couple settled the case with a joint custody agreement in 2005. In June, Minter was appointed to a key post in President Obama's Commission on White House Fellowships.
Zoë J. Dolan
Zoë J. Dolan is a transgender woman and a celebrated trial attorney with a criminal and civil practice in New York and Los Angeles who has represented individuals accused in high-profile national security trials. Dolan has defended convicted terrorists like Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, because she believes firmly in the U.S. Constitution’s assurances that everyone, including those accused of the most heinous offenses, deserves the right to a fair trial. In an article for the Red Shoe Movement, Dolan said, “The national security field interests me because cases in this area give me an opportunity to put my background to use on behalf of clients. Because I am proficient in Arabic and have lived in Muslim countries, I am able to offer a cultural perspective that informs strategic and legal decisions.”
Denise Brogan Kator
Denise Brogan Kator is Senior Legislative Counsel for the Family Equality Council, a national LGBT rights organization, the former Executive Director of Equality Michigan, co-founder of the Rainbow Law Center, recipient of the 2009 Pride Banquet Committee’s Choice Award, a businesswoman, a U.S. Navy Submarine Force veteran, and one of the most effective openly transgender attorneys in the nation. As she explained in an interview with Monika Kowalska, Brogan-Kator’s law career began during a time in her life when she faced two obstacles: she was fired from her job as vice president of finance with a Florida medical products company for being transgender. “I also experienced a significant threat to my relationship with my children, during my divorce from their mother," she recalls. "During that time, a motion was filed to have my parental rights terminated, for no reason other than my being transgender. I asked my attorney if the threat was real and he assured me that it was. Those two experiences, combined with my own internal need and desire to ‘fight the good fight’ and give back to a community that welcomed me when others rejected me, are what motivated my decision to go to law school. And, as it turned out, I was the first openly transgender law student to matriculate at that Top-10 law school. I later also became the first openly transgender law professor at the University of Michigan Law School.”
Kathleen Sprinkle is a transgender attorney with her own practice in Dallas, where she specializes in criminal defense, family law, LGBT rights, bankruptcy, and probate. As TheDallas Morning News reported, “Sprinkle is the only known openly transgender lawyer in Dallas County and one of just a handful across Texas.” She started her private practice after 16 years as a public defender.
Two years ago she opened a free monthly legal clinic for the Dallas LGBT Resource Center’s Gender Education, Advocacy and Resources program to assist transgender individuals in updating their legal documents as they transition. “In Texas, getting a name change is fairly easy, but filing a gender marker change is harder,” according to the Dallas Voice. “Sprinkle said many judges in Dallas County will do both, although some won’t. A name change is filed in family court, which is usually sympathetic, but a gender marker change is filed in civil district court.”
Phyllis Randolph Frye
Phyllis Randolph Frye is an associate judge for the City of Houston Municipal Courts, a parent, and the first openly transgender judge appointed in Texas. Early in her life, she was a civil and mechanical engineer, and she is a U.S. Army veteran. A longtime trial attorney before Houston Mayor Annise Parker elevated her to the bench, Frye received the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Transgender Foundation of America, and she was profiled on the front page of The New York Times in August. In that profile, Shannon Price Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, praised Frye as the “grandmother” of transgender law. As a senior partner with Frye, Oaks and Benavidez, PLLC, Frye devoted her practice exclusively to guiding transgender clients through the Texas courts to change the clients’ names and genders on their legal documents.
David Coombs is a U.S. military defense counsel, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and a certified military judge who is well-known for representing transgender former U.S. Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning since 2010 in Manning’s case regarding the release of government records to WikiLeaks. Coombs served on active duty for 12 years with the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, and in that capacity he served as an acting chief of military justice, senior capital defense counsel, and judicial adviser for the Iraqi Central Criminal Court, and was certified as a military judge. Coombs was a professor of law at the Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School. He now directs his own practice, which focuses exclusively on Army-only criminal defense.
Jer Welter is the deputy director and managing attorney for Maryland’s FreeState Legal, an LGBT rights law firm, where Welter supervises and conducts FreeState’s in-house litigation program. Welter successfully represented a transgender woman named Sandy Brown in a case against Maryland’s prison system that, for the first time, relied upon the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act for legal redress, winning $5,000 in damages for disenfranchising Brown while she was held in a Maryland prison. Administrative Law Judge Denise Oakes Shaffer ruled in August that Maryland's prison system violated Brown’s rights when she was placed in solitary confinement for 66 days and tormented by guards who sexually harassed her with taunts and surveillance while she showered and, in one instance, told her to commit suicide.
Masen Davis is the executive director of the Transgender Law Center and one of the nation's best-known community activists, nonprofit leaders, and advocates working for trans justice. Under Davis’s leadership, TLC became one of the first organizations to rely upon Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights to fight employment discrimination against trans and gender-nonconforming people. TLC’s efforts led to the reform of California’s Gender Nondiscrimination Act and unprecedented policy changes statewide to make California more LGBT-affirming. Continually in demand as a spokesperson and movement-builder for trans rights, Davis is also one of the foremost trans leaders in legal advocacy to work in the field with social work training.
Martine Rothblatt is a visionary attorney and entrepreneur. She is the founder and chief executive officer of United Therapeutics, and the creator of GeoStar and Sirius Radio. After earning a joint MBA/JD degree from the University of California Los Angeles, Rothblatt worked for such organizations as Covington & Burling and NASA before later earning a Ph.D. in medical ethics from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of London. Internationally recognized for her expertise in geopolitical affairs, she helped usher in a new era of space-based navigation services, and direct-to-person satellite radio transmissions by advocating for new treaties to regulate transnational collaboration. A visionary technologist, Rothblatt created the cybernetic companions, BINA48, with Hanson Robotics and authored such books as Unzipped Genes (on bioethics) and Virtually Human (on artificial intelligence).
Ellen Krug is the executive director of Call for Justice, LLC, in Minneapolis, a firm that connects low-income people to legal resources. As she explains in Getting to Ellen: A Memoir About Love, Honesty and Gender Change, after transitioning in 2009, Krug became the first attorney in Iowa to engage in jury trials within separate genders. A prolific columnist, Krug’s “Skirting the Issues” column for Minneapolis’s Lavender Magazine won a Gold Medal Award for Excellence from the Minnesota Magazine and Publishing Association in 2013. She is a much-in-demand spokeswoman on LGBT rights, having appeared on Iowa Public Radio.
Micheline Anne Hélène Montreuil
Micheline Anne Hélène Montreuil is a pioneer fighting for transgender rights in North America. An attorney, a professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, a trade union advocate, and a radio host, she sued the Quebec government in 1997 for denying her the right to legally change her first name to Micheline after transitioning, according to her website. While she won her case in the Court of Appeals in 2002, the victory was bittersweet as she was still denied the right to adopt her other two middle names at the same time that she changed her first name. She was forced to add Anne and Hélène separately, a process that took until 2011.
Montreuil won a case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against the National Bank of Canada for refusing to hire her in 1998 because of her gender identity. Her words on her website capture the challenges of many trans professional people: “I lost a job that I liked, that of professor. I lost some friends or people who claimed to be my friends. Many jobs are closed to me, or closed when the employer sees me. Numerous people discriminate against us. Do I profit from the best of both worlds, that of men and that of women? For many, I have the worst of both worlds. The charters of rights give me perhaps certain rights but I have to fight to get them respected and that asks an enormous amount of time, money and effort. Even if the situation is often very difficult, I continue to firmly hold the tiller and I try to get through this difficult situation; it is just a question of time.”
Sonia Burgess, in memoriam: As one of the most important human rights attorneys to ever practice immigration law, Burgess helped pioneer the fight for refugee justice in ways that foreshadowed today’s Syrian refugee crisis. Burgess argued several seminal cases before the European Court of Human Rights, and before courts in North America and the United Kingdom. In 1991, Burgess represented five Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers before the ECHR in Vilvarajah and Others v. The United Kingdom. The Tamil are a minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka who have faced oppression from the Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka gained independence from the U.K. in 1948. After seeking asylum in the U.K., the Tamil refugees were returned from Britain to Sri Lanka, thereby exposing them to grave harm. While the ECHR ruled that England did no wrong in returning the refugees to the country that harmed them, the case led to a landmark change in British law, allowing asylum-seekers to appeal forced removal.
Frequently misgendered even in death, Burgess often had no other recourse after transitioning than to use the name assigned to her at birth in her cases pending in courts because of differing international laws pertaining to when and how legal name changes can be executed and vital records updated for transgender people. As The Advocate reported in 2011, Burgess was murdered in October 2010 by Nina Kanagasingham, who pushed Burgess in front of a subway train in full view of witnesses. Kanagasingham, a fellow trans woman, was Burgess's friend. The case shocked Burgess’s loved ones, as Burgess had befriended Kanagasingham, who was originally from Sri Lanka, and helped Kanagasingham through her transition. According to the Daily Mail, Kanagasingham was convicted of manslaughter in light of her diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and sentenced to life imprisonment with eligibility for parole after seven years.