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LGBT attorneys talk of experiences
by Andrew Davis
2009-08-05

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From left: Allen Orr, Brent Adams and M. Dru Levasseur. Photo by All Events Photography

Lawyers talked about their experiences in school and work in "The Gay Bar: LGBT Attorneys in the Profession," a forum held July 31 at the Hotel Intercontinental, 505 N. Michigan, as part of the American Bar Association's annual meeting.

The attorneys spoke as the ABA's Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, chaired by San Francisco attorney Jeffrey G. Gibson, presided over the event and listened intently to the experiences. ( Among the other commissioners present was the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Shannon Minter, who argued against Proposition 8 in front of the California Supreme Court. )

Immigration-law attorney Allen Orr of Baker & McKenzie talked about being African-American and gay. Orr, who went to historically black institutions Morehouse College and Howard School of Law, said that he learned that being Black and gay "are two separate minorities." In a testimonial, Orr wrote, "While the administration and professors were always available and wiling to lend support, I felt marginalized among the law students and the greater Howard community."

Orr talked about working with an investment bank in Virginia—a place where he did not feel welcome. "They started off each day with a prayer," he said. When he eventually ended up with the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & McKenzie, he said, " [ the firm ] didn't know what they were getting," as the audience laughed. Orr indicated that he made it quite clear from the start that he was gay.

He admitted that the firm has its challenges: "In order to have a breakthrough ... firms need to understand what diversity means."

Brent Adams, acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, talked about attending the New York School University of Law as well as working at the Chicago law firm Katten Muchin Roseman ( then known as Katten Muchin Zavis ) . Adams said that he was very out in law school and at work, serving as chair of the Bisexual Gay & Lesbian Law Students Association—commonly referred to as "Big Lisa." He received only one callback when he applied with ( mostly ) Chicago firms—from Katten—although he had no evidence that homophobia was involved in the lack of positive responses.

When he was at Katten, a hiring partner asked me where he was from, and Adams responded, "Oklahoma." He laughed and said, "Well you know they only raise two things in Oklahoma." ( For those who don't know, the answer to that saying is "steers and queers." ) Adams informed his own mentor about what happened, and the partner visited him the next day "to see how he was doing."

Adams said during the forum that his experience at the firm was very positive, overall. He added that " [ b ] eing out is one of the biggest political statements a person can make."

M. Dru Levasseur, staff attorney for Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc., excelled in high school athletically ( as a star female competitor ) and academically. Levasseur came out as lesbian in college and "nine years and four schools later, I graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst," he said.

It was in law school that Levasseur realized his true gender identity, he said. "I started class presenting as a masculine-looking female—a butch lesbian—with the knowledge that my process was only beginning," he said. However, the road to the transition was not smooth. "When I came out to the lesbian and gay law students as transgender, I was not met with the welcome atmosphere that I had anticipated," Levasseur continued. "One student asked me invasive and inappropriate questions about my genitals. Another said, 'I just don't get it.' ... I quickly realized that the community that had once been my support no longer included me. I didn't know where to turn."

A particular low point occurred when "during my first year, as I walked from the parking lot towards the law school building, an SUV sped up towards me as if to hit me," he said. "I jumped out of the way just in time and turned to see three of my classmates, future attorneys, in the car, laughing. At the time, I was not immune to threats on my life based on my gender expression. I just didn't expect it at my law school." As one can imagine, the process of interviewing for a summer-associate position at a law firm was no bed of roses for Levasseur, either, as he related how one law-firm partner laughed at him while Levasseur explained what "transgender" meant.

Although Levasseur said that he loves his job, there were mixed feelings: "In the end, I took a position with an organization doing transgender civil-rights work. I enjoy the opportunity to do the work that is my passion, but I did feel like my career options were limited based on my gender identity and expression."

A question-and-answer session yielded interesting and honest replies. When a commissioner mentioned a lesbian co-worker who considers herself "Black, then a woman, then lesbian," Orr responded, "She got it right," and emphasized that a cultural divide still exists that calls for this hierarchy. When asked about the challenges of being in the public sector, Adams said that Illinoisans have many different viewpoints, and that even though he is successful at his job, he knows that some view him as the "openly gay guy." However, Adams added, he hasn't encountered workplace discrimination in terms of getting things done.


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