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November 01, 2018

Jennifer Levi, Transgender Rights Pioneer

2018 Stonewall Honoree

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer Levi, Transgender legal rights pioneer and congratulated her on receiving a Stonewall Award from the American Bar Association Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Levi, who identifies as transgender FTM, is the Director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, a law professor at Western New England University and co-editor of “Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy.” He is a graduate of Wellesley College and the University Of Chicago Law School.

Speaking of his award, Levi emphasized that it is a "particular honor to be  recognized along with Judge Phyllis Randolph Frye," as she was a major influence in both Levi's professional and personal journey.

Levi identified as a lesbian in college, but had often been perceived as male since childhood—a perception that she was comfortable with, but knew others were not. Levi experienced an awakening after reading Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. In the 1990s he learned of the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, which Judge Frye spearheaded. “I remember walking into a room and seeing about 100 transgender people... most were women but there were a handful of transgender men and I felt like I had come home,” Levi recalls.

The conference was perfect timing for Levi, who just got involved in transgender issues. He had started taking pro bono referrals from Lambda Legal and was seeing how few protections transgender individuals had. This motivated him to learn more.

In 1998, Levi became an attorney for GLAD. “Cases with transgender young people have been a central part of my work. I started working with a transgender student back in 2000, a time when there was very little visibility and understanding about transgender young people.” Levi was lead counsel in the case Doe v. Yunits where he represented a transgender student denied the right to attend school because of her clothing. This landmark ruling became an important precedent and is the first reported decision in a case brought by a transgender student. “The family of the client really stepped up to support her and I was inspired and hopeful to see the ability of families to go from not understanding to a place of advocacy.”

Levi has since served as counsel in many more cases establishing rights for transgender people, such as O’Donnabhain v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which established that gender transition medical costs qualifies as a medical deduction for federal income tax purposes and Adams v. Bureau of Prisons, which successfully challenged a federal prison policy that excluded medical care for transgender inmates who entered the system without a transition-related medical plan. And recently successfully challenged the attempted ban of transgender people in the military. Levi said it was a “wild ride but important to bring those cases when we did. We honored the contributions transgender people have made to society.”

Levi was fortunate to have supportive progressive parents—both of whom were involved in advocacy. Today, her support network has expanded to include his long-term term partner “who is a tremendous source of support for me. We have two teenagers who inspire me to do this work. And we have a dog who greets me with enthusiasm every night I get home from work.”


SOGI Commissioner