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Stonewall awardees reflect on what lies ahead for LGBT community

Three LGBT luminaries were presented with Stonewall Awards at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas. After the ceremony, which was sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and was part of the Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice Summit, the awardees shared what’s meaningful about their journey.

Champion for youth

James Holmes can’t bear to read about another LGBT youth committing suicide. The senior equity partner at Clyde and Co in Los Angeles and member of the ABA Board of Governors rejects the notion of dividing Americans into “us” vs. “them.” “It’s always just ‘us,’” he says. “We need to treat everyone as ‘us.’  

“We need to provide example and leadership for the next and future generations,” Holmes says of his role as an LGBT leader. “They need to know that they are valued for who and what they are and what they can be.”

Active in the ABA for more than 30 years, originally in the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section, Holmes was the first chair of the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He helped develop the Stonewall Award and presented it for its first three years to some “amazing people.”

“It’s one of the greatest honors of my life” to now be in their company, he says.

Another honor was presenting to the House of Delegates in 2015 a resolution to advocate for the ban on conversion therapy for minors. “It’s really just torture for kids,” he says. The resolution passed by acclimation, and since then 17 states have banned it.

In his advocacy work, Holmes says he’s learned that Americans want to be fair to LGBT individuals, immigrants, minorities and others. “Most people realize there are parts of the system that aren’t fair, and they want to fix that.”

He says he and fellow activists are also up to the challenge of “protecting our trans brothers and sisters” for the right to serve in the military and to get rid of the gay/trans panic defense “because that’s just insulting.”

And when there are setbacks, such as another gay or trans youth suicide, Holmes says, “you just have to catch your breath and realize that we missed, we failed for this one, and the only way to make a difference is to keep trying.”

Guardian of the vulnerable

“I’m a lawyer. I’m a mother. A lesbian. I’m a government official,” Carmelyn P. Malalis says of her various identities. The commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights since 2014, Malalis has spent more than a decade in private practice, where she successfully represented employees involved in claims of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy, disability and religion.

At the Commission on Human Rights, Malalis says her goal is to champion groups that are alienated. “We’re taking government to them,” she says, and making sure “they see that there are forces within government that are standing up for them.”

New York City, she says, will stand up for trans people, the Muslim community and “gender justice” in the wake of #MeToo and against anti-Semitic attacks to show that it is a place that champions diversity and inclusion.

A longtime member of ABA Labor and Employment Law Section, Malalis says that government service is “doable, and we can make change.”

The child of Philippine, Roman Catholic immigrants, Malalis grew up valuing “reaching out to the most vulnerable” and bringing them in. Today she finds being a parent “incredibly humbling,” and says it makes her realize that great struggle came long before our current challenges.

“It is an amazing time to be a lawyer,” Malalis says, and notes that the profession is “holding down the fort in terms of human rights and civil rights.”

Advocate for trans rights

“I am a product of resistance,” says Chase Strangio, staff attorney for ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a nationally recognized expert on transgender rights.

His work includes impact litigation, as well as legislative and administrative advocacy, on behalf of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV across the United States. Prior to joining the ACLU, Strangio was an Equal Justice Works fellow and the director of Prisoner Justice Initiatives at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, where he represented transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in confinement settings. In 2012, he co-founded the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, an organization that provides direct bail/bond assistance to LGBTQ immigrants in criminal and immigration cases.

Acknowledging his “incredible privilege,” Strangio says that after he came out as queer and trans, he felt a responsibility to redistribute the resources he had access to.

Having benefited from systems of power, he says, “the law shouldn’t limit who we are or criminalize who we are… we’re all connected in this struggle.”

“Representation and visibility are so important as part of the fight,” Strangio says, adding that his identity is as important as anyone else’s. In the legal profession “there is room for everyone.”

He wants to bring more trans lawyers into trans legal work. Often his clients have never met another trans person, Strangio says, which makes his role even more important.

While there is more visibility for trans people than ever before, it can lead to complacency, he says, and “the backlash is so astounding.”

Despite the work still left to do, “there’s so much magic that comes from the fight itself,” Strangio says, and he appreciates that “I get to live as who I am and fight for my community.”