New GLAD Guidebook Helps Attorneys Better Represent Transgender Clients
America’s legal system is fraught with danger for transgender people because of ignorance and misunderstanding of their issues. But a prominent LGBT legal advocacy organization has now produced a first-of-its-kind guidebook to help attorneys and their trans clients navigate the rocky shoals of family court.
Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders has published "Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy" for attorneys who would like to represent trans clients, but believe they don’t have the background to do so.
The book, available in hard copy and e-book versions, features chapters by attorneys with expertise in both family law and trans legal advocacy. Topics range from name and sex recognition to relationship dissolution, child custody disputes and estate planning and elder law.
The editors are Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, and former GLAD attorney Elizabeth Monnin-Browder, a litigation associate in the prominent Boston law firm Ropes and Gray.
"Expert legal representation is very difficult to find, partly because most family law practitioners who want to have trans clients just haven’t developed the expertise," Levi, a nationally recognized authority on the topic, told EDGE.
Some issues facing trans clients are as basic as changing their names or being able to obtain documents consistent with their gender. Others, such as forming and expanding families or dissolving marriages, are far more complex, particularly in states that don’t recognize same-sex relationships.
Trans people undergoing divorce proceedings in family court are particularly vulnerable, added Levi.
"What we’ve seen is a huge bias that trans spouses face," she explained. "For example, we find people negotiating away rights for a sustained relationship with a child born in that relationship or they might negotiate away property rights to maintain relations with that child."
Levi has seen many child custody cases that she described as heartbreaking.
"In one, a transgender woman was going through a divorce from her wife," she said. "The wife said, ’You challenge me on custody and I’ll see that you never have a chance to see our child again.’ The transgender parent wanted to do anything as long as she had continued child support, but she realized she would be vulnerable in court and decided to negotiate away her visitation rights."
Levi cited one particularly complicated issue: a man who undergoes sex-reassignment surgery and becomes a woman. She then marries a man.
"When the relationship dissolves, we have seen cases where the husband turns around and challenges the validity of that relationship, arguing that his wife who was an assigned male at birth cannot lawfully marry a man in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage," said Levi.
Many trans advocates have praised GLAD for publishing the guide.
"As more and more transgender people come out and claim their rights, [the guide] has come along at just the right time," wrote Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "Any transgender person who is facing a family law issue should hand a copy of this book to their attorney."
"We are so pleased that GLAD has produced this much needed resource in navigating the legal system," Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, told EDGE. "There are a number of attorneys, advocates, and legal organizations that want to do the right thing for their transgender clients, but don’t always have all of the information on how to effectively serve them. This publication will help give them the tools they need."
Visit www.glad.org/TFL to purchase a copy of the guide.