APU Business Leading Forward Legal Studies Podcast

Podcast: Fighting for LGBTQ+ Legal Rights

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Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould HarperDean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dru Levasseur, Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, National LGBT Bar Association

The fight for diversity, equity and inclusion affects all professions, including the legal field. In this episode, APU Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Dru Levasseur, Esq. about his own experience coming out as a transgender man during his time in law school. Learn how he has centered his law career on fighting for LGBTQ+ rights including advocating for better diversity in the legal profession. Also, learn why it’s more important than ever to hear stories about other transgender people to create a human connection and build empathy to counter many of the negative and discriminatory actions happening around the country and also let other LGBTQ+ people know they’re not alone.  

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today we are going to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how it relates to the legal field. My guest is Dru Levasseur. I want to take a moment to provide some background information on him.

Dru is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the National LGBT Bar Association and leads its DEI consulting practice, Lavender Law 365. As a prominent figure in the LGBTQ equality movement for 25 years, 15 of which in the legal profession, Dru has extensive experience in law, advocacy, philanthropy, and community organizing.

Previously, Dru was Senior Attorney and Transgender Rights Project Director for Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal association committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV.

For a decade, Dru led Lambda Legal’s transgender rights work through strategy development, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education, and served as a counsel in landmark impact litigation cases and briefs in federal courts including the US Supreme Court. Dru received his JD from Western New England University School of Law, and is admitted to practice in Washington, DC, New York, Georgia, and Massachusetts. Dru, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dru Levasseur: Thank you, Marie. I’m very excited to speak with you today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. Wonderful time to get back together. Now we’re going to speak about a topic that is very near and dear to you. DEI in the legal space. Why is it so important, especially during this time?

Dru Levasseur: Well, I am just so grateful that I get to do DEI work because I feel like there’s no higher calling, especially right now where we are in the world and especially in the legal profession, because there’s such power with lawyers. I think it’s full circle for me.

A little bit about my background, I transitioned during law school. I’m an openly transgender attorney. That was about 15 plus years ago. It was a really difficult time for me. I was the only transgender law student in my school. I really was struggling to find a place in the legal profession. I didn’t know of other people like me.

I used to go every year to this conference called Lavender Law Conference. It’s the LGBT Bar’s annual conference and gathering. It would move around the country. And I put it on my credit card. I’m a first-generation law student so I just accrued all the debt. But I made sure I went to this conference every year because I wanted to meet trans law students and trans attorneys. I even met a transgender judge. And I realized that I have a place in this profession and it wasn’t going to be easy. And it wasn’t easy.

After I graduated law school, I clerked for a couple of years in Massachusetts and then I moved down to New York City. I landed a job at a nonprofit organization called Transgender Legal Defense, and then I moved over to Lambda Legal. I had a whole career of impact litigation for about 11 years doing trans rights work, representing trans people.

It’s full circle for me to move over to the LGBT Bar, now in my career in the last couple of years I’ve been with them, to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting practice because I see that there are still gaps in the legal profession.

[Podcast: Efforts to Enshrine Equal Rights in the Constitution Pick Up Speed]

The things that happened to me as a white transgender guy are happening everywhere but worse, particularly for LGBTQ+ people of color. We see the statistics of who is in the legal profession. It’s almost 90% white still.

We look at Big Law in the United States. And if you look at the statistics of who gets to be equity partner, who gets to stay at the firm, the numbers for particularly women of color and LGBTQ+ people drop off significantly as the years progress in the profession.

We have so much work to do to even the playing field. Right now, it’s very inequitable. The wind is behind certain people’s backs who are in the majority, the white, cisgender, males, heterosexual and so on. We really need to draw attention to the needs to make sure that we have all the right people at the table.

And I know firsthand when I was a litigator, it mattered who was on the teams when we’re representing people. Diverse teams do a better job. We have more background, we have better connection with clients. And so, I just feel so passionate about making sure we have better diversity in the legal profession. And I’m happy to be a part of that work.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Well, I’m glad you shared your story. Because one of the things that I heard, especially when you began, was how your journey has come to face and the fact that you were living the life you understood. So many times in diversity initiatives, I liked how you stated that you need diverse teams. You need teams with individuals who are representative of the people who you’re trying to help.

I think a lot of people don’t understand when we say representation, whether it’s for people who are actively involved or whether it’s for the client or customer base that we’re trying to serve, I think you’ve expressed some points that kind of highlights why that is so important by telling your story.

In terms of talking about stories, yesterday when we were talking, you shared a powerful story with me. And I believe it would be of interest to our audience. Would you care to share it with us?

Dru Levasseur: Sure. Yes. I love talking about this story. I really wanted to share of my 11 years of representing trans people I know we’re not supposed to have a favorite client, but I might have had a favorite client over the years.

I had the opportunity in one of my cases to represent at the time she was 92 years old. She came into our office and she marched in there. She said basically that she had Googled LGBT legal rights and found Lambda Legal and then found our address and came in. It was quite unique.

Her story, her name is Robina Asti. There’s a tremendous 7-minute video online if you search YouTube, Robina Asti, that won international awards for this short film that was amazing about her case. She basically transitioned during the ’70s. She’s a World War II veteran. She flew airplanes in the Pacific during World War II as a man.

In the ’70s, she transitioned to be a woman at a time when I think people maybe knew about Christine Jorgensen, it was around the same time as that. But she was basically told, which most trans people were at the time, “You transition and then you just fold into the woodwork.” You kind of just start a new life and you never tell anybody your story. That was kind of the pathway that people were told.

For 30 years, she had lived her life as a woman and really didn’t identify with the LGBT community. She had a wonderful relationship and got married in an airplane hangar to the love of her life in her 80s. Her husband, Norwood, when he passed away, she did what any other survivor would do, a bereaved partner would do, that she applied for Social Security benefits.

But when they were processing the paperwork, it turned out that they said, “I’m sorry. We can’t give you these survivor benefits because at the time you were married we don’t see you as a woman.” Robina had changed all of her documentation. She had gotten a new driver’s license and passport and everything possible. She had done all the right things. So she was just very upset by this. And that was why she marched into our offices.

We ended up taking her case and we knew that this was happening to other trans people who are trying to access survivor benefits, that they weren’t acknowledging the person in their correct gender. We filed a complaint on her behalf and we waited.

It was a beautiful story because we didn’t hear from them for many months. It was on Valentine’s Day that she called us and said that the money appeared in her bank account. She felt that it was Norwood, her husband sending her a message. It was beautiful.

The best part about this was not necessarily that we were able to change the Social Security Administration’s legal position, which was really helpful to so many people, but it was also that we gained this visible, transgender pioneer. She told the story. She has this YouTube video that went viral. She and I took the TEDx stage and there’s a video of her doing a TEDx speech telling stories about being in World War II and about gender inequity. And so, she just had so much to share.

For me personally, as an openly transgender attorney, I didn’t expect to be so deeply impacted by a client. I’ve represented a lot of trans people. I always help people at bay just because being professional and I have to be this leader and advocate. There was something really special for me, though, to meet a transgender person who was the same age as my grandparents would be if they were still alive.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Wow.

Dru Levasseur: Yeah. It was like I had a transgender grandmother. It really impacted me personally because I think that I realized that my parents are accepting of me. It took a while. I was raised Catholic. My family had to have their own journey to accept me as a trans person. But I never got to tell my grandparents who I am. They never got to meet Dru. And so, for me to meet this person who exactly would have been friends with my grandparents maybe, it provided the sense of acceptance that I didn’t know I was needing. We really were connected.

She just passed away in March. It was three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. It’s funny that her family, we hosted a Zoom celebration of her life and her family and friends said, “That is so Robina going out the way that she wanted to do it. No one was going to hold her to their agenda of like, ‘You have to make it to 100’.” She was ready to leave this world.

But before she did, she started a foundation called Cloud Dancers Foundation to give wishes. It’s like Make a Wish, but for LGBT seniors. Her whole idea of her legacy was that to bring visibility to people like LGBTQ+ seniors who are out there in the world and people don’t really know about.

I thank you for letting me talk about her. It’s very impactful. I used to have her come in and speak in the offices to meet the staff at a summer intern kind of gathering with 50 people in the room. I remember when she got there and she started speaking, looking around the room and seeing younger trans people just sobbing.

I knew that they were having the similar experience that I did, that a lot of us don’t have that accepting family. And to meet somebody in their 90s who looked at them and said, “You’re going to be okay,” it sent a message that we could actually live to be 90 and that we’re okay in the world.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. There’s so many points that you can take from that. I guess one of the pressing questions on my mind with her passing, who’s going to take the torch and keep that tradition alive that she started? It seems like it’s so valuable in the community.

Dru Levasseur: Totally. Her family is running the foundation. It’s been a wonderful connection. I feel part of their extended family. Because I know it’s been a hard journey for families when they have a transgender parent or even if you have a transgender child. I know a lot of families right now are really struggling to figure out how to support, how to get the information and language, and then to feel the judgment in the world that is not accepting of trans people.

[Podcast: Steps to Developing Strong Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policies]

I mean, right now we’re seeing so many states passing anti-trans bills. There’s just so much hate out there, but also just a lot of ignorance around trans people. So there’s a need, like you said, Marie, for there to be somebody carrying on the torch.

What I like best about my job, I’m not going to say it’s easy and I know you can relate, but being out there and being personal, telling my story to hundreds of people when I’m doing continuing legal education sessions, that’s the part that makes the impact.

It’s less about learning the correct language or the protocol and talking about pronouns. What really matters is hearing the stories about the lived experiences of people so that people can connect on that human level. I think that’s what’s most powerful about diversity, equity, and inclusion work is that people need to know that human connection and build that empathy so that they can be more aware of how they’re either contributing to the problem, or working for the better good of everybody around them.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I am speaking today with Mr. Dru Levasseur about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to the legal field. What is the typical day in a life of Dru?

Dru Levasseur: I love this. A typical day, I would say that I am really trying to up my self-care game. I have the Calm app. I don’t know if people are probably familiar with this, but I think there’s also Headspace and other options. I try to start my day out by doing one of the 10-minute meditations. I have never been very good at meditating. It’s a very difficult skill for me to learn. But I have been seeing the difference in just kind of regulating myself and being able to be in it for the marathon, the more I kind of do that kind of internal work.

And so, I’m also a huge Peloton addict, I will say. I’m wearing a Peloton sweatshirt right now. Getting a Peloton bike, I happened to do that right before the pandemic. I know that a lot of people have had on the wait list to get one of these, but it’s a stationary bike, and you can take classes. There are a lot of LGBT instructors and they’re very inclusive. Every month they do Asian History Month, or they have a focus of #blacklivesmatter. I just like the personalities and the energy of these instructors, and so I really get into it. I try to balance out those things with then getting to work.

My work is mostly around making the connections and building the relationships with people to make the case for them to hire me to come in and do the consulting work. So this program, Lavender Law 365 that we created, it’s named after that conference that I mentioned that I went to back in the day when I was in law school.

The idea is that once a year, we would gather for an annual conference and get to know LGBTQ+ issues and get all of your continuing legal education credits you need for the year as lawyers. It was really a family reunion. You would network and connect and kind of get recharged. But that once a year experience is something that we need every day of the year. And I really think people need access to having the conversations around LGBTQ+ issues.

I spend my time scheduling, doing presentations, doing consulting. I review the policies and practices at law firms often or in-house counsel at companies. I’m also working with law schools, which I love, just basically saying, “How are you supporting your LGBTQ+ students or your LGBTQ+ faculty and administration? Because we’re everywhere. Do you have the best practices?” And if not, we can give you an assessment where you can say, “Do you have this? Do you have inclusive restrooms? How are your insurance policies?” and all these things.

And if you have gaps, which I’ll say that most workplaces and law schools still do have gaps around the LGBTQ+ issues and everything else, let’s get you the tools you need and let’s meet you where you’re at. It’s got to be incremental and it’s not a one-time deal.

What we didn’t want to create with this program was so-called “pridetainment,” where everybody all of a sudden in June there’s a scramble for, “Oh, we have to do something LGBT.” What we really are saying is that you have to invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion. It shouldn’t be free. It’s an investment.

And like me coming in and sharing my time and my stories and my personal experiences and the stories that I know from other LGBTQ+ people in the profession, it’s valuable. It’s liquid gold. It’s the information that workplaces need so that they know, “Okay, people exist. We need to count them. We need to make sure we’re supporting them and we need to retain them.” And so, I’m so happy to partner with workplaces that are really trying to do better to address the gaps that are happening.

I always say that of the handful, particularly of trans and non-binary legal professionals out there, attorneys who are especially in big law firms, every single one of them has a story. We don’t have the structure in place right now to properly support, particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, particularly trans and non-binary people and particularly women. We can do better. We have to do better.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. Our work is never done. As soon as we get one issue resolved, something else comes up. I have one last question. I think of the challenges that we experience when we’re trying to educate and enlighten people about the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion. I noticed with the vaccinations that a lot of people are getting really excited about being able to be back out in the public.

One of my biggest concerns, and we’ve seen stories in the news in the last couple of weeks, as people come out and have been on lockdown for over a year, it appears that we’re seeing violence, a lot of what I consider to be deviant behavior that may or may not be tied to mental health issues. What are you seeing in your community and what is going to be your stance to make sure your people are protected?

Dru Levasseur: This is such a beautiful question. I learn from you every time I have the opportunity to speak with you. I really just want to say thank you for the years and years of service and work that you’ve done to make a difference, because someone like me grows from not just the conversation, but your questions.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Oh, you’re welcome for everything.

Dru Levasseur: I’m glad you’re naming that because it’s scary. I’ve been witnessing that too. I’ve been seeing in the news and I also have been receiving the phone calls and emails from people.

Just this week, I had two friends reach out to me about either a nephew or their own child saying that they are really having a hard time, trans kid having a very hard time and having to go to the psych hospital and that they’re suicidal, they’ve been self-harming. This is on the side of my regular work. I haven’t really had a place to really talk about that. I’ve been getting them and connecting them to resources.

Particularly I’ll give a shout out to my best friend who’s in New Haven, Connecticut, Tony Ferraiolo, who is also a transgender man. He is a life coach. He has groups on Zoom for young trans kids and their families who are really needing that connection.

And so, one benefit of the pandemic has been people have been able to access these kinds of connections across the country. Instead of coming in person, we can get people on Zoom with other kids when they’re in the psych hospital to say that you’re not alone. Even if you’re across the country, there are a lot of kids out there who are really suffering. I want to say there are some benefits to the very terrible time we’ve had.

Back to your question. As we’re going to be getting back out there, I think one of the things we need to look at, like you flag, is looking at mental health, that this has been a very difficult time. There has been an impact on everybody. But there’s been a disproportionate impact on people who are most marginalized in our society.

We looked at the health disparities around the pandemic, impacts on black people, on all people of color, on LGBTQ+ people and so on, that it is not then an even playing field that we’ve all experienced COVID-19, but certain communities have had a completely different experience. And so as we go back out there, we have to have that kind of lens of like, “Okay, how do we address these issues? What needs do we have and who do we need to center in those needs?”

My concern is that there hasn’t been a lot of visibility about the impact of COVID and the isolation particularly on young LGBTQ+ people. I mentioned my own story that themes around family acceptance and how so many people, so many young people particularly, do not have a home to come back to because their families are not accepting of who they are. Imagine that with the combination of needing to be staying at home. Those types of compounding issues have really impacted particularly trans people.

And then I’ll also say that with the backdrop of, if you look at the news right now and you look at the political atmosphere, there have been so many attacks particularly against transgender young people. These bills have been focused on trans people in sports or trans people accessing medical care and I’m like, “Why are we picking on this very marginalized population?”

So I wanted to share with listeners that the effects are being felt. The impact is real and we’re not hearing enough about the stories of what those harms are, like who is being left behind as we are opening back up.

My hope is that people can kind of be aware of the real impact. It’s not just this idea of the trans child. There are real trans and non-binary kids right now who are at great risk. And we need to help them and center them in the work we’re doing in the policy work, advocacy work, and also in our communities. As we’re rebuilding and connecting out there, we need to know who’s really suffering. I hope that’s helpful to that kind of lens.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Well, Dru, I appreciate you sharing that story because when I realized that you and I were going to do this podcast today, I thought about that. When I see the different stories on the news, it’s scary and it’s alarming, and I was just wondering about the community and what is being done. I’m glad that you shared the information that you did because people need to know that there are others out there like them. It’s not something they have to think they’re the only one going through it, also that there are places there that will offer support. And I think that is important.

The worst thing that I can think of is anyone suffering and thinking they’re the only one going through it. So thank you for always being a champion for the LGBTQ+ group. I think they appreciate the work that you’re doing. And it seems like you’ve dedicated many years to make sure that you level the playing field.

Dru Levasseur: Thank you. I just want to also mention that with 2020, one of the statistics that I often present when I’m talking about discrimination and violence and the impacts are around, the number one issue, I think is around murders of trans and non-binary people.

Unfortunately, 2020 has been another record year in the United States and worldwide. The impact has actually been centered around transgender women of color and particularly black transgender women, the numbers are the highest in terms of murder. The trans community still faces around 40% attempted suicide rate according to the US Trans Survey from 2015. Those numbers, in and of itself, show that this is a very marginalized community that we need to center trans people particularly, but particularly women of color, black women.

I hope that’s helpful. It’s depressing to see, but I want people to know like Marie said, there are resources, there are groups. If you are somebody that feels alone and that you’re suffering, know that you are not.

As we head into June Pride Month where you’re going to be seeing maybe people marching and celebrating and things like that, my hope for you is to know that you’re not alone and to think about Pride is about getting rid of that shame. It’s about being your full self and it’s about accepting all parts of yourself. And I think that’s the best part of Pride for me.

It doesn’t mean that I need to go out and celebrate or be out in the street, it means that I need to kind of honor and acknowledge my own journey and know that I’m not done. And so, I hope that you are able to take that from this and think about that for yourself.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Whoa. I love that closing statement. I want to thank you for joining me today and sharing your expertise. I believe that our listeners enjoyed everything that you shared and will take note, if not to help themselves, but to help someone that they know. Any closing statements for you? I really appreciate everything.

Dru Levasseur: Thank you, Marie. Just, I think that your service of having this podcast is such a wonderful thing that you’re giving to everybody. So on behalf of all the listeners and myself, thank you for what you do.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We have been speaking with Mr. Dru Levasseur. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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