ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio speaks on transgender justice


Allison Markman, Staff Writer

Chase Strangio, Deputy Director for Transgender Justice with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) LGBT & HIV Project, spoke about his career as a lawyer, the current threat state legislatures pose to transgender people, and his actions to combat these oppressive laws on Tuesday in an assembly. 

Studio Arts Manager Emily Lombardo and Associate Director of College Counseling Frank Cabrera had the idea to invite Strangio to the school in early December. Lombardo was familiar with Strangio’s work at the ACLU for a while, so when they were thinking of a speaker to invite for LGBTQ+ assembly, his name came to mind, Lombardo said.

The assembly opened with a video that shared students and teachers’ stories about their gender or sexuality to celebrate pride month. After Strangio’s presentation, student panelists Jacob Shaw (11), Chris Smith (10), Trish Tran (10), Natalie Sweet (12), and Evann Penn Brown (12) asked questions.

“The pride month video was both heartwarming and fun,” Dalia Pustilnik (11) said.

Avani Khorana (10) hopes the video will help students feel more comfortable coming out, she said. “This assembly was the first, necessary step towards advancing discussions on the LGBTQ+ community everywhere and, more specifically, at HM.” 

Tuesday marked one year since the murder of George Floyd, so Strangio decided to open his presentation by acknowledging that the legal system is built upon racism and structural inequities. “We have a legal system that was founded on the genocide of Indigenous people, on the maintenance of slavery, and we have to honor the fact that when we think about how to build systems of justice, we’re always engaging in those harmful legacies,” they said. 

Strangio has filed multiple lawsuits in different states in an effort to appeal laws that take away healthcare from transgender children and that ban transgender athletes from competing in sports, they said. 

It was fascinating to hear his account from the frontlines — specifically, his time defending transgender rights in court and how that intersects with his activism,” Shaw said.

Maddie Yoon (10) said Strangio’s work is crucial. “I was upset when I first read about the state legislatures banning trans girls from playing sports because I think everyone deserves to participate in athletics if they want to,” she said. 

Strangio discussed the ongoing threat of state legislatures passing laws that threaten the autonomy and agency that people have over their bodies, such as Arkansas banning access to healthcare for transgender youth. “We’re in a position in 2021 where we’re seeing our relentless efforts to chip away at rights for trans people,” he said. “What we’re seeing as a consequence is laws that are invested in giving the government power to define us and to police our bodies to say who’s the right kind of man, who’s the right kind of woman.”

The most important action young activists can take is engaging with their lawmakers, they said. “Finding ways to hold people accountable has been transformative.”  

During the question and answer session, Strangio discussed the role of the media in transgender rights. He described how the most publicized issues often are about transgender women playing sports as opposed to the fact that state legislatures are denying healthcare to transgender children. To combat this, Strangio said it is important to have more transgender representation in the media.

Khorana said she hopes that discussions about LGBTQ+ rights can continue to reach the school’s community. “I joined GSA this past year when I was struggling to figure out my own sexuality, and I found a group of people who understood and with whom I could talk,” she said. “After today’s assembly, I hope that these discussions can continue and expand beyond the LGBTQ+ students, so we can accept each other and ourselves.” 

Shaw appreciated learning about the intersectionality of transgender issues, he said. “I was curious to hear [Strangio’s] take on how discussions take place, and what we may be losing by failing to consider the struggle for transgender rights within an intersectional nexus of synergistic and competing social and personal dynamics,” he said.

Shaw sees the assembly as the start of broader change at the school. “Horace Mann, as a community, has been making strides in fulfilling their obligation to make the school accepting to all,” he said. “We must start talking about Horace Mann’s role in educating a new generation of adults, who, hopefully, will fight for and see to the end of gender- and sexuality-based discrimination wherever and whenever we can.”  

To accomplish this goal, Shaw said it is important to expand these efforts into the classroom to cover topics in queer history, literature, and current events, he said. In addition, he hopes to see the school continue its support of clubs which support queer students and provide a place of refuge. 

Lombardo hopes the assembly gave students a new perspective on the reliance on the law in securing rights for trans people. “The queer community should not have to rely on the structures of law be able to protect ourselves,” they said. “It’s not going to happen in a year or two. It’s a prolonged investment in making sure that everyone’s humanity is treated equally.”