2014 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Alexander Chen is the Founding Director of the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic. Alexander’s work focuses on expanding the rights of LGBTQ+ people through impact litigation, policy advocacy, and direct representation at both the national and local levels. He also teaches Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and the Law at the Law School.
Alexander was born in Colorado, the son of Chinese immigrants. He studied English literature, first at Oxford University and then as a graduate at Columbia University, and then pursued his JD degree at Harvard Law School, where he was the first openly transgender editor of the Harvard Law Review. Alexander clerked on the Ninth Circuit for the Hon. M. Margaret McKeown, and in the Southern District of California for the Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel, and served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where he worked on landmark LGBTQ+ impact litigation cases, including the transgender military cases Doe v. Trump and Stockman v. Trump, as well as the Ninth Circuit transgender prisoner surgery access case Edmo v. Corizon. He is also a co-founder of the National Trans Bar Association and a co-author of the Trans Youth Handbook.
Can you tell us about the Harvard Law School LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic?
The Clinic was founded by me in January of 2020. For those who aren't familiar with law school clinics, they are like medical clinics. They are an opportunity for law school students to get real experience in doing cases while they are in law school and while they're supervised by practicing attorneys in an environment that is more dedicated to pedagogy than an externship. So, of course, like medical students, law students take these externships where they get to work at different organizations and learn what these organizations do, but the clinics offer an opportunity to work in a particular issue area, but under the guidance of professors and clinicians who have thought about how to teach young lawyers how to lawyer. The LGBTQ+ Clinic is one of many clinics at Harvard Law School that does that, except that we focus on specifically LGBTQ+ issues.
What does being at a law school clinic allow you to do that non-profit organizations might not be able to do?
The Clinic’s work is really driven by a particular mission, which is to leverage our position within a leading academic institution so that we can do things that are difficult for nonprofits in the nonprofit space to do by themselves. So oftentimes when you're in a nonprofit space, you are driven by things like funding consideration, what donors or foundations are looking for. You're driven by trying to get attention for your organization because you need that profile in order to do your fundraising and get support. You're driven by trying to often respond to more short-term emergencies. You're often at the front lines if there is for example some legislative backlash or political thing going on. And so you are often putting out a lot of fires and that can make it really difficult for nonprofits to engage in more long-term planning. Not to say that a lot of them don't do a great job at that, but it's something that's a little bit more difficult, especially for medium to smaller size organizations, state level organizations, and grassroots organizations. So that's really where we come in.
What type of cases does the Clinic focus on within the LGBTQ+ advocacy space?
We see our mission as supporting the future of LGBTQ+ advocacy by focusing on issues that are going to help the LGBTQ+ movement continue to be relevant to people going into the future. And so in practice, what that means is we focus on three particular areas. We've focused on issues that disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people of color, issues that disproportionately affect transgender, gender non-binary, and intersex people, and then issues that affect all LGBTQ+ people—this is a little bit of a more holistic category—but we work on issues where LGBTQ+ people can’t be whole people and flourish where they want to flourish. This comes from the idea that LGBTQ+ people aren't just like individuals who are in that Dan Savage “it gets better model”—you live in Arkansas and your family hates you, move to New York City and you’ll be embraced. Maybe you don't want to leave your family. Maybe you want to stay in Arkansas. Maybe you belong to a religious community. Maybe you want to stay in a job that is relevant to that particular area. The Clinic wants to support LGBTQ+ people as whole people who are able to flourish in the community that they want to flourish in.
How do you work with other organizations?
We partner with national, state, and local grassroots organizations to help them with projects that they want to do that are more medium to long term that they don't currently have the resources for, because they're dealing with those more immediate priorities. One example of that is just this last term, in the fall, we published something called the Intersex Legislative Advocacy Toolkit. This is a partnership with interACT, which is the world's leading intersex advocacy organization on behalf of intersex individuals. For quite some time now, they have been supporting local activists around the country because in the United States, in every single state right now, it's legal to perform genital surgeries on intersex infants. This is a longstanding medical practice that will occur if an infant is born with ambiguous genitalia. Intersex people actually comprise about 2.7 percent of the population, but only one in 2,000 have detectable ambiguous genitalia upon birth. The traditional practice has been for doctors to basically assign the infants a sex at birth, and they have to get the parents' consent, but oftentimes the parents are very frazzled, and they're told this is going to help your kid be normal and grow up normal. So, the parents agree, and children can have this surgery performed on them and not ever find out or find out many years later because they see their medical records or something comes up medically and that's when they realize that this has happened to them—it can be a very traumatic thing to happen. So many intersex advocates want to stop this practice and it's been deemed by the United Nations as a form of torture, in fact, but it's still legal in every state.
interACT has been supporting local activists, but it's very difficult for them because despite the fact that they have a huge impact, they are an organization that only has two paid attorneys in their legal team. So they are supporting all of these activists in multiple states and they said, "Look, what would be really helpful to us is if we had some toolkit, we could give activists that have sample legislation and the latest information about how you pass a bill, how you lobby for change, and people could look at that and then they could reach out to us for support." So this was one of the first projects that we took on and over the last year and a half, we've been working with them to make this toolkit and we just debuted it in the fall. The toolkit will enable them to magnify their impact.
What’s an example of work you’ve done on the legislative side in terms of impact litigation?
We just settled a landmark case in the fall that we are doing as a collaboration with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York City. It’s a lawsuit on behalf of a transgender woman called Mariah Lopez who experienced homelessness in New York City in 2017 and was very badly treated while she was in the homeless shelter. She was sexually abused and was discriminated against on the basis of her medical status, including a denial of admission of her service dog. She also developed medical complications as a result of her stay in the homeless shelters because she wasn’t able to access some types of medical care that she required. She filed a lawsuit on her own behalf and CCR took on her case in 2019 and we came on in 2020. We have achieved a landmark settlement with the City where for the first time they've agreed to have comprehensive LGBTQ+ competency trainings for all of their homeless shelters citywide. New York City also agreed to open transgender specific units for transgender people who want to stay in transgender specific units in every borough except Staten Island by the end of 2022. So that's an example of the type of case that we try to take on, which is a case that involves folks who often have a hard time getting representation and partnering with organizations that do amazing work but could use additional resources. And the students get to participate in that process—they get to work on all of these cases and policy matters and be a part of these collaborations and see what it's really like to do this work in the field.
Was that a major win for the Clinic?
The case is a personal win for me because I transitioned in New York City. I moved to New York City myself when I was a young person after graduating college because I perceived New York City to be a place where I could move and not know anybody and not have any connections, and still be able to access supportive legal and medical services. When I first transitioned, I went to a number of support groups and community spaces and a lot of people I knew were homeless. A big part of the reason I decided to go to law school was because I had this experience of going through a very similar set of personal feelings about my identity as other people but I was having totally different outcomes because I have educational capital in my history, because I had gone to a fancy college, and I knew how to navigate these systems, and I had this potential to have a more professional career track. I knew a lot of people who were really wonderful, kind, talented, and smart people who were literally on the streets or they were stuck in some abusive situation with an abusive partner who didn't support them. They were suffering intimate partner violence, but they didn't feel like they could leave because they also had a bad relationship with their family, or they were kicked out by their family. And then they were completely unable to move forward in any aspect of their life, let alone in their gender transition. I was motivated to go to law school because I saw that was happening right now. And nobody cared. This was 2010. It was before all of this, I think I decided to go to law school around 2010. This was before all of this news coverage about transgender people. And of course, transgender people have been around all of this time for millennia, but really openly for generations, but it really wasn't something that the public consciousness had noticed. And so I saw all of this human suffering around me and also this obliviousness or this callousness from the wider society. I personally was inspired to go to law school by my personal connection to that issue at that time so it’s a win to be able to come back 12 years later and actually do something which we know is only the beginning of the journey.
How do you see yourself shaping culture through your work?
I'll be honest, when I started this job, I thought of it as a platform to do this work in this way that I'm describing that is different than existing models and innovate of this way. But I also think that what I didn't see is that it's also an amazing opportunity to shape a future generation of leaders. Students at the law school both take my clinic and a course that I teach on gender identity and sexual orientation in the law. And for both of those things, when I was offered this job, and I thought about whether I wanted to come back to law school, one thing I tried to commit myself to was that I wouldn't forget what's important about being there—which is not to get caught up in status or prestige or elitism, but to help the students to reorient themselves to what brought them there in the first place.
Can you talk more about the experience of law school students who end up going to private practice instead of focusing on social issues?
A very common experience going into law schools is that students go in thinking that they want to do something for public interest, or government, or society and they come out working at a private law firm. That's a perfectly fine thing to do if that's what you want to do but a lot of students didn't intend to do that. For example, I think there's some statistics from Harvard that suggests a huge number of students go wanting to do something in public interest and then 90 percent go out in private law firms. So, there's a huge disconnect. What happens between year zero and year three, where most students feel pressured to take this path? I think a lot of students lose touch with, and lose faith in, and lose confidence about what drives themselves, what they are passionate about, and how they can make a change to society. They lose confidence in their belief that they can make change.
What I realized after graduating and practicing is that every single person who is academically gifted enough to get into Harvard Law School already has all the tools they need to be somebody who can make life better for somebody else. By being an attorney, let alone an attorney with a Harvard Law School degree, you have so much more power and privilege than so many people in our society. You could do a lot of good, but I think they are not given opportunities to see that or to believe that, and they lose touch with what they themselves are passionate about.
I orient my course and my clinic around helping the students think about wider questions in the hopes that more of them will choose to use their skills for the greater good. The thing is, it's not just good for society, it's good for the students. When people dedicate at least part of their career upon graduating to helping people, rather than doing something which is value neutral for society, it's really good for people themselves as well.
What do you hope students will learn about LGBTQ+ advocacy and how it’s done?
I really want for students who are interested in going into LGBTQ+ advocacy to think about advocating for people who are the most marginalized within our community, because historically this civil rights movement, like many others, has all these structural imperatives so that it focuses on people who have more money and power even within that interest group. I think it's inevitable to some extent, but I want to serve a little bit as a counterweight to that and I'm encouraging the students to not just be satisfied with, oh, I'm going to go work for a public interest organization and that's how I'm going to do good. I want them to ask, what is our organization doing? What are their priorities? Do you agree with them? How do you decide what the priorities are? I want students to think about whether they are bringing something in terms of their lived perspective to that particular issue or field that lets them innovate or see something different or bring another voice into the conversation.
Uncritical thinking leads to disillusionment. When people get there and it's not all puppies and roses and there's a reality of the fact that there is a nonprofit industrial complex and we are emmeshed in it as academic institutions, as foundations, as nonprofit civil rights groups—that has this inevitable shaping effect on everything that happens. It’s better to have candid conversations about that earlier so that students know what they're walking into; they can make their own choices in a more considered way.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to work in law and the LGBTQ+ movement?
Well, there's all the practical career advice, of course, like you should intern for these organizations and you should get to know the field and you should make sure that you are listening to yourself and people around you. So all of that stuff, that's obvious. I think that the other thing I would say that's more personal is that you don't have to feel like you have to solve the entire problem of this community on your own, by being some hero or martyr.
A lot of people have done a lot of amazing and important work to get us to this point. And if you are going to be another person who contributes, that's amazing, but at the same time we have to be what we are trying to make our society into. If you burn yourself out and you martyr yourself and you don't pay any attention to your own quality of wellbeing, then you are not really setting a very good example of how we should all be thriving to people who are going to come after you and look up to you. You can't imagine, maybe, at this time that people are going to look up to you at some other point, but later in your career, people will look up to you and they're going to do what you do, they're not going to do what you say. I think that we keep doing this as a community. We keep valorizing people from our community who martyr themselves and model that, that is the only way.
Ultimately, your happiness is not just about you, it's about our whole community thriving more. You owe it to the community to be happy yourself too, so don't lose sight of that. It's not saying you should be selfish. It's not saying you shouldn't dedicate yourself to the public good, but it's important for there to be balance. It can be very soul crushing and exhausting to constantly confront, on a daily basis, all the injustice that people face, and it's humanly impossible to keep doing it forever without losing your sense of empathy. It's really important to be able to maintain that empathy, and that drive, and that passion, and that ability to see a wider notion of justice, to make sure that you maintain a little bit of balance in your life. ∎