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August 13, 2009

“Gay Bar” Hearing Witnesses Shared Personal Stories

Panelists Allen Orr, Brent E. Adams and M. Dru Levasseur relate stories of the challenges faced by gay and transgender lawyers. (Photo courtesy of All Events Photography)

Panelists Allen Orr, Brent E. Adams and M. Dru Levasseur relate stories of the challenges faced by gay and transgender lawyers. (Photo courtesy of All Events Photography)

“Being out is one of the biggest political statements one can make,” according to Brent E. Adams, acting secretary of financial and professional regulation for the State of Illinois.

“Being out has a snowball affect,” he added, “a positive one.”

Adams was among witnesses at “The Gay Bar:  LGBT Attorneys in the Profession,” a public hearing on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lawyers sponsored by the ABA Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the 2009 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

“One person’s token becomes future generations’ masses,” said Adams, recounting his experiences seeking a legal job fresh out of law school.  He was open about being gay on his resume, and only one law firm invited him for an interview.  When he arranged a meeting, “I said I wanted to meet with an openly gay or lesbian attorney” in the firm, he said.  His request prompted the firm, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, to inquire among its members, giving a lesbian lawyer an opportunity to come out, he said.

Allen Orr, an African-American gay male, noted that his race and his sexual orientation have equated to separate minority categories for him throughout his education and career.  “Blacks are not okay with being gay, and gays are not diverse,” he said.  But Orr agreed that being out in a law firm creates opportunities for others. 

“Proximity to diversity leads to greater understanding,” Orr said, noting that Baker & McKenzie has opened its doors to both African-American and gay or lesbian lawyers since he joined the firm 11 years ago.  While the message to minorities in some firms may be to “keep your head down and do good work,” he found that “when something happens you need to step up and address it,” especially when it involves staff.  Orr, who has chaired diversity committees in his firm, was asked if he felt compelled to take such assignments.

“I have no choice but to do that, because of my own experiences,” he said.  “If you want to have a better lifestyle, you’d better say that.  When you are the only one, if you don’t do it, no one else will.”

Professional development has been vastly different for M. Dru Levasseur, a staff attorney for Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.  Levasseur, a star female athlete and excellent student in high school, came out as a lesbian in college.  While in law school, he recognized his true gender identity, he said, and began his transition during his first year.  The homosexual community that had been his support network rejected him, and he felt “huge betrayal,” he said.  He related an incident in which fellow law students riding in an SUV sped toward him in a parking lot, as if to run him down, and drove off laughing.

After Levasseur clerked two years for justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court, he found his career options limited, he said, and the only legal employment he could find was with the national nonprofit supporting equality for transgender people.  Levasseur said most transgender lawyers work in non-profits or are sole practitioners.

Other witness panels addressed bar association efforts to address LGBT issue, and workplace best practices.