Legal Aid Society

A Day In The Life

Challenging Systemic Injustice Through the LGBTQ+ Law and Policy Unit

Erin Beth Harrist was two weeks into her tenure as the Supervising Attorney of our LGBTQ+ Law and Policy Unit when the COVID-19 pandemic rocked New York City.

Erin says the pandemic kicked a lot of our work on behalf of LGB and TGNCNB people into overdrive, especially in state prisons. Trans folks, especially trans women of color, are particularly subject to the traumas of incarceration, and the pandemic added yet another potentially fatal layer to an already dire situation. “We immediately went into litigation mode,” says Erin, “by working on writs of habeas corpus, fighting for parole and early releases, and securing reentry housing and supports with limited degrees of success.”

It’s nice to be at an organization that’s open to discussing topics that in some people’s minds pushes the envelope.

Jails and prisons are not the only hostile environment for these vulnerable clients. Even in New York, which as a city has strong legal protections for trans folks, conditions in homeless shelters are dangerous. Now, the Trump administration is trying to roll back the “equal access rule,” which requires transgender individuals be housed in shelters consistent with their gender identity. This backwards step would allow shelters across the country to make determinations based on appearance, like height or presence of an Adam’s Apple. For Erin, making this move during an already uncertain time could prove devastating for TGNCNB people around the country. “It is entirely unacceptable, and unlawful, to house people who need temporary and emergency shelter on the basis of discriminatory and stereotypic conceptions of gender norms rather than on the basis of where someone will be safe.”

The ongoing effort to change how LGBTQ+ individuals are treated within the justice system is taking place outside of prisons and courthouses, too. The Unit is developing new trainings for our staff regarding not only gender expression, identity, and sexual orientation, but also helping staff and interpreters “ask about cultural identity and gender expression in a way that is going to elicit information in a sensitive manner without being problematic or traumatic.” The Unit is also working with our new Director of Data and IT department to collect data on gender, race, sexual orientation and ethnicity, which will help with our organization’s policy reform work and act as a resource for others with whom we align in the fight for equal justice.

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