Please check out this disclaimer before reading this post!!
I came into law school fresh out of an environment that was pretty hospitable to my identities. I was part of an inclusive sorority, had tons of progressive friends from many different walks of life, and graduated from the top journalism school in the country. I felt pretty lucky, and I still do. But law school is a whole different ball game. I went from moving through a campus of about 30,000 undergrads every day to having all my classes within one building with roughly 400 other students.
I’ve been out in real life for about four or five years now, and out on social media for about three years. Despite that, I was somewhat nervous about being out and navigating a small law school, especially because I knew approximately one person in my incoming class of 106. How much do these people know about LGBTQ issues? I’d thought. Am I going to have to fight homophobes every day? How is my identity going to intersect with the things I’ll come across as a law student, and one day as an attorney?
I’m happy to report that I got through my 1L year with minimal issues (again, a testament to my privilege, and also probably to my reputation as someone who’d fight you if you said anything ignorant to my face), and now I want to offer some advice to future/other current LGBTQ law students.
1. Research your law school.
Every ABA-accredited law school in the United States, Canada, and Australia has been researched and surveyed by the Law School Admissions Council based on its friendliness toward LGBTQ students. The criteria in the survey include: whether the school has a non-discrimination policy that includes LGBTQ people, whether the school has LGBTQ organization(s), and whether the school has LGBTQ faculty/staff/administrators. I wish I had known about this survey prior to law school! I’m lucky that my school has fulfilled almost all the criteria.
That being said, even if your law school doesn’t have a non-discrimination policy that protects LGBTQ students, that may not necessarily mean the administration or student body will be hostile to LGBTQ people. It may even be a great opportunity for you (if you’re willing/able to do so) to bring students together to implement such a policy at your school. If you have specific questions about a law school’s environment, you should contact their admissions office, who may even be able to connect you with LGBTQ students or organizations at the school. And if your school DOES have a non-discrimination policy…then that’s a good way to hold people accountable 🙂
2. There is no right way to be an LGBTQ law student (or person).
You don’t have to be out. Not in law school, not to your friends/family, not on social media. You don’t have to do anything until or unless you’re comfortable. There’s also nothing wrong with you if you are out, and are comfortable talking about it/bringing it up at school. Either way, I guarantee you are not the only LGBTQ person at your law school. I promise.
But depending on your situation, you may feel lonely at times. Being out in law school has given me this reality check that undergrad didn’t. During undergrad, I was able to surround myself with many LGBTQ people and understanding straight people – and I had a big pool to choose from. In law school, especially at a small one, you kind of get what you get. Not that I don’t love the many friends I do have – but sometimes, being the (loudest) gay one is kind of isolating. It reminds you that most people in the world are, in fact, straight and cis. It reminds you that a lot of people just don’t know about LGBTQ issues. Hearing people constantly and unquestioningly treat being straight/cis as the norm can be really tiring. You learn about certain laws that don’t take LGBTQ people into account, or purposely leave us out – like sexual assault statutes or equal protection laws. It reminds you of how much work is left to be done. But if you’re lucky, most of the “straight/cis-default” environment of law school is due to inexperience with or ignorance about LGBTQ issues, instead of hostility or hatred toward them. Which, then, opens a door for you to…
3. Join (or start) your school’s LGBTQ law organization.
Again, of course, if you’re comfortable. Even if you’re not out, many LGBTQ organizations accept allies, so you can join and participate without feeling the need to disclose anything. At my law school, our LGBTQ organization had fallen by the wayside the semester before I started. Some amazing fellow 1Ls and I restarted our Lambda Legal chapter, and I’m excited to begin my second term as vice president. In our first year, we’ve gotten to volunteer in our community, talk with professors about LGBTQ issues, go to an eye-opening conference, and more. I’m excited about the opportunities our group will have going forward. If anyone is interested, I can definitely do a separate post about starting an organization at your school, or I can answer any questions about doing so directly via email!
4. Seek out a mentor.
This goes for all law students, but I think it’s especially important for law students of marginalized identities to have someone to go to when things get hard. Even if it’s not specifically an LGBTQ staff member, having someone who cares about your wellbeing as an LGBTQ student – not DESPITE your status as an LGBTQ student – is crucial. I’m lucky to have a few professors and staff members who regularly want to hear about not only my academic performance, but also my whole experience at school. This has made all the difference when things have gotten tough. It’s also refreshing to have a perspective from somebody who’s not a fellow student.
5. If you’re comfortable – educate somebody.
As mentioned, part of being one of the few LGBTQ people in any insular environment is that a lot of your peers just aren’t going to get it. They’ll unintentionally say something offensive, not recognize their privilege, or just flat-out not know anything about the issues. Depending on your background and experience, this may be frustrating, because a lot of this knowledge may seem like a no-brainer to you. I had a conversation with some classmates this past semester about gender identity and how one’s genitals don’t necessarily dictate one’s sex. Being able to see my friends move from genuine confusion to understanding was pretty cool. Obviously, not every interaction is going to perfectly, and there will be times that you just might not feel comfortable or have enough energy to educate people. That’s okay. The marginalized are not required to educate the privileged. But if the moment strikes and you feel comfortable, it might end up being a rewarding interaction for all parties.
6. If you’re comfortable – call somebody out.
In the same vein – some people are going to be downright ignorant and not care. Even worse, some might be ignorant and rude intentionally. Even more so here, you are not required to use your precious energy to confront them and educate them. I’ve overheard a few ignorant conversations in the past year. Sometimes I engaged, sometimes I didn’t. While it’s very noble to want to jump in and defend the LGBTQ community, consider your options and the possible consequences. There’s a chance it might go well – but some people are just stuck in their ways, unfortunately. As a bottom line, do what you’re comfortable with, but don’t feel bad if you can’t change the mind of someone determined to be ignorant. There are better, more receptive minds to work with.
7. If you’re having an issue, talk to somebody.
Law school is HARD. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned that while the material is very advanced and arcane, the lifestyle was the hardest for me to get used to. You’re expected to be “on” at all times, ready to be cold-called, in pretty much every class. After hours of class, you have to go home and do readings for the next day, in addition to whatever writing assignments you may have. And if you have a job, a family or are in clubs – good luck. All this is further complicated when you possess an identity that isn’t always respected or understood. It can truly be exhausting. You’re already tired, but then if you hear a particularly nasty microaggression or something else oppressive to your identity happens, you can break. I highly encourage all law students, especially those with a marginalized identity to seek out counseling if you even have the slightest inkling you might need it. It’s better to have a plan in place and not need it, instead of having to wait two weeks or more for an appointment that you need right now.
8. Don’t take unprofessionalism from anybody.
I’ve had pretty great experiences with the faculty and staff at my law school. Spring semester, Lambda held a brown bag lunch and invited all the faculty to talk openly about LGBTQ issues with us. The sheer number of professors and deans who listened to us, asked thoughtful questions, and then signed up to be part of our future events was amazing. However, I know this isn’t the case at every institution or in everyone else’s experience. If you’re outed, tokenized, ignored, talked down to, or experience any negative treatment from a faculty or staff member when you deserve the utmost respect – tell someone. Institutions of learning, especially professional schools like law schools and med schools, are places where you need to feel safe and able to learn. Just because someone is in a position of power over you does not give them a license to be disrespectful.
9. Help those who’ll come after you.
Believe it or not, 1L year will end, and you’re going to be just fine. You’ll learn a lot, grow so much, and hopefully will have established good relationships with people in your building. While I’d like to forget ever being a 1L, I know incoming 1Ls and other future law students will benefit from hearing about my experience – that’s pretty much the whole point of this blog. While you certainly don’t have to start a blog yourself, paying it forward in any way is super rewarding for both you and the people who’ll come after you. If you happen to hear of an LGBTQ student visiting your law school, volunteer to talk with them. Encourage 1Ls to join your orgs. Seek out 1Ls and even undergrads who may be considering law school, and talk frankly with them about the environment of your law school. They’ll appreciate it more than you know.
10. Be good to yourself.
Easier said than done – but if you’re an LGBTQ law student, or LGBTQ and considering law school, please understand how amazing you are. Law school as an institution is still very exclusive and still somewhat old-fashioned – many schools still don’t have an equal ratio of male to female students yet. According to a recent survey, less than 3% of practicing attorneys are openly LBGTQ. It can be daunting some days – but you’re doing it. Even if you don’t realize it, your very survival and success are revolutionary acts. Keep going, but don’t forget to slow down and take care of yourself when it gets hard. We’re in this together – and the world can’t wait to see who you become.