The following remarks were delivered to the National Lawyers Guild Spring Fling Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and the Guild’s Support for the LGBTQ community
Good evening. I wanted to speak to you tonight about abundance and triumph and joy, and I intend to. But our work is rooted in shared histories of bitter injustice, so it would be a painful insult for me to fail to honor the courage of those whose struggles were never redeemed, and it would be dishonest to ignore the work we have yet to do.
I want to acknowledge a number of people who cannot be here tonight. Always in my thoughts are Mohamman Koti, who passed shortly after his release from prison, and Abdullah Majid, who passed shortly before his expected release from prison. May their memories be for a blessing. I want to acknowledge Chelsea, Marius, Donna, Therese, R&B, and so many other gender nonconforming folks who have been viciously targeted by the state. I want to draw special attention to my most invisible friends who are being held under civil commitment orders even after serving the term of their sentences, confined in psychiatric centers that have an obligation to render clinically indicated therapies, but that are instead actively denying them gender affirming health care and mental health care treatment. We cannot celebrate a year of work or the memory of the fightback at Stonewall without bringing to the foreground the continued state- sanctioned violence against queer and trans people, including the violence constituted by hiding them and perpetuated by concealing the violence to which they are subject. I need you to know they are there and I need your help, administrative law people, getting them the care and treatment and hopefully the liberty they deserve. This same kind of concealment is happening at the imaginary lines where migrants fleeing, among other things, gender-based violence, are being hidden from view, with murderous effects.
I want to thank everyone for having me here tonight, and especially my families both bio and chosen, my amazing partners and polycule, my mentors, colleagues and clients. Also my therapist and my dog. We don’t do anything worthwhile by ourselves, and my being recognized here tonight is no exception. My father once said of me “Moira was socially engineered by a village,” and I hope everyone in this room recognizes themself to be part of that village.
For anyone unfamiliar with my work, I don’t work in a single practice area as much as I do a little bit of paid work, mostly writing wills, to support the mostly pro bono work I do for queer and trans and two spirit communities, especially incarcerated queer and trans folks. I currently represent Chelsea Manning, in prison for her refusal to give testimony before a grand jury investigating the publication of her damning disclosures of U.S. military misconduct. I also represent green-scare prisoner Marius Mason in his efforts to access a name change and gender-affirming health care, and as a result of that work will shortly be issuing a constitutional challenge to a Texas statute forbidding prisoners from changing their names, which should be fun. I spend a lot of time doing agency documents and criminal defense and name changes and parole work for people in our queer communities. I am delighted that my work has meaning and value to you and I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak directly to you about our work and our values as lawyers.
You are not only my professional community but my ethical community, and the fact that you share the values that motivate my work is what has made it so easy for me to find a home here in the guild. I want to take this opportunity not only to celebrate our values but to celebrate and center what I have learned from the past, from my clients, and from my own queer community.
To begin with, my own history has direct roots in the guild. My grandpa Frank, who was, in 1937 a newly minted labor lawyer, was cut from the same cultural cloth as the NLG. By the time I learned this, grandpa Frank was 95, and I was several months into my tenure as one of occupy wall street’s NLG legal observers slash anarcho-moms. “Do you know about the National Lawyers Guild?” He inquired distantly over our last breakfast. “I was a member of the national lawyers guild,” he continued. “We represented everyone. Labor, communists, black people and integrationists, even homosexuals!” He chewed his toast, and added: “Especially communists!”
He asked whether vagrancy laws were still selectively enforced against homosexuals, and I said yes but we don’t really say homosexual anymore, and also we don’t say vagrancy now we call it disorderly conduct.
“You have to stand with the people, on the picket lines” he said, “and watch the police.” “I do, grandpa,” I told him. “That’s exactly what we do.”
My grandpa Frank, like all institutions, was problematic, and sometimes incoherent. But the principles that I breathed in as a red diaper baby were the same ones that guided the formation of the guild, and they are worth rearticulating tonight, in the context of remembering Stonewall, and reenvisioning our work as queer lawyers, and lawyers for queers.
In keeping with the client-driven spirit of these principles, I asked some of my queer clients and legal-worker friends: “If you had a captive audience of people who fancy themselves radical lawyers, what would you tell them?”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” said Marius Mason, “Cultivate your networks, so you can find someone who can help, even when you can’t.”
Two-spirit indigenous organizer Dandelion Cloverdale reminded me that the law is neither the cause of nor the most effective solution to the problems faced by queer people. They said to remember that gender and sexuality are sacred to the original people of this continent, and to be aware of the ways in which you represent a colonial state that legally enforces its own views of gender and sexuality onto sovereign people.
Jamila Hammami, former director of Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, sent me a message about the importance of trauma-informed practice, emphasizing “compassion, love, and dedication” for the queer and trans people of color who are targeted and criminalized by the state.
My darling Amelia Sabine Rebelle suggested we build our infrastructure not just as professional lawyers, but as people with resources, in ways that allow us to redistribute our privilege. She also stressed the need for us to show up for each other in personal as well as professional ways.
Chelsea Manning said “Remember that the real struggle isn’t for better law, but liberation.” Indeed.
We are here to celebrate our work “for” queer people, but our work depends on the (often much riskier) work of queer and trans people, especially black, brown, indigenous, Jewish and Muslim, non-citizen, neurovariant and disabled, incarcerated people, and folks living with HIV/ AIDS, and those who work in criminalized fields. To flourish in this work going forward, we need to look not only to our history, and our individual queer clients, but to queer communities for lessons in resistance, survival, and triumph.
So tonight I want to set forth a constellation of interrelated principles synthesized from the past, from the wisdom of our clients, and from the strong examples of queer communities, and I want to ask us as individuals and as an organization to commit or recommit to these principles. Let us take up these principles so that we can someday celebrate Stonewall — a tremendous act of self-assertion by black and brown trans women — as a definitive symbol of victory in a way that is not possible today, less than a week after Layleen Polanco, a black trans woman, was left to perish on Rikers Island, in a month when trans women are being lethally targeted in Philly and Dallas, and in a year when every one of the trans women killed in the U.S. has been a black woman.
The first principle we need to consider is easy and concrete and I think we have this one pretty well nailed down: Stand with the people. Watch (and oppose) the police.
Second: Be humble. Our work is important, but it is, as it should be, FAR from the center of the revolutionary universe. Our competence is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for liberation. At best, the law is largely unrelated to justice and too often, the two are mutually incompatible. We are doing harm reduction. Our clients are doing liberation work. Support them by any means necessary.
Third: Work to make yourself obsolete. Smashing the state is fun; imagine what the world will look like once it’s smashed, and work toward that goal. Make the state — and the law — irrelevant to our lives now. Build infrastructure in and among communities. Redistribute not only legal but health and community resources. Redistribute money! You corporate lawyers, help folks incorporate their nonprofits, help the people who need tax advice or bankruptcy or housing advice. Work to change the laws, yes, but also work to give the laws less traction and relevance. Do not limit your goals to enforcing the least harmful version of the law.
Y’all keeping count? Four: Concretely, this means building cross- disciplinary friendships. We are pretty good at creating professional infrastructure among lawyers, but we need to extend this organizing to include our non-lawyer colleagues and non-professional community members. The National Police Accountability Project list-serve is an amazing example of how we can connect clients with lawyers, and connect lawyers in different parts of the country to the expertise and resources they need. Let’s work on developing these kinds of resources for different practice areas, and among the many different professional and identity-based communities that can support our clients.
Finally, the fifth principle: Sustain each other… and know that requires healthy boundaries. Recognize abundance and use it to support the self- determination of our queer clients and all our clients. But also, manage expectations. Reduce harm, maximize capacity and resources, but also recognize your limits. Rather than making our clients increasingly dependent, we need to invest in their communities and capacities as much as we invest in our own professional organizations — our long-term success and self-determination are mutually contingent.
Much of what I have said can be summed up as the best lesson we can learn from the queer community: Make your own family. Take care of each other and take joy in each other. Celebrate each others’ successes. Hold each other accountable; be willing to be held accountable. Rabelais — stay with me now — raunchy monk, progenitor of the grotesque novel, preoccupied with otherness and free will, is, if not actually “queer” as such, surely an apt role model of transgression and transformation. He imagined the human condition as one in which in order to survive we must compensate for each others’ literal blind spots. Since none of us can see what is behind us, I can see things that you cannot see, but you can see things that I cannot see. We must try to see what is there together. We are all unique, but we are never alone. This condition both requires and facilitates mutual accountability.
Accountability means confronting and taming our anxieties about working with people whose identities we do not share or entirely understand. This is a necessary part of the never-ending process of trying to see what is there together. We must see what is there with our colleagues, our mentors, and our most targeted clients and friends. We know there is no certain righteousness in working in the service of the law itself. Let us commit tonight to law in the service of justice, of love, of rebellion, of the people.
I want to leave you with a passage from a zine that was handed out at NYC pride in 1990, and that is making the digital rounds again this week. I think this embodies all the humility and, equally, the hope that we, as radical lawyers must embody in the service of our ideals and our communities.
“The strong sisters told the brothers that there were two important things to remember about the coming revolutions. The first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second is that we will win.