"The presence of a trans person actually does make a difference. Otherwise these conversations about trans people are taking place without trans people there: conversations in depositions, in court rooms, in legislatures."
2016 interview in Broadly
Transgender human rights lawyer Chase Strangio defended Chelsea Manning's right to receive hormone treatments while in a military prison, and is currently on the frontline of the battle for transgender rights in the US.
Praise for Chase Strangio, the best known transgender lawyer working on LGBTQI+ cases today, is not in short supply: "Probably the most passionate advocate I've ever worked with," says a fellow attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); "A crucial leader on trans issues," says his former law professor.
Strangio, 34, has represented one of the two most famous whistleblowers of the 21st century, Chelsea Manning, and is part of the ACLU team that is currently suing to get the teenage transgender - and now former - student Gavin Grimm access to the male bathroom at his high school (although Grimm has left school, his case is ongoing and is part of a bigger legal battle taking place across the US to allow transgender individuals access to the bathroom of the gender they identify with); unsurprisingly, this legal fight has provoked some very angry responses from political conservatives.
Issues of identity are intimately connected to our right to express ourselves freely, and in legal cases involving transgender individuals, having a transgender person making that argument has distinct advantages. As Strangio said in 2016:
"The presence of a trans person actually does make a difference. Otherwise these conversations about trans people are taking place without trans people there: conversations in depositions, in courtrooms, in legislatures. We really want to be sure that actual trans people are there so that when [our opponents are] making the argument that being trans is a delusion, or that trans people don't actually exist, they're going to have to say that to the face of an actual trans person over and over again. Maybe they're fine with that, but at the end of the day, it is going to make their arguments a lot harder if they're looking at our trans clients, or looking at trans people in the courtroom or a trans lawyer. We need to be in those spaces to make the arguments they're trying to advance less palatable."
Strangio has written movingly of his own painful struggles with gender as a teen: "The sight of my own reflection would make me physically ill. It would send me into a depression." He certainly views the personal as political. However, it was only after college - when Strangio went to work as a paralegal for the LGBTQI+ legal support organisation GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) - that he began to find his feet, both personally and professionally. "I was coming to terms with my own gender, and I started to really gravitate toward trans legal work," he said in an interview with his old college magazine.
After working at GLAD, Strangio went to law school, where his hard work and eager legal mind meant that he stood out among the other bright students. A former professor said that he "was already doing much better work than most lawyers when he was still at law school." It was there that Strangio came out as a transgender man.
In 2010, after graduating, Strangio got a fellowship at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) where he was part of a team providing legal services for transgender and intersex people. His legal calling was now set, and, in 2012, along with the transgender activist Lorena Borjas, he set up the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, which helped pay bail for members of the transgender community who were in trouble with the law. According to a former colleague, the organisation got people "out of jail and immigration detention and put them in a stronger position to fight their case."
The work that brought Strangio to international attention came when he joined the ACLU in 2013. There, he was lead counsel for Chelsea Manning.
In 2013, Manning was convicted on multiple charges related to releasing classified documents to Wikileaks and was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison. Shortly after her conviction, she announced that she would be transitioning from male to female, but - although army doctors recommended that she be allowed to live as a woman - the Department of Defence denied her access to hormone therapy.
At that point Strangio got involved. From his perspective, it was a clear infringement of Manning's right to free expression: "One of the many things that Chelsea has lost through her incarceration is her ability to publicly shape the narrative of who she is," he later wrote in an article for Esquire. They sued, won, and Manning got her hormone treatment in 2015. Lawyer and client became close friends and when, in January 2017, then President Barack Obama commuted Manning's sentence, Strangio organised a fundraiser which collected over US$174,000 to pay for Manning's rent, health care and other costs on her release in May of that year.
Since then, Strangio has focused on fighting the so-called 'bathroom bills' - introduced by lawmakers in more than a dozen US states, and which would require transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity. Common justifications for these bills are around privacy and safety, even though there have been no recorded incidents of a transgender person carrying out an attack or infringing on another person's privacy in a public bathroom.