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Columbia Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic Sets a Precedent

So far this year, Columbia University Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic has secured political asylum in the U.S. for a gay Jamaican man and for a lesbian from Turkmenistan, who feared persecution for her sexual orientation and political opinions in that mostly Muslim country. These are just two of the cases being handled by the fledgling clinic embarking on an emerging field — sexuality and gender law.

Directed by Suzanne B. Goldberg, who is renowned for her work and teaching in the area of sexuality and gender law, the clinic, which began in September 2006, is the first sexuality and gender law clinic at a law school to be staffed full time by a faculty member. “One of the goals is to encourage and prod other law schools to develop similar clinics,” says Goldberg.

Although the clinic is just over a year old, Goldberg says many of the school’s applicants say that this clinic drove their choice of law school. “They want to go into careers where they are working on international women’s rights or the rights of lesbian, gay and transgendered people or variations of these themes,” she says. “Part of what’s most exciting about teaching students in this area is it is a field in active development, which raises interesting, substantive questions.”

Says Jennifer Stark, one of eight students participating in the clinic, “I started law school with the hope of doing sexuality and gender law. The clinic has helped me figure out how I can potentially do this work in the future. This is undoubtedly an emerging field of law.”

The students in the clinic devote 21 hours per week to their clinic work and attend a two-hour weekly clinic seminar. Recent projects have included amicus briefs to the Connecticut and California supreme courts in marriage litigation and to the Iraqi Tribunal regarding prosecution of rape; development of legal manuals to support enforcement of women’s rights protocols in Africa and a transgender rights ordinance in New York City; and litigation research, planning and support on issues related to women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and the rights of transgender individuals both in the U.S. and abroad.

“This clinic is really working toward changing the atmosphere that still kind of endorses the discrimination and abuse of gay people,” Stark says. “It’s not just using litigation as a means of changing the field, but also looking into ways to collaborate with non-governmental organizations and ways to work with state attorneys general to try and improve conditions…. The skills this clinic offers are wide-ranging, such that they could really enhance any law student’s experience. We think and discuss how to provide holistic lawyering and to be strategic — balancing both a client and the greater cause.”

The American Bar Association is also addressing these issues with the creation of the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which has as its goal eliminating bias and discrimination in the legal profession, the justice system and society. Jeffrey G. Gibson will chair the commission, which has its first meeting in Washington, D.C. Nov. 30-Dec. 1.

–Lois Elfman

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