Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Really Great Dad: Improving Legal Advocacy for Transgender Parents

Editor’s Note: June 1 is the 7th Annual Blogging for LGBT Families Day, a tradition aimed at showing support for our families in the blogosphere brought to you by, one of our favorite LGBT parenting blogs. Please enjoy our submission by Liz Monnin-Browder, a former GLAD attorney and co-editor of our groundbreaking new publication, Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy.

It was a prime example of serendipity. A few weeks ago, on the day that I saw the book TransgenderFamily Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy in print for the first time, I received an email from a soon-to-be new dad who is a transgender man. He emailed to ask me for advice about what he should do to safeguard his parental relationship with his unborn child.

He gave me permission to share part of his email for this blog post:

“I think that the potential exists for my wife’s family to challenge my parentage should anything happen to her. I have found a family law attorney with experience in gay and lesbian law, but, as far as I can tell, I will be her first trans client. I know that you worked on family law cases at GLAD, and I was wondering if you could direct me to any written resources with which I could provide this attorney.”

As a new parent myself (my daughter is 11 months old), I was struck that this soon-to-be new dad not only needed to figure out which brand of car seat to buy and how many diapers to stock up on, but that he also needed to prepare for the arrival of his baby by retaining legal counsel and searching for resources to educate his attorney.

And he is wise to do so. He is married to his wife, and they are bringing this baby into the world together as their child.

But if something happened to his wife, his parentage – the fact that he is this baby’s father – could be challenged. The outcome would depend on the relevant state’s law and the judge’s familiarity with transgender people and respect for the legitimacy of their family.

So he is already being a really great dad by seeking information about what to do now to protect his legal parent-child relationship with his baby, even before the baby’s birth.

This is just one story that illustrates why we need Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy, the first book to comprehensively address family law issues for transgender people and their families. Each chapter – penned by experts from across the country – covers a different area of family law so transgender people and their attorneys can pick and choose to read the parts that apply to their situation. There are also useful sample documents in the appendix. We intended for it to be a practical, user-friendly resource.  I was so grateful to have this resource to share with the soon-to-be new dad for him to provide to his attorney.

Please join us in spreading the word about this book. We want as many transgender people and as many family law and estate-planning attorneys as possible to know about this resource. We want more families to be able to protect their families without ever having to go to court, and we want more families to achieve positive outcomes in the courts so that we can change the course of bad case law and make more good case law for transgender people and their families. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Turning the Negative Tide on Transgender Family Law

We popped a bottle of champagne at the GLAD offices last week. What did we toast? It wasn’t a court victory, which is ordinarily the only thing that’s worthy of the bubbly around here. Rather, we hoisted our plastic cups (mine contained Sierra Mist, as did the other teetotalers’’ in the office) to celebrate the publication of Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy.  It’s the very first time in GLAD’s 34-year history that we’ve published a book – and a groundbreaking one at that – so there was reason to celebrate. Co-edited by Jennifer Levi, the director of our Transgender Rights Project, and Liz Monnin-Browder, a former staff attorney now with the firm Ropes & Gray, Transgender Family Law is the first book to comprehensively address legal issues facing transgender people in the family law context and provide practitioners the tools to effectively represent transgender clients.

That’s kind of where the celebrating stops. Because it’s hard to gauge what’s worse – the fact that until now there was no authoritative guide to help trans people and their attorneys navigate a system that has long been hostile to the transgender community, or that there is a need for such a book in the first place. As Jennifer often says, the transgender community is where the LGB community was about 40 years ago in terms of respect and recognition by the family courts.

I learned that firsthand while talking to some folks who have been negatively impacted by a family court system that is largely ill-equipped to deal with the reality of transgender people’s lives. As part of the public education campaign we’ve launched in conjunction with the publication of Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy, I met people like Leslie Swanson (a pseudonym), the grandmother of a trans girl, whose first attorney told her that if she disclosed her granddaughter’s trans status to the court it would jeopardize Leslie’s chance of getting custody of the child. On top of that, the guardian ad litem assigned to assess the child’s needs for the court referred to Leslie’s granddaughter throughout her report as “he/she.” It only got worse from there. You can read Leslie’s story here.

I also talked with Joy Ladin, whose estranged wife claimed in her divorce filing that Joy’s transition from male to female caused her to be a danger to their two young daughters, which led to a period where Joy, an English professor, could only visit with the girls in a supervised setting.

I revisited the story of Michael Kantaras, the Florida trans man whose divorce and custody trial made headlines back in the 2000s when it was broadcast on Court TV. Michael’s estranged wife sought to strip him of his parental rights to their two children, whom they had raised together from birth on the grounds that they were never legally married because Michael is transgender. Even 13 years after the fact, it was heartbreaking to hear Michael talk about how terrified he was about losing his children, when all he ever wanted from the time he was a child was “to have kids and a family and be a husband.”

James Allan Scott is a trans man whose wife of 12 years, Rebecca Robertson, is trying to have their marriage voided by arguing that James is female, and, because Texas does not recognize same-sex marriage, they have no legal relationship. Never mind that Rebecca was aware and fully supportive of James’ transition, which happened prior to their marriage. Rebecca’s attorney relied on a number of previous negative court rulings regarding the legal status of transgender people post-transition to make the case that the marriage should be voided. If Rebecca gets her way, James, who is disabled and living in poverty, would not be entitled to any equitable division of the assets the couple accumulated during their marriage. He’ll basically be left with nothing.

Such heartbreaking stories were the impetus behind Transgender Family Law: A Guide to Effective Advocacy. We firmly hope that the publication of this book will help begin to turn the tide of negative legal precedents in trans family law cases and ensure that the transgender community’s rights as people, parents, or spouses are affirmed and protected by the family court system. Now that would be something to celebrate.