Reflections from the Legal Director at The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado
I talk … a lot. Just this year, I’ve had almost 850 attendees at thirty-eight presentations throughout the state of Colorado given to a variety of organizations, private companies, government entities, community groups, law enforcement agencies, attorneys and college classes.
I also tend to be loud. Loud, to the point that when my office relocated a couple years ago, they made sure to put me in a corner away from the other staff. Loud, to the point that when groups offer me a microphone to talk to an audience of fifty people, I laugh and say that I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to hear me.
However, there are two things I don’t say often enough or loudly enough. The first is how lucky I am to get to do the work I do every day. The other is—despite the fact that I love my work, I hope that someday there will no longer be a need for my job to exist. Much has changed in the world of LGBT equality in Colorado since I started as the Legal Director at The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado (The Center) six years ago. The Center provides a safe and affirming environment for more than 40,000 annual visitors seeking information, education, understanding or simply a greater sense of connection to their community.
Founded in 1976, The Center is the third oldest community center in the United States operated by and for the LGBT community. In addition to being a focal point for community information, social activities and support, The Center has long played a pivotal role in creating initiatives to reduce harassment and discrimination. The Center’s mission is to engage, empower, enrich, and advance the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community of Colorado.
I am thrilled to have been a part of the sea changes of LGBT equality. Here in Colorado, The Center’s Legal & Advocacy Program has worked on everything from implementing state anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to second parent adoptions to designated beneficiaries agreements for estate planning, and clarifying anti-bullying protections for LGBT youth—and, after several years of trying, achieving civil unions in Colorado in 2013. On top of the work in Colorado, the national landscape of LGBT equality has changed and progress continues to be made.
I still distinctly remember being hired by this organization in early 2007, when The Center was consolidating the jobs of the Public Policy Director and the Legal Director. I walked in the door with a commitment to serving nonprofits, but little to no specific knowledge about working with the LGBT community. One of the first tasks was to explain to people who were facing blatant harassment in their workplace that there were no employment protections under either state or federal law that covered such discrimination. Sexual orientation was not a protected class under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
Since that time, a definition of sexual orientation, including transgender status, has been added to all state discrimination prohibitions. With passage of additional legislation in 2013, there is finally the opportunity for people facing such harassment to obtain real remedies if they are successful in their claim.
Still, LGBT people live in a world of not having expressly been deemed a protected class under federal employment law. The recent reintroduction of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act is again not expected to be successful.
This summer, I had the opportunity to serve as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law—my alma mater from the Class of 2000—and to teach a group of students a seminar class for the NonProfit Legal Externship Program. I had a wonderful chance to share with these soon-to-be lawyers about what it means to work for a community purpose, to make a difference in people’s lives, and to have the support of fantastic family and friends as my legal career path changed from clerking, to the law firm world, to this meaningful commitment to nonprofit work.
Teaching these students gave me the chance to pass on some of the grace that I have found by working in a nonprofit. Because they face a very tight job market upon leaving law school, simply hearing about opportunities other than being an associate at a large firm seems to make them breathe a little easier.
While looking back through my time in this position, I also have been thinking forward to what success means for me in the role as Legal Director of The Center’s Legal & Advocacy Program. Many specifics come to mind: full equality of gay and lesbian relationships will be recognized; discrimination, harassment and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity will no longer happen; LGBT youth and those with LGBT parents will not be bullied. The list goes on and on. Despite the huge leaps forward, we’re still not there yet.
Moving forward, The Center will continue to impact these changes. Our SAGE of the Rockies elders program connects individuals entering the realm of assisted living, those facing medical struggles with conditions such as dementia, and addresses the risks of going back into the proverbial closet to try to be safe while navigating institutions whose staff may not have all the necessary training on how to serve the LGBT community.
The Center will strive to adequately meet the needs of the transgender community of Colorado. This community faces a substantial amount of unemployment and underemployment, despite protections existing in state law. Transgender people seem to remain a target for some to make fun of, or even blatantly degrade, despite the fact that we have come so far in treating people equally as a general population.
The Center will remain a constant force in providing a safe space and an educational resource for LBGT and questioning youth and their families. When issues of bullying in schools, in cyber-space, and the real threat of high numbers of suicide attempts for LGBT youth exist, our programming at Rainbow Alley will continue to fight back and provide support.
I believe that we need to keep working for equality and respect for all. I will need to keep talking loudly. I will encourage law students to be open to the idea of serving in nonprofits after getting their law degree. I will demonstrate to law students that working in nonprofits is hard work, and most likely lower paying, but completely worth it. These last six years have been an amazing opportunity to see things change.
Working through sea changes can be challenging, but it can also be magnificent!
Interested in Getting Involved with The Center?
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By Mindy Barton