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Legal Precedent 

A transgender Stanford grad and his colleague are set to open the first-ever law center for transgender issues

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
Having just completed Stanford University's renowned law school program, and now preparing full time for next month's rigorous California bar exam, Dylan Vade's total immersion in the law only underscores what he finds lacking about it.

As a female-to-male transgendered person, Vade doesn't feel represented at all.

"I've been studying the law for three years and I don't see myself in any of the cases -- or if I do, I'm called a freak," Vade says. "The problems surrounding transgender issues are so blatant and obvious in the law, it makes me want to change it."

Vade isn't wasting any time getting started. Even before passing the bar, he has secured the funding to open the first-ever Transgender Law Center. Vade and his colleague, recent Berkeley law school graduate Chris Daley, were awarded $90,000 by the New York-based social justice foundation Echoing Green last month to set up the only legal organization of its kind dedicated to transgender issues. Vade and Daley will base the center in San Francisco, servicing California for now.

The two young lawyers competed with more than 1,100 applicants for 14 grants that provide seed money and technical support for public service initiatives worldwide. Echoing Green has been using venture capitalist principles to back "social entrepreneurs" for more than a decade.

Navigating life -- not to mention the law -- as a transgendered person is not an easy prospect. Even in a supposedly transgender-friendly town like San Francisco, recent city-sponsored studies show that a majority of people who identify as a different gender than they were born as are unemployed, uninsured, and overwhelming targets of harassment and discrimination.

Vade, 32, who was born in Germany and makes his home in San Francisco, has avoided the often heartbreaking experiences of his transgendered clients. Vade has a math degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in philosophy from State University of New York at Stony Brook, in addition to his Stanford law degree. Still, he had to work overtime to compensate for how he, as a transgendered person, is often trivialized by straight and gay people alike.

"There are difficult moments," he says. "When I presented more ambiguously, I got a lot of stares. I got harassed in bathrooms. People don't get it when I say that I identify as transgendered. But, overall, I'm extremely lucky. I've had an easier time than many because I'm white, went to Stanford, and present as fairly male."

But Vade is apprehensive about being a role model for the transgender community.

"I don't believe in getting rights for the more 'acceptable-appearing' people first," he says, dispelling the notion that it is always best to spoon-feed new concepts to a skittish society. "That can backfire on you -- it's the same idea that was used to exclude transgenders from the gay movement in the first place."

So Vade makes a point of letting even the most mainstream audiences know exactly how complex gender identity can be. "Gender is not two points, but a huge galaxy," he says. "There are a million ways to be transgendered."

Indeed, the transgendered world is not just one of pre- and postoperative distinction. "Transgender" is really an umbrella term for the transsexuals who have actually had sex-reassignment surgery, the transvestites who cross-dress at home but not at work, the performance drag queens who only bend gender onstage, and the nonoperative transistors who are moving from one gender to the other in their everyday lives through hormone treatments or dress.

Vade's law partner, Daley, 31, is not transgendered, but he has teamed up with Vade to tackle transgender issues because he believes such work will transcend all gender identities in the end.

"The discrimination I might face as a gay man is a gender issue. A straight woman -- or straight man -- who feels he or she has to act a certain way on the job because of stereotypical gender roles prescribed to them is a gender issue," Daley says. "We should all have the freedom to act on our own internal notions of gender in whatever way feels best."

Vade and Daley's Transgender Law Center will not immediately focus on changing laws or creating new laws to protect its clients. Instead, the center will use and test existing laws that haven't yet been applied to transgendered people but could prove beneficial. "There is an incredible vacuum of legal knowledge among attorneys who want to serve the transgendered community," Daley says. "Our aim is to create a legal response to everyday problems faced by transgendered people -- housing, employment, medical care, safety -- by transforming how the law understands and operates around issues of gender."

For instance, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing lists protections based on sex, disability, and sexual orientation, but it does not say anything about gender identity. Daley says he can make the case that a transgendered client could fit one or all of the three existing criteria. "The court cases haven't been brought yet to see how this will work," he says, noting he does foresee obstacles. "The core issue is gender, and people get freaked out by that. So this won't be a cakewalk."

Vade is confident that he will pass his bar exam and is hopeful about effecting the change he's always dreamed of. "I want to do something I'm passionate about and helps people," he says. "Something that creates more space for more genders."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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