What It's Like: Being Gay in Law School
On February 2nd, the country's top two defense officials, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, called on Congress to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." In his statement concerning the sixteen year old policy against openly gay and lesbian people serving in the military, Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
In light of these historic statements, we at Nota Bene thought it appropriate to continue our "What It's Like" series with a look at what it is like to be gay or lesbian in the field of the law. Though being gay or lesbian, especially in an urban educational environment, can seem like a non-issue in this day and age, law students around the country deal with different issues when applying to and navigating through law school. Even the Law School Admissions Council offers information on whether or not to come out on applications or during law school, illustrating the fact that gay and lesbian identity issues are alive in legal academia.
In 2004, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) conducted a survey of 3,205 first-year law students. In the survey, nearly 4% of respondents self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). While most respondents stated that their sexual orientation did not factor into their decision to attend the law school that they chose, the factor of a welcoming environment was just as and, in some cases, more important than for non-LGBT students. Additionally, the survey revealed that 23.5% of LGBT respondents experienced discrimination while in law school.
In response to their 2004 survey, LSAC issued a statement saying, "It is critical that we work to create campuses that are inclusive communities and to make applicants aware of the diversity on law school campuses. GLBT students are attracted to schools where they will feel welcome on numerous levels."
In contrast to the survey, 1L Michael Porcello has not experienced discrimination while at GW. "I have not faced discrimination at GW Law, but have conversely found that GW Law provides many opportunities - both socially and through employment opportunities - for LGBT students to flourish while proudly being who they are." He noted that the administration is very supportive, especially when compared to other D.C. law schools "where where support for LGBT students is little or none. GW and its student community are truly supportive of LGBT rights and the LGBT community here on campus." He specifically noted how appreciated it was when Dean Lawrence and Dean Maggs came to the LGBT 1L breakfast reception in the fall.
GW Law has many resources for gay and lesbian community members, including LGBT faculty support, courses, and domestic-partnership benefits. For students, Lambda Law is here to provide "a network for professional and social interaction between LGBT and ally students, faculty, and legal professionals, and for the education of the Law School community about issues facing LGBT individuals." Founded in 1989, Lambda Law hosts events including a mentor program with D.C. attorneys and works with the Career Development Office to address legal job search issues facing LGBT students.
When he came to GW Law, there was never any question whether or not to come out to his classmates. "Coming to GW, I didn't so much consciously come out as simply continued living as myself. I had fully come out during high school and the first year of college, so anything subsequent feels somewhat like a continuation of already having come out. But to answer the root of your question: I was immediately out when I came to GW. It's not something I would think to keep hidden. Additionaly, I'd been excited since beginning the application process for law school about about the prospect of getting involved in Lambda Law. Being 'out' at law school was never really a question - it was a prerequisite for some of things I wanted to accomplish while pursuing my JD."
2L and co-President of Lambda Law Elizabeth Edwards agreed: "I was out from the get-go at GW Law. I wanted to be able to share the small but important details about my life that would permit me to be confident, honest, and make friends."
She also thought that GW was an open community for LGBT students and issues. "The student body and the administration are generally very supportive of concerns affecting the LGBT community. On a personal level, I've found that people really don't care about my sexual orientation and are very kind and welcoming to my girlfriend."
Being gay in law school has affected more than one student in that it has made legal issues into personal ones for those in certain classes. Edwards notes, "LGBT issues pervade many different areas of the law (Contracts, Property, Family Law, Tax, etc.). The class where being gay affected me most profoundly was Con Law II because I thought much more critically about what it means to be a minority and/or a member of a discrete and insular class."
Porcello does not believe that being gay alone has affected him as a law student, but has affected his decision to become involved in the LGBT community at GW Law. "That fact of being gay has not affected me as a law student; my particular sexual orientation has made little difference in how I've fared in my classes, who my friends are, and most of my day to day activities. However, my decision to become actively involved in the LGBT community on campus has certainly shaped my experience here for the better. Over the past five months I have had the opportunity to join Lambda Law as well as sit as graduate student chair for the university-wide LGBT organization Allied in Pride. Being a part of these two organizations has given me the opportunity to meet a range of new friends, take part of activities I would've otherwise not known about, and generally be a more content law student. Lambda Law offered me a great deal of support during those first few awkward weeks of law school by providing mentors to 1L students, organizing social events, and generally welcoming me to the law school community. In turn, my involved in Allied in Pride has allowed me to reach out to other graduate students, and actually led me to a seat on the university student association, where we were recently about to pass legislation advocating the inclusion of an LGBT minor in the undergraduate program and a gender-neutral housing option for all students."
As for the future, both Edwards and Porcello are unsure how their sexual orientation will affect their careers. "I think being gay will affect me as a lawyer," Edwards concedes, "although I couldn't speak to exactly how. What is is much more clear to me is that being a lawyer will affect me as a gay person. With my training at GW, I feel empowered to take on the many legal disparities that exist for gay people as I begin to build my family."
Porcello echoed the same hopeful sentiments, "While the specific field of law I enter will likely not be affected by my identification as a gay man, I believe that the connections I have made through the LGBT community will be a great benefit once I enter the workforce. As I stated earlier, the pure fact of being gay or lesbian makes very little difference in who one is, or the opportunities he or she might have. It is through becoming involved in the LGBT community, meeting, learning from and helping LGBT individuals and their allies that makes the difference."