Monday, 14 September 2009

Lavender Law/LGBT American Bar Association 2009 - Brooklyn, New York

As I write this, I’m sat on my suitcase at JFK Airport waiting for check in to open in four hours time so I can progress to an area that has seats, bathrooms, food and shops. So, provided I don’t need any such comforts in the next four hours, all will be fine. I’ll then be in comfier surroundings to wait a further three hours to board a flight which will take off an hour after that and arrive in Amsterdam seven and a half hours after that. Then I’ll wait around for another four hours before flying to Newcastle. Happy Days. I would add that my travel instructions told me to be here at this time and consequently a travel agent back in the North East can expect pain is on its way to them. Ahhh, that feels better.

On the plus side, I can blog about what on earth I’m doing here in New York and share with you those positive experiences. I’ve been in town to attend the Lavender Law Conference in Brooklyn. This is the Annual National LGBT Bar Association Conference. That’s bar as in the legal one, not the drinking establishment and it brings US LGBT lawyers, academics and students together. I had planned to be presenting some work on public sex and the law in the UK but it seems they didn’t want that. Having now attended the conference, my hunch is there wasn’t a panel it obviously sat in this year and my proposal probably lacked sufficient law. I know for submitting a proposal next year!

So the conference kicked off on Thursday with a career fair. This was really aimed at LGBT law students (who, don’t forget, are PGs here in the US). A number of big firms that UK readers might recognise were here including Allen & Overy LLP, Clifford Chance LLP, Linklaters LLP, Reed Smith LLP, DLA Piper LLP and Mayer Brown LLP. There were many more and it was fascinating to see these big global, elite firms recognising the need to recruit talent from LGBT students and LGBT students who care about and are active in LGBT related work. The conference included a table of all the firms present, explaining whether the firm included sexual orientation as a protected class, include gender as a protected class, offers domestic partner benefits, adjusts gross salary for domestic partners to offset tax burdens, offers domestic partner bereavement leave, offers domestic partner paternity and maternity leave and helps defray the cost of family planning (in vitro, adoption fees etc).

News flash. As I write this I’m becoming increasingly surrounded by people (maybe they got dud info too?) and a Dutch woman has just taken her skirt off and changed into trousers while her female friend struggles with a case next to her. All this 30cm from my feet. Not impressed.
OK, back to the conference. So ‘my bit’ started properly on Thursday morning with a plenary session on relationship recognition through a federal lens. It was a really interesting session that gave me a good overview of how the case law has developed. The session culminated in discussion round the current case of Gill v OPM which is seeking to challenge the Defense of marriage Act (DOMA). This was a piece of legislation enacted by the Clinton government in the 1990s to try and ‘protect’ the special status of marriage. DOMA was to prove a dominant theme of the conference but more about that later. One of the lines that really struck me was where one law professor talked about the ‘fetishisation of the Supreme Court’. Essentially, he was warning that Americans, lawyers and the public, tend to hold the Supreme Court in far too much regard – they think it can do everything they want to, a skinning beacon of hope, but the reality is a little more complicated. It seemed a fair point and was reflected in the final plenary that dwelt on the possibility that the appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor may hold.

This session was also interesting for bringing tax law into discussion. Yes, tax law, yawn. This perception of tax law was changed at a conference last year in Montreal where I heard Anthony Infanti present a paper on tax law and the LGBT ‘community’. His book Everyday Law for Gays and Lesbians and Those Who Care Abut Them is worth a read. It’s very interesting to see how tax is such a bigger issue in the USA than the UK and we don’t seem to have the same discussions. Anyway, onto the first session.

Before I do, let me comment that I now have one of those baggage wrap machine manoeuvred in front on me and an operator who is literally jangling his bottom above my laptop. If he thinks that will persuade me to leave, his is mistaken :-)

OK, so the first workshop. You have a whole series of different sessions to choose from, as with most conferences. I opted for a session on Queering the Bench: Judicial Selection Methods and the Impact of LGBT Diversity. It was a panel with some big personalities and it was interesting to hear the complex and varied ways that one becomes a judge in the US, before understanding and debating the LGBT presence on that bench. A New York judge on the panel talked about the difficult of needing to come out at multiple times and when to come out – sure you wear lilac robes? He didn’t think so and agree but he was right to highlight this question. If we think it important that we have judges who not only are gay, but are ‘out’ as gay how do we facilitate that?

I then went to a workshop on HIV/AIDS under President Obama. Just to update you, the baggage protection man moved to the front. Oh hello, three cute Dutch cyclists debating a fee for their bikes to be wrapped. “It must be perfect” one of the cyclists said, underlining a stereotype but never mind. Before I continue, let me add that I’m a big fan of cycling shorts.
OK, so the HIV/AIDS session was interesting for adding a policy discussion to proceedings. Like many sessions, and like the SSSP Conference I blogged about in SF, I was given the impression that liberal America doesn’t know what to do/think about Obama. He is in so many ways what they wanted but he isn’t quite living up to all their hopes. The main news item was the hope around the lift on the HIV/AIDS travel ban later this year.

I then went to a session led by Nancy Polikoff and her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. Many of the books ideas are reflected in the Beyond Marriage website that I’ve used as a starting point in LAW326 for the last two years. She signed a couple of copies of her book for me and I’ll be donating one book to the law library. Check it out if you want to read her message to LAW326 students. She also blogs here. Check it out.

Now this luggage malarkey is getting interested. They have to take air out of the tyres. Who knew? Clearly not the Dutch man who is rather annoyed. I’m grateful for the distraction.
Right, so on to the second day of the programme I kicked the day off with a session on ‘Priorities for the LGBT Agenda in a New Administration’. The session asked, with a constitutional lawyer as America’s new president, how key LGBT are groups working with the new administration and how are they finding relations. Generally, people seemed upbeat but the liberal dilemma I describe above was once more evident.

I then went along to a workshop on Pedagogy for Sexuality Courses. The session brought together those who teach Law and Sexuality either as a stand alone module/class or as part of a wider subject. It was interesting and I’ve never had the fortune to attend a similar session in the UK. It was interesting to compare both the content of such courses and the way they are taught, and if I’m honest, I left feeling pretty good about our course at Sunderland. I finished things off with a session looking at LGBT issues and the Supreme Court. It largely seemed to echo the themes of the conference but provided yet another angle. The general mood seemed one of optimism for the future and that’s a good note to end a conference on.
Speaking of moods of optimism, I have three more hours ‘till check in opens and I could do with one of the numerous facilities I described earlier as lacking. Darn it.

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