Yesterday, I presented workshop called “Butch Dress-For-Success” at the Lavender Law national conference, presented by the National LGBT Bar in Chicago, Illinois. The workshop seemed to be well-received. I have wanted to do a workshop like this for some time because it provided the thus far unprecedented opportunity for me share what I have learned in my style, success, and personal journeys. Yesterday, I was able to talk to women and men who, like me, must navigate their careers while presenting gender expressions that do not conform to society’s norms. Like me, they have to decide every day just how much of themselves they will allow the world to see while being prepared to suffer the consequences and reap the rewards of doing so.
One of the themes that arose in yesterday’s workshop is that butch women are often gender-policed while on the job. We heard tales of how mock jurors told a woman lawyer that she was not feminine enough: she should do “something” with her hair, she should wear different, more feminine suits and shoes, and that she would be taken more seriously if she were prettier. Women who experienced similar criticism echoed their dismay and solidarity after hearing her story.
We also tackled the difficult issue of balancing our own need, and right, to be just who we are, while also zealously advocating on behalf of our clients. What do you when a judge has a known policy of kicking lawyers out of his courtroom because they fail to adhere to his arcane and misogynist dress code? There is no single solution for us because our experiences and jobs are all so different. One thing was clear, however: as a lawyer representing a client in that judge’s courtroom, you must put your client’s interests first. That could mean that when appearing in that judge’s courtroom, you wear the required black skirt suit. It could also mean that you send a colleague in your place to appear before the judge so as not to compromise your own identity and ideals. It could also mean that you seek to have the judge recuse himself or that you request a change of judge. All of these options have consequences. How you choose to proceed, how you balance your own interests against those of your clients (which should come first), and against the political and social landscape that you may be trying to change require each of us to do the hard work of figuring out what works best for our own lives and careers.
Another theme that arose out of yesterday’s workshop is that a change in the culture of the practice of law must occur, and that includes a shift in social notions of gender and professionalism. I have chosen to take on the hard job of promoting and pushing that shift. But, we don’t all have to do this work. Each person has a particular role that we must play and duties that we must fulfill. Some of us are change-agents while some of us reap the benefits of change. Either way, everyone wins. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement. As I emphasized yesterday, you can’t guilt someone into doing the hard work of being freedom fighters just like you cannot guilt someone into coming out as LGBT.