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Sex & Low Beach
Suzanne Goldberg is a clinical professor of law at the Columbia Law School, where she serves as director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. She previously led the Women’s Rights Litigation Clinic at Rutgers School of Law, co-authored a book titled Strangers to the Law: Gay People on Trial, and participated in various civil rights cases involving sexual and marriage equality. At Columbia, Goldberg currently directs the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, which she founded in 2007. She also teaches Social Change, and the Movement for Women and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, among other courses. Goldberg sat down with The Eye to discuss her work and current debates surrounding gender and sexuality and law in modern society.
Could you speak a bit about your Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic? What makes it unique, and what kind of work do you do there?
A little over four years ago, I started the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, which is the first of its kind in the country to have a full-time faculty member overseeing students who are working in the field of gender and sexuality law. The array of things we do is really quite wide-ranging, from local work on the rights of transgender people related to marriage and antiviolence, to global work on trafficking, to federal court litigation on marriage rights for same-sex couples. We do legislative work, litigation, public policy, education and outreach. We did a major report that we released last spring about the U.S. allies’ transition to having open service for lesbian and gay service members, and I was recently up at the United States Coast Guard Academy giving talks and training based on that report. So the work itself is important to our clients and partners, and then we aim for impact that is far-reaching, and I think we’ve had a lot of success so far. The clinic, although it predated the center, is the experiential learning component for sexuality and gender law at Columbia. Both the clinic and the center are unique in the country, and, I’d venture to say, the world. The international work [that we’ve done] has come partly because we’ve been asked to do it, but it’s also partly a recognition that the development of law is global as well as local. While advocacy can look different in different places, there is no absolute reason to stop it at the nation’s borders with advocacy any more than there is with respect to ideas.
Does your focus and work on gender and sexuality law come from a purely legal perspective, or from an ideological one as well?
If you were in law school you wouldn’t ask that question—if it’s coming from an ideological perspective or a legal perspective—because what law students quickly learn is that there’s no neutrality in law. What I would say is that the clinic’s focus is on securing equality and opposing violence based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That has been the focus of the work, and the choices about what work to do in that area have been made largely by me. There’s a pedagogical reason for that: I’m selecting projects that I think students will learn from and that will provide benefit in the world. If you’re asking why we’ve filed briefs on the side of rights for same sex couples as opposed to against same sex couples, my response is that the clinic sees itself as aiming to secure rights and support the elimination of discrimination.
What do you think the future holds for securing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples?
The nation is in an adolescent phase when it comes to marriage, in the sense that we are growing up, moving towards a place of equality, but are not there yet. So I think it will be some years before we get close to being a country in which same-sex couples can marry and have marriages recognized on the same basis as different-sex couples. I also think, though, that the train has left the station and that that will happen. It’s more at this point a matter of time, but it could be a somewhat long time. It’s hard to make predictions about what courts will do on the issue. The demographic research seems to indicate that whatever courts do, this is largely a non-issue for people in their 20s, so that most people in their 20s think that sexual orientation is a benign variation—meaning, yes, there are differences, but not very interesting or important ones. For sure that’s not true of everybody, but the demographic studies from around the country are pretty consistent that a strong majority of people in their 20s don’t understand why gay people can’t marry or can’t serve openly in the military. In fact, that was confirmed for me at the Coast Guard Academy, where people were optimistic that the cadets will be able to handle open service.
What are your thoughts on campus military recruiting in light of the lack of open service in this country?
We allow the military to recruit at the law school, which is required by a law called the Solomon Amendment, an appropriations bill. And the idea of that law is that law schools will be penalized if they don’t allow the military to recruit on campus—penalized in terms of a denial of funds. So we have allowed them on, and then each year some faculty members sign a letter voicing our objection to having the military recruit on campus, because their presence here as recruiters violates our anti-discrimination policy. We do not let any other employers who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or other characteristics recruit on campus. So I end up circulating that letter to students, because I’m on a committee that deals with related issues. So for as long as the military discriminates based on sexual orientation, I will object to their presence as a recruiter on campus.
Do many of your students go on to work in gender and sexuality law?
It’s quite varied. For students who work in the clinic, it’s a high-intensity learning experience. Part of the point of clinical education in general is to give students an opportunity to stand in the shoes of lawyers while they’re still in law school, which is quite exciting—particularly here where their work has a lot of impact and helps a lot of people directly. So yes, some students continue to do this work. Some of my graduates are working full time in gender and sexuality law, others working in law firms, or government, or legal services or public interest organizations—but I think it’s fair to say that every single one has a heightened awareness of and experience in working on these issues. That’s quite exciting, and the longer we’re doing this, the more we’ll have graduates out there who are able to work in a variety of capacities on these issues. And it’s great fun.
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