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Life as a “4L” — Lesbian, Latina, Lady, Lawyer — and the Complexity of Identity (Perspective)

Dec. 14, 2016, 9:19 PM

Editor’s Note: This column is written by the co-chair of Seyfarth Shaw’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Team and is part of a podcast mini-series produced by Law School Transparency about women in law.

At a national conference sponsored by an organization focused on diversity in the legal profession, I was asked by another attendee to identify my category of “diverse.” He noted that I did not look like a person of color. I withheld numerous comments I wanted to make in response (all of which were likely inappropriate) and instead explained my background as someone adopted in New Mexico with a “Hispanic” designation on my birth certificate, who is in a same-sex relationship, and who was raised by Caucasian parents who didn’t speak Spanish. The conversation was awkward. We parted ways.

The legal profession is on a journey to create a diverse and inclusive profession. It’s a wicked problem. While we see low numbers for women in the profession generally, we see a more material under-representation of diverse women, including women of color, openly lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, disabled women, and others. While women in general are struggling to forge new ground in the industry, diverse women can often struggle even harder — often in ways far more significant than awkward conversations at bar events.

In law, intersectionality — the interrelated nature of identity categories like gender, race, age, class, and ability — is often overlooked. Failure to recognize the complex challenges of having multiple social identities can mask issues facing underrepresented groups. For many, the barriers to advancement at work could be attributed to a number of compounding factors, an effect more impenetrable than the proverbial glass ceiling.

Notably, perceptions of obstacles that impede career progression can differ among people with intersecting diverse identities. Women of color may find the predominant challenge to career progression to be their race, as compared to their sex. Others may view their sex to be more of a problem.

Some women may also struggle with being “out” with an “invisible” diversity. Lesbian, bisexual or transgender women may feel a need to “cover” certain aspects of their identities in the workplace, in an effort to hide their diverse identities. Conversely, many women of color cannot “cover” their diverse status, although some (like me) can “pass” for Caucasian. To complicate matters further, there can be negativity about race within women’s communities, bias about queer identity among communities of color, etc.

Finally, intersectionality is not just applicable to diverse individuals. Someone who identified as a heterosexual white male father also has intersecting social identities — for instance, being a single father coming from a low or high socioeconomic class, practicing a religion, and/or having a non-traditional education. Simply put, we all inhabit multiple identity spheres.

Programmatic initiatives in the legal industry often address diversity in a one-dimensional way. With a few exceptions, such as the LGBT Division of the Hispanic Bar Association, we rarely focus on the overlap of identities and the impact of the same.

Instead, organizations within the legal industry often have clearly delineated groups when running diversity initiatives: racial/ethnic minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, veterans, LGBT individuals. Paradoxically, it is because of this categorization that the industry is now left with many programs and initiatives that segment attorneys and reduce our collective understanding.

The legal industry has not (yet) been able to increase the numbers of diverse attorneys, much less multi-faceted diverse groups. In some cases, the zero-sum view of diversity causes us to focus on making incremental room for others instead of rebuilding systems from the ground up. It is time to refresh our efforts by taking an approach that appreciates all facets of an attorney’s life. True inclusion requires that we be aware of the many categories and combinations of identity. Invoking intersectionality will help more accurately capture the complexity of the human experience of people in our profession and beyond.

Reflecting on the concept of intersectionality reminded me of a different conversation I had at a diversity-focused legal event that was very different from the other I described. When I introduced myself and described my work in diversity and inclusion, another attendee declared “Oh, wow! I’ve found another 4L!” I asked for clarification, and she proudly declared that she was a “Lesbian, Lady, Latina, Lawyer —a 4L!” That declaration of ownership over intersecting identities was just perfect, and I found community instantly. There are others like us, as well as many other diverse people of many types that contribute to our community every day. Let’s remember the human experience is multi-faceted for everyone.