Fighting for Our Rights: A Conversation with Wesley Bizzell – National LGBTQ+ Bar President
By Anthony Eaton
We often forget about all the work that is required to gain and maintain the rights we have. One of the organizations that have led this fight is the National LGB Bar, soon to be the National LGBTQ+ Bar. I had the honor to virtually sit down with Wesley Bizzell, who is the current President of the National LGBTQ+ Bar. While in law school at Georgetown, he joined the Bar after attending his first Lavender Law Conference and stayed connected after graduating. In his second year as an associate with the firm Winston & Strawn, he convinced them to sponsor Lavender Law and recruit at its job fair.
Wesley had served as treasurer for several years and, In 2020, became President of the National LGBTQ+ Bar, serving a two-year term. In May, when his term ends, he will assume the Immediate Past President’s role for another year.
What has leading the Bar as President been like for you?
While I certainly did not expect to lead this organization through a global pandemic that has altered our country in so many ways, I am incredibly honored to have held this position and helped guide us through these uncharted waters.
I sincerely appreciate the trust the board placed in me, and I’m excited about all that we accomplished in these last two years.
Why is the Bar important to our community? What kind of impact has it had?
The National LGBT Bar—which will soon become the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association—represents tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ attorneys, judges, law students, activists, and other legal professionals. It is a prominent voice in ensuring the legal process respects and protects all LGBTQ+ individuals. It has been a longtime thought leader on issues of concern to our community. It is beloved for our annual Lavender Law Conference and Career Fair, which began in 1988, the largest LGBTQ+ legal conference in the country, and the largest LGBTQ+ career fair.
What was the driving factor of the establishment of the Bar?
The LGBTQ+ Bar was founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis by a small group of family law practitioners who provided pro bono legal services to those dying of AIDS, helping these young people create wills and get their legal affairs in order before their tragic deaths.
In October 1987, 750,000 people gathered at the U.S. Capitol for the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. By then, almost 50,000 of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters had died of AIDS. The majority of those being gay men in their 20s and 30s.
At the March in Washington, a group of lawyers came together and decided to form a national organization for LGBTQ+ attorneys to enable LGBTQ+ lawyers to advocate for societal change. From this moment of crisis, the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association was born. What was important is that the organization’s name had the words lesbian and gay in the title. While there were local bar organizations in existence, none unequivocally indicated they were organizations for LGBTQ+ lawyers. But we did.
What kind of work has the Bar been involved in since then?
In the last 30 plus years, the LGBTQ+ Bar has confronted a multitude of crises within our country. Our members have been instrumental in achieving many successes, including creating visible spaces for LGBTQ attorneys within law firms and corporate law departments, enacting a federal hate crimes statute, advocating for the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, and abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the transgender military ban.
Despite these enormous strides, our community – particularly those who are trans and people of color — continues to face crises even today. These critical issues are why the LGBTQ+ Bar must continue to exist. To borrow the lyrics of Tracy Chapman, the LGBTQ+ Bar continues to:
“hunger for a taste of justice” and “hunger for a world of truth.”
How has the Bar helped to shape and change things for the LGBTQ community?
As a legislative and political law attorney, I’m incredibly proud of the LGBTQ+ Bar’s policy work. We are leading the effort to ban the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense across the U.S. This horrific defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, such as violent beatings, other assaults, and even murder.
In 2013, as a result of our efforts, the American Bar Association unanimously approved a resolution calling for an end to this heinous defense strategy. Since then, 12 states (California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia have banned such defenses. Since 2019, we have seen 10 jurisdictions ban the defense. Virginia is our first state to ban the defense in 2021, and it is also the first southern state to do so.
I spent a substantial amount of time working closely with the sponsor, Delegate Danica Roem, on this effort and assembling a remarkable coalition of organizations that supported the bill. Delegate Roem was the first trans legislator elected to any state legislature, and she was an incredible and passionate advocate. We were blessed to have Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, testify before both the House and the Senate committees and be an active part of our coalition fighting to pass this bill. I’m so appreciative of the work of our coalition partners, and we’re grateful for the role they played in successfully advocating for this important legislation.
We are working with several other state legislators on bills, and I know we’ll see several other states ban this defense in 2021.
Politicians have often been less than welcoming of our community, and we certainly experience this with the last administration. What kind of challenges have you encountered in your efforts to make policy changes happen?
We do see LGBTQ+ bigotry and hate creep into so many legislative debates, including the debate on “panic” legislation. I testified recently in support of a New Hampshire bill, where one legislator referred to LGBTQ+ people as having a “deviant sexuality” in the hearing. When he continued in this direction, the hearing was gaveled to a close, and the Zoom was immediately disconnected. Thankfully, the legislator has publicly apologized, saying he had taken time for reflection and was on a “path to redemption.” I am well aware that similar views are held by many throughout our country, which is the very reason we are trying to ban the “panic” defense.
We have come a long way in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, but many still refuse to see our community as deserving of equality and justice.
The Bar doesn’t just focus on LGBTQ legislation and representation; can you talk a little about its work around minority diversity and legal issues?
Within the legal community, we still have not achieved fulsome diversity and full inclusion. That is true for female attorneys, attorneys of color. It’s true for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans, and queer attorneys. Thus, addressing diversity and inclusion is necessary. The National LGBTQ+ Bar partners in this work with other affinity bars: the National Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the National Native American Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the National Association of Blind Lawyers, the National Filipino American Lawyers Association, and the South Asian Bar Association of North America.
We know that by working together, we can better advance the cause of diversity and inclusion and be a unified voice to speak out against racial inequity and injustice wherever we see it. For example, the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association has joined NAPABA’s Stand Against Hate Campaign, recording a joint video with other national bar associations that denounced the anti-Asian hate, violence, and racism related to the coronavirus. I’ve also joined the presidents of NBA, SABA, NAPABA, and HNBA in a Belonging Project webinar to discuss how the minority bar associations are working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion as our country battles two pandemics—coronavirus and systemic racism. The affinity bars recognize that we must stand united against bigotry and hate and work together to make the legal profession more diverse and inclusive.
Besides the legislative work and advocacy, the Bar does, it provides other programs. Can you share a bit about those?
I’m thrilled with the work we are doing with law students and law schools and our racial equity work. We have a multitude of programs for law students, but one is the LEAD Academy.
This program is designed to provide engaged LGBTQ+ and ally law students with the tools they need to create change. It also educates them about the legal framework of the LGBTQ+ movement, so they are prepared to advocate after leaving law school – no matter what area of law they practice or where they practice law.
On racial equity issues, the National LGBTQ+ Bar is deeply committed to continuing the focus on racial justice issues in the LGBTQ+ legal community for the long haul. In 2020, the National LGBTQ+ Bar joined as part of the original signatories to a statement from LGBTQ+ organizations supporting Black lives and calling for racial justice and equity. We are also continuing important existing programs and creating new programs that amplify voices and help address systemic racial oppression and inequality throughout our society, including a Racial Justice Resource Library.
Despite significant advances in legal protections and rights, the LGBTQ community still faces many challenges related to discrimination in employment, housing, and having or adopting children. Does the Bar have a primary focus right now, and what do you think is the biggest challenge we face?
We are thrilled that our members have played significant roles in winning historic legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent Title VII cases. The National LGBTQ+ Bar Association submitted an amicus brief supporting the employees in these cases. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, ruled that Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But our journey to equality is not finished. We are committed to continuing to fight for equality for all.
Like the rest of the country, I think our LGBTQ+ community must address racism and racial inequity not only within our society but within our community itself. The sad fact is that racism still exists within our LGBTQ+ community, and we must call it out when we see it and work to eradicate it. Our community’s unfortunate reality has often only focused on issues of importance to white cisgender gay men. As a result, we have ignored what must be done to make our society better for those in our community who are trans, non-binary, Black, Indigenous, or persons of color. We must do better. What makes our community beautiful and magnificent is our intersectionality, and we have often failed to understand that. Our LGBTQ+ community is comprised of individuals from every gender, race, and ethnicity. We need to do a better job celebrating this. We need to do a better job of amplifying the voices of diverse LGBTQ+ individuals and honoring those diverse LGBTQ+ individuals who have come before us.
For too long, we have also white-washed our history. We’ve ignored the contributions of people like Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, José Sarria, Miss Major, and the list goes on and on. Remember, the Stonewall riots were led by trans women of color and drag queens who united against the discrimination they were facing daily. We’re standing on their shoulders today, and we should not forget that. While we’re getting better and being more inclusive as an LGBTQ+ community, we still have a ways to go.
How has advocacy and legal representation changed since you became a lawyer?
I’m not sure the skills required have changed all that dramatically. As an attorney, you still need to be a persuasive advocate, strategic thinker, and skillful researcher.
I think what has changed is that large corporate clients, like the company I work for, have too started to make sure they receive the benefits of diverse perspectives from the law firms they utilize. So, there is a sharper focus on ensuring diverse lawyers are part of the client team, which is a tremendous step forward. Unfortunately, the level of diversity at law firms, especially at the top, has not changed much since I started practicing 20 years ago. We continue to see woeful under-representation of all diverse people in the partner ranks of law firms.
I recently watched a documentary that included a trans law student looking for their first job in GA. They shared the experience of being discriminated against by potential firms. How big of a problem as discrimination against LGBTQ attorneys?
We’ve seen great strides in workplaces accepting and embracing LGBTQ+ employees, but I’m sure there are individual law firms that are not welcoming or inclusive. I believe all of the largest law firms, known as the Am Law100, have non-discrimination policies that apply to LGBTQ+ individuals. Of course, that is the first step and does not always indicate that the firm’s culture accepts LGBTQ+ individuals. However, it is an essential foundational element. For smaller firms, whether they are accepting or not often depends on where the firm is located and whether another LGBTQ+ lawyer has been the trailblazer, helping to pave the way for other LGBTQ+ individuals to succeed.
In 2019, the National LGBTQ+ Bar rolled out Lavender Law 365, the only LGBTQ+ inclusion coaching and consulting program to address these issues. This program was explicitly designed to implement best practice standards for LGBTQ+ equity across law firms, law schools, and corporate legal departments. We know that when it comes to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQ+ inclusion and representation, the legal profession is one of the least diverse.
Lavender Law 365 harnesses the LGBTQ+ Bar’s expertise to help these organizations foster a more knowledgeable and supportive LGBTQ+ inclusive environment, where they can gain the benefits of having a truly diverse talent pool.
How can members of the community who are not in the legal profession help to support the Bar?
We welcome anyone to attend our Lavender Law Conference & Career Fair or join one of our Lavender Link webcasts. Additionally, for states where we are advocating to ban the LGBTQ “panic” defense, we always love to have constituents call their elected officials to support the issue.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share.
To learn more about the National LGBTQ+ Bar, visit their website at https://lgbtbar.org/