Nov. 29, 2005

Unfair and unequal: Attorney Minter champions rights of sexual minorities

Shannon Price Minter
Sheryl Sinkow Photography
Shannon Price Minter, who attended Cornell Law School as a woman, returned as a man Nov. 16 to speak about the future of gay and transgender rights.

When Shannon Price Minter, J.D. '93, returned to Cornell Law School Nov. 16 to speak about the future of gay rights, he brought a different perspective to bear on the issues. Minter, who attended the Law School as a woman, is now a married man and legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in San Francisco.

"I remember my time here very vividly, and it's great to be back," said Minter, whose talk was sponsored by the Law School's Cyrus Mehri Public Interest Speakers Series. As a law student, Minter interned at the NCLR and helped start a legal aid program for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) who had been forcibly hospitalized for psychological treatment to change their gender identity.

In a dozen years with the NCLR, Minter has become known for his tireless work on precedent-setting cases. "We litigate across quite a wide range of issues across the country," said Minter. "Our goal is to advance the human rights and safety of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, so we end up litigating in state and federal court across the country." His successes include helping to pass anti-discrimination laws protecting transgender people in employment and health care.

"A really wrenching aspect of our work, one that is very dear to my heart, is working on behalf of LGBT youth in foster care and juvenile justice systems," Minter said. "No one can work in this area without being struck, first and foremost, by the overwhelming racism of our current child welfare system. The vast majority of children who are taken out of their homes and put into foster care or incarcerated are youth of color. And their families are subject to a degree of state surveillance and intervention that is rarely if ever directed at middle-class or upper-class families.

"For youth who are dealing with being gay or transgender on top of that, it's really hard to describe the brutality they're facing currently. It's really, literally, a nightmare for those young people. They are subjected to sexual assault, physical assault from other youth and often from staff. There's been very little legal progress in this area. We're representing a young gay man from Tennessee who went into a foster family that forced him to undergo repeated exorcisms to cure him of being gay."

Minter has also brought national attention to transgender parents threatened with losing parental rights. In 2003 Minter represented Michael Kantaras, a transgender father, in a custody battle televised in its entirety on Court TV. "Whatever theories or philosophies any of us may have about gender or about child development, the reality is that, for whatever reason, there are children born into this world who have a very deep-seated internal conviction that their gender is different than the one assigned to them at birth," Minter noted in a 2002 speech.

In 2001 Minter represented Sharon Smith in her successful effort to win the right to file a wrongful death suit after her partner, Diane Whipple, was mauled to death by a neighbor's dog in San Francisco. Until this case, only married survivors could bring suit. Today Minter is the lead attorney in Woo v. Lockyer, a California marriage equality case. He is also appealing the case of a transgender female in Salt Lake City.

"A transsexual woman was fired from her job as a public bus driver solely because the employer was allegedly concerned that someone would object to her using the women's bathroom," Minter said. "Can you imagine losing your job because your employer views you as so fundamentally unacceptable or stigmatized that it's OK to fire you because other people might be offended by your mere presence in a bathroom? That is a very dehumanizing experience, and unfortunately it's one that transgender people experience every day. In most states in this country, it's perfectly legal to fire someone for being lesbian or gay or transgender. Only 16 states have state laws protecting such orientation discrimination. Only six of those protect transgender people."

Minter sees a "frightening new trend" across the country: "Conservative groups are passing subtly worded statutes -- in some instances state constitutional amendments -- and using them to argue that gay people should actually be shut out of all kinds of ordinary legal protections that are available to other people, such as the right to seek custody or visitation, the right to use domestic violence services, the right to obtain equal benefits from an employer."

In October 2005 Minter received a $100,000 "Leadership for a Changing World" award from the Ford Foundation for "working against great odds to make a difference" on behalf of LGBT people. He has taught at Stanford, Golden Gate and Santa Clara law schools. Minter is editor of a new anthology, "Transgender Rights," to be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2006.

"Public interest lawyers have been an absolutely critical part of every single rights movement, and that continues to be true today," Minter said. "It's true for the LGBT movement, the reproductive and environmental justice movement, workers rights, rights of people with disabilities, rights of immigrants and native peoples, the rights of people who are incarcerated -- in all of these areas the law is such an incredibly important and powerful tool. As public interest lawyers, you all are going to have the opportunity to make an enormous impact on the world."

George Lowery is projects manager for the Office of Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.