How Lawyers Can Best Represent Transgender Clients
Trans people, individuals whose sex or gender identity is different from the one assigned at birth, often face challenges in areas such as family and relationship planning. Lawyers who represent them should set aside assumptions, stay current with terminology and provide a welcoming environment, said Spencer Bergstedt, attorney at North Sound Law, P.S., during an American Bar Association webinar, “Transgender People and Family Law: Current Legal Challenges and Best Practices.”
“Whether you are familiar with working with transgendered people or not, there are some things you can do as a practitioner to ensure that your trans clients or partners … feel like their issues are going to be addressed respectfully, and fairly and accurately,” Bergstedt said.
The trans community is constantly changing as identities often shift and the language used evolves.
“Try to set aside assumptions and deal with each individual client on their terms, in their particular circumstances, as a start,” Bergstedt added. Lawyers can help clients feel welcome by making simple changes, such as modifying the language on intake forms. This change ensures that clients can self-identify in ways that reflect their circumstances.
“In my office, instead of having forms that say ‘husband or wife’ we have ‘spouse’ —using more gender-neutral terms can be very helpful,” Bergstedt said. “I think most people appreciate the opportunity to really self-identify.”
Lawyers should be consistent in using a client’s current identity during presentations and when appearing before judges or in any legal proceedings. Bergstedt explained that he has been in court with client whose names are not in agreement with how they self-identify and has explained why he uses the language he uses:
“This is the name and these are the pronouns they prefer. If it pleases the court, I am going to continue to refer to my client based on their current identity not on what their legal documentation says,” Bergstedt explained, adding that judges and commissioners are generally receptive.
When it comes to relationship and family planning, lawyers should make sure that trans clients are aware of all their options, including adoption.
“On the pretransition side — particularly for the male-to-female trans people — they may wish to do sperm banking to maintain their genetic material,” said Bergstedt. “For female-to-male folks, they may want to consider doing egg harvesting and creating embryos in order to maintain their genetic viability. Certainly sometimes folks, even after transition, could continue to have kids the old fashion way if they haven’t had particular surgical procedures that would prevent that.”
In part two of this series, we explore how lawyers handle relationship planning, divorce and custody cases that involve trans people.