With Donald Trump set to be inaugurated as the 45th President on Friday, LGBT advocacy groups around the country are bracing for what they fear could be a setback for their community. Chief among them is Joseph Vardner, a Gibson Dunn & Crutcher associate who was just elected vice president of the LGBT Bar Association of DC, a nonpartisan group that represents Washington, D.C.'s LGBT community to the legal profession and local community.
Vardner joined Gibson Dunn in 2015 from the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, and has a history of volunteering with groups that work on landlord-tenant issues and issues related to mental health needs of LGBT youth.
He said he’s concerned about the impending Trump administration’s possible rollback of federal employee protections, the potential expansion of so-called religious freedom at the expense of LGBT rights, and the threat of increased discrimination against transgender individuals.
Big Law Business caught up with Vardner and asked how he intends to address those concerns in his role on the LGBT bar association. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity, and Vardner, a vocal advocate for LGBT rights, was sure to stress his comments do not reflect the opinion of Gibson Dunn.
Big Law Business: What particular challenges for LGBT community do you expect under a Trump administration?
Vardner: Trump has changed the conversation for the worse in terms of LGBT rights.
For the larger LGBT community, I’m worried about what will happen to LGBT students. Trump has said he supports the LGBT community, but the people he surrounds himself with have attacked the LGBT community. His nominee for Secretary of Education [Betsy DeVos] donated heavily against LGBT initiatives in Michigan, and her family is a very big supporter of a group that supports conversion therapy. For Housing and Urban Development, LGBT youth homelessness is a major concern. LGBT youth are more likely to be homeless, and [HUD Secretary nominee] Ben Carson may not recognize that fact or put resources towards helping LGBT individuals. He’s gone on record saying LGBT is a choice.
For the legal community, I’m a bit worried about protecting the few federal LGBT protections that exist today. Most of those protections are at a local, state or city level, but under the Obama administration there were several executive orders that we’re worried will now be lost. Those are both to protect the federal workforce and the federal contracting force. I’m also worried about the resurgence of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which is RFRA on steroids.
[Editor’s note: Passed in 1993, RFRA was designed to protect religious freedoms from laws that might unintentionally encroach on them. It has since served as a model for a new wave of religious freedom laws that critics say favor religious views over LGBT and reproductive rights, causing many of its original sponsors, like the ACLU, to disavow it. FADA is a proposed law that critics say would give religious groups free license to discriminate against LGBT groups in housing employment, health care, federal contracting, and more. Republican lawmakers have said they plan to re-introduce it this year, and Trump has said he would sign it if passed.]
Big Law Business: In terms of the change in administration, what are you watching right now?
Vardner: We’re looking at who in the administration is reaching out to the LGBT community. As far as I’m aware, this current administration hasn’t even reached out to any of the LGBT associations for any input. Both past administrations had liaisons to different communities, but I haven’t seen anything in the press or heard anything, and my friends in LGBT organizations haven’t heard anything about who’s the [Trump] liaison to the LGBT community.
[Editor’s note: The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to a question from Big Law Business about whether President-Elect Trump will appoint an LGBT liaison. The current liaison, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, worries she will not be replaced come January 20, BuzzFeed News reported earlier this month .]
Big Law Business: What specifically can the LGBT bar association do about FADA?
Vardner: We can work with the national association and lobby against it. We can talk with our members about it and make them aware of it and its potential passing so they can help use their jobs to act against it. We can also support possible legal challenges.
Big Law Business: How active does your association get in legal challenges?
Vardner: The association has signed on to briefs. But in the coming years we definitely see taking more of a role in working with the national LGBT bar association and filing our own [briefs]. Often, the association has joined with other [LGBT advocacy] groups like Lambda Legal and GLAAD, but we see that there’s going to be such a need in the coming years that we may have to file our own. There may be too many cases for us to just file one together.
Big Law Business: What are the top goals of the LGBT bar association in 2017?
Vardner: The two biggest goals are, one, increasing our partnerships in relations with various governmental LGBT organizations. Several of the federal agencies all have internal LGBT associations, and as the local LGBT bar association, we’re active in a lot of ways. We do a lot of pro bono and a lot of community organizing, and we think with the coming administration it’s important to support our members who are federal employees and let them know there are groups outside the government who are there to help. The other goal is increasing our pro bono involvement (especially with opportunities that focus on the LGBT community) and making sure that our members know about those and helping them get access to them.
Big Law Business: How do you see your role on the board? What will be your primary focus?
Vardner: My biggest focus is I want to make sure pro bono stays front and center. We’re not big enough to have our own legal clinic or full-time coordinator, but there are plenty of organizations that do. I want to make sure that every attorney who wants to do pro bono work knows about the opportunities. Those range from taking on a case and going to court to donating just a few hours a week. For example, there’s the Whitman-Walker Health Name & Gender Change Clinic — they help the transgender community with the process of changing their legal paperwork. I take a couple hours a week to walk people through the steps.
Human Rights First is a pro bono legal organization that does asylum cases. They do all kinds of asylum cases, but if someone wants to work on an LGBT case they’re happy to help, because there are more than enough asylum cases of every variety, sadly.
Because I used to be part of the federal government, I’m also very excited about increasing our involvement with federal LGBT groups. All the employees are covered by the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from personally campaigning or doing things that would appear they are using their office [for politics]. But there are many other pro bono opportunities, like the Whitman-Walker clinic, that these lawyers can do. I want them to know about them. The DC Bar also coordinates a lot of the landlord tenant cases, including cases where someone is dismissed for housing because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and federal employees can work on that.
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