August 23, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Holder calls on LGBT attorneys to advance cause of equality

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on LGBT lawyers Thursday night to draw on their “considerable passion and expertise” to build on the progress the Obama administration has already made on advancing LGBT rights.

During his keynote speech at the LGBT Bar Association’s annual Lavender Law Conference, Holder said those in attendance are or will be “uniquely situated to use the power of the law” to create a more equal society.

“And you have not only the power, but – I believe – the solemn responsibility, to do precisely that: to safeguard the rights and freedoms of everyone in this country, and to carry on the critical but unfinished work that lies ahead,” Holder said.

Holder added as he looked around the room that he “can’t help but feel optimistic” about where the efforts of attendees will take the country in the months and years ahead.

The attorney general delivered the remarks before an estimated 1,000 people at the dinner, which took place during the three-day conference at the Washington Hilton in D.C. Attendees discussed the conference as they dined on steak and salmon dinners prepared by the hotel’s kitchen.

During his speech, the attorney general ticked off numerous accomplishments of the Obama administration on LGBT issues, including repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the discontinuation of defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and working with school districts to investigate and address bullying. Additionally, Holder said the Justice Department continues to “fight for” passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination and an updated Violence Against Women Act with LGBT protections.

Holder cited a Connecticut district court’s recent ruling against Section 3 of DOMA as part of the fallout of the Justice Department’s decision to no longer defend the anti-gay law — noting the judge shared the Obama administration’s belief that laws related to sexual orientation should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, or the assumption they’re unconstitutional.

“Since then, we’ve seen an encouraging – and increasing – number of courts hold this provision to be unconstitutional, including a federal district court in Connecticut that found that Section 3 fails to survive heightened constitutional scrutiny just last month,” Holder said.

Holder was well received by the audience, which gave him a standing ovation both upon his entrance to the stage and his exit.

Jonah Richmond, a gay 25-year-old student at Vermont Law School, said seeing Holder’s speech was the “opportunity of a lifetime” because of the historic nature of the times on LGBT rights.

Richmond added he was stricken by Holder’s commitment to not defend DOMA and the attorney general’s willingness to cite his LGBT attorneys in the Justice Department to show “he’s very comfortable working with them.”

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, was in attendance during the speech and expressed a similar satisfaction with the attorney’s general remarks.

“I thought the attorney general’s speech was fantastic,” Ralls said. “He did a great job of highlighting the work the administration has done on behalf of the community and highlighting that there’s work left to be done.”

After if anything was absent from the speech that he wished he heard, Ralls replied, “Immigration Equality has a number of outstanding asks to the attorney general and other Cabinet agencies. We remain optimistic that the record of this administration will continue in the direction of progress. We hope by the this time next year, we’ll hear about all the great couples that are getting green cards.”

Among the outstanding requests Immigration Equality has for the administration is placing the marriage-based green card applications for bi-national same-sex couples in abeyance so they can remain together in the United States without fear of deportation.

The attorney general’s full prepared remarks follow:

REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BY ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER AT THE 2012 LAVENDER LAW CONFERENCE

Thank you, D’Arcy, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome.  It’s a pleasure to be here tonight, and a privilege to join with each of you – and with so many members of the National LGBT Bar Association – in celebrating and renewing our shared commitment to advancing the cause of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

I’d particularly like to recognize the Association’s staff and entire leadership team, and to thank them for all they’ve done to bring us together for this year’s Lavender Law Conference and Career Fair. For more than two decades, this important annual event has brought together hundreds of legal practitioners and law students from across the country. This conference provides an opportunity to highlight the extraordinary work that this organization’s members are leading and participating in every day.  And it offers a chance to reflect on the progress that, especially over the past few years, each of you has helped make possible – and to reaffirm our determination to carry this essential work into the future.

Because of your dedicated efforts, you have made this year’s gathering the largest minority recruiting event in the country, and the most successful Lavender Law Conference yet – with over 260 employers in attendance, including multiple representatives from the United States Department of Justice. In fact, I’m pleased to report that tonight we’re joined by a number of senior Deparment leaders, as well as five United States Attorneys who are strong LGBT allies: Melinda Haag, from the Northern District of California; David Hickton, from the Western District of Pennsylvania; Amanda Marshall, from the District of Oregon; Stephen Wigginton, from the Southern District of Illinois; and Robert Pitman, from the Western District of Texas.

Through workshop sessions, career counseling, and panel discussions, this conference is providing a unique platform for mentoring and engagement among some of the best attorneys in America on cutting-edge legal issues. You’re helping to call attention to the obstacles and biases – in forms both overt and subtle – that continue to affect far too many LGBT Americans every day. And you’re encouraging collaboration, cooperation, and more effective advocacy as we seek to design and implement innovative strategies for confronting the most persistent challenges that far too many Americans face.

As Attorney General, I consider it a privilege to be part of this annual gathering, and to join such a diverse group of partners, colleagues, and friends in working to strengthen our nation’s legal community, and legal system. And as an American, I am deeply proud to stand with you in celebrating the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that – particularly over the past three and a half years – your leadership and coordinated efforts have helped to bring about.

We’ve come together at an exciting moment. Thanks to the work of tireless advocates, activists, and attorneys in – and far beyond – this room, our nation has made great strides on the road to LGBT equality and the unfinished struggle to secure and protect the civil rights of all< Americans. For President Obama, for me, and for our colleagues at every level of the Obama Administration, this work has long been a top priority – and I’m pleased to note that it has resulted in meaningful, measurable, and enduring change.

We can all be proud that, today – for the first time in history – those who courageously serve their country in uniform need no longer hide their sexual orientation.  As we approach the one-year anniversary of the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s worth celebrating the fact that so many brave servicemen and women can now serve their country proudly, honestly, openly, and without fear of discharge.  We can take pride in the fact that, early last year, President Obama and I directed Justice Department attorneys not to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Since then, we’ve seen an encouraging – and increasing – number of courts hold this provision to be unconstitutional, including a federal district court in Connecticut that found that Section 3 fails to survive heightened constitutional scrutiny just last month.

And we can be encouraged by the robust efforts that our nation’s Department of Justice is leading to ensure the vigorous enforcement of civil rights protections in order to safeguard LGBT individuals and others from the most brutal forms of bias-motivated violence. Thanks to the outstanding leadership of my good friend, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez – and the dedication of skilled investigators, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and support staffers within the Department’s Civil Rights Division and throughout its partner agencies – today, this work is stronger than ever before. And our resolve to meet evolving threats with renewed vigilance has never been more clear.

This past April, the Department issued its first-ever indictment for a hate crime based on sexual orientation under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – a landmark measure signed into law by President Obama in 2009, which many of the people in this room helped to move forward – in relation to an alleged anti-gay crime in Kentucky. Since then, we’ve continued to review reported incidents that may fall under this legislation. Under this law, we’re working to strengthen our ability to achieve justice on behalf of those who are victimized simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And we stand ready to vigorously pursue allegations of federal hate crimes wherever they arise; to bring charges whenever they are warranted; and to support the efforts of our state and local law enforcement partners to enforce their own hate crimes laws.

The Civil Rights Division is also taking the lead in bolstering our ability to educate and train federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials on sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination, in order to ensure that those who serve on the front lines are well-equipped to prevent, identify, and stop it wherever it occurs. Just last month, the Department filed an historic consent decree with the City of New Orleans to address allegations of discrimination and harassment by local police, including against LGBT individuals. In this agreement, and in our broader efforts to combat such actions, we have demonstrated the importance – and the effectiveness – of working closely with elected and appointed authorities to identify troubling practices, to correct patterns of repeated violations, and to craft policies and procedures that ensure the rights and freedoms of the citizens that our law enforcement officers are sworn to serve and protect.  In recent years, we’ve taken significant steps to raise awareness about the role that community leaders, public officials, and educators can play in protecting a variety of vulnerable populations – particularly the youngest members of our society.  And we’ve worked to expand and extend these protections to make certain that our children can feel safe in their homes, on our streets – and especially in our schoolyards and classrooms.

As many of you know all too well, every school year, bullying touches the lives of countless young people. As we’ve seen all too clearly, it can have a devastating – and potentially lifelong – impact.  In response, the Department has been collaborating with educators, administrators, and students in school districts nationwide to investigate and address this troubling behavior. We’re working with our partners – including federal allies like the Department of Education, under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan – to explore ways to stop harassment and bullying before it starts.  In places like Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District – where an investigation found that some students faced threats, physical violence, derogatory language, and other forms of harassment on a daily basis – we’ve successfully engaged with school districts and advocates to resolve harassment allegations and lay out detailed blueprints for sustainable reform. As we move forward, we will continue to promote safe and healthy learning environments; to support a Student Non-Discrimination Act that would allow us to better address harassment and bullying based on an individual’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; to provide assistance to bullying victims; and to work closely with local leaders, parents, educators, and young people themselves to make certain that all of our students can feel safe – and free to be themselves – in school.

Beyond these efforts, the Justice Department continues to support – and to fight for – legislative and policy reforms like an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend protections to LGBT individuals in all workplaces, and an updated Violence Against Women Act that would ensure that the law’s non-discrimination provisions cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Even in the face of extraordinary budget challenges, we remain determined to use every available resource to build the necessary institutional and legal frameworks to end harassment, violence, and discrimination – and to provide the safeguards that, for LGBT Americans, my fellow citizens, are long overdue.

But my colleagues and I aren’t merely content to advocate, and speak out, for these changes and reforms. We understand the importance of leading by example. And that’s why the Justice Department – and a wide range of agencies throughout the Administration – have taken decisive action to help create a more inclusive work environment for our own employees. To strengthen our mission of serving all Americans by recruiting – and retaining – highly-qualified individuals, like you, who reflect our nation’s rich diversity. And to make a sustained and concerted effort to provide the opportunities, support, and respect that every aspiring public servant needs to develop, to grow, and to thrive both personally and professionally.

No one understands the importance of creating such an environment – or has advocated more passionately on behalf of the LGBT community – than President Obama. Thanks to his leadership, this Administration has made historic strides in adopting inclusive policies and sending a clear message that the federal government is “open for everyone,” and that it is an employer that accepts and respects every potential employee.

For instance, within the Justice Department, I launched a new Diversity Management Initiative in 2010 in order to expand and strengthen strategies and programs for promoting fairness, equality, and opportunity for every member of the DOJ family – which today includes an increasing number of openly gay or lesbian U.S. Attorneys – including my good friend, Robert Pitman – as well as senior Department leaders, U.S. Marshals, the keynote speaker at your Transgender Law Institute and three of the attorneys recently named to the National LGBT Bar Association’s “Best Lawyers Under 40,” and an extremely dedicated, and ever-expanding, membership of a wonderful organization known as “DOJ Pride.”

Earlier this summer, we held a Department-wide training workshop for managers across the country – which was conducted by a nationally-recognized expert on diversity and workplace inclusion, Dr. Richard Friend – who discussed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion as an imperative for effectively recruiting new talent and fully engaging all individuals in the workplace. In addition, the Bureau of Prisons has announced that every federal prison will appoint an LGBT representative to their Affirmative Employment Program, to help start a dialogue about issues facing staff members who serve in more than 120 facilities nationwide.

Now, I believe these new actions and policies constitute promising steps in the right direction.  But, like everyone here tonight, I also recognize that our journey – as a nation, and as a legal profession – is far from over.

I know the progress we seek won’t always come as quickly as we might hope, or as easily as we would like. And that’s why, tonight, I’m not just here to thank you for all you’ve done to help bring us to this point; to highlight the Administration’s efforts in service of the same cause; or to celebrate everything that we’ve achieved together.

I’m also here to ask for your continued help, to draw on your considerable passion and expertise, and to reiterate the Department’s commitment – and my own – to building on the momentum we’ve established, and ensuring that the recent successes we’ve seen are just the beginning.

As current – and aspiring – leaders of the bench and bar, everyone here tonight understands what’s at stake. You realize how important every hard-fought legal victory – large and small – really is.  You are – or soon will be – uniquely situated to use the power of the law, as well as your own gifts and knowledge, to help build a more fair, more equal, and more just society. And you have not only the power, but – I believe – the solemn responsibility, to do precisely that: to safeguard the rights and freedoms of everyone in this country, and to carry on the critical but unfinished work that lies ahead.

Of course, this never has been – and never will be – easy.  But as I look around this room, I can’t help but feel optimistic about where your efforts will lead us – and how far our collective commitment will take us – in the months and years ahead.  With the benefit of your partnership and the strength of your passion, I know that we can – and I’m confident that we will – continue the work that has become both our shared priority and common cause.  And I look forward to all that we will surely accomplish together.

Thank you.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • Great article. Thanks a lot. I especially liked it when you said And you have not only the power, but – I believe – the solemn responsibility, to do precisely that: to safeguard the rights and freedoms of everyone in this country, and to carry on the critical but unfinished work that lies ahead. I could not agree more.

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