Bending Gender Perceptions in the Legal World

Author’s Note: Kelsey Gasseling (KG) is a 1L at BC Law and a member of LAMBDA, the LGBTQ affinity group at BC Law. 

When I was 17 years old I went on a gender pronoun boycott. After coming out of the closet and realizing life could go on somewhat normally (no fire and brimstone, much to my Catholic school-kid surprise), I started to analyze what made me, “me.” I had the fortune of being a white teenager from the Pacific Northwest, with a supportive mother and access to a vibrant LGBTQ youth center. This gave me a relatively safe space to explore my identity outside of the conventional male/female binary. Today, I find myself confronting a new set of questions revolving around gender norms in the typically more conservative Boston legal market.

I was a tomboy from DAY 1. Much to my mother’s chagrin, this aspect of my being hasn’t changed one bit, abject loathing for dresses and all. Being a tomboy meant more to me than wearing baggy shirts, soccer sweats, and a ponytail every day of my clammy-handed adolescent life. It put me in an androgynous category – not quite girl or boy – that accurately captured the otherness I felt in comparison to most of my peers. Though I tried to enjoy the things little girls were supposed to (e.g. braiding hair, painting nails, prom dress shopping), expectations placed upon me due to my biological sex fit like an itchy Christmas sweater coated in Gramma’s cat’s hair – I could wear it, but I sure wasn’t going to smile for the camera. The same was true of typical “boy” activities, which my father tried earnestly to get me to love. Hunting, tinkering with cars and watching sports were equally unenjoyable. As gender roles evolved over time into a complicated obstacle course of emotional constraints (when it’s appropriate to cry, to whom you could say “I love you,” how you could avoid being too mannish, prissy, or ambitious), I felt that otherness more acutely. It wasn’t until I started reading literature on body-positivity, gender, and identity politics that I finally discovered the term “genderqueer.” It fit like a glove.

Gender expression and identity are wholly different beasts. Gender expression is visible and can change from year to year, day to day, hour to hour. Consider men or women who dress in drag for special events; women who typically wear dresses, but feel most confident going into interviews wearing a characteristically “masculine” suit and tie; bearded men who borrow their girlfriend’s jeans because that hipster lumberjack look is “in” right now (If you’re thirsting for pop-culture relevance, check out articles on Jaden Smith’s recent modeling of Louis Vuitton’s women’s wear). My gender expression has gone through so many phases, I lost count somewhere between Drew Barrymore (think “Never Been Kissed”) and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“Home Improvement” era).

Conversely, gender identity is invisible. An easy, but unfortunately unreliable assumption we make is that one’s manner of dress, speaking, or gesticulation accurately reflects their gender identity. That may be true, but it very well may not. Regardless of how I dress or style my hair, my gender identity has been (and, for the foreseeable future, will remain) genderqueer. Some of my friends consider their gender a mixture of masculine and feminine, while others prefer a separate “third gender” that abides by no social constructs whatsoever. Some prefer using “they/them” pronouns to indicate this distinction, whereas I have no preference, but generally use female pronouns for simplicity’s sake (and when there’s no “other” option on forms).

Gender non-conformity and the law is an emerging area of intersectionality that we, as new legal professionals, will have the opportunity to study, expand, and strengthen. If you meet someone whose relationship with gender gives you pause, just asking how they identify can open up a constructive and elucidating conversation. This is a phenomenal starting-point for advancing awareness and acceptance of gender non-conformity, and your simple showing of considerate curiosity will foster respect in kind. Let the exploration continue.

Kelsey Gasseling (KG) was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but has called Boston home since 2007 when she began her undergraduate studies in Linguistics at BC.  From 2012-2014, she served in the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa, where she taught English and conducted trainings on entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment.  This work in development and social advocacy inspired her to return to BC for law school.  She is particularly interested in immigration and human rights, as well as community enterprise law.  Outside of coursework, KG enjoys playing the trumpet, exploring the Boston jazz scene, cycling, and trying her hand at barbering (so far, no terrible haircuts).

4 thoughts on “Bending Gender Perceptions in the Legal World

  1. Prospective student here. How welcoming is BC towards LGBT students? I am a little concerned that Boston College is routinely on Princeton Review’s list of “least LGBT friendly schools”…

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    • Hi Rachel,

      BC Law 1L here. I am not LGBT, and I cannot speak for the experiences of students that identify as LGBT. I can tell you that we have LAMBDA, a law student organization that is made up of individuals who either support or identify as LGBT. There are several amazing individuals on campus that are very active in the community, and who work to provide programming centered around topics that are important the the LGBT community. Better people than I can explain more of what LAMBDA does, but I do know that they hold Safe Space hours to socialize with each other each week. The group also has people speak on the experience of being a LGBT attorney, and hold a retreat annually to foster community. Again, I don’t know much, but I hope what I’ve told you helps you imagine what the LGBT community is like at BC Law.

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  2. Thanks for your question! I went to BC as an undergrad as well, and did a good deal of work as part of the GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) there. The Princeton Review rankings focus on the undergraduate institution and, while LGBTQ undergrads (myself included) have and still do encounter homophobic attitudes there, the campus climate has been changing for the better. From 2007-2011 I noticed a significant increase in LGBTQ-visibility and acceptance, and today I am thrilled to see a still-thriving GLC membership and a much greater number of BC-sponsored resources for LGBTQ students.

    I had concerns coming to BCLS, due to my less-than-ideal experience as an undergraduate. Frankly, I have been blown away by the difference in campus culture. What first got my attention was how so many teachers and administrators use gender-neutral language, and often make it a point to promote discussion of LGBTQ issues. There is also a BCLS program called LAHANAS, which specifically reaches out to LGBTQ and students of color, and offers useful programs and networking opportunities throughout the year in order to bolster diversity in the legal profession. The vast majority of students I have met are extremely open-minded and, more importantly, curious about LGBTQ rights, and Lambda Law, our LGBTQ student group, has done a phenomenal job connecting me to out LGBTQ attorneys in the Boston area (the network is astonishingly welcoming).

    I have felt nothing but welcomed and supported here, and if you have more questions, I would be delighted to continue the conversation!

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