Beacon Award 2022 Honoree Spotlight

2022 Voice of Change Award Recipient: Jennifer Levi

I have hope, because as more and more transgender people share their stories, there is a deeper understanding of the injury that discrimination has on all those people we love – parents, children, family members, neighbors and friends. And when people can make connections that link directly back to their homes and their personal lives, that means we’re getting there.”

A singer, an overturned gay rights ordinance, and an inspiring crowd in South Florida set GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project Director and professor at Western New England University, Jennifer Levi on the path towards a career in advocacy.

In 1977, Levi was in junior high, watching as her father worked to save a newly enacted ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in areas of housing, employment, and public accommodation. A campaign led by singer and anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant quickly moved to repeal the law, and managed to put its repeal on the ballot.

“It was very present in my life, not just because it was a big political campaign but also because my father was so instrumental in trying to preserve the law,” said Levi. “I was significantly impacted by the idea that there would be a vote on whether or not gay people should get the same protections under local laws. I remember going to a rally the night of the vote. I didn’t know if it would be a victory celebration or the end of the ordinance. I was so sad that the gay rights law got repealed. But, at the same time, it was inspirational to see all these openly gay people around me in the 1970’s courageously speaking up for their dignity and for those of us whose closets would open in the years ahead.”

After college, Levi’s love of math led her to a job in software development, but her passion for advocacy work remained. After years of increasing the amount of pro bono advocacy work during her free time, a career change seemed logical.

“It was 1989, when Massachusetts was working to pass what would be the second gay rights law in the country,” said Levi. “I was involved in that political work, and it was exciting. I was increasingly doing unpaid advocacy work, so at some point I realized that I could combine this passion with my career. That’s what took me to law school.”

Upon graduation from the University of Chicago Law School, Levi gained experience in several settings within the legal community, first clerking for a judge on the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston before returning to Chicago to practice law in both large and small firms. Throughout that time, Levi was laying the groundwork for a future career in legal advocacy by volunteering for a partner organization to GLAD, Lambda Legal, which similarly advocates for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities through impact litigation, societal education, and public policy work.

“I was increasing the amount of pro bono work and becoming more involved in transgender advocacy work, for which there was almost no legal resources,” Levi said. “It had always been my goal to work at GLAD, and so I kept maintaining and deepening those relationships until a job opportunity opened up in 1998.”

“Jennifer has been a true visionary and innovator in the field of transgender rights,” said Bennett Klein, GLAD’s Senior Attorney and AIDS Law Project Director. “When she joined GLAD in 1998, transgender rights were not yet high on our radar. Jennifer filed some of the earliest cases in the country winning cases for transgender rights and leading the way for the acceptance of new theories in the law.”

One of the first cases Levi took on was a defense of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s executive order granting health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of city

employees. With a challenge to the order put forth by the Catholic Action League and Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice, Levi and GLAD represented a number of city employees whose families depended on the insurance they could only secure through the city’s ordinance.

“It was one of the first times I appeared in court on a substantive motion, and it was the first case I argued in front of the Supreme Judicial Court,” said Levi. “We lost, which was a huge disappointment. It made me think of the loss of the ordinance in Florida; both of those experiences reminded me of the long path that we’re on toward justice and equality.”

Much as she found inspiration in the crowd in Florida in 1977, Levi discovered an upside to the Connors vs. City of Boston ruling.

“That loss brought a lot of visibility to the needs of families headed by same-sex couples,” Levi said. “The court ruling that non-married couples couldn’t get domestic benefits really fueled the marriage and family recognition work.”

Not long after, Levi worked on Rosa v. Park West Bank, a case brought on behalf of a transgender woman denied a bank loan under the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act. For one of the first times in case law history, an appeals court recognized that a federal anti-discrimination law provided protection for a transgender individual. The ruling laid the foundation for the recent Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County.

Rosa was an outcome that, in Levi’s view, started to reverse the course of earlier jurisprudence. That course reversal would eventually lead to a groundbreaking decision more than a decade later when Levi met the Maines family for the first time in Orono, Maine.

In 2011, then-fifth grader Nicole Maines was denied access to the girls’ bathroom – which she had previously been able to use – by the leadership of the Orono Township School District following a complaint by the family of a fellow student.

For Nicole’s father Wayne Maines, Levi’s visit to his home was a dramatic – and welcome – turn of events.

“Nobody had ever done that before, and we talked to a lot of people. I wrote to every LGBT organization in the country and they all said ‘we know your story, but we can’t help you.’ Nobody thought we could win,” said Maines. “But Jennifer and Janson Wu came to our house and talked to us about how we might move forward with the case.”

According to Maines, Levi became an honorary member of their family. “We spent so much time with her, she had a major impact on me, my wife Kelly, our son Jonas, and Nicole,” said Maines. “Just being around somebody that smart, that passionate, and that hardworking meant a great deal.”

In the 2014 breakthrough decision, Maine’s highest court ruled that denying a transgender girl the use of the girls’ restroom at her school violated her rights under Maine’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against transgender people. The decision marked the first time a state court ruled that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom that matches who they are. The decision – and Levi’s continued guidance – would have an indelible impact on the lives of the Maines’ family.

“After the case, and still to this day, I get letters, thank yous, and emails from people all over the world,” Maines said. “Even after it was done, Jennifer guided us. I’ve continued with my advocacy, and both Jonas and Nicole took on speaking opportunities, and every step of the way when there’s something I don’t know, I would reach out to her and she would help me.”

Today, Nicole Maines is a history-making and award-winning actress, portraying the first transgender superhero on television as Nia Nal/Dreamer on the CW’s Supergirl. And she brought her character from the screen to the page through an original story for DC Comics’ Pride issue.

“It’s just amazing, what she’s done,” said Maines of his daughter. “And I truly believe that being around Jennifer played a big role in that. Kelly and I have instilled in our kids to believe in themselves and work hard, but the knowledge and the education that they have is from all the people that they’ve been around, and Jennifer is one of those people. I truly thank her for that.”

Building awareness of the contributions and achievements of transgender people has continued to be a part of Levi’s work. In 2017, President Trump’s announcement that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military took many people – including servicemembers – by surprise.

“Right away I heard from transgender service members around the globe,” said Levi. “They were, of course, upset about the announcement and concerned for the safety and well-being of their families. But, even more, they were concerned about the stability of the US military, which suddenly seemed to be operating on a whim.”

Through Levi’s quick action, a case was developed that included testimonies from former service secretaries of the prior administration, military experts, and plaintiffs. The result was a preliminary injunction issued by the DC District Court.

“This was a case where the story and the messages were extraordinary,” Levi said. “These service members had taken on the challenge of defending the country, putting their lives on the line every day for their country. Cases where we represent someone who is being discriminated against and excluded are so important, and they tell a story about the ways that people ought to be able to contribute in the workplace and at school. But what seemed so important about that early transgender military ban victory was the light that it shined on the contributions that transgender people are making to protect the security of the nation.”

Levi also shines this light within the legal community, frequently participating in bar events that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“There’s a lot of work happening. There’s education, training, and commitment to diversity and inclusion across a whole range of contexts,” said Levi. “And that’s critical because of how much work there is to do. It is unfortunately all too frequent that law firm or bar events do not include a transgender person in presentations or panels, much less more than one, or even a few. So when I join events, I know it’s important to share my personal story and connection with the community. But I also strive to convey the diversity and differences that exist within the transgender community. People’s experiences are so different. It’s important to have many voices out there.”

Michael Cox, Executive Director of Black and Pink Massachusetts, counts himself as someone who has benefited from Levi’s mentoring when the two served on the state’s Special Commission to Study LGBTQI Inmate Health and Safety.

“She is a master class to work with; I’ve learned so much from her,” said Cox. “She’s so responsive, so engaged, and always has my back. I feel so seen and validated by her, and that’s important.”

“She is a gifted lawyer and intellect, a source of nurturance and support for her clients, a generous teacher, and a fierce advocate,” added Klein. “She taught us to think in new ways about gender and the law and to appreciate the urgent need to develop legal protections for transgender people.”

Carla Reeves (Goulston & Storrs), BBA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chair and member of the Beacon Award Selection Committee in reflecting upon the BBA’s decision to honor Jennifer stated, “The Beacon Award Selection Committee is honored to celebrate Jennifer’s impact and bring attention to her decades-long work as a pioneer fighting for the rights of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Jennifer’s powerful advocacy to advance the inclusion and visibility of transgender, non-binary, and other members of our community has inspired many to use the law as a tool for meaningful change.

Jennifer’s work is not only of great importance to the community at large, but also aligns with the BBA’s longstanding history of advocating for the expansion and preservation of legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals.”

Looking ahead, Levi says outreach, mentoring, and partnerships are crucial. “It’s important for the legal community to join amicus efforts and be engaged in the cases that impact transgender people’s lives as a way to advance the educational journey that we are all on. Relationship building within and across communities is essential and I see the cross fertilization happening. I’m heartened by the number of people who show up and are open and engaged to do the work.”

When reminded of “the long path to justice and equality,” Levi is optimistic.

“I feel hopeful when I think about the future, because I hear and learn so much from law students who are more empowered than previous generations of law students to incorporate more DEI education and efforts within the law school communities,” said Levi. “I’m very proud of the work I’ve done with the movement, but I also see and know that there are newer lawyers who are coming up with their own ideas and critical thinking for how the work should move forward, and I’m really excited about that.”

Scroll to top