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Dec. 10, 2007

Students Fight for Social Justice at Columbia’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic
Inspired by professor, students find new ways to combat discrimination

Law School

The issue of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals is debated around the world, fraught by cultural, political and religious mores. To help prepare students interested in this emerging field, the Columbia Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, directed by Professor Suzanne Goldberg, a renowned human rights lawyer and advocate, provides opportunities for aspiring lawyers to participate directly in the development of sexuality and gender law while tackling the difficult questions posed by law reform work.

Last semester, law students prepared to bring the discrimination claim of a transgendered woman before the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR).

At the last minute, the claimant changed her mind. Nearly an entire semester spent learning about the commission and preparing her claim seemed wasted.

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Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) hosted a major day-long conference, “Towards Sustainable Peace in Darfur,”on Dec. 3, bringing together a “who’s who” of diplomats, donors, senior UN officers and policy advocates from both international and Sudanese nongovernmental organizations.   more

But it wasn’t. The students decided to share what they’d learned by creating a guidebook (pdf) for others who might have discrimination claims. The guidebook provided an opportunity for Goldberg’s students to blend their legal skills with advocacy. Read more about the guidebook here.

“Instead of dropping the project altogether,” said Eileen Plaza (LAW’09), “[we] decided to find a way to leverage the work that had already been done…” The guide aims to raise awareness of how NYCCHR prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and how the commission is an inexpensive option for enforcing these rights.

The guide is just one of the clinic’s achievements. In only its second year, the clinic recently won political asylum for Jamaican and Turkmenistan nationals who, because of their sexual orientation, risked persecution, violence and possibly death if they returned to their home countries.

This week, the students are submitting a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that addresses the intersection of race and domestic violence in New York City. The CERD report—a coordinated effort led by Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, supervising attorney for the Law School’s human rights law clinic, along with other students and faculty—details how minorities and immigrants in New York City are disparately impacted by domestic violence.

Goldberg, who joined the faculty in 2006, credits her students for these achievements. “The students receive supervision from me and lawyers from our partner organizations, but they do all the work,” she said. In the case of the Jamaican national’s petition] “they handled all client meetings, drafted all the documents and accompanied the client to his asylum interview. In every project, the entire clinic pitches in as a team whenever necessary….They have become a group of great legal strategists.”

The students, however, give Goldberg credit for their skills.

“Working with Professor Goldberg has taught me how to look at any given problem from a variety of different angles,” said Sadie Holzman (LAW’09). “I’ve learned to always think about all possible strategies for addressing a problem, from using the media to litigation to dialogue, while making sure we think through any possible consequences—both positive and negative—that may result from whatever strategy we use.”

“Professor Goldberg really empowers [us] to think critically about our choices,” said Plaza. “Our discussions are never about doing the right thing, but rather about what are the implications of our choices and how does that affect our end goals.”

Plaza also learned that there are many ways to effect positive social change: “Litigation is one important tool, but there are many creative solutions. The point isn’t just to write the best brief or to win the case, but to change public discourse on important issues that effect lives. The clinic has helped me think outside of the box.”

Story by Stacy Parker Aab.