If we expect to influence change, we need to stand up against discrimination and make our voices heard. That’s why criminal defense attorney Erica Moise is turning her “publicly humiliating” experience into an opportunity to set a good example for the LGBTQ community.
Moise, 34, takes advantage of her “teachable moment” following a mandatory Criminal Advocacy Program training on Sept. 30 at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit. The attendance of Moise and her colleagues is required to obtain court-appointed assignments in Wayne County.
While some of the public defenders were busy improving their professional skills, Cliff Woodards II was busy posting offensive comments on Facebook:
“After watching yet another woman dressed up like a man, wearing sagging jeans, boxer briefs and sporting a mohawk, it finally dawned on me to ask this question: Why you wearing men’s draws though? It’s not like you’re gonna need the flap. Do they make you feel more manly? I don’t understand.”
Woodards, a 54-year-old prominent community figure, practices at The Detroit Law Center which he established in 2003.
Moise said she was notified by others in the room to Woodards’ post during their afternoon session. Although he did not identify Moise specifically at first, he later posted “she is sitting right across from me now though.”
That’s when Moise said “all hell broke loose.” Pages of comments – some in defense of Moise, some ridiculing her – quickly turned into a hate-filled forum where homophobic comments, racial slurs and misogynistic views were expressed.
Woodards’ daughter Missy intervened, further exposing Moise by revealing to the public that she and Moise dated in the past. Missy said she can “most assuredly” speak to Moise’s choice in undergarments and explained that “some members of our community feel more desirable in more traditional masculine clothing.”
In support of her father, Missy’s lengthy post included statements such as: “I have to say I genuinely don’t think that you are homophobic or targeting the LGBTQ community … He did not attack Erica’s ability to do her job, her intelligence or her professionalism … The First Amendment will always defend the right to free speech.”
Despite her best efforts not to, Moise chimed in later to explain that “this is the type of thing that allows other attorneys to treat me like complete crap. This is everyday for me in this job. Everyday. To have this posted while I was in a room full of my colleagues is unacceptable. Especially when he has such a public profile and people follow his words. Other lawyers harass me on a regular basis. This is why. Maybe you will think about these words again. Or maybe not. But whatever you choose to do, just know that I will not tolerate someone talking about me or my underwear while I’m sitting in the same professional conference.”
With little regard for Moise’s feelings, Woodards responded: “No one really cares if you’re gay. But no one should be able to see four inches of your underwear at a ‘professional conference’ either.”
Moise defended what she said is a “grossly inaccurate” description of her attire, a little on the baggy side due to weight loss caused by stress and illness, which Woodards empathized with. But he could not acknowledge that what he said was inappropriate.
“Truth is, I simply asked a QUESTION, one that quite frankly many people have asked privately. I just have the courage to speak up publicly. I said you’re dressed like a man. Was I wrong? No. Did that ‘degrade’ you? It shouldn’t have. You were. I said your jeans were sagging. They were. I said you sported a mohawk. You are. What in that sentence ‘degraded’ you? I never said it disgusted me. I never said you shouldn’t be who you are. Y’all need to lighten up. Seriously,” he posted.
The attention Woodards received via Facebook carried into his nightly show on 910-AM talk radio where he continued for two hours to minimize the problem. Woodards admits he doesn’t run from controversy or differing points of view, yet few people who disagreed with his actions were represented on air while talking about Moise’s underwear, sexuality and gender.
Moise sat home, listening and taking notes as abusive comments were called in by the public. Woodards entertained his listeners with comments like: “The LGBT community is trying to force the rest of the world to conform to your new way of thinking about gender” and “What is it really saying about the legal community when we’re getting to the point where we’re looking like our defendants?”
The online ugliness continued on Facebook for three days, slowing on Oct. 2. But the derogatory posts made about Moise are out there in cyberspace to be reposted and live long after this incident occurred.
“These are the types of things that people are thinking and feeling when they see me, or people like me. Yes, we have free speech. But speech doesn’t come without social consequences. The types of things said about me open the door for all types of hateful comments, and ultimately lead to violence against those who do not conform to strict gender norms,” Moise posted. “It wasn’t about a question. It was about thinking it’s acceptable to discuss my underwear on a public forum with a bunch of other lawyers that I’m sitting in the same room with. That’s professionally unacceptable.”
Moise Takes a Stand
In an effort to try and get Woodards barred from future court appointments, Moise has presented a letter to Judge Timothy Kenny in the Third Judicial Circuit of Michigan.
As a former president of the Stonewall Bar Association, and the Vice President of Fair Michigan, Moise has received support from several LGBTQ lawyers and allies.
“The argument that Ms. Moise’s attire was not appropriate for a professional seminar is ludicrous. I attended that same seminar. There were two cisgender female lawyers dressed in T-shirts and sweatpants. There were cisgender male attorneys in jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts, as well as those in suits and ties,” said Rudy Serra, founding president of the SBA in 1996.
“We are concerned that Mr. Woodards’ attitudes make him unsuitable to represent LGBTQ people. We believe that LGBTQ citizens deserve equality, dignity and respect in the justice system. This applies particularly to LGBTQ members of the State Bar. We are officers of the court. No one who has earned admission should be publicly subjected to harassment, ridicule, disrespect, stereotypes or bigotry,” he said.
“Even if her attire was inappropriate, and it absolutely was not, a professional person might express their opinion privately, but publicly shaming and ridiculing another professional on Facebook, and then on broadcast radio, is not appropriate. I believe that Erica is right to be outraged and that corrective action is needed. I hope a letter from the Stonewall Bar Association will reinforce Erica’s concerns and convey our community’s support. Transgender and gender nonconforming lawyers are not new. The bench and the bar need to adjust to reality. That requires learning about the science, medicine and law pertaining to gender. There is a distressing lack of awareness, even among LGB people, about our transgender community. Ms. Moise’s courage may be a catalyst for positive change.”
That change starts with “realizing the hurt that he (Woodards) has caused,” said Julisa Abad, director of transgender outreach and advocacy at Fair Michigan.
“Having an opinion is fine, but when you represent the public, rants like this are not,” Abad said. “You have people’s lives in your hands who are counting on you to give them justice.”
Woodards posted a video on Facebook Oct. 7 responding to the backlash, pointing outraged members of the LGBTQ community to the First Amendment.
“A week later, I still cannot imagine all of this arose simply because I asked a question about underwear,” he said, and that he has been “savagely attacked” as a homophobe.
“To label heterosexuals homophobes simply because they disagree with how you choose to live your life is just as derogatory as the names and labels that many in our community affix to you.”
In the almost eight-minute video Woodards concludes by stating, “The community rails on endlessly about being stigmatized, ostracized and bullied. I ask a couple of sarcastic questions about women’s underwear and I’m hounded by the LGBTQ community, suddenly the biggest bully on the block. And like most bullies, they want to take not only my lunch money but (also) my dinner money, gas money and bill money. Hell, they want to take all my money. Well it certainly doesn’t seem anyone in the community had an ounce of fear with the tenacity that they’ve attacked me and are trying to take my livelihood as a repercussion.”
History of Homophobic Rants on Facebook
This is not the first time Woodards has publicly demeaned others on social media. There are dozens of posts when Woodards has used dehumanizing language in reference to the LGBTQ community.
On Sept. 28, Woodards posted: “Call me a f**king homophobe if you want to, but when I’m in an EMPTY bathroom with multiple urinals and stalls BY MYSELF and another man comes in and stands at the one right next to me, I can’t help but to think there some gay isht going on.”
On Aug. 4, Woodards posted: “Let Your Boy Be A Boy” to explain that he thinks “a lot of this transgenderism in the black community starts when these little boys are two and three years old. If I see one more little boy walking around with a bushy pony tail, corn rows, or two braids looking like Rudy from the Cosby Show, Imma smack his hood rat momma.”
On June 18, in a lengthy post about the LGBTQ community, Woodards said: “They often compare their struggles to those of Black America in the 20th century. However nothing could be further from the truth. Yes black people were fighting for their civil rights. But that’s where the comparison ends. Negroes or ‘colored people’ (as they were called at the time) really didn’t care if white America ‘loved’ them. They didn’t particularly care if white America ‘accepted’ them. They knew that white America would never ‘love’ or ‘accept’ them. So they never tried to force white America to do so. Their mission was to SHOW love and acceptance, not DEMAND it. But they did demand RESPECT. They did demand EQUAL TREATMENT. America has now given the LGBT community the same civil rights as African-Americans. However, LGBT’s (sic) fail to understand that which black folk knew from the start of their struggle 60 years ago: Straight people (like southern whites then) have the right to disagree. Your goal is to make progress, not friends. Everybody is NOT going to love you. Stop trying to force the issue. You’ve reached the pinnacle. You’ve won the prize. So shut up already, go get hitched and be just as miserable as the rest of America.”
As more states are treating incivility as a possible ethics violation, Moise looks to the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct as she weighs her options. While the State bar confirms this rule does not specifically address social media, Rule 6.5(a) states: “A lawyer shall take particular care to avoid treating such a person discourteously or disrespectfully because of the person’s race, gender or other protected personal characteristic. To the extent possible, a lawyer shall require subordinate lawyers and nonlawyer assistants to provide such courteous and respectful treatment.”
This might be the first time someone decides to file a complaint against Woodards in response to his egregious public statements online, but it’s not the first time Woodards has engaged in unlawful behavior.
The Attorney Discipline Board in Michigan has record of Woodards’ multiple violations including practicing law and holding himself as an attorney while suspended for nonpayment of bar dues; failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing his clients; engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; and conduct that is contrary to justice, ethics, honesty or good morals.
As Moise defends herself against Woodards and the wrath of Facebook, there is a growing body of guidance discussing social media and the new ethical dilemmas it presents for attorneys, which has only begun to receive appropriate attention in recent years, according to the American Bar Association.
We’ll find out soon enough what’s permissible in this case and what may have been a click too far.