“I would like to be able to roll up my shirt sleeves and get in there and do what needs to be done.”
Kara Jennings knows the law is not always friendly to LGBT folk. That’s why she was thrilled to be awarded the ACLU’s Tom Steel Post-Graduate Fellowship, where she knew she’d have a chance to make a difference.
“This project with the ACLU was started to work toward meeting the community’s legal needs, and as a lesbian these issues are important to me,” said Jennings, 35. “Our goal hasn’t quite been reached yet and there’s a lot more things to be done.”
One of Jennings’ first tasks was the creation of a series of transgender legal clinics.
“That’s a new project that I’m spearheading and I’m working with Transgender Michigan and other different groups to meet the needs of the transgender community, and what I’ve done is set up legal clinics throughout the state and provided information and referral services,” she said. “They’ve been really useful for the project because not only is it an opportunity to provide information and provide the services that are needed, but also to kind of get feedback and hear about the different issues that the transgender community is facing.”
Those issues are often complex, and the legal waters that lap against their shore are murky.
“They are very murky, and in Michigan a lot of issues are up in the air,” Jennings said. “It’s a bit more clear about name change issues and it is nice in Michigan that if you have completed the surgery, the gender reassignment surgery, you can request a new birth certificate with your corrected gender as well as your corrected name and you can have your old birth certificate sealed. So in that way our state is progressive, more progressive than many others. But when it comes to what makes your gender legal, that’s kind of an open question and the short answer is no one really knows. Most legal experts feel that your birth certificate alone is sufficient, but there are different states where the courts have said ‘we don’t care what your birth certificate says, revised or not, it’s your original birth certificate that counts.’ So that issue hasn’t been decided. It’s not really an ideal environment to kind of test the waters, in some respects. And that’s true across the board for LGBT issues.”
Jennings graduated in 2000 from the University of Michigan Law School, after which she clerked for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh for two years. Before joining the ACLU, Jennings worked in Johannesburg, South Africa as an intern for the Centre for Applied Legal Studies where she drafted policy statements for the AIDS Law Project.
“I think it’s a very important issue for everybody, all citizens of the world, because it’s become such a pandemic,” she said. “I think that there really is a lot that we can do as citizens of this nation to make sure that the transnational corporations come up to speed and do what they can, and that the nations of the world permit those who are experiencing kind of a national crisis to access the different treaty exceptions that are there to allow for national safety, for example, and to get access to certain drugs. It is about human dignity and it’s not something that one can just dismiss by saying, ‘Oh, well, we need to focus on prevention only.’ It’s a much more complicated issue when it comes to that.”
Another issue dear to Jennings’ heart is same-sex adoption.
“A lot of the work that we’re focusing on is how these issues affect families, and I think a lot of times the socially conservative population, they have quite a bit of rhetoric and that focuses on what this is going to do to the children,” she said. “But I think that they forget that there’s a huge population of children that are members of same-sex families and that those children don’t have the legal rights, obligations or protections that they deserve, that all children deserve.”
As with all the efforts Jennings works on, she doesn’t hold out hope for a certain end result. Instead, she finds encouragement in the small victories and stays focused on the struggle.
“I would like to be a part of the movement for change,” she said. “I would like to be able to roll up my shirt sleeves and get in there and do what needs to be done. I’m not holding so tightly that a certain particular goal needs to be met. Not because I wouldn’t want that, but because I fear that might be disappointing. So I think it’s just kind of keeping up the good work, so to speak.”