Trans Awareness Week: Adrien Leavitt Uses Privilege of Being and Attorney to Support Trans People

For Trans Awareness Week, the Emerald is publishing interviews by the Ingersoll Gender Center with important trans community members and the work they are doing for gender equity. This content is produced by Ingersoll Gender Center and provided to the Emerald for publication. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.

by Anis Gisele

Adrien Leavitt is an attorney and member of QLaw. Anis Gisele of Ingersoll Gender Center interviewed Leavitt on Tuesday, November 6th.

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Who are you? What are you doing?

I’m Adrien Leavitt. Ever since I’ve been an attorney, I’ve worked here [King County] at public defense, representing anyone that has a “liberty interest” at stake — so either that they could be incarcerated or they could lose parental rights of their child. I’ve always represented people. For the last three years, I’ve represented people charged with felonies, and recently I moved into a policy position here in our directors’ office, working on our criminal practice and policy issues.

In the community, I organize a legal clinic at Ingersoll. It’s run through QLaw, which is a legal nonprofit, and we do free legal resources clinics and community education in Washington state. I took over this legal clinic started by my colleague, Denise Diskin. The folks who go to our drop-in clinic have an opportunity to see a lawyer to have a free consultation about any civil legal issues. It’s really exciting because we see any community member that wants to talk to a lawyer, and it’s exciting to be in a space where community members already are.

I’m also on the board of QLaw, working on some other stuff, especially now with the posture of the federal government: trying to get more legal resources available to the trans community, helping folks understand what’s happening to the best that we can understand it, sharing information. We’re hopefully going to have some recurring events over the next few months so people can come in, generally get their legal questions answered, and go from there.

Why are you doing what you’re doing?

It’s really important to me as a trans person that I help other trans folks. There’s much power and privilege in being an attorney. I strongly feel that we — being attorneys — need to share our knowledge that we were privileged enough to gain through going to law school and passing the bar and practicing law and we share that information with our community because that gives our community power. We don’t need to be the stakeholders of the information; we don’t need to guard it. Traditionally, the model has been about guarding information and capitalism versus sharing information. Especially in times like we’re living in now, where there’s so much fear, we can be empowered when we know more information. I feel very strongly about helping others through a really terrible legal system that’s very harmful and scary and can have huge impacts on people’s lives.

What is the biggest boulder you’re trying to move in your work?

There has traditionally been a power structure between an attorney and the person we’re working with to try to help. I’m not particularly interested in that power dynamic. I’m more interested in shifting that dynamic so people feel like we’re in a professional relationship where I have knowledge, I have a job, I can help and you have value, your voice matters, what you want matters, and the way you’re treated here matters too. I think we shift that dynamic when we understand that people have whole, complicated lives and there can be a lot of trauma when interacting with the legal system and people are trusting us with their legal issues. Of course, this is protected by attorney-client privilege, so we must protect it that way, but we can also protect it in a sensitive way between two people.

I also think it’s really important that we build skills and knowledge within our own communities, whatever those communities are, and I think we’ve seen that is particularly true for trans people right now. Identity documents are on my mind. When people want to move through the process of doing legal identity document changes, the truth is you rarely need an attorney. Maybe you do in a complicated or nuanced situation, and it can feel like you do because it can be scary to go to a courthouse. The truth is we’re so lucky, especially here in King County, that it’s probably going to be fine. We’re here to help, and we can also teach people to do it themselves. That is powerful because it’s important to do some things yourself  — then you don’t feel as stuck.

That to me is the big boulder to try to move, especially around the law and legal work. How can we get this information out to the community? What are things the community can do for itself that don’t actually need an attorney?

Where do you see your work in 3-5 years?

I would love to be doing just what I’m doing. It’s such a privilege, in terms of what I do at my actual work and what I do outside of that. It’s such a privilege to work in community. And hopefully, in three to five years, we would have worked really hard and thought a lot and made the model better and better and better.

I think one thing we can do to thrive more as legal service providers — and we do this and we just need to continue to do this — is to continue to center those affected by whatever issue. In the decision-making, center those voices and make sure they’re really the ones leading and we’re the ones supporting.

That isn’t the traditional model you learn when you go to law school. You are taught that you are the person with the power in a situation. I think lawyers can come to the table and expect to be the person talking and the person leading and the person heard. That is not going to be what supports social movements. That’s not what’s going to support change or make our community feel safer. We need to listen to our communities about what support they need from us and then we need to provide that support.

When do you feel the most powerful?

This is kind of a hard question. Because I really try to think a lot about — like I keep saying, but let me repeat myself — shifting power dynamics. In my work representing clients and being in court rooms, there’s a lot of power in those moments. It’s powerful to stand with someone who is facing loss, usually significant incarceration, and it’s powerful to be a voice with that person and to speak [in court] and be heard in that way. That’s a more traditional power I see in my work. Shifting away from that, for me, I think it’s really powerful to sit with a person and have them trust me and tell me what their legal issues are and to have dialogue with them and to try and give information to them that they can understand. That feels like a shared powerful moment.

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