The pioneering ACLU attorney and trans rights activist talks about the law’s role in harm reduction—and its limits on the imagination
Chase Strangio is on the front lines in state courts and legislatures across the country fighting—and winning—battles on behalf of trans people everywhere, and especially for trans young people and their families. Deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, Strangio has argued before the Supreme Court and helped win Chelsea Manning’s freedom. Their work is a powerful force for liberation—and joy—in the face of a devastating political climate: over 75 anti-LGBTQ bills have been signed into law in 2023 alone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve caught myself before saying, “This is the busiest time I’ve ever experienced in my ten years at the ACLU,” but I do think that time actually is now. The sheer magnitude of harm is difficult to grasp. There’s always the tension of, do we just work as much as possible to try to minimize the harms of this moment? Or do we—at some point—pause, take a step back, and ask if there’s a strategic reorientation that needs to happen? It feels really hard to do that, to abandon, for lack of a better word, the immediacy of what’s happening.
For the ACLU generally, for me personally, that means a lot of very fast-paced, new, huge lawsuits. I’ve got three new cases, three preliminary induction motions, 19 depositions, and at least two court hearings in the next month. And that’s just three states. If you look at all the [gender-affirming] healthcare bans, there’s around 22 [states total currently trying to enact them]. And that’s just the healthcare bans. We still have the ongoing litigation over the sports bans. We have this new iteration of bathroom bans we’re trying to figure out what to do with.
The amount of resources necessary just to minimize the harm is incomprehensible on some level. And what you get is at best a return to a pretty terrible baseline.
So many moments in U.S. legal history have been characterized by the mass repression of a group of people, whether it’s Japanese internment during World War II or the post-9/11 policing of south Asian and Muslim people. Even [a law like Arizona’s] SB 1070, [which requires immigrants—or anyone who could be read as an immigrant—older than 18 to carry their immigration or identification paperwork with them at all times]. It’s methodical.
We can be somewhat predictive in looking back at history, but there are different structures in place now. Whether it’s striking down the Voting Rights Act, continued voter suppression, gerrymandering of state legislatures—we have to tackle the structural problems. We’re like, “Why is this one thing happening?” without recognizing how it’s related to other things. We just don’t think about systems as systems.
You can create any linear story from a bunch of data points. That’s the problem. [As a society] we selected from complexity some simplistic [gender] binary of both embodiment and identity, which is just not true. One of the things that the state does is to say, “Well, if you’re telling a complex story, it’s in opposition to our simple one.” When there is no simple one on the other side either, it’s just two complex stories. Then [the court] decides which one it likes better, but neither is more real or more simple.
Much of the violence against trans people in this moment comes from an abject terror of the freedom that transness represents. “This idea [of the gender binary] that I was so certain was true and simple—you are at birth a boy or a girl and that gives us a structure for everything else.” And if that idea is destabilized, it’s so fundamentally unsettling for so many people. “What does my life mean if this is no longer true? If I made no choices, and I just followed this path, when I could have chosen differently?” These [questions] are almost always subconscious, of course. But people don’t want to be confronted with that possibility or that cost. To do so opens up everything: What else isn’t fixed? What else might be challenged? And how much do people find comfort in being controlled in some way? Why does this degree of freedom so unnerve them?
To the people who are afraid I want to say: Instead of being anxious and hurting people, just be anxious and sit with yourself. You don’t have to cause harm to others when you’re anxious. You can ask yourself some questions and move through it. I’m anxious too. It’s fine.
I studied history at Grinnell and wanted to be a history professor. But at the same time, I didn’t know if I could survive in an academic job market. I needed freedom of movement and to live in an urban environment. So it became pretty clear to me that academia was going to work for my life, even if intellectually I was interested in it.
So I moved to Boston and was just looking for jobs. I ended up working as a paralegal at a nonprofit law office. Before then—I was so young—I was never interested in law as a mechanism or a tool for resistance or political intervention.
But a few things were true. One was that I am someone with a significant amount of structural and societal power. This tool could potentially be a proper intervention for me in movements I’m a part of, putting aside the problematic role that law plays in movements generally. (Let’s just say that law is a tool, whether or not it’s part of a movement.) Second, I realized that I wanted to do law differently than what I was seeing. And then, also, I was straight up just recognizing myself as trans. It was the early 2000s. I was queer. I was like, “I don’t know what my future is going to hold.” And I was like, “Even if I’m not understood, even if I’m rejected by everything, if I’m a lawyer, I can be legitimized.”
So it was a combination: This seems like a harm reduction tool that I might be interested in, I want to do the LGBT legal stuff differently, and I’m this freak, but I can be a law freak. That’s what led me to law school. I went to Northeastern, which was more oriented towards social justice and public interest law. I knew that I was never going to go into government or corporate law. That was never on the table. I ended up doing my internships all in New York, pretty much knowing I wanted to do trans-related legal work. I started my first job out of law school at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, [which provides legal services to low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming]. And then went to the ACLU over ten years ago. Sort of wild think about time and longevity.
If I want to stay being a lawyer, doing litigation in particular, then I’m not going to go anywhere else. This is it. I feel that deeply there are other things I may want to do in life at some point. And I think law is inherently limited and deeply demoralizing and extraordinarily stressful. Not to say other things—other careers—aren’t all those things, too, but some days I’m like, “Why did I become a litigator?” I’ve had incredible experiences, like litigating cases at the Supreme Court. Yet at the end of the day, look at this system that we’re operating in—I’m not sure it’s forever for me. But if this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to do it here.
My first two and a half years of work as a lawyer were at Sylvia Rivera, and a majority of my work was in New York State prisons and New York City jails. I loved working with my clients and I loved working at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. It was also so unbelievably draining and demoralizing. And I interface with these systems pretty much only through my work—I can insulate myself from the type of surveillance and control [my clients experience] almost entirely. I felt ridiculous being like, “Oh, I’m exhausted by this work.” But at the same time, it’s unbelievably upsetting what we do to human beings.
As a human being in proximity to these systems, you’re just like “How are we doing this? What are the utility of the interventions we’ve set up?” People are doing amazing work, and do it for longer periods of time than I was able to. I didn’t have it in me. In some ways, I went to the ACLU because—when there are contexts in which good, well-resourced lawyering makes a difference—I want to be doing that. I want to have access to the ACLU’s structure and power to do this intervention as effectively as possible.
At the ACLU, what feels a little more unrelenting is the magnitude of the work. You walk around the office and you’re like, “Oh, God, everyone has really been underwater for a long time.” How do you sustain that? As an institution, but also as a bunch of human beings.
It’s a combination of two things. One is, like, I’m just super compartmentalized. I will not be able to be a full emotional being when I enter these spaces. There really isn’t a way to do it. If someone figures out how to do that, that would be interesting, but it’s not me! I’m just putting up whatever guard I need to to get through it and to stay focused on the mission, for lack of a better word.
And then the other part is, I genuinely love it. I genuinely love being queer, love being trans, and love being connected in community. I still believe, no matter what, we’re going to get through it, we’re going to take care of each other, and we’re going to win. Not in a Pollyanna sense—I’m not like, “Oh, it’s going to be great and fun, you just need a few political wins, and it’s going to be fine.” No, not that way. People have survived a lot, and people have survived much worse. We will learn from that, and we will keep fighting.
I’ve had an incredibly exciting, interesting, beautiful career. There are just so many, from winning Bostock on June 15, 2020, to being at the Supreme Court for the argument in October 2019. In 2016, Governor Daugaard of South Dakota vetoed the first bathroom ban that had passed [a state legislature]. He had initially come out for the ban—that was very effective organizing on our part [to persuade him to veto it]. Chelsea Manning’s commutation in January 2017—post-election, pre-inauguration. I thought my client was going to die in prison. When Chelsea was incarcerated, I was the only trans person who was able to sit with her because, aside from legal visits, she was only allowed to be visited by people who she had known before her arrest, which didn’t include any trans people. Some of my highlights come from—as a lawyer who has access to people in different ways—being able to be a person and not just an advocate [with my clients]. I’ve had clients on death row who came out in prison, who never sat with another trans person before me.
I have been in a lot of conservative courtrooms and the ability to move a conservative judge in federal court is easier than moving the New York Times. We’ve been able to succeed in certain ways [in these courtrooms] because we do have a story to tell, though we’re mostly not listened to [outside of court]. Meanwhile, the other side’s story just doesn’t make sense.
If you think about it for two seconds, maybe it’s not ultimately surprising—but you can literally move judges in the most violent systems, in the least nuanced systems, in ways that you cannot with the center-left. Many people who hold themselves in high esteem as progressive or liberal are less open minded to the way the world actually is than a lot of the judges that I’ve appeared before.
One of the things I like about my work is that I’m engaging in different forms of storytelling. Law is storytelling. When you go to court, it’s an experience of narrative intervention. At the end of the day, you’re fighting over what story you’re allowed to tell. If we’re going to change the material conditions of people’s lives, part of it is through different types of storytelling, different types of empathy cultivation, different types of human connection. I think I’m in this—the law— for quite a while, but my other interest is being more creative in the types of stories we’re able to tell. The law is constrained by what you know; you’re not selling the most expansive version of the story you want.
All the different types of caretaking work, of community, of childrearing. There’s a lot of emotional work to be done to manage the crisis of this moment. Some of it is similar to the paid work, but just happens not to be paid. I am someone who is very work oriented, for better or for worse. I basically defined my self-worth as a young child as a high-achieving, high-producing kid—within the paradigms of deeply fucked-up systems like capitalism. This is my identity and I’ve not yet, at age 40, figured out quite how to reorient. What is non-work? I don’t know. Everything sort of comes back into my identity as a worker.
I want people to feel a sense of urgency, to understand how much we can lose so quickly. It’s not actually just about transness, or sports, or your abortion, or any single topic. This really is about whether and how we can conceptualize ourselves as autonomous human beings in the world and in relation to each other. Feel at stake in it, even if you feel it has nothing to do with you. That’s when I worry about the future: when people decide to excise themselves from the context when everyone is implicated in it.
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