Fellow Podcast: Carl Charles ('14)

An attorney at A Better Balance, Carl Charles seeks to extend workplace protections to LGBTQ and chosen families so that no worker has to choose between their job and caring for their family.


Robin Davidson: Welcome to Skadcast. I’m Robin Davidson, and in mid-September, I sat down with former Skadden fellow Carl Charles. Currently an attorney at A Better Balance in New York, Carl was part of the Skadden Fellow class of 2014, and for his fellowship, he worked with the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project.

Robin Davidson: Thanks for being on the podcast, Carl.

Carl Charles: Thanks for having me, Robin.

Robin Davidson: Tell us a little bit about what you did with your fellowship project, how you came to that project in particular.

Carl Charles: Sure, thank you. Prior to law school, I served as a teacher in the Denver metro area, and my first teaching job was actually at a facility for young people. And while I was teaching at that facility, I came across several LGBTQ youth, which will come as no surprise, I’m sure, to some of our listeners, that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented, unfortunately, in many criminal justice systems around the country. So, my project was sort of born from my direct experience as a classroom teacher serving these youth, recognizing that many of them were coming to be involved in the criminal justice system by virtue of having been homeless or having been in foster care and not having had proper intervention or people not identifying them as LGBTQ and, as a result, them feeling like they couldn’t access the same kinds of support services that other youth could. So, in working with the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project to design my fellowship, I wanted to focus on youth who transgressed gender norms. So that was of course inclusive of LGBTQ youth, but also of straight youth who, you know, we call gender nonconforming. Folks who just present their gender in a way that society would view as nonconforming. So that actually meant that we were able, through the fellowship, to serve a bigger population of youth in New York City and across the country.

Robin Davidson: And what, specifically, was the legal work?

Carl Charles: We were focusing on youth who had transgressed gender norms who were homeless in out-of-home care, which is sort of the updated term for foster care, or who were involved in the juvenile justice system. And so, I was reaching out to these youth in their various placements or coming into contact with them through a shelter provider or a referral from a social services provider who is saying, "this young person is experiencing these legal barriers to proper care" or, you know, "appropriate name and pronoun usage by staff in a facility, can you come in and do a training?" So, you know, I’ve worked with staff a lot to raise cultural competency. We did a lot of interventions in shelters and in foster care placement. I did a lot of work sort of in and around the systems where youth would be involved to make sure that those youth were receiving competent care that ensured that they would hopefully not be back in those systems later in life.

Robin Davidson: And since July you’ve been at an organization called A Better Balance. And it seems like some of the work you’re doing there is sort of a natural extension of what you were doing before. Tell us how you came to be at A Better Balance and a little bit about the work you guys are doing there.

Carl Charles: Sure. So, in the year leading up to A Better Balance, I was working as a fellow in the Transgender Rights Project at Lambda Legal, which is a very historical organization. I was very honored to be there. But then this opportunity arose at A Better Balance, which is an organization whose tagline is to make sure that every worker does not have to choose between their job and their family. In the organization, it takes place in two separate but connected areas. The first is the work that I primarily work on, which is our paid family and medical leave and paid sick time work. And then the other part of our work is work centered on direct legal services. We have a legal clinic, and we do litigation around discrimination against pregnant workers in the workplace. And we also do some other gender discrimination issues, as well.

My work focuses on ensuring that legislation and policy across the country for paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave is inclusive of chosen family. And, you know, chosen family is something that in the LGBTQ community is sort of ubiquitous and very well known, but when I talk to folks who are not LGBTQ, many people actually say, "oh yeah, I have a cousin who I’m not related to, but they have been my family since I grew up." Or, "I grew up in foster care, and I have a brother who is not my legal or biological brother, but we have been in a sibling-like relationship for our whole lives." Many people connect with the idea of chosen family, and so, as you said, it’s really a clear extension of my work supporting LGBTQ and youth who transgress gender norms, who oftentimes form their own chosen families when they are homeless and in out-of-home care or in the juvenile justice system.

So now my work at A Better Balance is really ensuring that, as those folks are aging out of those care placements, are becoming adults forming their own families, that they can take time off to take care of themselves and to take care of those families, regardless of whether or not they have a biological or legal relationship to those people. And so as an organization, we are involved in legislative advocacy, policy work, direct legal services and litigation; and I think what’s great is that on the policy side we’re able to use, I should say, we’re able, our work is able to be informed by the direct legal services we’re providing as well as the litigation. And that can really help support, you know, the arguments we’re making with state legislatures and with our partners in various cities and states.

Robin Davidson: I saw a statistic on your website that wasn’t surprising, but it’s still kind of a big number. It was that 42% of the LGBTQ adults between certain ages would rely on a network of friends in an emergency instead of a family member.

Carl Charles: Yeah, and that’s a really, I think a really important statistic, Robin. And I think it’s important to mention that the age range is actually 45 to 64, which, we’re talking Baby Boomers, right? I mean those folks you think of as being perhaps a little more settled and having some security and stability, but I think it’s really important to point out that this issue impacts so many people in so many different age groups. And we want to make sure that in those emergency situations — in situations of illness or loss — people are able to take care of the folks who are their family regardless of whether or not, you know, they’re biologically related to them.

Robin Davidson: In order to achieve these rights for say a more narrow group like let’s say the transgender community, how important is it to bring others in so that everyone understands, "oh that’s not just your problem but that could be my problem too." Can you talk about that for a little bit?

Carl Charles: I’ll say this, when I … This was not my experience with A Better Balance, but in the past when I’ve wanted to pursue work that sort of addressed a more broad social justice issue, like a more broad civil liberties position, many people’s critique was "well, you’ve done so much LGBTQ work, why would you want to do this other component of public interest work?" And what I always say is whatever issue I’m working on, there are LGBTQ people in that issue. And so I think that’s what … part of what drew me to A Better Balance was the scope of the work I’m doing there is so much more broad and by the nature of it is going to be inclusive of so many more folks, including trans people obviously, even though I’m not working necessarily explicitly, you know, on a narrow set of issues. But oftentimes trans people are underemployed. Even though they’re often over educated, they have a hard time finding and securing employment, and so protections like inclusive paid sick time or paid medical and family leave covering people at various socioeconomic levels and in various job settings is going to be huge, especially for trans folks.

Robin Davidson: You just mentioned trans folks being under employed, that’s just one example right, of maybe a laundry list of issues that the trans community faces. Let’s educate the audience, you know, those that might not be as informed on some of the major issues. I think when I was emailing you earlier this week I framed it as legal challenges, but these are a lot more than legal challenges right? It's everything from access to appropriate medical care, to are you going to have a public restroom you can use when you go out. Can you give us sort of an education on that?

Carl Charles: Of course, yeah I’m happy to. The first sort of collection of data specifically about trans people that we have came out in 2014. And the survey was from the National Center for Trans Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, and it was called Injustice at Every Turn. And so when I talk to people trying to explain what trans people encounter as you identified sort of across the spectrum, I ask people to think about a day in their life, right, the typical things they might do: They’ll get up; they’ll go to work. After work they might have a, you know, doctor’s appointment; they might go meet up with some friends at a bar for food. Then they might go home, right? And in between there are some rides on public transit; there’s some other things they have to do — go to the pharmacy.

Take those, really to many of us, very mundane points in a day; trans people will generally encounter — many of them if not most — discrimination at every single one of those points. So, folks will get on a subway, or they’ll get on public transit. They’ll be identified; they might be harassed. You know, many trans women report being harassed on public transit walking to or from, even on the train for their entire ride to their job. They get to their job, and if their employer is not someone who recognizes and supports their identity and includes workplace protections, they might not be able to use the restroom for their entire shift, right. So now we’re talking about physical discomfort, possible medical issues, right? So let’s say that that person has been dealing with the medical issues from not being able to use a restroom that corresponds with their gender for their entire day. They have to go to a doctor. They get to the doctor’s office; the doctor misgenders them when they get to the front desk. The doctor then treats them like some kind of experiment as they’re going through what’s physically wrong with them when they’re just trying to access this care that came from another experience of discrimination, right?

I don’t say that all trans people experience this every day, but it helps to sort of contextualize what could transpire in just what to many of us would be just a very simple day. You know it really runs the gamut. And then sort of closing out that day, let’s say that person says, "gosh I’ve had a really terrible day; I want to go meet my friends at a bar or at a restaurant." They go to the bar and have to show an ID. If like many trans people that ID doesn’t match their presentation, they face harassment or even not even being able to get into the bar. I think breaking it down and looking at a day in the life of a trans person can help people understand as you said, it’s not just legal issues, right? But it’s the intersection of a lot of social ignorance and discrimination as well as legal issues — things like not being able to access proper medical care or not being able to update their identity documents — that can have a really pernicious impact on someone’s day-to-day life.

Robin Davidson: In terms of the scope of legal issues of importance, and there are probably too many to discuss in this timeframe, pick a few of the highlights.

Carl Charles: Sure, I’ll pick some of the highlights. Yes so, I mean thinking nationally we’re seeing a couple of things. You know when I was a Lamda Legal we were working on the trans military ban, which I think is an ongoing issue. I think many advocates in the community are hopeful that will have a resolution soon, and it will be a good one, and that trans service members will be able to continue to serve their country as they have been for years and years. But if you think about the symbolic significance of trying to oust trans service members from their posts, it has a really significant impact on those people and their families and sort of the general impression of trans people in the public sphere. So that’s one big battle that folks are fighting, legal advocates are fighting right now.

I think another one we’ll continue to see is this push for religious liberties, and I say that in sort of quotations — you know, religious freedom, which essentially we’re seeing as a justification for discrimination across the board. Not just of trans folks but of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer … All these folks are going to be facing — could be facing I should say and I hope they won’t obviously — but could be facing discrimination of all kinds, right? We saw the Masterpiece Cake decision out of Colorado; we’ve got … There are a number of cases unfortunately coming down the pike in various federal courts, appellate courts, about whether, you know, gay couples can buy flowers for their wedding, you know, whether people can be served in public places, whether they can access, you know, a pharmacy without being harassed by pharmacy staff. I think those are some of the big legal issues, and we really, I think, have to be … We have to be attentive, and I know there are so many things we have to be sort of paying attention to right now and stay informed about, but I think especially in those arenas — like you said — where we assume that because we’ve seen, you know, private and public organizations be so accepting and so supportive we assume state governments follow that and that’s just not always the case.

I think in New York, we’re really hoping as usual to see GENDA move. We'd love to see an explicit nondiscrimination protection for LGBTQ people here in the state. And I think, you know, there were some important victories in the primaries last night, especially in the state senator races, that I hope will unblock the stick that has been sort of preventing GENDA and a lot of other progressive legislation from moving forward in Albany.

Robin Davidson: And for those who don’t know, GENDA — Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act — has been passed in the New York State Assembly numerous times and has never been brought to the floor of the Senate. Is that right?

Carl Charles: Right. That’s right.

Robin Davidson: So, you just touched on a couple of interesting things. Given where it looks like we’re headed on the Supreme Court. Do you foresee sort of a future where it’s a lot of managing these challenges state by state?

Carl Charles: If the nomination that we have sort of occurring presently happens, you know if Kavanaugh’s confirmed, I imagine advocates will return to a very pre-Obergefell advocacy type strategy, right? So I think the victories at the Supreme Court will be few and far between. And I think mostly it will be again on the defensive and trying to prevent many of our victories from being overturned … of course including Roe and I hope not Obergefell, but you know I can’t make predictions about that.

But I think many folks will return to doing state-by-state work, and it will become like it once was, really in the '60s and '70s and of course before then. But it would be a very local- and state-based advocacy world because I think our avenues for federal work will likely be foreclosed in many situations. I say that with I hope some awareness, not just me but folks listening, that while, yes, we have secured a number of really significant victories vis-à-vis Justice Kennedy and his willingness to see the dignity of LGBTQ people’s lives. I really believe in, and I know many of my colleagues share this belief, that our community is strong and our numbers of allies and people who love and support us has just really grown exponentially in the last, certainly in the last 30 years for LGB people and really in the last 10 years for trans people. We’ve seen people really go to bat for our community so I think folks are not despairing. I don’t think anyone is sort of hanging their head. I think we’re all just saying this is a fight we know and now we have more people on our side.

Robin Davidson: Right. Let’s talk about you for a minute.

Carl Charles: Sure.

Robin Davidson: How have your own experiences as a trans man influenced your work?

Carl Charles: Yeah. You know I was thinking about this question on the way over, and when I came out, which was as trans, which was after first semester of law school … not recommended but … a very stressful moment. But I was really surprised and humbled by the professionalism and support I received from the law school community at the University of Denver where I was in law school. And I think that helped me understand a couple of things. One, as I was getting to know other trans people across the country, certainly other folks who were in law school and other people who were doing LGBTQ advocacy, I realized that, you know, that many of us had certain privileges and access to systems of support that others in our community didn’t. But even amongst those of us who were privileged, so many of us had had negative experiences, had experienced that kind of discrimination that a lot of the survey data now really clearly represents.

And my first summer I was in an interview process for a really great firm to be a summer associate in Denver, and I was also interviewing to be a fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force. And it was a difficult decision to make, but my experiences and those of my friends, and even of the experiences of trans people I didn’t know, are really what moved me to want to be doing LGBTQ advocacy in a really formal, official way, and to sort of add my skills and abilities I have to the fight. And I hope to always to be enlisting allies and supporters in the private sector. And that’s really been my experiences that I’ve seen attorneys who I went to law school with, who are … and folks who are now partners and doing really great work and so many really great firms across the country jump into this work with no reservation and no hesitation. And that’s where sort of my optimism about the fight ahead comes from.

Robin Davidson: We’ve talked about this in bits and pieces over the course of the conversation, but let’s sort of bring it back to big picture. Looking ahead, in your role at A Better Balance what do you see as sort of the biggest things you hope to accomplish and you hope the organization accomplishes over the next few years?

Carl Charles: I think what’s really encouraging is that over the last couple of years A Better Balance, especially in the paid sick leave arena, has secured a lot of really important victories, especially in areas where states and cities where we weren’t really anticipating that would happen. So most recently San Antonio, Texas, passed a paid sick time and minimum wage ordinance, which is going to go into effect shortly. Michigan just passed a state law ensuring paid sick time and minimum wage.

So I think what we’ll see is a couple things. We’re going see our victories continue, right, especially with what I’m going to predict is the blue wave that is coming in November because I do think we will see legislatures turn in certain states. I think we will see unexpected victories take place, and I think we have to capitalize on those to do a lot of that local and state work. But I think what we at A Better Balance are also aware of and our partners are working to address is the backlash to a lot of those victories, which we’re seeing come from … potentially from the private sector, but we think there are some other folks behind that, who are arguing that states have preempted. So that’s states meddling in local democracy essentially. When we try to describe it to, you know, folks we’re working with and doing trainings for, it’s basically states coming in after localities have passed great progressive legislation on any number of things. It could be minimum wage. It could be paid sick time. It could be, you know, like a soda tax, or it could be really anything a city decides is best for its residents and happens to perhaps be progressive in doing so. States and legislatures will sort of come in and say, "no we’ve preempted this area. You can’t do anything more progressive than what we have decided at the state level." So I think, you know, that’s going to be an area of increased focus for A Better Balance in our work.

A piece of the work I’m really excited about is that we’re trying to build bridges across other movements to join folks in the work that they’re doing and to figure out how we can help with our chosen family victories and inclusive legislative advocacy to support what other people are doing, right? To make sure that we’re supporting our partners who are doing immigrant rights justice work. We’re supporting folks who are doing criminal justice work, trying to make sure that if families have someone who are incarcerated, they can visit them without issue. And also working in domestic violence advocacy communities as well to really bring the strategies and successes that we’ve seen, but also to prepare folks for what we will know be sort of a pushback to some of these victories.

Robin Davidson: You mentioned the trans report…

Carl Charles: Yeah.

Robin Davidson: Is there a webpage or resource that if folks are interested in finding it and learning a little more?

Carl Charles: Absolutely. In fact there’s a — the most updated version of that survey is called the U.S. Trans Survey. And it’s from 2015, and you can find that on NCTE, that’s the National Center for Trans Equality's webpage, and that’s at transequality.org. And they’ll have you know breakout reports. They have sort of by issue area that you can look at. They have an executive summary, and then they've actually broken it down by a variety of different intersecting identities like you mentioned before right? So you can look at different racial intersections, you can look at folks in various states. I think they broke the data even down by state. So you know if you have friends or family in a different state and you’re curious about how this issue might impact them or their friends and family. I would recommend that would be a great thing to take a look at.

Robin Davidson: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. It’s been great conversation.

Carl Charles: Thanks, Robin.