Radical Queer Legal Studies Speaker Series kicks off events

Illustration by Greta Burton

On March 23, the first event of the Radical Queer Legal Studies Speaker Series took place over Zoom. The event was hosted by Matt Constantino, and was sponsored by the Lewis & Clark Law School. The conversation was facilitated by law student and LC Student Bar Association President Akriti Bhargava ’22.

The Radical Queer Legal Studies Speaker Series embraces Angela Davis’ maxim that radical means grasping things at the root. The group aims to achieve this by centering activists, scholars and legal practitioners whose work intersects queerness, race, disability, homelessness and poverty, with an additional focus towards liberation from the carceral state. The series distinguishes queerness as a fundamentally intersectional practice.

Student affinity groups often bring speakers to the law school campus in order to discuss legal issues and perspectives that do not always come up in our classes — especially issues and perspectives pertaining to populations who have historically faced systemic oppression under the laws of this country.

“I proposed the RQLSSS to bring together a coalition between NLG and OutLaw, our campus’ queer affinity organization, and to add voices to the campus conversation that I believe were missing from our classes.” Constantino via email explained.

Law students with marginalized identities bear the burden of having to read about cases and opinions that debate their basic rights, adding an extra layer of difficulty to a law education.

“Law school can be awfully tough on queer students; you spend a great deal of time in class reading judicial opinions where queer people’s rights to marry, adopt, have private consensual sex in their homes, and more are openly debated in a highly formal and traditional format,” Constantino said.

Constantino explained that they saw that interjecting one’s personal perspective is generally frowned upon, as most students just want to boil cases down to a rule they can apply to a hypothetical fact pattern on an exam. But hearing their predominantly straight colleagues and professors discuss Constantino’s right to exist in such an abstracted way felt wrong. Before they came to law school, Constantino spent most of their time being surrounded by people who also moved through the world as queer. As such, coming to law school forced them to confront how straight people, who outnumber them in classrooms, discuss queer existence.

“The RQLSSS was, in part, a corrective response to what I saw, by carving out a space for us and for the enthusiastic embrace of radical possibilities of abolition and liberation.” Constantino said.

Constantino secured funds from three sponsoring organizations, and sought to put together a program of three speakers from different racial, ethnic, educational, methodological and ideological backgrounds. They then wrote cold invitations to queer scholars, activists and legal practitioners whose work they found online—work they found to be radical, innovative and outside the bounds of what is generally covered in law school classrooms.

“The three speakers of the inaugural RQLSSS are a sociologist who studies the experiences of queer POC families; a woman who transitioned while incarcerated in a Washington state prison and who is now the director of an organization that assists queer people in prison and upon reentry; and an attorney who represents sex workers, a population that is disproportionately queer. All three of these speakers bring experiences and expertise to campus that I haven’t seen in the classroom yet.” Constantino said.

The guest speaker, Katie L. Acosta, is an associate professor in the department of sociology at Georgia State University. Acosta is the author of two books: “Amigas y Amantes: Sexually Nonconforming Latinas Negotiate Family” and most recently “Queer Stepfamilies: The Path to Social and Legal Recognition.” During the presentation she highlighted the latter, which is her most recent work.

Opening her talk, Acosta recalled her experience on June 26, 2015, the day the United States legalized same-sex marriage. She said that all over the U.S., people were trying to present an image of the “perfect gay family” that upheld heterosexual assumptions about marriage.

“Those were the good queer families, I was talking to the actual queer families,” Acosta said.

She gathered data for her work “Queer Stepfamilies” from 2013 to 2017. During this time she spoke with different people across the nation, from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Most of the families she spoke with were formed after breakups as her work revolved around the custody battles involving same-sex couples and their children.

Constantino explained that Acosta is a sociologist by training and not a legal practitioner, and this was particularly important to them when inviting Acosta to talk at the Radical Queer Legal Studies Speaker Series. Acosta’s talk highlights the societal outcomes of this system.

Acosta also discussed court rulings for same-sex couples, mostly in relation to custody battles of these couples and their partners, during her lecture. She described the homophobia and racism that was still present in the court system, and something that these families had to deal with.

“Many law school classes approach legal issues from a top-down perspective; students spend infinitely more time studying the system of laws than the societal outcomes of this system.” Constantino said via email. “Katie’s research flipped that script, using a careful study of queer POC families’ experiences in family courts as a lens for considering the laws.”

Towards the end of the presentation, she mentioned that some lawyers would advise their clients to hide their relationships in the courtrooms, and families often resented that. The same-sex couples would never place trust into the legal system, they would often rely on their children or their “tight legal knots.”

Constantino hopes to see more students from the undergraduate campus at the upcoming events. There will be two more events through the Radical Queer Legal Speaker Series. The events will take place on March 31 and April 7 virtually over Zoom.

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