THE BLOG
04/22/2014 09:25 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

On Handling High-Profile Terrorism Cases as a 'Transgender Defender'

I am a criminal defense attorney. My clients include individuals facing terrorism charges in federal court, most recently Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Usama bin Laden. I speak Arabic and have lived in the Middle East. And I am transgender.

As an attorney, my main concern was that my gender transition could be used against my clients. In the beginning I thought that an adversary might use my past to gain an advantage. After that anxiety went away, I worried that declining to be open would jeopardize the security clearance I needed for certain cases due to the potential for blackmail. Eventually, on higher-profile matters, I feared that the media would sensationalize my gender identity to the detriment of my ability to provide legal representation.

What a humbling mistake that assumption turned out to be.

In my professional life, I have prided myself on the results I achieve for clients. My own struggle, I believed, enabled me to understand them better and tell their stories in such a way that there can be no rejoinder. But then I learned how much more I have to learn.

Prior to Mr. Abu Ghaith's trial last month in Manhattan, The New York Times published a profile of me by Benjamin Weiser. Ben and I had first spoken a year-and-a-half before, when he wrote a piece about lawyers who handle terrorism cases. At that time he reported on my credentials alone; we did not get into being transgender.

Sharing my personal background meant risking everything. Thirteen years of sacrifice in the pursuit of my vocation were on the line -- suffice it to say that the uncertainty of what was going to happen woke me up for a week.

The profile appeared online on a Friday night, while I was hanging out with two colleagues in Los Angeles. They are straight white educated professional males, so I figured their reactions would be a litmus test.

One said my law practice was desirable, and the other remarked that my hourly rate just went up.

How did I think they would react? Shame on me for judging others beforehand, I should know better.

Of all the responses I ended up receiving, the ones I treasure most were from opposing counsel. A current adversary wrote an email saying it was "super cool" that I was willing to speak about my transition publicly. A few days later I ran into a former adversary, who said, "I can't believe I've known you all this time and didn't know you speak Arabic!!"

After the trial, Kristen Saloomey wrote a bookend story in Al Jazeera, referring to me as a "transgender defender." The first reader comment was: "'transgender defender' would be a great superhero. i'd read the hell out of that comic book."

Indeed. A couple of years ago I attended a panel discussion about the work of Christer Strömholm, a Swedish photographer who had documented transgender women in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. Following the talk, I went up to one of the panelists to thank her for getting arrested every other week half a century ago, so that people like us may contribute to society today.

No matter how far we have have come, there is still risk in complacency. Over at The Wall Street Journal, Charles Levinson reported on the jury's verdict, musing that the "handpicked defense team included an unlikely cast of characters speaking up on behalf of al Qaeda." Mr. Levinson noted that my co-counsel "is Jewish, sported a raggedy pony tail and showed up to court on some days with a Palestinian kaffiyeh draped around his shoulders." Not to be outdone, I was summed up as "an openly transgender woman, who showed up one morning in knee-high lace-up boots."

Mr. Levinson received an email from me titled "Fashion." It said: "I am flattered you were looking at my legs."

Equality is on the horizon. Those boots were made for walking, and I have miles to go before I sleep.