(This post is part of a series highlighting the finalists for Dallas LGBT+ Bar Association’s 2020 Justice Award. The award recipient will be announced in late January 2021.)
Shelly Skeen (she/her) is a Senior Attorney for Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to achieving the full recognition of civil rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV. Shelly is a seasoned litigator, mediator, arbitrator, trial advocacy instructor, and appellate practitioner. Shelly served as the Chair, Vice Chair, and Council Member of the LGBT Law Section for the State Bar of Texas and President of the Dallas LGBT Bar Association. Shelly holds a diploma in International Arbitration and is a frequent and often-cited speaker and author on LGBTQ legal issues, including the First Amendment, Public Accommodations, Marriage Equality, Employment, and Probate. Shelly was a founding member of, and Co-Chair of Policy & Advocacy for the “Coalition for Aging, LGBT,” is serving a three year term on the State Bar of Texas CLE Committee, handles legal clinics for pro bono name and gender marker changes, and is an adjunct law professor. In 2018, she earned an LL.M. from UCLA School of Law in Constitutional Law and Law and Sexuality.
Below are Skeen’s responses to an interview conducted by association leaders.
What is liberation and what inspires your work?
Liberation to me means achieving full and lived legal, economic and social equity and equality for the LGBTQ+ community, those living with HIV and those living at the intersections of those identities. This means full and lived equity and equality including but not limited to housing, food, healthcare, employment, education, public accommodations, access to credit and funding, and importantly, the ability to vote and to have our votes count. This means not just the ability to participate fully in those things that I just listed that we all need, but equity and equality in our access to and the opportunities that lead to them. What inspires me is that I want to ensure that we are all seen, heard, and valued for who we are, for our differences, and for our collective humanity. I want to keep learning, growing, and seeing and understanding the world through different experiences and viewpoints. Prior to returning to Dallas in 2018, I went back to school to earn an LL.M. at UCLA School of Law in Constitutional Law and LGBT Law. Kimberle Crenshaw was my civil rights professor. Her class put me on a path to learn more about racial justice, race equity, diversity and inclusion and how it affects the LGBTQ+ community , those living with HIV and those at the intersections, as well as how so often the law has been, and is used as a tool to oppress and harm, all the while cementing power and privilege.
All that to say, is that we have a very short time on this earth, therefore, I went to learn, screw up, fall down, understand where my judgment limits my thoughts and thus, my consciousness and experience, so that I live the fullest life possible while in community with and service to others. In my opinion, material things will never make you happy but working with people who don’t have what you have or who have not had the opportunities you have had and sharing that with them so that hopefully, they can live a bit better life, seems like the only thing that is real and important. Because I am white and can pass as straight, or at least I think I can, I’ve had a lot of opportunities that others have not had simply because of who they are, and that is wrong. I want to correct that where I can with my own limited abilities and humbled humanity.
Describe a perfect world
A world where we all have access to the same opportunities, where we are all worthy simply because we are alive, not as a result of what is perceived as our successes, where we were born, how much money we have, or because of who we are or associate with; a world where we all have what we need, food, water, shelter, healthcare, a job, access to goods and services, enough money to have a comfortable life; a world without judgment based on religion, the illusion of race, cultural or economic power structures and hierarchies; a world where our earth is healthy; and a world where we are supported, loved and compassionate with each other. (I’m sounding less and less like a lawyer and more like a therapist.)
What legal barriers exist for the achievement of your perfect world
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this question; what legal barriers obstruct my vision or what legal barriers prevent and prohibit access to equity and equality for our community, those living with HIV and those at the intersections—in answer to the second question, institutional and systemic racism….which I believe is embedded in the law and perpetuated by it (read the Color of Law by Richard Rothstein), the use of religion as a tool to oppress, harm and ensure hierarchies and power structures; the inability to vote or even obtain access to the right to vote which we should all have easy access to like how Colorado handles voting….there is simply no reason for the barriers to vote that are inherent in almost every state’s voting laws. Other legal barriers include the contributions to super PACs, what has resulted since Citizen’s United, and the money that is spent to perpetuate the power structures and status quo. Well organized and well-funded groups like the Beckett Fund, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Texas Values and the First Liberty Institute….all of these groups work against LGBT rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and efforts to stop LGBT discrimination…..they are well funded, talented and strategic in their policy work and impact litigation. Another barrier is the number of federal judges that Trump has appointed to the bench—over ¼ of our federal judiciary….most of these judges are very young, white, male and are very conservative. 50,000 cases run through the federal courts each year…. this is where the bulk of common law is made….these judge will make the law that affects civil rights and our rights for the next 40 years. I could discuss the Texas government, too, how appointments are made, etc. but I will spare you that.
Where do you see your work in five years?
Fighting continued attempts to expand religious liberties and religious exemptions, including through the use of the free exercise and establishment clauses and the free speech clause, working from a legislative and policy standpoint to move pro LGBT legislation forward, to fight anti-LGBT legislation and to change hearts and minds in the process. Prior to Bostock, I would tell straight folks that I could marry my partner and walk into my office and be fired simply because I am gay, and/or be refused service in a restaurant in Houston for the same reason. None of them believed me and were shocked when I explained that state and federal law allowed this kind of discrimination. None of them thought this was fair. So, changing hearts and minds through education and through being out—everywhere, all the time. I also see myself teaching, I have taught an LGBT law class at UNT School of Law—the students seemed to really enjoy it in many respects because I used real life examples and cases that were pending at the time. LGBT law is a very dynamic area of the law right now.
How can people contribute?
We as lawyers have a duty to use our skills, our money, our connections and our knowledge to work to bring full and lived equity and equality to our community and to those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized among us—we can volunteer our time, engage in pro bono work, become involved in our communities, get involved in our state, local and national bars, raise our voices, participate in city, state and local government—we need to have a seat at the table and a voice in the decision making, run for office, work toward ensuring that everyone can vote, support candidates of our choice, get involved in our faith communities, ensure support for the Equality Act and a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill in Texas…. I could go on… but in short, participate in society wherever it is and however it is that you are passionate.