For the past three years, The National LGBT Bar Association has selected the best LGBT lawyers under the age of 40. This year’s list includes Harper Jean Tobin, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Policy Counsel.
Tobin, who received degrees in law and social work from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and is an alumna of Oberlin College, is a first-time recipient of the award. She took some time answer questions from LGBTQ Nation about her career, growing up transgender and policy issues of importance to her:
LGBTQ Nation: How did your upbringing shape your decision to become a lawyer?
Harper Jean Tobin: Funny you should ask. My mom and dad are lawyers and one of my older sisters is too. I guess I always grew up knowing that was a field I could go into if I wanted — so when I decided I wanted to social change work, and that I wanted to do LGBT advocacy — I knew that was the way I could make change and I knew that it would play to my strengths.
LGBTQ Nation: What was it like growing up as a transgender individual in the Midwest?
Tobin: Well, I didn’t know a lot of other people like me, that’s for sure. I grew up in Louisville, which is a midsized prominently progressive city. In my family there was always a sense that we were going to be loved and cared for and supported for who we were no matter what.
In that sense, I think I was very lucky. I was not out in high school, but I knew that I was different. I came out in college, which was again in the Midwest, but it was Oberlin College — a small, very liberal, liberal arts college with a very supportive atmosphere. I felt like my transition was relatively easy — with my school community, with my family, then transitioning into my professional life. I want everybody to have the kind of opportunities and the kind of ease in being their authentic self that I have had.
LGBTQ Nation: How do you feel about winning the award?
Tobin: I feel very honored, particularly because I am still very early in my career. I’m five years out of school — I won’t be 40 for nine more years. I’m very pleased to be in the company of a lot of impressive LGBT lawyers — Flor and Ivan from Lambda Legal, Cathy Sakimura from National Center for Lesbian Rights, Alyssa Lareau from the Department of Justice — it’s a great group of people to be a part of.
LGBTQ Nation: Where does the award rank among your accomplishments to this point?
Tobin: It’s the first time I’ve gotten an award as an attorney, so I’m very pleased about it. I think it’s energizing, when you do the kind of work that I do, it’s good to be recognized. Although, I have to say, what is even more energizing for me, is all of the progress that we have been able to make here in Washington the last few years.
LGBTQ Nation: What is your biggest achievement policy wise?
Tobin: The thing that I am most proud of is our work on reforming jails, prisons and immigration detentions. We lock up far, far too many people in this country — discrimination and poverty leave many people that need to contact with these systems in the trans community, where there is a lot of abuse.
We can make a good start by working to implement the new federal standards to combat abuse that include specific protections for trans people. I’m very proud of our work on that. Ultimately, I believe that the LGBT movement needs to work against over incarceration, which is devastating all kinds of communities, but our work on prison rapes is a good start towards that.
LGBTQ Nation: What are you looking forward to policy wise in the future?
Tobin: I think our biggest challenge may be healthcare. We’re on track to expand the number of people that have insurance coverage. There is still a lack of acceptance that transition related medical care is legitimate medical care, like anything else.
That, I think, is a big issue, whether you’re a veteran, whether you’re a low-income person on Medicaid, whether you’re getting insurance through your employer — what we’re talking about is increasing access to healthcare for everybody.
A big hurdle for us is going to be making sure that includes the real medical needs a lot of trans people have.