Tom Steel’s Legacy: Advancing the Guild’s Advocacy and Moving Beyond Gay Marriage

Carlos Villarreal
Executive Director

Last week’s Supreme Court decision that same-sex couples have a constitutionally protected right to marriage is historic and the result of decades of struggle. However, it should not be seen as the culmination of the struggle, as there is so much more to win for genuine LGBTQ equality. Indeed, marriage is, historically, a conservative institution, and the majority opinion is riddled with praise for the institution and its importance in our intimate associations. It is of course important for many of us, but that doesn’t mean that those who choose to not marry, or those who are polyamorous, or those who never get married for any other reason, do not have relationships that are as important. In many states, despite this win at the Supreme Court, employees can be fired because they are gay or transgender, and may have no recourse. Despite this win at the High Court, trans women of color continue to be overincarcerated and, in a prison system that is already rampant with abuse and torture, transgender inmates often face even worse conditions than cisgender inmates.

That brings us to our former chapter leader, Tom Steel. He was a champion of gay rights, but his ideals transcended narrow identity politics. His rise within our organization coincided with the Guild’s growing involvement in the struggle for equality and justice for queer people – and that engagement often went beyond the socially acceptable gay rights movement that was already coming out of the shadows. Our chapter’s involvement in this struggle included our central role in the NLG AIDS Network in the 1980’s, and our condemnation, with Steel’s leadership, of police conduct following San Francisco’s White Night Riots. This history has continued today and, over the last 14 years, is best exemplified by the Tom Steel internship. Steel, and his namesake internship, have pushed for equality and justice for the LGBTQ community, but they have also pushed the Guild in a more radical direction.

The internship has included projects in support of gay marriage, but a regular focus of the internship has been the rights of transgender people. One of the first major accomplishments was the authoring of “Protocols for the Treatment of Transgender Persons by San Francisco County Jail.” Among other things, the protocols required that transgender people be housed based on their gender identity and set out strict requirements for strip searches. Since then, law students have developed Know Your Rights Materials for the transgender community and worked with the Transgender Law Center, the TGI Justice Project and Equality California on other forms of trans advocacy.

At various times through its history, the internship provided legal support for sex workers, emphasizing the particular challenges facing transgender sex workers. Interns worked with partner organizations to challenge a City of Oakland loitering ordinance that was being used to target and harass transgender sex workers. Most recently, intern Kristina Dolgin, expanded our Know Your Rights materials to include information for sex workers specifically.

The strong mix of criminal justice issues and transgender justice topics that have frequently been part of this project is a fitting tribute to Tom Steel. Steel stood up for LGBTQ rights even as he represented protesters and criticized law enforcement. In the late 70’s, he both defended Huey Newton against assault charges and pressed for the prosecution of a San Francisco police officer who assaulted patrons of a lesbian bar.

While many may see him today as the epitome of the Guild lawyer, in the 70’s and 80’s, he battled it out with others in the organization over the inclusion of gay rights in our politics. During a fight over endorsing Harry Britt, an openly gay candidate challenging Nancy Pelosi in 1987, Steel explained to the chapter board the importance of supporting gay rights. Gays had no open role in the organization until the early 70’s and faced homophobia in the organization throughout the 1970’s, he asserted. He agitated against an informal policy of not endorsing political candidates, complaining that if an election was important enough to straight leaders in the Guild, an exception would be made. Whatever one thinks of that, his struggle over gay rights within our leftist organization is a good reminder that we need to be open minded about the rabble rousers within the Guild who challenge the internal status quo. I’d like to think that the Steel internship has helped nurture many of those rabble rousers.

The Tom Steel Interns have moved the work of our chapter forward in ways that reflect Steel’s legacy. After many years of drawing down funds raised shortly after Steel’s death, the internship was unable to host a law student this summer for the first time. Luckily, a dedicated group of supporters and former interns have begun the task of raising more funds and rebuilding the program. So far we have raised nearly $15,000 in just a few weeks. That will keep the internship going for 2 or 3 years, but our goal is $50,000.

You can help! Contribute online using the button below.

Support a program that has benefited law student interns, the chapter, and the community. Gay marriage is a step in the right direction, but there is so much more to win.