Editor’s Note: Kat Tenbarge, the moderator of the event, works on The New Political staff as the campus editor.
Judge Judith E. Levy shared the experiences that led her to her current position as a social advocate and the only openly gay federal judge in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals at the 90 Minutes series Wednesday.
Levy said as a woman, she is often a minority in courtrooms, despite the equal or greater number of women graduating from law school compared with men. Instead, she said, women have more roles in mediation, while men dominate litigation.
“As a federal judge, I’d say of the lawyers that appear in front of me, between 80 and 85 percent are white men,” Levy said. “Often I’m the only woman in the room. And it can be a little bit challenging because generally the men don’t have a great deal of practice listening to women.”
Despite the ruling on gay marriage last summer, acceptance for the LGBT community still has a long way to go, Levy said. She noted only a few states have laws against employment discrimination.
“We have no federal protection,” Levy said. “We have protection against sex discrimination, pregnancy, race, ethnicity, religion, disability. We have those kinds of protections federally, and I get those kinds of cases all the time in my court, but we don’t have protection for someone who’s fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Levy also called on police to increase education and ensure there is fair and equitable policing within the LGBT community. She said domestic violence is an issue because it is no different in same-sex couples than in any other couple, but research shows same-sex couples are reluctant to call the police out of fear of dismissiveness or discrimination. Harassment can be especially bad for transgender people, she said, if police mistake a person for being another gender or if someone’s license doesn’t match their name.
Ultimately, Levy said there is still a lot of work to be done about truly accepting and embracing people for who they are, beyond mere tolerance. She has been married to her wife JJ for three years and has been with her for 32, and the couple has three children.
“There are still many times when I’m not convinced that I’m physically safe by holding hands with JJ or putting my arm around her in a movie theater or something, and that’s crazy,” Levy said. “We probably are safe, but probably actually isn’t good enough. If you’re not safe, you’re not safe.”
Despite challenges, Levy said she thinks she had an easier coming out process than many peoples’ today, something she attributes to feeling like an outsider as a child because of her Jewish ethnicity. It was this same sense of being different that led her to focus much of her career on social justice, she said.
“I was raised feeling a little bit outside or other or different, not accepted, and a part of me felt a kinship with anyone who had that experience and a determination that other people shouldnt have also had that experience and I think it’s just stayed with me,” Levy said.
Levy advised students to find allies no matter what they are going through and said human connections and discussions are an important part of feeling positive everyday.
“College is such a time of transition for everybody,” Levy said. “And having the support and connection to stay encouraged and excited about opportunities is really important.”
The conversation was moderated by sophomore Kat Tenbarge, a journalism and environmental studies major in the Honors Tutorial college. Tenbarge said that as a member of the LGBT community herself, Levy was incredibly inspiring.
“Being able to hear about her reality as a gay woman with a successful career and family was personally really emotional,” Tenbarge said. “It gave me a lot of faith for my own future.”