The Crystal Ballroom was buzzing with conversation and energy as hundreds of lawyers came together in-person for the first time since the onset of the pandemic to celebrate the OBA Awards Gala. I was honoured to attend as the only recipient of the OBA’s 2022 Distinguished Service Award. I sat on the stage beaming and thrilled that my award was being presented by then Ranjan K. Agarwal, a distinguished litigator, who has since been appointed to the Superior Court of Justice in my hometown of Brampton, and someone whom I deeply admire. As Ranjan made his kind tribute introducing me, I reflected on the serendipity of me being South Asian and Ranjan soon-to-becoming the first South Asian President of the OBA. I was elated, until the heavy bronze trophy was put into my hand. I looked down at the statue and was startled. Confused, I rotated the award surveying its sculptured details and dread began to engulf my exhilaration.
The Distinguished Service Award is an extraordinary honour recognizing exceptional career contributions to the legal profession and to jurisprudence for the benefit of Ontarians. However, I could see nothing resembling that special achievement in the award in my hand, which could only be described as a “statuette”. The bronze figure clearly depicted a stereotypically gendered woman standing in her barrister robes, a pencil skirt and wedged heels. Upon further inspection of her bobbed hair and facial features, the woman I was holding was undeniably white.
My instinctive thought was to question whether I had received the wrong trophy because the Distinguished Service Award was not a gendered category. I stared quizzically at the other recipients of the Distinguished Service Award for the previous COVID-19 years, trying to see what they held in their hands. I could make out that the esteemed men had received a statue depicting a male lawyer and the only other woman on stage, a highly respected Black judge, held a statue identical to mine. I was mortified to return to my table of human rights colleagues with the statuette in hand. I felt like the figurine undermined my career accomplishments, almost mocking me with the accolade of “good job… for a lady lawyer.”
After the ceremony, I continued to ponder how the award embedded assumptions about gender, race and ableism, reflecting antiquated ideas of what a lawyer looks like. In addition to not seeing myself in the award, I wondered how the unnecessary gendering of the trophy might affect my trans colleagues. I thought “hasn’t it been a decade since Ontario recognized gender identity as a human rights ground?” and asked myself if I was overreacting. So, I called my friend and colleague Emmett Rogers, a transmasculine and non-binary lawyer to ask what they thought of the appearance of my award. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.
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Emmett: Hearing your experience, my immediate thought as a non-binary, trans person is which statue would I receive? This brings back my own insecurities about my place in the legal profession. In law school, I proudly identified as trans and was the first person in my law school to exclusively use they/them pronouns in my personal and professional life. However, in publicly identifying this way, I constantly felt myself being placed into the legal profession’s rigid expectations of gender. Even though I wore a suit and tie, I still was routinely misgendered as a woman and felt that my transness went unseen.
I struggled to see myself fitting into the legal profession and questioned whether I would ever practice as a lawyer. When I applied for articles, I faced a real dilemma: should I erase reference to my trans identity from my CV to avoid any uncomfortable questions about my identity or possibly face discrimination based on my gender identity? I felt limited in my options. I chose to only apply to firms and organizations that explicitly expressed commitment to 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion.
Since law school, I have medically transitioned and now use he/him pronouns in my professional engagements, but I do this primarily to make it easier and more comfortable for clients. I consider myself privileged to be able to “pass” in this way, as I know that many in the trans community, especially trans women of colour, are more severely affected by transphobia and transmisogyny and, as a result, are unable to make the same choice about when and how to disclose their transness.
I wonder if you have any similar experiences as a racialized woman in law that you would be open to sharing?
Ena: As a first-generation immigrant South Asian woman, my experience was that most opposing counsel I encountered were men, predominantly white, who assumed that I would be docile and quiet. Anyone who knows me knows those descriptors do not apply to me. I vividly recall one interaction, outside a hearing room, when a senior counsel gave me a backhanded compliment, telling me that I wouldn’t be able to conduct an effective witness cross-examination alluding to my girly, friendly demeanour. I give that senior counsel credit because the next day at the hearing he approached me again, only this time to congratulate me on my excellent cross-examination sharing he learned a new technique watching me in action the previous day. I was lucky as a young lawyer to have connected with a diverse group of progressive human rights lawyers who became my life-long mentors, including some incredibly strong women, racialized individuals and people with disabilities.
Reflecting on what a lawyer looks like, there are many unwritten rules that women, both extrinsically and intrinsically, deal with daily because of historical masculine cultural norms that permeate the legal profession. Is my neckline too low or skirt too high? Is my lipstick too bright? Do I look and sound like a proper lawyer? Is my voice too high? Am I too emotive? The most bizarre part of all these ruminations is that they only scratch the surface of the pervasive inequality experienced by women. From traditional gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, the gender wage gap, occupational advancement penalties for parenthood, women face a multitude of barriers in pursuit of a successful legal career. What I have learned from you, Emmett, is that many trans lawyers face similar barriers related to their gender identity.
Emmett: Exactly. The legal profession relies on outdated concepts of professionalism, which imagines lawyers being straight, white, cisgender and able-bodied. Because of this, I think it’s particularly important that young lawyers from minority communities have access to mentors who can help enhance our professional connections and career opportunities. It is also crucial for us to be able to see ourselves in the legal profession and understand that our diverse backgrounds bring talent and perspectives that are essential.
Ena: Recently, I shared a story with my mentees of when I was a summer law student at a government legal agency and was discouraged from wearing my ethnic attire. I mentioned to one of my supervising lawyers that I was thinking of wearing a “salwar kameez”, a Punjabi tunic outfit, to work the next day in anticipation of leaving work early to attend a cultural/religious holiday. To be fair, the lawyer was kind and very open-minded, but they dissuaded me from coming to work in my Punjabi ensemble because of the conservative nature of the office and senior colleagues. I was surprised to learn this story, which seemed like an outdated anecdote on the standards of dressing, resonated with my mentees and their current experiences. The unfortunate reality is that discriminatory ideas of what a lawyer should look like continue to infuse our profession. It is frustrating to see that not only have we not dismantled binary views on masculinity and femininity, but we also have not made a cultural shift to imagining the legal profession as composed of people from a diverse range of races, colours, ethnicities, religions and abilities.
Emmett: That story reminds me of when I was working to establish a legal clinic for the trans community and during a training session on the basics of trans identity and inclusion, the facilitator suggested lawyers can improve trans inclusion by sharing pronouns in their email signature. One lawyer, from a large national firm, outright refused declaring, “the legal profession isn’t there yet.” I was shocked – this was someone who was volunteering their time purportedly to support the trans community but unwilling to make this simple change due to the conservative nature of the legal profession. Once again, I felt that there was no place for me in the legal profession as a trans person.
Ena: I guess we have made some strides. Today, not only do we see more lawyers specifying their pronouns, but the Ontario Courts are promoting inclusive language and pronoun usage. Recently, the Ontario Court issued a directive about the importance of inviting court participants to share their pronouns and prefixes. Participant Information Forms now include space for counsel to note how they wish to be addressed.
I also recall that, in 2019, the Law Society of Ontario converted the “men’s” robing room at Osgoode Hall into a gender-neutral facility after a petition objecting to the glaring differences between the “men’s” and “women’s” spaces. Before this change was made, I remember how the “women’s” small robing room of 12 lockers felt like an insult when compared to the “men’s” robing room of 70 lockers that was described as something out of a “old-money golf and country club.”
Receiving a gendered statue for the Distinguished Service Award brought up the same feelings and raised the same questions about creating space for diverse people in the legal profession. Given this is the 10th anniversary of including gender identity into the Ontario Human Rights Code, I believe the OBA can do better.
Emmett: I agree. In addition to fostering diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, lawyers have a key role in supporting access to justice for trans people. Trans people in Ontario regularly fear discrimination in housing, health care and other settings, often due to lack of identity documents that reflect their chosen name and gender marker. An Ontario study found that 13 per cent of survey respondents were fired and 18 per cent were denied employment for being trans. The same study also reported that trans people experience high levels of violence, with 20 per cent having been physically or sexually assaulted for being trans and 34 per cent reporting threats or harassment because of their gender identity. As lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to tackle and ameliorate some of these disadvantages.
Ena: As you mention the magnitude of harms and violence, I recall that when I served as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission looking into systemic discrimination in policing, Justice Epstein released the ground-breaking Missing and Missed Report drawing attention to the gravity of the mishandling of police investigations into missing 2SLGBTQ+, Indigenous, racialized and other marginalized people. The Report specifically examined the case of Alloura Wells, an Indigenous trans woman whose body was found in a Toronto ravine and left unidentified in a morgue for several months because of police deficiencies and delays, and likely systemic discrimination because of Ms. Wells’ marginalized status.
This example reminds me that, as lawyers, we must ensure our justice partners are working to better serve the trans community. It’s our job to bring to light our clients’ socioeconomic, language, race, disability, gender, etc., status and speak to the implications of the same to ensure this is appropriately considered by the justice system. Only when we’ve done our job can we hold the system accountable for neglecting to remove barriers in access to justice. Until we ensure that the legal profession is both representative of, and competently trained to serve, diverse communities, we won’t be doing our part to promote an inclusive justice system. We must educate future generations of lawyers about the historical inequities and the root causes of racism, homophobia, trans-hate, ableism, etc., or else we risk losing the public’s confidence in our profession as an instrument of justice.
The OBA has committed to redesigning the Distinguished Service Award statue. I am honoured that the OBA will be presenting me with an updated, non-gendered award in a ceremony on November 23, 2022. The timing of this celebration is to commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance that honours the memory of transgender people whose lives have been lost due to transphobia and transphobic acts of violence. Redesigning this award takes the legal profession another step forward in recognizing the value in creating space for diverse legal professionals, including 2SLGBTQ+ People, Indigenous, Black, People of Colour and People with Disabilities.
About the authors
Ena Chadha, LL.B., LL.M., is chair of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, and the recipient of the OBA’s 2022 Distinguished Service Award and the OBA’s Tom Marshall Award of Excellence for Public Sector Lawyers.
Emmett Rogers is a human rights specialist and associate with Ethical Associates Inc.