Winning Protections for Transgender People in Prison, From the Perspective of a Lawyer and a Transgender Woman

For Pride Month, the ACLU-NJ checked in for a one-on-one conversation with attorney, activist, and author Robyn Gigl, a partner with the law firm GluckWalrath, to get her perspective on some of the most crucial LGBTQ+ issues facing us today.

Gigl served as co-counsel with the ACLU-NJ in a case, Sonia Doe v. NJ Department of Corrections, that changed the way New Jersey treats transgender people who are incarcerated. She and the ACLU-NJ achieved a major victory on behalf of a woman named Sonia Doe, whose challenge against unconstitutional placement in men’s prisons led New Jersey to adopt a policy recognizing the rights and dignity of transgender LGBTQ people.

Gigl’s experience, which includes serving on the board of Garden State Equality and the Trans Affirming Alliance, gives her particular insight on the issues she discussed with the ACLU-NJ: the significance of Pride in 1969 and today, how the leaked abortion decision could affect LGBTQ+ rights, what the landmark settlement in the Doe case means, the role of out-front advocacy as well as work behind the scenes, pursuing your dreams at any age, and the role of creative expression in social justice.

In addition to her legal background, Gigl is the author of the Erin McCabe legal thrillers, a series of novels that follow the adventures of a fictional transgender criminal defense attorney who takes on bold cases that get to the heart of social justice.

The Significance of Pride Past and Present 

ACLU-NJ: 53 years after Stonewall, what is the significance of Pride to you?

Robyn Gigl: Let me say as emphatically as I can: Pride is just as significant today as it was when the first Pride marchers gathered on Christopher Street a year after Stonewall. We are at a point in this country when many of the rights the LGBTQ+ community has achieved are now in jeopardy.

After the Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalized same sex marriage in 2015, some in our community felt the road to full equality was secure. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen over the last six years, many forces in this country are trying to strip LGBTQ+ people of their rights.

ACLU-NJ: How does the state of LGBTQ+ rights differ in New Jersey compared to the nation – and in what ways do we have further to go?

RG: Following the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, people now recognize the very real possibility of a rollback of our rights, not just through the reversal of decisions like Obergefell, but through the passage of laws restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals in other states.

We are fortunate in New Jersey to have laws that offer greater protections of these rights than in other states, but we must always remain vigilant of threats on the horizon.

We’ve seen some successful efforts across the country to ban trans children from participating in sports, to bar access to trans-related health care, and to investigate parents for trying to help their trans children.

So, 53 years later, Pride is more important than ever and our voices have to be just as loud and just as emphatic as they were on that June night outside of the Stonewall Inn.

Sonia Doe: A Landmark Case in Protecting the Rights and Dignity of Transgender People 

ACLU-NJ: Could you talk about your work on the Sonia Doe case and what the settlement means?  

RG: At its core, the settlement goes to the fundamental issue confronted by many trans and nonbinary individuals, whether incarcerated or not. It requires that they be accepted for who they are.

The case involved a trans woman who was incarcerated in various men’s prisons across the state, where she suffered physical and verbal abuse, discrimination, and open hostility — from other incarcerated individuals, as well as correctional police officers and staff — solely because of her status as a trans woman.

ACLU-NJ: Why was the settlement so important for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals?

RG: The settlement was hugely important because it requires the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) to house incarcerated individuals in accordance with their gender identity. In other words, an individual’s deeply held knowledge of who they are, be that male, female or nonbinary — not the sex an individual was assigned at birth — dictates the official decisions DOC makes.

The new formal policy forbids the DOC from claiming an individual’s sex assigned at birth poses a security concern, meaning they cannot use it to discriminate in decisions about a person’s treatment in prison.

The settlement requires trans and nonbinary individuals to be treated with the dignity and respect that all people are entitled to, including recognition that trans people have the same right to access trans-related health care as they would any other treatment.

I was so incredibly fortunate to get to work with an amazing group of lawyers from the ACLU-NJ on this case. I take great pride not just in the achievement we attained, but in the difference it will make in the lives of people who are among the most marginalized.  

Activism Toward Greater Justice: Expanding Rights in New Jersey and Inclusiveness in “The Room Where It Happens” 

ACLU-NJ: What activism are you especially proud of, and why is being an advocate so important?  

RG: Activism can take many forms, but sometimes the most important work, as immortalized in the musical “Hamilton,” comes from being in the room where it happens. Not the political back rooms, but rather having a seat at the table and being able to share lived experiences.  

ACLU-NJ: Have you witnessed up close the impact of inclusiveness in making significant social changes in “the rooms where things happen?” 

RG: I have been fortunate to participate as a member of the New Jersey Transgender Equality Task Force, established by the Governor and Legislature, and as a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, which serves the mission of advising the state Supreme Court on how the Judiciary can best assure fairness, impartiality and equal access to minority groups.

The Task Force helped identify one of the most fraught problems facing transgender individuals: securing government-issued identity documents, such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates that reflect an individual’s identity and gender.

With the issues identified, the committee began discussing solutions in keeping with its mission. Based on recommendations from the committee, New Jersey’s courts ended a requirement that forced people to announce their name changes via newspaper, potentially outing people and putting them at risk. The Court then enacted another change to make all name changes confidential. I am incredibly proud of that work and of our Supreme Court for affording me, a trans woman, the opportunity to be in the room where it happened and have a voice in those discussions. Even more, I’m incredibly grateful that my efforts could make life better for members of my community and broaden others’ horizons of the issues trans New Jerseyans face.

The Writing Life and Pursuing Lifelong Dreams 

ACLU-NJ: Your energy in pursuing such a broad range of interests is remarkable: writing novels, advocating for equity in the legal profession and at the New Jersey Supreme Court, activism with Garden State Equality and the Trans Affirming Alliance, in addition to work and family.

RG: I’m not sure it’s my energy that allows me to do what I do, or just a very boring social life!

Whatever it is, I think the most important advice I could give someone looking to pursue their passion is: Pursue your passion, regardless of what others may think. Most importantly, don’t look at setbacks as failures, but as learning opportunities.

ACLU-NJ: You published your first novel after decades of writing, and you have more books on the way. What advice do you have for people who want to pursue their lifelong dreams?

RG: In my case, in pursuing my dream of becoming a writer, there was a lot of rejection—from agents and publishers, and I have two unpublished manuscripts as proof. But here I am with two published novels and a third on the way—so perseverance matters. 

ACLU-NJ: Did confirming your identity give new perspective on pursuing your interests? 

RG: Until I came out in 2008, my life was rather mundane, taken up mostly by being a lawyer, parent, and spouse. It was only after I came out and went through the gender confirmation process that I became active in the LGBTQ+ community.  

The moral of the story being that it’s hard to be an activist from the closet. To be clear, I don’t mean every member of the LGBTQ+ community has an obligation to be out and active.  

But for me, for whatever reason, I found myself with a platform that so many trans folks don’t have.  

I felt it was incumbent upon me to use my voice for our community, so that other folks who are not part of the community could put a human face on something, and someone, that perhaps they don’t understand. 

ACLU-NJ: How do you see writing as a way of building bridges and fostering understanding among communities? 

RG: My sense is that people fear what they don’t understand, so in my own small way, I’m trying to help people understand what it’s like to be trans. It’s one of the things I love about being a writer — the ability to educate (sometimes subversively), while at the same time entertaining. That was my goal when I wrote “By Way of Sorrow” and “Survivor’s Guilt” — pen legal thrillers that anyone who enjoys the genre would read, and, without them even realizing it, educate folks about issues impacting trans people. Whether I succeeded or not is for others to decide.  

Issues in the LGBTQ+ Community in New Jersey and Nationwide

ACLU-NJ: What are some of the most pressing issues you see in LGBTQ+ rights and in the transgender community, and why is advocacy in this area so important?

RG: Fortunately, in New Jersey, we have strong laws in place that protect the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, thanks in large part to the valiant efforts of countless people and organizations, including the ACLU-NJ, Garden State Equality, and so many others. 

Unfortunately, we see a huge divide between where we are in New Jersey and the landscape nationally. We all should be concerned about a future in which federal legislation or court decisions erode our hard-fought rights.

ACLU-NJ: What work still needs to be done in New Jersey to get closer to equity in the LGBTQ+ community?

RG: Even in New Jersey, although our Law Against Discrimination furnished us with some of the strongest protections against discrimination in the country, the unfortunate reality is that trans people still face widespread discrimination, along with ostracism from families and tragically high rates of homelessness and suicide. 

This is why we have to be involved, and why we cannot become complacent. This is also why it’s critically important to educate people widely about the issues the trans community contends with on a day-to-day basis.

ACLU-NJ: What can each of us do to get involved in the important activism taking place?

RG: No one, myself included, has the time to go to every single march, rally or fundraiser — but that’s not the only way to make an impact. Even without being active nationally or on the state level, people can play a huge role in their own communities, and that’s where some of the most integral changes are made.

Discrimination and oppression surface most often when people don’t know anyone who falls into the dominant group — the faceless “other.” But when the “other” is your neighbor, your coworker, or your relative, then it’s easier to see the common humanity we share. If we all do what we can in our own towns, within our churches, and throughout our civic institutions, if we can all be caring and compassionate neighbors, we can impact how the LGBTQ+ community is viewed, and treated, by folks who aren’t part of it.