by Shilpi Agarwal:

On April 10, the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law held its third triennial symposium entitled: “Gender on the Frontiers: Confronting Intersectionalities.” The goal for the symposium was to explore some of the many and varied points of intersection between gender and sexuality on one hand, and other characteristics that could have a marginalizing effect on the other. What emerged through the day’s interdisciplinary presentations and discussions was a picture of a far more a complex landscape, in which gender and sexuality evolve and collide with other formative internal and external forces. The day’s presentations illuminated many of the ways that gender and sexuality are inextricably tied to one another, and also to the roles we play in our families, ethnic enclaves, communities, activist groups, and other categories that outside observers might place any of us into, and that the law is often a frustratingly blunt tool that often fails to address these nuances and complexities that define our life experiences.

In our first panel, Women Crossing Borders, the panelists explored how a woman’s familial relationships may be impacted by her immigration status and her interaction with immigration laws. It became clear from the discussion that in an increasingly globalized system, outdated immigration rules should perhaps be updated or reformulated to better accommodate evolving structural and normative concepts of the family. Our next set of presentations, Traditional Institutions through a Non-Traditional Lens, addressed some of the dilemmas that arise when institutions such as juvenile and family court, the juvenile detention system, and the Swedish social benefits system are slow to adapt to progress in norms about sexuality and changes in family structures. Presenters incorporated extensive social science research as well as practical legal solutions. The third discussion, “Real Queer Advocacy,” highlighted some of the concrete limitations of rights-based advocacy and litigation, exploring how the strategies used by the gay rights movement have been a less than ideal way of capturing unique transgender rights struggles and ineffective in reaching out to communities of color. The fourth panel, a particularly interdisciplinary set of presentations, touched upon the idea of bodies as they are envisioned by law: as a unique point of interest in abortion law, as a way to make particular women more visible to the state through public healthcare regulation, and as a manifestation of Islamic fatwa’s particularly harsh treatment of gay men. And finally, our last panel dealt with unique and varied situations in which women find themselves on the wrong side of the law, whether through social forces that pushed them there or because the laws themselves are unjust.

A particular highlight of the day’s events was the lunchtime keynote by Professor Dean Spade. Dean challenged the traditional strategies of progressive lawyers and activists, arguing that efforts that result in only superficial changes to an often overwhelmingly marginalizing system do no more than create “window dressing” that, more than anything, serve to reinforce the status quo. This was, I think, a point of particular interest to those of us who are embarking on our careers with aspirations of becoming advocates for those who continue to be overlooked or underrepresented within traditional state and community institutions, and often even within the communities of progressive lawyers and academics that we’ve gained access to at Columbia. Dean’s admonishment to radicalize our legal practice was provocative and a reminder to be critical even of progressive movements and to question whether we are excluding those who may need the most help. We must be cognizant of whether our efforts are truly making things better, or if instead we are actually contributing to the legitimization of the very system that we are trying to challenge.

As a student in an environment where it feels almost stiflingly necessary to get good grades and the right clerkship, fellowship, or job, I felt compelled by this speech to question the choices I am making and the extent to which they will actually contribute to my ultimate goals. It is important for all of us to reflect and evaluate how we have used the opportunities that we have worked for and have been privileged enough to receive, and to ask ourselves whether we can truly say that we are making progress towards finding workable solutions to the complex problems and challenges presented in this conference.

Ultimately, I think the symposium was a huge success, and I am very proud of the work that my fellow editors (David Fisher, Nell Beekman, and Rosalie Fazio) and I did. However, as worthwhile as having these discussions is, my hope is that those who were a part of part of that day will go forward with a new understanding of how nuanced gender and sexuality identities can be, and how we, as advocates, must feel responsible in taking these complexities into account in everything we do. Hopefully, we can all have the courage to be as boldly inclusive, and perhaps at times revolutionary, in our words and actions as these situations call upon us to become.

national-law-journalShilpi Agarwal is a 3rd-year law student and the outgoing Symposium Editor on the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. After graduation, she will be clerking for a federal district court judge in her hometown of Houston, Texas.

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