A civil rights issue that Quinnipiac law professor Kevin Barry ’00 has been pondering for nearly a decade—as legislative advocate, scholar, and civil rights lawyer—came to a historic turning point in May when a US judge ruled that a transgender woman could bring a discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act based on gender dysphoria.
The landmark decision by Pennsylvania US District Court Judge Joseph Leeson made plaintiff Kate Lynn Blatt the first transgender person to effectively challenge a clause in the ADA that excludes “gender identity disorder” and “transsexualism” from the protections of the law.
Barry, who co-authored an amicus brief filed by transgender rights groups in support of Blatt’s discrimination case against a former employer, explained the opinion’s two most important points in an article in Slate on May 24. “The first was that being transgender—identifying with the gender different than a person’s designated birth sex—is not a medical condition,” he wrote. “The second was that gender dysphoria—the clinically significant distress that some transgender people experience as a result of identifying with the gender different than the one designated at birth—is a medical condition.”
That distinction opens the door for transgender people who have, had, or are perceived as having gender dysphoria to pursue civil rights protections under the ADA, Barry said.
Subsequent to the court’s ruling, the Trump administration in July filed a statement of interest in a separate federal district court case, concluding that gender dysphoria is not excluded by the ADA. That position echoed one previously made by the Obama administration in the Blatt case.
Barry is understandably pleased by these outcomes. As a fellow at Georgetown Law Center’s federal legislation clinic in 2008, he was among a team of lawyers who worked on the ADA Amendments Act. His related 2013 article in the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal led to a call from one of Blatt’s lawyers a year later, which in turn led to “A Bare Desire to Harm: Transgender People and the Equal Protection Clause” in Boston College Law Review and his work on the amicus brief.
“I have no doubt that when we get down to writing the history of the twenty-first century,” Barry said, “people like Kate Lynn Blatt, Ash Whitaker, Gavin Grimm, Jim Obergefell, and Edie Windsor will stand alongside other remarkable men and women—like Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, and Mildred and Richard Loving—who, in the words of Senior Judge Andre Davis of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, ‘refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them.’ And I have no doubt that today’s law students will be the lawyers of tomorrow who will take up the humble task of making those voices heard.”