Founded in 1925, the National Bar Association (NBA) is the nation’s oldest and largest association of African-American lawyers and judges. The organization’s constitution states that its objective is to “promote legislation that will improve the economic condition of all American citizens regardless of race, sex, or creed.” Despite its mission to “protect civil and political rights of the citizens and the residents of the United States,” the National Bar Association overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would include LGBT-specific nondiscrimination language in its constitution in a vote of 36-120.
Presented by the Civil Rights Law section of the National Bar Association, the amendment proposed that the NBA add five words to the document: “disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.” Nothing more. Nothing less.
With 84 affiliate chapters throughout the United States and affiliations in Canada, the United Kingdom, Africa and the Caribbean, the organization represents a professional network of over 20,000 lawyers, judges, educators and law students.
“The National Bar Association’s decision not to include disability, sexual orientation or gender identity as part of their nondiscrimination policy fails to accurately reflect the membership it purports to represent and discourages potential members from joining,” explains Kylar Broadus, attorney and founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition. “For an organization that was formed as a harbor for Black Americans due to the pervasive discrimination in society at the time and is still a support for many given the structural and systematic discrimination that exist, I would think the NBA would be in tune and open to other Black marginalized groups as well. If we aren’t included in the policy, it is clear we aren’t welcome.”
“How can an organization claiming to advocate on behalf of all Americans and cultivate strong legal leaders, refuse to acknowledge an entire segment of the Black community and its constituency?” asks Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black LGBT people. “Black LGBT lawyers and judges are Black, too. Period. We’ve had several Black LGBT attorneys share with NBJC that they’ve never felt welcomed at NBA – now we see why.”
“For nearly 90 years, the NBA has been a leader in the fight for civil rights and justice for all,” said National Bar Association President John Page in written statement when asked to comment on the organization’s decision not to include LGBT-specific language in its constitution. “Like most other legal and civil rights organizations, we decided that our mission statement was not the appropriate document to express our unquestioned support of specific minority communities but as professionals and as lawyers we have a clear focus on access, rights, equality, justice and jurisprudence.”
Earlier this year, NBJC’s Lettman-Hicks appeared on a panel hosted by the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA), an active partner organization of NBA. With its headquarters located in Washington, D.C., NBLSA “encourages the development of talented, [socially] conscious lawyers.” Each year, the organization holds an annual convention to engage in legal activism and prepare new generations of Black lawyers.
Unlike the National Bar Association, NBLSA’s bylaws explicitly state in its nondiscrimination clause that “NBLSA will not discriminate against an individual or group on the basis of sex, race, religion, ethnic group, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, national origin, or country of abode.”
“NBLSA is a grooming ground for future Black lawyers,” continues Lettman-Hicks. “These young people are light years ahead of the historic organization, NBA.”
The American Bar Association (ABA) also spells it out plainly: “The ABA is dedicated to equal employment opportunity for its workforce that is without regard to race, color, sex, national origin, age, religion, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation or other protected characteristics.”
“As a Black bisexual woman, I am deeply disappointed by the National Bar Association’s decision not to include ‘disability, sexual orientation or gender identity’ as part of the existing nondiscrimination language in its constitution,” states Stacey Long, attorney and LGBT advocate. “For most of my legal career, I have worked to advance civil rights and create a more just society where those who are marginalized and discriminated against have legal remedies, resources, and social networks. There is certainly room at the table for Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender attorneys and I sincerely hope the board reconsiders this unfortunate decision.”
The National Bar Association was created because Black lawyers did not have a seat at the table. When George H. Woodson, S. Joe Brown, James B. Morris, Charles P. Howard, and Gertrude E. Rush were denied admission to legal associations because of their race, they set out to create their own organization and made it their goal to fight discrimination. Almost a century later, the NBA falls short of ensuring that all African Americans are protected against unfair and unequal treatment. It is still legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation and in 37 states to do so based on gender identity and expression. Without the same legal protections, Black LGBT people are some of our nation’s most vulnerable. African American same-sex couples, for instance, earn a lower annual income than their white same-sex and Black heterosexual counterparts.
“The NBA is a large and influential voice and community of African American judges and lawyers, and this was an incredible opportunity to call upon its members, constituents, and all legal professionals to advocate for a more fair, equal and inclusive organization and nation,” adds Garry Bevel, a Black openly gay former prosecutor & Guardian ad Litem/GAL lawyer. “The more our Black leaders and influencers make disability, sexual orientation and gender identity inclusion a priority, the stronger our legal system and families will be.”
Kimberley McLeod is a D.C.-based freelance writer and LGBT advocate. She serves as the Director of Communications/Press Secretary at the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). She is also the creator and editor of Elixher.com, a resource for multidimensional representations of Black LGBT women.