LGBTQ&A: Julie Chovanes

The trans legal expert and social justice advocate talks about finding justice for the late Nizah Morris and the PCHR Gayborhood racism hearing.

Julie Chovanes photographed by Amanda Swiger.

Julie Chovanes photographed by Amanda Swiger.

Julie Chovanes is the executive director of Trans-Help, a legal service provider for trans individuals. The lawyer and trans rights advocate talks to us about seeking justice for the late Nizah Morris, participating the PCHR Gayborhood racism hearing, and what the city can do to better serve the LGBTQ community.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m the founder and executive director of Trans-Help, a nonprofit providing legal services to the trans community, and education to the greater public about us, locally, regionally and nationwide. I’ve lived here my whole life — I grew up in Bala Cynwyd, went to Lower Merion and then Villanova and Villanova Law, and now I live and work in the city. I’m also the founder and managing partner of Chovanes Law LLC, a patent, intellectual property, and corporate law firm and an LGBTE-certified diversity business. I teach and write and educate about commercial law and trans and LGB law and trans and LGB people too.

What are some of the major projects Trans-Help is currently working on?
Trans people lack the basics: food, clothing, shelter, health, not to mention things like stable and supportive relationships. If you are a trans woman of color you are more likely than not to lack almost everything. The way we help is though private legal assistance to members of our community, federal court litigation, education, and public and private advocacy. Our major projects help trans people in Philadelphia, the region, and nationally. So, for example, there’s the matter of trans and LGB safety in Philadelphia, especially for people of color. And we are suing the State of New Jersey for failing to provide trans people with safe, accurate birth certificates. We need those. (In North Carolina and possibly more states very soon — eight have introduced trans exclusionary bills recently — we even need them to pee. Sigh.) We also work nationally, and the major project we are working on there right now is the imminent threat to trans people by the possible elimination of every single law and regulation we gained in the past eight years of the Obama Administration. We are deeply involved in a new project to build a constitutional and statutory federal law framework that recognizes trans rights.

You have been very outspoken about the level of miscommunication from the city surrounding Nizah Morris, a trans women of color who was found dead over a decade ago after last being seen picked up by the Philadelphia Police Department. How would you like the Kenney administration to respond differently to informing the public about the updates surrounding this incident?
I want the City and the Office of LGBT Affairs to do more than respond. I want them to legally intervene in the proceedings to produce the documents and to produce their own copies, as the City probably has its own copies too. The City has to act – for goodness’ sake, the Director of LGBT Affairs [worked for the] D.A. The City should be all over this case, instead of shamefully hiding documents in the death, while in City care, of Nizah Morris, a trans woman of color. The fact that this has gone on for 14 years only adds to the City’s shame and complicity in her death.

Anything other than immediate action in Nizah’s case is just sheltering the people and bureaucracies who may have been involved. And it sure isn’t reassuring to the trans community — especially trans woman of color — that the City has their back. And isn’t it just the right thing to do? And Nizah’s death is only the most prominent transphobic hate incident that we know about. But trans women of color are still getting murdered. Regularly. Because people hate them. Yet neither the City nor LGBT Affairs have reacted to the community’s concerns about the Police Department’s standards for reporting trans and LGB hate crimes. Instead we get irresponsibly spread messages through Facebook about a trans predator. Trans women of color are being murdered regularly, the new cultural war on us is only encouraging more violence, and instead of “Getting in it” — like the Mayor said we should do — the City runs away from it and gives us vague Facebook warnings and the Police Department’s inability to ever determine a trans woman’s murder is a hate crime. The City should encourage the Police Department to reconsider its practices for trans and LGB hate crimes, especially those in the of color community. The City should implement a clear policy for the release of public information about threats to trans people.

This week, PCHR released their Gayborhood racism report. As one who publicly testified at the hearing, what are your thoughts on the recommendations and findings?
Don’t trans people of color have enough issues? This report by an investigative body has absolutely damning findings about the current system, institutional racism everywhere, from leading nonprofits to the bars in the Gayborhood. Why is the City funding or supporting any of these organizations? We hear …silence while the City continues to fund and support those specific groups who have been found to hurt us. This can’t be. This shouldn’t be. The City should implement a clear policy for immediately addressing correction of, and timetables for, the nonprofit violations noted in the report, including conditions for further receipt of City funds and any further City support.

Overall, what do you think the city’s LGBTQ community should be doing differently to protect ourselves during a Trump presidency?
We need the City and community to “get in it,” like the Mayor said at the PCHR press conference. But he needs to get the City and the Office of LGBT Affairs “to get in it” as well. Please “get in it.” Our community, the trans and LGB community, was worse off, even under the Obama administration, than everyone else. And now, with the new Trump administration, we have to cope with a federal government determined to make us the bleeding edge in this cultural war. Fucking literally — since trans and LGB people symbolize everything that isn’t “Making America Great.” I’d like to at least be safe in my home city, the City of Freedom; of Love for all its People. Because none of us, you, me, my clients, anyone, chose who we are. We have to do as well as we can with it, with us, and each other. The City and the Community should do almost everything differently. Start with thinking about blowing the current system up. Because it isn’t working for the most challenged of our communities; the ones the best societies put first. Listen to the new voices. Find new ways. But first and foremost, like the Mayor said, “get in it.”