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I Dress ‘Straight’ to Protect My Clients

As a queer female lawyer, I have to perform gendered professionalism all day, every day.

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Last month, after talking about it for over three years, my wife cut her hair. When we walked out of the salon after the appointment, Amanda’s normally waist-length curly hair was transformed into a clipped undercut.

“Do you love it?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, running her hand over the short sides. “I’m just worried about my clients.”

Amanda and I are both lawyers in a small Southwest city. She is a public defender and spends every day advocating for low-income men and women in criminal court. Likewise, I spend my days as a civil rights attorney, working with low-income immigrants both in and out of court. We are our clients’ best defense, their advocates, and their guides through the legal system. And usually, a client’s greatest chance at success rests on our ability to not only know the law, but also to understand and navigate the extensive professional and social norms of the court system. As queer women, this means that putting on our “lawyer drag” can also mean taking care to hide any queer identifiers that might negatively affect our work.

For most of history, courtroom attire was a man’s game. In the 1800s, attorneys (almost all men at the time) wore black robes and powdered wigs. Eventually, male lawyers dropped the robes in favor of full suits. As women entered the profession, no one seemed to be able to decide what they should wear. Eventually, the status quo became a skirt suit in black with a white blouse. It wasn’t until the 1980s that women dared even to wear pantsuits in court.

The standards today have relaxed, but not by much. This isn’t surprising when you consider that even though more women of all races are enrolling in and graduating from law school, the American Bar Association estimates that women currently make up only 36 percent of lawyers. On top of that, in 2015, only 21 percent of attorneys appearing in court as the trial attorney in a criminal case were women. And the increased number of women lawyers hasn’t solved the disparity in courtroom dress: Women attorneys today are routinely criticized for refusing to wear skirts instead of pants, not wearing enough makeup, having bad haircuts, and generally having the audacity to assume that preparation, skill, and legal arguments would matter more than if we wear flats instead of heels.

As a lawyer, you try to make yourself invisible or hyper-visible as the situation warrants. When your witness is on the stand, you want to fade into the background so all eyes are on her, taking in her testimony. When you jump up to object, you want to fill the space and command the judge’s attention to your argument. Queerness, too, is an art of transformational visibility. As I grew into my queer identity, I adopted mannerisms and signifiers that felt more true to myself, many that are associated with the queer community. But in court, all the parts of ourselves that signal this difference must be tamed. My penchant for asymmetrical haircuts doused, Amanda’s hatred of anything but pants calmed.

The National Association for Law Placement estimates that only 2.4 percent of lawyers openly identify as LGBTQ — and most of those attorneys are concentrated in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. That leaves little room for us, the queer women lawyers practicing in small towns and cities across the country. In law school, we practiced stuffing ourselves into suits and heels as much as we practiced making coherent oral arguments. Our feedback from professors included not only notes on the viability of our claims and defenses, but also comments on our tone of voice, professionalism, and outfits. Our nervous mannerisms were critiqued, our posture analyzed.

The 60 percent of my law-school classmates who identified as women were told that many male judges still prefer that women wear skirts instead of pants in the courtroom. Among the other (largely unwritten) rules that women must follow in the courtroom: no distracting patterns; wear heels, but not heels with peep-toes; no hoop earrings; and definitely no dark nail polish. What we learned as students through mock trials and presentations and clinics was this: Law is still a straight white man’s world. Everyone else might never be given the same respect afforded to male attorneys, and the best shot we queer women have at success right now is to create ourselves in the image of straight men’s idealized vision of how women ought to behave and look. Failing to do so not only ends up reflecting unfairly on our abilities, but also impacts the incredibly high-stakes judicial proceedings in which our clients are caught up.

For Amanda, that means that short hair is a big risk in a city where her jurors are not likely to be receptive to perceived queerness. For me, it means that I habitually move my wedding ring to my right hand to avoid awkward conversations with clients about my “husband.” Amanda maintains a bifurcated wardrobe: Half her closet is filled with clothes she feels comfortable and confident in, half is clothes she hates but wears to court anyway. On regular court days, she gets away with men’s pants and button-ups with a women’s blazer and flats. On days when she is in front of a jury, she swaps in women’s slacks and a blouse. I amassed a makeup collection and tentatively bought a few pairs of low heels. I also let my side-shave grow out into a shoulder-length bob with just a hint of asymmetry. When we are out together in our court clothes, our gay vibe is so thoroughly masked that people assume we are colleagues having a working dinner.

This performance of gendered professionalism, and our participation in it, reinforces the confines of the gender binary and limits the space for our trans and gender-nonconforming colleagues. Choosing to excise our queerness from the courtroom reinforces the idea that everyone should be able to at least appear straight and cisgender in court, and that is an expectation that many people cannot — or will not — meet. Participating in made-up rules about hair and makeup also reinforces the systemic racism that consistently undervalues lawyers of color.

Here is the other consideration, though: Short hair makes Amanda feel good about herself, and that confidence makes her a better lawyer. Dressing like someone you are not takes an emotional toll, and her short hair is an antidote to that fatigue, a piece of herself that is undeniably a little different and a little more true. Despite this, on the day of her first jury trial post-haircut, she asks me to help her with her makeup.

“Just trying to look a little more feminine,” she says. “But no mascara.”

For now, until there is room for all of us at the table, we just try to blend in enough that judges and jurors don’t notice how we look at all.


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View all stories in Essays