The first thing I noticed at my first post-law school job was the holographic Virgin Mary in the hallway. As I walked by, the glowing aura around her outstretched arms wavered, blending into a rainbow of psychedelic colors. In my office, a benevolent white Jesus stared down at me from a bulletin board until I pulled the tacks out of the corners and hid him at the bottom of my filing cabinet. The second red flag was the staff meeting that started with a hymn.
You can probably see where this is going, but even surrounded by singing middle-aged ladies, I didn’t. I was too inflated on the dumb luck of landing my dream job out of law school to worry about the fact that the non-profit where I was working wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated. But then, the California-raised optimist in me hadn’t predicted that my sexuality would impact my job, even in a more conservative, Southern state.
There was a reason that I’d never wanted to be an LGBTQ civil rights lawyer. As radical as I thought my politics were, I had no interest in channeling my personal experiences into litigation strategies. But when you’re queer in law school, straight people assume that you went to fight for yourself. And I think that can be true. I did want to be a lawyer because I thought that a bar card would be unimpeachable proof that people had to listen to me. I thought that it would cure my anxiety. I thought that you had to be brave to be a lawyer, and I thought that law school would teach me that elusive skill. But I wanted to be a lawyer most of all because I fell in love with the very specific and tedious practice of immigration law.
There is a lot to hate about immigration law: the law itself is callous and racist and completely nonsensical, but to practice the law means to take it and bend it and make it fit a million unique client circumstances. Immigration law can change a life; it can be revolutionary. And I loved that unlike most areas of law, immigration answers are mostly contained in a fat statute book, and that I could take pieces of this massive text and string them together to fix a problem. Each immigration hypothetical seemed like a massive Sudoku puzzle, where I could find the final answer only by starting: filling in each box as I dug deeper and deeper into the case.
And the most of all I liked solving a problem for the client. Immigration status means infinite possibility. Every person I worked with was a future that I got to be a part of, and that felt like the best kind of magic.
But the job terrified me. I am not naturally predisposed to the assertive nature of legal work, and despite three years of law school, I wasn’t prepared for how drained I felt after a day of advocacy. By the time I left work at night, I was too tired to consider what it meant that each morning I moved my engagement ring from my left hand to my right or tucked it into my purse to avoid questions.
I came home and kissed my partner and took our dog on long trips to the dog park once it was dark and the hot pavement cooled. I left my phone at home because having it in my pocket reminded me of work and I couldn’t think about work without my eye twitching. Mostly, I was too tired from the work to think about where I was working. I believed most of my discomfort was due to the fact that I was a new attorney, out of my element and learning the ropes.
It had been a long time since I was in the closet and I forgot the broken, subdivided way it had slowly bankrupted my sense of self. I laughed, that first week at work, when I received a staff handbook and noticed the clause in the fireable offenses section making it clear that I could be fired for marrying my fiance, if not for merely being gay. In the calculus of vulnerability, though, it was more important for me to go back into the closet and help my clients. Knowing that I could be fired for being gay felt like a risk I had to take to do the work that I loved.
In the calculus of vulnerability, it was more important for me to go back into the closet and help my clients. Knowing that I could be fired for being gay felt like a risk I had to take to do the work that I loved.
It didn’t occur to me that this wasn’t a choice I should have to make to keep my job.
And then two things changed the calculus: Trump got elected and I found myself sitting in a co-worker’s office, complaining. This co-worker was one of only two who knew I was gay, and she was willing to pause her work to commiserate with my complaints.
“You know,” she said, looking up from her computer. “The Board of Directors won’t let us serve gay clients.”
“What?”I asked, dumbfounded. The policies in the employee manual weren’t kind to gay staff, but I’d seen nothing in our service restrictions about sexual orientation.
“It is an official unwritten policy,” My co-worker explained. Any clients whose immigration cases were connected to gay marriage were turned away. That meant that a gay couple who wanted to adjust one person’s immigration status based on marriage to a U.S. Citizen would not be helped.
My feverish rage, already at a boiling point since the election, finally broke. Turning away gay clients from one of the only free immigration service providers in the area meant that there were people who were living in fear of deportation, sometimes in fear for their lives, merely because they were, like me, gay. It also meant that my misery wasn’t just about me anymore.
I looked for advice outside of work. Straight friends usually told me that I should quit and non-lawyer friends told me that I should sue, but that is not how the law works. It was only other queer people who asked me what I was going to do. Straight friends, blinded by their support, mostly saw only one side of the equation: that I was being wronged at work. Their solutions then were calculated to fix the latent discrimination. But queer friends saw the heavier, more complex question I struggled with: what right did I have to leave a shitty job when staying meant serving people objectively more vulnerable than me?
I didn’t expect the resentment I felt towards my co-workers, but it came hot and fast until I worked almost exclusively behind a closed door to avoid as much interaction as possible. I hated thinking about how generally kind to me they were, and how they would change if they knew I was gay. And it hurt me more than I want to admit that I knew that they saw queerness as a perversion. And I thought about the men and women who were turned away from services because they were queer.
Eventually, I walked into the director’s office and asked her about the employee manual and the unwritten policy about not serving queer clients. She tried to assure me that they would never use that policy to fire me, but eventually admitted that yes, my impending marriage to my fiance would likely fall within the clause contemplated by our staff handbook. When I asked about serving LGBTQ clients, the answer was that the policy came from the Board and was out of her hands.
“It shouldn’t affect your work,” she tried to reassure me, meaning that most of my clients were not pursuing immigration benefits based on marriage, so it was unlikely that I would have to personally turn someone away based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The day I quit, I pretended I was going into a hearing. I wiped my hands on my pants and walked into the director’s office and sat up tall in my chair. I prepared for anger. And then, I pretended that I was sticking up for a client instead of myself, and I explained why I had to leave, how much it pained me to go, and when she asked if there was something she could do to change my mind, I said no. I couldn’t imagine anything that could fix the chasm of secrecy and self-doubt going back into the closet had caused. And I knew that nothing could fix the cruelty of turning away queer immigrants from services.
I took a job in civil rights, but I keep up with immigration law like an old friend. I want to know what it’s up to. I want to go back. Especially now, when it is more important than ever. I find myself daydreaming about my old job, wishing that I could have just stayed quiet and continued the work, but the truth is that I am always my whole self, even when I would rather not be. I thought that I could excise my queerness from my legal practice, and I know now that is not possible. I remind myself that I shouldn’t have had to choose, but the fact is that eventually, I did. I chose to leave. And I am unsure yet if I’ll forgive myself.