In two short years, student-attorney Nathaniel Goodman-Johnson (UDC 3L, LSIC ’16) has found his niche in public interest law, with a focus on LGBT rights. This summer, he’s putting his knowledge to work as an Equal Justice America Legal Fellow at LSIC. How did he get to such a good place?
It started with a love of words and a passion for the art of the argument. Nathaniel was always fascinated with the power of words—down to the finer points of grammar. The idea of using words to influence an opinion or further the advantage of someone in need inspired him to apply to law school and pursue a career in public service.
A native Washingtonian, he set his sights on University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, known for its focus on clinical training, hands-on work experience, and affordability.
Soon after arriving on campus, Nathaniel joined the UDC chapter of OUTLaw, a national organization that promotes spirit and unity among LGBTQ law students and their allies. The group attended the Creating Change conference, the nation’s largest gathering of LGBTQ activists. Then in the fall of 2015, Nathaniel and fellow students took action. The newly refurbished law school building was completed just before the District passed a law mandating that all single-stall bathrooms must be gender-neutral. Although the law did not directly affect the school’s responsibility, OUTLaw pressured UDC officials to make minimal accommodations. It was a long process, with many logistical concerns, but the law school’s reputation as a progressive institution prevailed, and students can expect to see a new gender-neutral bathroom in the fall.
As a gay man, Nathaniel shares that he was never victimized nor felt alone because of his sexuality. For that, he considers himself fortunate.
“When I came to law school, I realized that it is people like me—who grew up with privilege and without adversity—who truly need to try to make change. The gender-neutral bathroom victory gave me confidence that positive change is within reach.”
Things started to click last semester when Nathaniel participated in LSIC’s Criminal Division clinic. During this time, LSIC was expanding its community outreach and services with the launch of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and a pilot program with the UDC School of Social Work. Nathaniel volunteered to help organize an LSIC pro bono training, featuring an expert panel of legal advocates from TransLaw, Whitman Walker Health, and Children’s Law Center.
“The exposure was amazing. Here I was working on issues I care about dearly. I didn’t want the semester to end.”
With the summer approaching, Nathaniel cast around for paid internships and found Equal Justice America (EJA), a nonprofit that sponsors students to work with organizations that deliver civil legal aid services to the poor. This year EJA offered fellowships of up to $4,200 to students from 80 participating law schools. Nathaniel was one of five UDC law students selected from among hundreds of applicants to receive the prestigious award.
The funding has enabled Nathaniel to continue his client work and begin a new project in the community. He is visiting safe spaces in the city to hear from LGBTQ and other youth at risk and educate them about their legal rights.
The youth are talking about their interactions with the police, bullying in school, and working with their attorneys. Some of the conversations are heartbreaking, others more hopeful, all with unique perspectives. In the end, though, Nathaniel does not see a whole lot of difference between straight and LGBTQ kids.
“What’s important is to treat LGBTQ kids as human beings and not put them in a box. There may be a particular set of issues that is more prevalent among the LGBTQ community, but all clients are people first.”
Nathaniel will bring this message to his work at UDC’s Juvenile and Special Education clinic in the fall. Serving as secretary of OUTLaw, he hopes to collaborate with staff at LSIC as they develop their LGBT community outreach activities. (Listen in to a podcast with Nathaniel.)