3L Wins Prestigious Writing Competition

USC Gould School of Law • September 21, 2010
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Tina Sohaili places first in writing competition sponsored by the National LGBT Bar Association

--By Steffi Lau

It’s not often that a paper for class translates into $1,000.

But for Tina Sohaili ’11, this was exactly the case. A class paper on transgender issues submitted to the National LGBT Bar Association’s writing competition earned her one grand, publication in the Journal of Law and Sexuality at Tulane University Law School and registration, airfare and lodging at the 2010 Lavender Law Career Fair and Conference in Miami Beach.

At the annual event, held the last weekend of August and renowned for attracting the sharpest attorneys, scholars and students from the LGBT legal community, Sohaili was honored for her first place win with her paper titled “Securing Safe Schools: Using Title IX Liability to Address Peer Harassment of Transgender Students.”

Her achievement came unexpectedly to her.

“I was very surprised, I wasn’t expecting to win,” Sohaili laughed. “I had kind of forgotten about it and assumed I didn’t win, but it felt really great because it was a topic I felt deeply about. It was nice to be recognized for something I felt so passionately about."

Tina Sohaili and Prof. David Cruz
Tina Sohailia and Prof. David Cruz

The paper, chosen from more than 50 submissions to the Michael Greenberg Student Writing Competition, was written last spring when Sohaili took Professor David Cruz’s “Law and Sex/Gender Identity and Expression” class. To be eligible, submissions had to be on a cutting-edge legal issue affecting the LGBT community.

Sohaili has long been passionate about LGBT issues, inspired by her experiences with friends who have been discriminated against for not being straight.

“I’ve known friends who’ve been discriminated against in the job market because they’re openly gay, who have faced day-to-day name-calling and been treated in a way that is not equal and not just,” said Santa Monica native Sohaili, who received her B.A. from Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Her firsthand experiences with LGBT people who endure discrimination have instilled her with a desire to push for change in society.

“LGBT individuals in society today aren’t treated with the same dignity as other groups,” she said. “Knowing a lot of LGBT individuals who face a lot of day-to-day discrimination and who have to fight a lot of prejudice makes me feel like there’s a lot to be changed and that I could help bring about that change.”

Sohaili has been heavily involved with LGBT social justice work. As an articles editor of the Review of Law and Social Justice last year, she helped plan an event bringing people together to discuss Proposition 8 as well as put together an entire issue dedicated to Proposition 8. She also was active in OUTLaw, USC’s student-run LGBT law organization, and on her own, participated in protests against Proposition 8.

Her activism led her to take Prof. Cruz’s class, where she was inspired to write her paper. Cruz informed the class about the writing competition, provided helpful feedback to Sohaili and encouraged her to submit her paper.

“Tina is one of the most engaged students I’ve taught in my years at USC. She helped make my teaching a seminar on transgender legal issues for the first time a genuine pleasure, and I'm thrilled that she was able to develop her research paper for that course into a national prize-winning paper,” Cruz said.

Sohaili receives her award
Sohaili receives her award

Sohaili’s paper addresses how the federal law Title IX that mandates schools take action to remedy sex discrimination could be used to hold schools accountable for the bullying of transgender students. Holding schools liable would mean transgender students could sue schools under Title IX if the schools are indifferent to bullying.

The issue is especially important considering that nine out of 10 LGBT students face harassment from their peers and even school personnel, Sohaili explained. Within that number, transgender students face the highest rates of harassment. Several recent cases of bullying on the basis of perceived gender identity and sexual orientation have even resulted in deaths.

Sohaili has long been interested in issues of schools, believing that in order to solve the discrimination in society that change must begin from the ground up.

“That’s where most of the change can take place,” she said. “If you have appropriate ways of educating kids about what it means to be gay or transgender that really does change how they view those individuals when they grow up. It helps them understand that everyone should be treated with dignity. We can really make change happen if we can just change how students think.”

Sohaili, who will graduate in December, is currently a visiting student at Northwestern University. Though she misses the USC faculty, she is enjoying the chance to do public interest work through the clinical opportunities offered. She is currently doing an externship with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Sohaili hopes to one day work for a public interest organization and do research or impact litigation on LGBT issues. Though many are often discouraged from entering the field because it takes so long to see results, Sohaili is optimistic.

“It does make it hard because your plaintiff is clearly going to be suffering until you get results,” she said. “But it is also rewarding because you really get to be a part of that individual’s story, and the longer that story goes on, when you get results, it makes it more rewarding.”

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