By KJ Philp, November 2015 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2015 here.
When asked who some of her role models were, Claudia Work didn’t flinch.
She was quick to acknowledge “such great minds” as Shannon Mintner, Kate Kendall, Jennifer Pizer, Elizabeth Gill and “so many other attorneys and activists … who have been there from the beginning when the struggle was not ‘I want the right to marry,’ but simply ‘I want the right to identify as LGBT and not be arrested or harassed.’”
And yet, Work’s expertise in LGBT family law has shaped the local landscape.
“I almost feel that I came in after all of the really hard battles were fought,” she said. “My inspirations are those LGBT crusaders who fought the early battles that, as ‘wins’ gained momentum, caused the avalanche of local court decisions that eventually gave us marriage equality and will give us full equality down the line.”
For the past eight years, Work has been an attorney with Campbell Law Group here in Phoenix. This firm is very supportive of the LGBT community and has repeatedly earned top scores on the Greater Phoenix Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Equality Index.
“With the LGBT community, there is a great need for lawyers who understand the types of families we often create, and how they often don’t fit into the traditional mold, especially when we talk about raising children,” she said. “A lot of family lawyers advertise to the LGBT community, but don’t understand the laws affecting us or don’t care about how the positions they argue damage the LGBT community as a whole.”
One such example was Work’s involvement in Arizona’s high-profile Beatie vs. Beatie divorce case. Thomas Beatie, who lived as a man for 15 years before marrying his wife in Hawaii in 2003, was initially denied a divorce in the state of Arizona after a judge ruled that he was still legally female (despite sex reassignment surgery, hormone replacement therapy hormone treatment, and having properly changed the gender marker on his birth certificate). Find out more Beatie vs. Beatie in Echo‘s Aug. 28, 2014, installment of “Money Talks.”
“My involvement in that case was made possible by the Transgender Law Center, so they really get the credit for helping to convince the Appeals Court that the trial judge was just plain wrong when he decided to reopen the State of Hawaii’s determination of Mr. Beatie’s gender,” Work said. “Because marriage equality made it so that the question of gender will never again be relevant in a divorce, the real lasting importance of that case was to make it clear that, as long as a transgender person follows the law in their jurisdiction to change their gender marker on their birth certificate, another court with different rules cannot reopen the issue.”
From a legal standpoint, a great deal of Work’s clients needs have changed since marriage equality became the law of the land.
“Helping people secure their relationships on a state and federal level has become easier with marriage equality, and getting out of them has become easier from a legal standpoint with divorces now available,” she said. “But the one huge benefit that I have personally enjoyed is the ability to have my (then) fiancée, Christelle, emigrate from France to marry and live here legally!”
Web-Exclusive Q&A with Claudia Work
Echo: You’re a 1992 graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law; where are you originally from?
Work: I moved around a lot during my childhood, but I’m mostly a product of the Southwest deserts. I was born in Imperial Valley, Calif., and spent a portion of every year there until I was 16, and spent the better part of 25 years living off and on in Albuquerque, N.M. starting in third grade. As a result of moving around, I also went to elementary school for several years in New York City, and went to three high schools in Tempe and Glendale.
Echo: Was there a defining moment when you knew Phoenix was YOUR home/community?
Work: It’s funny, I lived here for a couple of years in high school and was beyond miserable. When I went back to Albuquerque, I thought I’d never voluntarily choose to come back! I moved here voluntarily 18 years ago still intending it to be a way station until I retired to somewhere I really wanted to live. Then, suddenly, it became the one place I’ve lived for the longest continuous period of my life. It is the only place I have actually purchased a home in, and now I’ve brought my wife to live here and learn about American life. So, I guess there was no defining moment. Like a true desert plant, I think I just stopped moving long enough that true roots started establishing themselves and I am now tied to the land and the community.
Echo: Tell us a little bit about how your work with Campbell Law Group relates to the LGBT community?
Work: I’ve been with Campbell for eight years, having left a large firm that later became a very large firm. Brian Campbell is a self-described “big, bald, straight Republican” who is one of our staunchest allies.
I handle a pretty even mix of “traditional” family law cases and cases involving members of the LGBT community. The freedom I have at Campbell allows me to work on cases that would be deemed too “small,” meaning not money-making enough, for other firms, and to work to find solutions to our family law issues. I have been able to find ways to make some people legal parents when others thought it was impossible, and always try to push for the solution that preserves the children’s rights to access to who they see as parents, while protecting them from harmful people if necessary.
Echo: The LGBT community has changed a great deal since your law career began; in what ways has that changed your work?
Work: The LGBT community has definitely become more “mainstream,” for lack of a better word. When I started practicing, Ellen wasn’t even out! So, I have seen a welcome evolution where clients are less and less afraid to assert their rights in court because of fear of being “outed” or of losing children due to being gay or trans.
I have also seen a change in the expectations of clients that comes with higher visibility. Even a few years ago I would meet with clients who just assumed that they had no rights because they were not the legal parent, or not on the house or bank accounts, and I would spend my time explaining that, in most cases, all was not lost and that there were some basic laws that at least gave them some help. Now, I see more and more clients (and lawyers!) who just assume that they have rights to things like palimony from their partner they never married, joint custody of children not born during a marriage, or the right to declare multiple parents for their child, and I have to explain that the law in Arizona has not progressed that far and is not likely to progress that far any time soon.
The newest wave of clients I am seeing are the young activists who are angry that they cannot be jointly recognized as parents because they are not married and are angry that they should have to get married, so they want to take on the system to take marriage out of the equation. While an admirable and correct goal, every fight has to be waged under the right conditions. A fact that many of our younger community members don’t really understand.
Echo: To what do you attribute these changes?
I think it attributable to how fast the floodgates to marriage equality seemed to open, even though the struggle has been decades, if not longer, in the making. As well as reporting on non-discrimination laws being adopted throughout the U.S. and the shifting of the dialogue now to our trans brothers and sisters. For the younger generations, it almost seems as if the rights we have recently obtained have been relatively easy, so they expect that all barriers should fall just as easily. They do not understand how federal and local politics and the old power structure plays into changing the rest of the laws that disproportionately discriminate against the LGBT community.
Echo: From a legal standpoint, what changes have you seen since marriage equality and second-parent adoptions have come to the forefront in Arizona?
Work: I’m glad that you used the term “second-parent” adoption so I can clear up confusion for our community. Marriage equality brought our community the right to “step-parent” adopt our spouse’s legal child or jointly adopt a child as a married couple, but not the right to second-parent adoption, which is the ability to adopt the child of a person we are not married to and have that person remain a parent too.
I believe that I was the first attorney to process a same-sex step-parent adoption in the State of Arizona as I filed within a week of the ruling and my client became the second legal mother of her daughter on Dec. 17. Since then, I’ve helped dozens of LGBT married couples obtain adoption orders to protect their children who were born before the marriage, and even those born during the marriage so that a non-biological parent who was put on the birth certificate because she was married to the biological mother cannot later be kicked off of a birth certificate.
Echo: Are you seeing an increase in awareness (or cases) that relate to workplace protections and transgender rights?
Work: An unfortunate immediate backlash from marriage equality has been an increase in cases that relate to workplace protections and transgender rights. Because sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are not yet protected classes federally, states are generally free to decide whether LGBT citizens are protected from discrimination. Many, like Arizona, have not enacted any protections. As a result, we are seeing people exercise their legal right to marry, notify their employer of the marriage in order, for instance, to obtain the medical benefits for their spouse to which they are legally entitled, and then be fired for being gay because their marriage “outed” them to the company. The backlash against our transgender brothers and sisters is even worse as their visibility is on the rise and the LGB community, having already made some impressive civil rights gains, often does not understand why we should care about the “T.”
Echo: Are there any other landmark cases you’ve been a part of that you can share with us?
Work: Not really. Although I am generally kept in the loop for any Arizona lawsuits planned that will affect LGBT families. I, myself, generally like to work on a family-by-family basis to educate judges about how our generally poor Arizona laws still allow them to enter orders that help our families. Because of the unique makeup of this state’s lawmakers, there are very few issues that affect the Arizona LGBT community that I would feel it was “safe” to appeal up without risking a very bad decision that would tie the hands of the entire legal community representing LGBT clients.
Echo: You serve on the National Family Law Advisory Council for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. What can you tell us about your work on the council?
Work: The Council works as a sort of “think tank” where we can work with each other to find solutions to legal problems that impact LGBT families in our individual states. Every state has different laws defining family relationships that often impact our families negatively because they are based on a heterosexual model. It is helpful to have access to an intelligent and creative group of lawyers and law professors who may have already fought a battle in their state that is just coming up here … Our hope is that our group will one day not be necessary as the laws and arguments about who is a parent, or what a family should look like change to reflect the realities of modern life.
Echo: When you’re not wearing your “law hat,” where can you be found in the community?
Work: I took a sabbatical from one n ten last year, due to the time required to care for my mother in what ended up being her last illness. I have continued to support the organization financially though, and hope to get back to helping in some other way as soon as life settles down.
In the meantime, I do volunteer legal work for various organizations, and teach a number of legal education seminars on LGBT issues for the legal community including the National LGBT Bar Association at their annual Lavender Law conference. Pretty much all of my community work is law based as there is so much need for legal information, particularly in the LGBT community.
Echo: What are some causes you’re passionate about (law related or otherwise)?
Work: Pretty much anything related to improving children’s situations, whether it be protecting their right to their given family or trying to steer their parents towards acting in their best interests.
Echo: What would you consider your greatest feat?
Work: Does finding out more than 20 years after college that I still spoke French count?
Echo: Do you consider yourself a role model? Why/why not?
Work: I know that some people do look up to me as a role model, but I feel that there are so many more people devoting much more of their lives to improving the LGBT community as a whole, that I don’t see myself as one. However, I do generally try to provide a good example of how to behave as a human being as much as possible, which I would hope most people strive to do.
Echo: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Work: You did not marry/sleep with him/her. You are there to help make a bad situation better, but you cannot “fix” your client’s life.
Echo: What’s the best advice you could pass on to others?
Work: Honor your chosen family and the family you brought your children into, even if you can’t stand your child’s other parent anymore. How you deal with those relationships will not only form the basis for your reputation in the community, but could negatively affect your children for the rest of their lives.
Echo: If you could summarize your efforts and experiences in 2015, what would you say?
Work: 2015 has been a year of regrouping. From a professional standpoint, the second half of last year was a game-changer with marriage equality and step-parent adoptions opening up, so my practice has shifted a bit since some of the more difficult aspects of representing LGBT clients have gone away. Now, a lot of my time is focused on strategizing how to bring Arizona into the 21st century to further protect LGBT families and our children.
Echo: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Work: I so wish I could say retired! But, I expect to be right here working for our community.