Name: Shelly Skeen
Title: Senior Attorney
Location: South Central Regional Office (Dallas, TX)
For years, the nation’s best and brightest legal minds have put their skills and passion to work for carrying forth Lambda Legal’s mission to advance the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people and everyone living with HIV. In this series, you’ll get to know the people at the heart of what we do.
In this edition of “Meet Our Lawyers,” we will be highlighting Shelly Skeen. Since joining Lambda Legal in 2019, Shelly has worked on numerous groundbreaking cases and advocacy efforts, including being on the ground in Texas to fight against dozens of anti-LGBTQ+ bills. Texas’ recent attacks on trans children and their families led a team of Lambda Legal attorneys, of which Shelly is a part, to file a lawsuit in March, Doe v. Abbott, to block the state from investigating parents who work with doctors to get their children medically necessary care. In addition, she played a vital role in our 2022 lawsuit Fowler et al. v. Stitt et al., which challenges Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order prohibiting transgender people born in Oklahoma from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates to match their gender identity. Read on to learn more about Shelly and the critical work she’s doing for our communities.
What brought you to work at Lambda Legal?
After practicing law as a litigator, mediator, and arbitrator for twenty years, I wanted to return to the reason I went to law school in the first place: To serve people who did not have a voice, who were not seen, valued, or heard simply because of who they are. I also wanted to serve the community that I’m part of, which still faces so many continuing and unnecessary systemic barriers to accessing basic needs that we are all entitled to, such as housing, healthcare, employment, education, and goods and services.
When I first decided to transition for private practice, I applied to UCLA School of Law, which had a Master of Laws (LL.M.) program in Law and Sexuality, or “LGBTQ” law. To my surprise, I was accepted and earned an LL.M. with specializations in Constitutional Law and LGBTQ+ law. After graduation, I came back to Texas, and one of my law school professors told me that Lambda Legal, my dream job, was hiring. Of all of the LGBTQ+ legal organizations, Lambda Legal has always set the standard for innovative, thoughtful, and exceptional legal work across the spectrum of issues that LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV face every day. I’m grateful to be here and really never thought I would have the opportunity to work with such kind, smart and creative colleagues, let alone on such important, life-saving, and transformative issues at this critical tipping point in our quest for full, lived equality.
Looking at your most recent legal work in Texas to stop the transgender medical ban and Oklahoma from allowing transgender people to correct their birth certificates, what do you believe people need to know about protecting the trans community?
Trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people are not new—they have always been a part of every society. And just like each of us, trans people, trans kids, and families raising trans kids need to be valued, respected, and recognized for exactly who they are. Trans people and genderqueer people, especially those who are also BIPOC, are the most ostracized and marginalized people in our society. They are discriminated against at nearly every turn, resulting in real human costs in terms of lives cut too short. No one should be denied access to opportunities, equity, or equality for who they are—no person—full stop. The constant targeting of trans people and those viewed as “different than us” is wrong, based on fear, and hurts us all.
What has been your proudest moment working at Lambda Legal?
First, I am proud of the bi-monthly work we do to assist trans people in obtaining identity documents to match who they are. I’m also proud of working with our coalition partners to stop all but one of over 75+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed in the Texas legislature last year. Not to mention working with my Lambda Legal colleagues, the ACLU, and Baker Botts to stop Governor Abbott’s unnecessary and unwarranted governmental overreach into the lives of families with trans youth and the healthcare professionals and other people that come into contact with them. It has been in doing this work that I’ve seen the intersections of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disability status more clearly and been able to fight for them with other organizations.
How have you seen the rights for LGBTQ+ folks advance in your lifetime? What has impacted you the most?
I was in law school for the first time in the 90s when it was not ok to be out. Back then, being gay was a crime, there were no protections in the workplace for LGBTQ+ people, and the idea of getting married in my lifetime was unfathomable. Now, I’m able to be out, married to someone I love, and secure in knowing that I would have a claim if I were fired for being LGBTQ+. I also live in a time where our government has said, “We see you, you have fundamental rights to define and express your identity, and you are entitled to the equal protection of the laws.” That has indelibly changed my life.
That said, I’m very privileged. For so many people in our community, changing a law to prohibit discrimination does not change how people act or treat each other. We have a long way to go before we truly understand, value, honor, and respect our fellow human beings. I just hope that the work we do, the impact Lambda Legal has, and the change our movement makes, makes it a little easier for LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV to demand and receive equity, inclusion, and equality from our institutions, government and society as a whole.
What’s something fun or interesting you would like to share about yourself? Describe your version of a perfect Sunday.
My perfect Sunday would start by getting up early and having a very, verylarge cup of coffee! After that, meditate, ride my bike around the lake, read, and then have a glass of wine with my wife on our balcony while watching the sunset, all while being grateful for all that I get to do each day to hopefully make this world a better place for those who live in it.
Listen to Shelly talk about our work on behalf of people living with HIV in Lambda Legal’s Making the Case podcast!