Feminist Law Prof Profile: Anthony E. Varona

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Anthony E. Varona is an Associate Professor at American University Washington College of Law.   Professor Varona recently answered these questions for Feminist Law Professors.

· What is your educational and professional background?

 A.B. in political science and romance languages (French), Boston College; J.D., Boston College Law School; LL.M., Georgetown University Law Center.

I served in the attorney honors program at the Federal Communications Commission immediately after graduating from law school, and after a little over two years went on to private communications law practice at Mintz Levin and Skadden Arps.   I did significant pro bono legislative and corporate counsel work for the Human Rights Campaign (the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization) while I was at the firms, and in 1997 joined HRC as its first general counsel and legal director.   While at HRC, I taught sexuality law at Georgetown University Law Center as an adjunct professor and in 2001 served as a Wasserstein Fellow at Harvard Law School.   In 2002, I entered legal academe full-time by joining the faculty at Pace Law School, where I taught administrative, media, sexuality and criminal law.

· What courses do you teach?

Contracts, public law (a new first-year elective introducing students to legislation and basic administrative law), administrative law and media law.   I may teach sexuality law again in the next few years.   I also serve as the director of our S.J.D. Program.

· How does feminism influence your teaching/scholarship/service?

Feminist thinking has had a significant influence on my practice, teaching and scholarship.   Issues of gender equality and diversity and the empowerment of sexual and gender minorities were at the core of my day-to-day work as HRC’s general counsel and legal director.   It goes without saying that those issues are fundamental to my Sexuality & Gender Law course, but it might not be so obvious that feminism also plays an important role in my approach to my other courses.   For example, contract law is replete with examples of how the common law was and continues to be used to reinforce the oppression of women.   But it also offers women and sexual minorities important tools for combating inequality by means of”private legislation”that can correct some – although far from all – of the failures of public law.        

· When did you first make a connection between feminism and the law?

I guess that would be when I was in law school.   I was a clinic nerd at BC Law.   I worked at BC Law’s poverty clinic (the Legal Assistance Bureau, or LAB) one semester for academic credit, and stayed for a summer and three additional semesters as a work-study”student practitioner.”   I was the only Spanish-speaking student lawyer, so had the good fortune of serving many Latino/a clients in need.   Many of these clients were women in crisis, as a result of poverty, illness, workplace or housing discrimination, domestic violence, or other problems. It was in working with these women that I realized how the law often was not adequate to solve these and other clients’ problems and often just exacerbated the crises.   It was also in the clinic that I came to appreciate the positive impacts that feminist thinking has had on the law and lawyering, particularly in expanding the alternatives to adversarial conflict resolution, in areas such as mediation, conciliation, and the successful melding of lawyering with allied disciplines, like social work, in poverty law, elder law, and other practices.  

· What is the”feminist climate”at your school?   Does your self-identification as a feminist impact the way you are perceived by students, colleagues or university administrators?

I could not be happier at American.   American University’s law school, the Washington College of Law, was chartered in 1898 by two women, Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett.   Not only is WCL the first law school in the world to be founded by women, but it also was the first to appoint a female dean and graduate a class composed entirely of women.   Given this history, it’s easy to see why we have an institutional atmosphere that embraces diversity of all kinds across our faculty, staff and student body.   I am a Latino gay feminist immigrant, and in all of those respects feel welcomed and valued by my colleagues, students and administrators.   Our atmosphere is so welcoming of difference, in fact, that I make it a point to warn many of my students that not all legal workplaces and institutions are so diversity-friendly, and that they must be prepared to face both latent and blatant sexism, racism and homophobia when they venture into practice.      

· What are you working on now?

I am working on two articles in the media law area.   One on the role of the government in proactively creating opportunities for democratic deliberative engagement on the Internet, and the other on the effects of the Internet and its regulation (or nonregulation) on our democracy.     I’ve also been doing a lot of reading for an article on the role of the religious freedom clauses in the pursuit of gay civil rights.

· Could you recommend at least one book/article/theorist to law students who are interested in feminism’s relationship to the law?

I’ve been recommending to colleagues and students, quite enthusiastically, a recent book by University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum entitled Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law.   It is a fascinating, original and beautifully written analysis of how the emotions of disgust and shame have driven much of law and punishment, in ways that are rooted in a societal idealization of human exceptionalism and perfectionism that denies our humanness, and ignores our true animality.   I especially appreciate how she links anti-gay discrimination with sexism, and theorizes that homophobia hurts everyone.   For example, at page 261, she writes:”People are extremely anxious about their sexuality, and feel threatened with shame in that area, especially in an America in which ideas of sexual perfection suffuse the popular culture, promoting unrealistic and inflexible norms for all.”

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