This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rosena Sammi: You’re a lady, you’re black, and you’re gay. Of those three things, which has introduced the most important challenge in your legal career?
Taina Bien-Aimé: Being a lady. I’ve all the time identified first as female. I feel that defined the best way my mom, grandmother, and aunties raised me. Clearly ethnicity, historical heritage, and racial heritage additionally define us as individuals of the African diaspora. But I come from a family of very robust ladies. As an adolescent, I shortly realized that the facility stayed around the kitchen desk. I’m the oldest of three and was all the time very observant. Typically in our culture, the eldest woman turns into her mother’s confidante. For better or for worse, I used to be allowed to remain on the kitchen table and take heed to who was getting crushed, who was getting harassed at work, whose husband had a mistress. So I used to be all the time attuned to ladies being second-class residents. However then, at adolescence, I started realizing the facility these ladies had. That they had power, however it wasn’t political power, nor was it power within their communities.
I’m 58. I got here of age in the ’70s. I noticed the event of the ladies’s movement on television. My mother bought me the first difficulty of Ms. magazine and stated, “Pay attention to this; this is really important.” My grandmother was a suffragette, and that stays with me at this time, even once we speak about issues of social justice and the incarceration of black males. As necessary as those actions are, we now have to be vigilant that ladies of shade aren’t erased, as a result of the features we’ve made are so fragile. There’s fixed resistance to our empowerment and to our improvement as full human beings. We’ve to be vigilant in saying, “We’re still here. We’re still being discriminated against. We still don’t have access to justice when harm comes to us.” So, yeah, I feel being a lady continues to be the primary challenge.
Preventing for ladies’s rights appears to be in your genes. Is that what led you to regulation faculty?
Once I was in my late teenagers, I started reading books written by ladies who have been seminal in feminist considering — Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Susan Brown Miller’s Rape. These books really changed how I seemed on the world. I tried to determine why, all through historical past, as sensible and resilient and gifted as ladies are, we have been all the time relegated to a category even worse than second-class citizenship. Once we start taking a look at baby marriage or widow burning, prostitution, female genital mutilation (the listing goes on), why is it that every culture has its own technique of oppressing ladies in probably the most violent approach?
I went to regulation faculty to not turn into a Wall Road company lawyer but for coaching in breaking down methods of authority and power.
I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and enlisted in the political science and worldwide relations school at the University of Geneva. I was all the time lively in ladies’s points. I came again to New York, worked for a world organization and was considering of doing a PhD in comparative literature. It was a dean with whom I was traveling in Africa who prompt I should consider regulation faculty. I went to regulation faculty to not develop into a Wall Road corporate lawyer but for training in breaking down techniques of authority and energy. As a toddler of immigrants, you don’t understand political techniques. You don’t challenge authority. There’s all the time this worry that you could be get in hassle.
How would you describe your experience at NYU Regulation?
It was fantastic; I beloved it. It’s the place I met my companion, Veronica Jordan. I needed to remain in New York Metropolis, and NYU was the most effective place for me for a lot of reasons — together with its unimaginable and progressive give attention to social justice regulation.
Upon graduation you took a job on the Wall Road agency Cleary Gottlieb.
I summered at Cleary and then returned there as an affiliate, and I stayed for four years.
How did somebody who’s enthusiastic about social justice end up at a Wall Road firm?
At Cleary, I met a lady named Jessica Neuwirth, who had come from Amnesty International. Jessica started what’s now the Women’s Rights division at Amnesty however was getting annoyed because Amnesty did not think about all the violations that occur to ladies and women as human rights violations. They thought-about them beneath the realm of culture or faith or tradition. She thought that there needed to be a corporation that was based mostly on the Amnesty construction. That turned the Equality Now group. Cleary was instrumental in the development of Equality Now, so while I used to be training corporate regulation, my professional bono work was creating the group, and I turned one of the founding board members.
Did you know Jessica can be at Cleary? I’m curious if, whenever you interviewed, you expressed this passion for ladies’s rights and your want to straddle two worlds.
Cleary was a singular firm. It nonetheless is. It isn’t solely a world firm, it’s a firm that relishes having associates from totally different backgrounds. You had individuals who have PhDs in philosophy or individuals who had been academics. I assume the widespread denominator was that you simply have been dedicated, you have been a tough employee, you have been sensible, and you can contribute. Aside from the worldwide organizations I’ve worked in, it was the one company construction the place I didn’t have to elucidate or spell my identify.
Being African American in any corporate surroundings is extremely troublesome.
It seems like an amazing place to work, nevertheless it’s still a Wall Road regulation firm. It sounds too straightforward. Can you shed some mild on some of its challenges?
My colleagues at Cleary have been excellent, really. I’m nonetheless associates with lots of them. It helped so much that that they had a really broad, international view of the regulation and have been very refined. The shoppers have been the shoppers, and company regulation is company regulation, and the hours have been brutal, but having stated that, being African American in any corporate setting is extraordinarily troublesome.
Being of shade, you’re seen as the affirmative motion candidate, which is something my sons now face in highschool and school. It’s something that’s indelible to the American psyche. There’s all the time this sense — and it might be projected, or it might be real — that there’s somebody, or a gaggle of people, who believes that you simply took the spot away from a Caucasian individual, from a more deserving individual, that you simply’re there not essentially because of your credentials however because of some program. That was the same in regulation faculty. When considered one of my classmates, a Latino, made editor-in-chief of the regulation assessment, individuals did not worry saying he took the spot from a more deserving individual.
Are you able to give me an instance of once you experienced that?
Our class at Cleary was in all probability the first in which there was a big proportion of legal professionals of shade. They have been all from elite regulation faculties and elite undergraduate packages — these weren’t affirmative motion individuals — however Cleary did make an effort to diversify.
I need to cease you there. Do you assume it will be dangerous if there have been black associates who didn’t have Ivy League backgrounds?
I don’t assume individuals understand what affirmative motion is. Individuals don’t perceive that whites have had affirmative action for 400 years, so it has this unfavorable connotation in relation to individuals of colour, or even ladies. White men have had affirmative action for all the historical past of america.
It’s this collective incapability to reconcile the historical past of slavery and what meaning in phrases of intergenerational stress disorder. That history is in our DNA; we still have to go through a means of fact and reconciliation and look truthfully on the impression of the truth that this nation was built on human trafficking and genocide. That doesn’t make it much less of a fantastic nation. The USA is a superb nation, however we’ve to acknowledge the brutalities that occurred on this soil in order for us to get here and what the results are.
Sorry, I interrupted you earlier.
I was going to provide you an instance. So, in the context of this concerted effort to extend the associates of shade, they hired a marketing consultant to do variety coaching. The first instance this advisor gave was of an African American lady who doesn’t have the credentials, someone who will get there because of affirmative motion. Everybody in the room just needed to go away — like, of all of the examples you can use to challenge individuals’s perceptions of one another based mostly on race and gender, that is the one that marketing consultant chose to focus on.
Was there anything extra personal, with a associate or a shopper, where you saw some pushback because of being a lady or being black?
Nicely, we heard a number of tales of sexual harassment. Typically you’re in very uncomfortable positions whenever you’re working late at night time in the workplace of a senior associate or a companion. But racially, I don’t recall something other than just the slights that you simply typically hear. I feel that I heard extra about sexual harassment and discrimination.
Did you experience that?
Yeah. I don’t know of many ladies who didn’t in some way or another. We knew a couple of companions to keep away from, but I don’t essentially need to target Cleary as a result of it happens across the board.
What was your technique for dealing with it?
It’s all the time exhausting to do one thing individually because then you’re targeted or ostracized in some way — not getting the great deals anymore, and so forth. I feel the women who did need to make companion, who did want keep at the agency for longer durations of time, have been keenly conscious of that.
We might try to determine friendly partners who would perceive and then speak to them. Nevertheless it’s like all membership, right? Whether or not you’re in the police department or in an organization with hierarchies, it’s a band of brothers. It’s very troublesome to penetrate that. And, sadly, things haven’t changed. Silence is the only defend. It’s unhappy.
I wasn’t really ready to have a nanny in the course of the day and a nanny at night time and have Mom’s Day at the McDonald’s across the street from the regulation agency.
Did you’ve gotten any ladies mentors?
There have been only a few ladies companions, perhaps six. I used to be very friendly with quite a lot of them, but they weren’t essentially position models, primarily due to the best way they handled their work-life stability. I all the time needed to be a mother, and — especially as a lesbian, you go out of your approach — I wasn’t really prepared to have a nanny in the course of the day and a nanny at night time and have Mother’s Day at the McDonald’s across the street from the regulation firm. At ladies’s associate lunches, you’d have one lady after the opposite say, “I was conducting deals in the labor room.” Or, “My children know breakfast is the family meal,” and “We pay you a lot of money so you can hire a staff.” These are the sacrifices you must make if you want to make it as a companion, and even in an organization. However these weren’t the sacrifices that appealed to me.
I went to a Wall Road regulation agency for almost the same cause I went to regulation faculty — to find out how methods of energy work and demystify institutional buildings. They don’t seem to be authority. They are built by people with their very own understanding of who ought to be in energy and who shouldn’t.
Photograph: Allaire Bartel
Can a regulation agency ever really change sufficient to accommodate and retain ladies?
Gloria Steinem all the time says, “Until now, women have worked hard to be like men, and it’s time for men to be more like women,” and that is key. The burden of these questions falls upon the ladies. The excuse is that we’re the childbearers, and subsequently the nurturers, and subsequently childcare befalls us. Anything’s potential, however there’s plenty of resistance. I do assume that as a result of there’s no equality inside the house, it’s onerous to have equality in the workplace.
Gloria Steinem all the time says, “Until now, women have worked hard to be like men, and it’s time for men to be more like women,” and that’s key.
You reference not experiencing a lot pushback in your authorized profession because you have been a lesbian. Do you assume it will have been totally different in case you have been a gay man?
That question is troublesome to reply. Although it was typically stated 20 to 30 years in the past that lesbians “assimilated” higher or have been extra accepted in society, the experiences are very individual. My private thought was that my visibility was in the beginning as an African-American lady. My sexual orientation was not assumed to be gay until informed otherwise or once I brought my companion to an occasion. If there was pushback, either specific or imagined, I might have then ventured that it was because I used to be a lady of shade, somewhat than being a lesbian.
How necessary have been affinity groups to you?
I craved those groups, so I used to be with the associates of colour, and the gay and lesbian came just a little later. We also had the ladies’s affinity group, so I used to be in all three.
Have been they useful?
I consider they have been, especially in building group. For me, they have been communities of help and communities of allies. I perceive that some individuals don’t need to be tokenized or really feel like they should be in a specific ghetto. However for me, it was really a lifeline because I felt very overseas to the setting, virtually like an intruder.
I feel it’s this entire legacy of how the idea of affirmative action is bought and packaged. Yeah, everyone comes together with her personal historical past. And we reside in a really segregated nation. Even when we mix together in the subway or the workplace, we return to our communities. Even in the event you take a look at television exhibits, aside from the current ones by Shonda Rhimes, it’s very segregated and really tribal.
When did you come out?
I was 24, so I used to be relatively previous. It was type of haphazard. There are some individuals who say, “I knew from the time I was five, and it’s not a choice. It’s who I am.” For me, I feel it was a selection. I used to be a really unbiased teenager and young lady. By the time I used to be 16, I was dwelling by myself, sharing an condo in Geneva. Once I went to college, I truly lived with a boyfriend, after which I went off to grad faculty.
But I was raised Catholic, Caribbean, socially conservative in that means. I grew up with the saying that Jesus forgives every part except homosexuality. Although my mother was a fierce feminist, she was very homophobic. So there was a variety of worry and shame. I wouldn’t say confusion, as a result of I was fairly clear as to what I needed and who I was, but vis-à-vis, it was a worry of rejection.
From your loved ones or from the world?
From my mother; she by no means really needed to speak about it. She by no means acknowledged my relationship with Veronica or prior girlfriends. She died once I was five months pregnant, so she never obtained to see her first grandchild. I really like my mother deeply, nevertheless it was simply this stain in our relationship.
Whenever you have been interviewing at regulation companies, have been you open about being homosexual?
Yeah I was open, I used to be out.
I used to be a black lady. Being homosexual was simply ancillary.
You’ve described the pushback in terms of being a lady and black, did you ever feel pushback because you have been gay?
No. I used to be a black lady. Being homosexual was just ancillary. It’s identical to an added anomaly to my existence. The pushback was from the black men at NYU. They never stated it to our faces, however the homophobic remarks, the shock that Veronica and I have been a couple was very spectacular.
Would you deliver your associate to agency events?
Sure I might. She was at Davis Polk, and sure, we went to every others’ firm occasions.
I perceive you turned pregnant while at Cleary; tell me about that journey.
I was a pioneer! I wasn’t displaying until relatively late, and I had taken a month for my mom’s funeral and a grieving interval. Once I came again, I had maternity garments. I know there was a number of gossip, “I thought she was gay.”
I guess! And you ignored it and life went on?
It was just, “I’m pregnant, and that’s it. Period.” I don’t assume individuals dared to ask.
How did that play out for you, being a pregnant associate?
It was simply insane. Cleary was one of many first regulation companies to institute part-time and paternity depart, they have been very avant garde on the difficulty, nevertheless it was just unattainable. Half-time working till six, going residence; Veronica would come residence around 9; I might go back to the office and then come again at one, and the infant would get up at 5. I was like, “I can’t do this,” so I began the transition out.
You transitioned to HBO. How was that?
We weren’t a great match. This was really corporate America, not a world regulation firm. It was People. Only a few African People. It was the prototypical white male corporate setting, not a welcoming place for anyone but hardcore corporate personalities. I stayed there for four years, however I was still working as a board member for Equality Now. I was a working board member for eight years after which determined to go from HBO to Equality Now full time.
Why not depart the corporate world?
I nonetheless had loans. Going from Cleary to HBO to Equality Now was a rise in satisfaction and work-life stability however a lower in revenue.
How was that transition?
It’s been robust. My associate is a corporate lawyer, in publishing. We’ve got had to make sacrifices because of it. We still reside snug lives, but dwelling in New York, it’s some extent of intense conversations in our relationship.
Do you are feeling the pull to return to the company world?
No, but I absolutely understand that this has been a luxurious for me. It’s been an unlimited privilege and a benefit to have the ability to stay in this motion. And it was a fantastic monetary sacrifice for the household, and particularly for Veronica, who looks like she has an extra burden to carry.
You’ve two youngsters?
I’ve a 21-year-old son and an 18-year-old son.
We worked arduous to construct a unique household structure, subsequently I resent now having to suit in a box that was created from an institution that has fostered and maintained deep inequalities on ladies.
Did you carry both of these youngsters?
Veronica carried the second, but that they had the identical donor, in order that they’re biologically associated. After which each of us adopted the opposite.
Your sons have these two robust ladies position fashions in their lives, how has that influenced them and their views on ladies?
They’re keenly aware of their privilege as men. They are keenly aware concerning the standing of girls and women around the globe. I feel they’re both activists. They’re each feminist supporters. They determine as feminist. I don’t know if they really are; they’re just a little young for that. However what they have been capable of do is problem their friends because things have not modified that much, right? So when my oldest advised a highschool classmate that he was a feminist, he stated, “Are you out of your mind? Are you planning on washing your socks for the rest of your life?” It’s fascinating that these conversations proceed to occur. And I feel that they’re just a lot more conscious. Their antennas are up always for inappropriate or dangerous or destructive male conduct, which remain rampant.
I might be remiss if I didn’t ask on your take on final yr’s Supreme Courtroom determination legalizing same-sex marriage and how which will have impacted your life.
Whereas the Supreme Courtroom determination was a groundbreaking victory for human rights and equality, I have never been interested in marriage. In fact, anybody who needs to marry the adult he or she loves should have the ability to take action, however marriage is a patriarchal construct that my group of feminists have all the time questioned. Veronica feels fairly in another way, so it continues to be the supply of intense conversation. We worked arduous to assemble a special household structure, subsequently I resent now having to fit in a field that was created from an establishment that has fostered and maintained deep inequalities on ladies. Our youngest son, who was puzzled at my reasoning when the work of marriage equality was intensifying numerous years ago, once requested me: “But momma — don’t you work to change institutions?” I appreciated his insightful remark, however my views on marriage remain the identical.
In 2014, you turned the Government Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Can you inform me about that?
It was created in 1988 and is likely one of the oldest international anti-trafficking organizations. It focuses on ladies and youngsters, taking a look at business sexual exploitation and trafficking as gender-based violence and discrimination. We’ve workplaces in the Philippines and Mexico and different locations. Those entities work with survivors and victims of trafficking, provide providers, and in addition work with men and boys and supply authorized advocacy. Right here in New York, we give attention to legal advocacy.
Might you do your job with no regulation diploma?
I might, since it’s extra of an activist position. However the regulation degree helps in wanting on the regulation as a software for social change. And then, in fact, you might have all the implementation issues which might be difficult because you must practice so many various entities, from the police to the Department of Justice and all that. We have been very concerned in the development of the Protocol to Forestall, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Individuals; the Trafficking Victim’s Safety Act; federal regulation; and the New York State Human Trafficking Act.
It’s a must to hold your eyes on the prize, as a result of the resistance is fierce.
However it’s exhausting to effect change. Does that take away from the rewards of the job?
You must maintain your eyes on the prize, because the resistance is fierce. As I mentioned before, our positive aspects are fragile, very, very fragile. Especially in the world of trafficking and prostitution, it’s a brutal struggle. It’s an ideological nightmare. We’ve had lots victories, and we’ll proceed to have victories, but the challenges are steep.
You mentioned that this job is all-encompassing and you work company regulation hours. How did that have an effect on your work-life equation?