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By Judge Amy Dawson
For this UN Day of this girl child, we had the opportunity to interview Judge Amy Dawson. Judge Dawson is doing a lot of work in improving outcomes for LGBTQIA youth. “As a girl, I preferred to dress like a boy and play sports like soccer and ice hockey, I did not always fit in”, she told us. Society has a lot of expectations for girls around gender, gender expression and the roles they are supposed to play as a girl and as a future woman. As a judge in juvenile court, Judge Dawson saw firsthand that the girls caught up in the juvenile delinquency system were disproportionately minorities - Black and Native American here in Minnesota. She also learned that they were also disproportionately LGBTQIA. These girls are often non-conforming in their gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And because they do not conform to heterosexual-normative expectations, they can experience to difficulties at home and at school. They are more likely to be homeless, they are more likely to be overly disciplined at school, and they are more likely to end up in juvenile delinquency proceedings. They are also more likely to have fewer resources than the boys who are in juvenile delinquency proceedings.
Therefore, Judge Dawson is focused on what she can do to help all girls grow up to be healthy and strong, and on what she can do to help improve and change systems so that girls can be their best selves. This means letting each girl be the person she or he or they really are – inside and out.
This why Judge Dawson thinks that UN Day of the Girl Child is so important to draw attention to the inequality for girls and women that exists around the world. Girls have rights too– including the right to food, healthcare, and education and the right to be free from slavery, abuse, and sexual exploitation. As a society, we have hopes for each young girl – that they may grow to be a positive contributor to their communities. For that to happen, each girl needs the freedom to be true to herself. That can be especially hard for girls who don’t fit neatly into cultural expectations about gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. Judge Dawson hopes that, as we focus on girls on this day, that we can make room in our minds and in our hearts for transgender girls, non-binary youth, and for girls who are gender non-conforming. As difficult as it can be for girls around the world, it is even more difficult for children who do not conform to their gender as identified at birth or to other societal and cultural norms such as gender expression and sexual orientation. Judge Dawson believes that if we can improve outcomes for transgender girls, gender non-conforming girls, non-binary youth, and for girls who are lesbian or bisexual, then it will also help us to overcome the stereotypes and sexism that continue to oppress girls and women.
Judges can play a major role in this process. For Judge Dawson, the most important thing that each one of us can do is to begin by examining our own expectations and biases about what it means to be a girl. Society starts telling girls at a very young age what they must do to conform – how to dress, how to wear their hair, how to act – and it starts telling them at very young ages that we expect them to marry a man and have children. These messages are repeated by parents, by teachers, by other children, and by all types of media. As judges, we can start by understanding that these societal expectations can inflict trauma on a young girl who does not want to marry a man, or who wants to express herself in a non-conforming way. These traumas hurt even more deeply for children who are intersex, non-binary, or transgender. When we think about improving outcomes for LGBTQIA youth, we must acknowledge the harmful effects of these cultural expectations which often go hand in hand with bullying, abuse, sexual exploitation, and stigmatization. Once we do that, we can make a commitment to reducing those harms in our courtrooms and in our communities.
Furthermore, for Judge Dawson, the next step for judges is to educate themselves on the issue. “Learn from the LGBTQIA resources in your community. You will learn that LGBTQIA youth suffer real harm that stems from hetero-normative expectations and bigotry”. This harm renders LGBTQIA youth more likely to be homeless, to be bullied, to be pushed out of school, to be sexually exploited and abused, and more likely to attempt suicide. You will also learn that attitudes can change – people can change their attitudes and hetero-normative biases through education and through knowing individuals who are LGBTQIA.
“Every judge I know strives to treat all individuals who appear in their courtrooms with dignity and respect”, judge Dawson told us. This is a fundamental aspect of procedural fairness. It is no different for youth. If a youth whose legal name is Jessica want to be called James, or Jazz then we need to respect that. If a youth wants you to use gender neutral pronouns, then respect that and do it. We should not, however, make assumptions about what this means, nor should we make assumptions based on how a youth presents themselves. This requires a commitment as a judge, to treat each youth with respect and as a human being. I like to think that we can all agree that it is important to listen to each youth and to treat them with respect because this will help each youth move forward in a positive way. Judge Dawson thinks this sentiment is captured brilliantly in the UN Convention on the rights of the child, in article 40, where it speaks of youth involved in juvenile delinquency systems. It says:
Art 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
1. States Parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child's sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child's respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child's age and the desirability of promoting the child's reintegration and the child's assuming a constructive role in society.
If we want every child to grow up with a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, then we must lead by example.