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Trans plaintiff to speak at Lambda Legal gala

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Ryan Karnoski. Photo: Sam Knox
Ryan Karnoski. Photo: Sam Knox  

Ryan Karnoski, one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military, will be a keynote speaker at "Power of the Party," Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's 28th San Francisco Soiree Friday, April 20.

Karnoski is the lead plaintiff in Karnoski v. Trump, which Lambda Legal filed and that includes the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN as plaintiffs. Other plaintiffs include six people currently serving in the armed forces and three who seek to enlist, such as Karnoski. According to Lambda Legal, Karnoski comes from a strong military background and desires to join the military.

Karnoski and Kara Ingelhart, a law fellow at Lambda Legal's Chicago office, spoke to the Bay Area Reporter about the case and about Lambda Legal itself.

"We did have to fight for our ability to become a nonprofit and the great work we now do," said Ingelhart. "We've made tremendous progress through the courts and in changing hearts and minds."

Ingelhart was referring to Lambda Legal's first case in 1973, when a panel of New York judges turned down a request by the fledgling organization to operate as a nonprofit. The judges ruled that the group's mission was "neither benevolent nor charitable." With pro-bono help, attorney Bill Thom appealed to New York's highest court, which ruled in the organization's favor.

Lambda Legal now has a legal staff of more than 100 in six offices around the country.

"We are still fighting that fight as the Trump administration tries to erase our communities," Ingelhart said.

Today, Lambda Legal is one of the leading LGBT public interest law firms. And it has a long history of winning cases. In 1983 it won People v. West 12 Tenants Corp, helping to establish that under disability laws it's illegal to discriminate against people who have HIV.

In the 1990s, the organization set a legal precedent with Nabozny v. Podlesny, which held schools responsible for harassment and violence against LGBT students. In 1992, it successfully kept Colorado's Amendment 2 from taking effect. The statewide initiative would have stripped LGBT people of civil rights protections. In 1996, Lambda Legal convinced a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy, that the measure was unconstitutional.

In 2015, Lambda Legal was co-counsel in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

The battle to overturn Trump's anti-trans military ban remains ongoing. Last July, President Donald Trump tweeted that he wanted to ban trans people from serving in the military. There are now four lawsuits challenging the ban, and Lambda Legal's is one of them.

"We filed a lawsuit after the ban was filed in August," said Ingelhart. "At this stage, Lambda is serving all our amazing clients. We're moving toward permanently ending the ban."

Karnoski, a transgender man, spoke to the B.A.R. about why this lawsuit matters to him.

"Its important because being transgender has nothing to do with whether or not someone is qualified or fit to serve," he said. "Those brave enough to come out inspire me in hoping to serve. I would like to serve in a medical capacity as a social worker."

He also spoke of his feelings about the day the ban was announced.

"I will never forget waking up in the morning and seeing on the news his tweets about the ban," Karnoski said. "Going forward, I can only hope we can end this ban so we can determine that a person's transgender status is not a determination on whether or not they're fit to serve."

Born in 1994 in Edmonds, Washington, Karnoski was involved in queer politics at a very young age.

"I wasn't out as transgender until college," he said. "In high school I was involved in the gay-straight alliance. I did clothing drives and organized volunteers for queer service events like the AIDS Walk. For me, it was a really great way to serve the community and people who are LGBTQ."

He noted how happy he was to be represented in court by Lambda Legal, which he said has "a huge legacy of service."

"This case could set a legal precedent on what transgender people are capable of doing," he said. "People will realize that transgender people are in their communities working all different kinds of jobs."

Karnoski said he was "humbled" to be one of the plaintiffs in this case, including plaintiffs who were brave enough to come out while actively serving. "I know what it's like to be publicly out as a trans person," he said. "I hope this lawsuit will improve the climate of what it means to be transgender."

"We are confident in our legal arguments," added Ingelhart. "We won our preliminary injunction which gives up confidence that we will prevail."

The other featured speaker at the SF Soiree will be Sharon McGowan, Lambda Legal's director of strategy. She leads the agency's work in Washington, D.C. and recently went to work for the organization after serving as the principal deputy chief of the appellate section of the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The San Francisco Soiree will take place at 6 p.m. at the Fairmount Hotel, 950 Mason Street. Tickets are $350 and can be purchased online at


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