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Penn Law alumnus uses Equal Justice Works fellowship to advocate for LGBT youth

February 13, 2017

Since graduating from Penn Law, Rick Mula L’15 has been tirelessly promoting equal rights for LGBT youth through his public interest work with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In one case, Mula took part in litigation on behalf of a black transgender boy in a group home in Tennessee, which also happens to be Mula’s home state.

The boy was eager to have an evaluation for gender dysphoria in the hope of getting puberty suppressing drugs and starting hormone therapy, Mula explained, but the group home continually delayed getting him an appointment and failed to prevent the boy from being harassed in the home.

Mula worked with an attorney in Nashville to get a petition before the court to secure a doctor’s visit for the boy and to have the group home start treating him in a manner consistent with his gender identity.

Promoting equal rights for LGBT youth — especially in the South — is important work, Mula noted. In Mississippi, for example, 80 percent of LGBT youth in Mississippi reported feeling that they do not fit in with their peers, compared to 47 percent of LGBT youth nationally.

And for Mula, the work is personal. Growing up in Tennessee, he faced discrimination in his home town, and he understands the challenges his clients are facing.

Mula is currently an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, where his work breaks down into two distinct, but critical, categories, he explained: training and litigation.

On the training side, he educates LGBT youth about their rights, and he also trains adults who work with children about their legal obligation to serve all youth with dignity and respect. He makes sure to teach them what he calls “LGBT cultural competencies,” such as making sure they understand the definitions of terms like sexual orientation and gender identity.

Through these training programs, Mula has worked with approximately 200 children and 400 adults, including foster care placement coordinators, adoption coordinators, public school teachers, school counselors, school administrators, and staff at a juvenile detention center.

For the litigation aspect of his fellowship, part of Mula’s work involves finding plaintiffs to challenge current discriminatory laws. He has been looking for a plaintiff to challenge an Alabama law that requires all sex education classes to include instruction that homosexuality is illegal and a lifestyle unacceptable to the general public. And he is also looking for a plaintiff to challenge insurance companies’ categorical exclusion of coverage for transition related healthcare.

“A child might be a good candidate for hormone therapy or for puberty suppressing drugs,” he explained. “But if their family can’t afford it — and their insurance doesn’t cover it — then they’re kind of left in a lurch.”

Mula also worked on a case that is currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court: G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, which involves a school board adopting a rule that effectively expels trans students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative private” restroom facilities.

Mula drafted an amicus brief when the case was appealed to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The brief explained the consequences for transgender students of a rule that prohibits them from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.

Such a rule, Mula argued, causes them psychological harm, is stigmatizing, and can cause them physical harm because students usually don’t go to the bathroom at all when facing this kind of rule.

Now that the case is before the Supreme Court, Rick has been helping to identify school administrators and law enforcement officials who support the idea that allowing transgender individuals to use the restroom that matches their gender identity does not pose any public safety concern.

Beyond his work as an educator and litigator, Mula has made strong connections within the communities in Alabama and Tennessee that he’s served, he explained, which often have a bad reputation in terms of their relationship to marginalized people.

“One of the things that I’ve really loved about this fellowship is that I have connected with people who don’t know the first thing about LGBT identity, but they’re so invested in making sure that all the youth they serve are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their own personal beliefs,” he said. “They’re very eager to learn about LGBT identity and how to work with LGBT people.”

When Mula’s fellowship ends this coming August, he will begin a clerkship with Judge Miranda Du of the District of Nevada, where he will further hone his understanding of litigation as he continues to build his career in public service.