Lynly Egyes ’03 is Director of Litigation for the Transgender Law Center
As a lawyer with the Sex Workers Project for almost eight years, Lynly Egyes '03 helped launch the rapid court response program in Queens, New York, after hearing that law enforcement officers were harassing and arresting trans Latina women on false prostitution-related charges. Working with community leaders, Egyes discovered that after arrests, the consequences were even greater for undocumented immigrants. Community leaders shared that the best way an attorney could provide support was to keep people out of jail entirely. If sent to jail, and not released on bail, transgender women were sent to the male prison at Riker’s Island, where they were frequently harassed. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was waiting for them, ready to deport them after they were released from jail.
“People were getting sent to Atlanta, to Texas, places where access to attorneys was almost non-existent,” Egyes says, despite the fact that they could often obtain a lawful visa as an asylum-seeker or victim of trafficking or sexual assault. Egyes swung into action, and with help of another attorney, began showing up to court and fighting for the release of every trans Latina women arrested on prostitution charges. She worked with community organizers who could pack the courtroom to support the women who were arrested.
“We could get 50 people to show up at any time of the night,” says Egyes. “They were willing to rally at any point to ensure their community member wouldn’t end up in jail.”
Now as litigation director for the Transgender Law Center, Egyes has continued to expand that program, at the same time she has taken on high-profile cases in order to advocate for rights of transgender and immigrant communities. “Rather than just focusing on a case involving one person, I focus on legislation that will have a large impact for the transgender and gender non-conforming communities around the country,” she says.
Often that means trying novel arguments with judges in order to establish new precedent legal precedent. One case she is currently working on, for example, involves a young boy who came to the United States as part of a Trans Caravan;a group of gay and transgender immigrants seeking asylum. In order to help him obtain special immigrant juvenile status, Egyes successfully argued he should have access to family court in New York, where he had a person willing to be his legal guardian.
“We were able to get the judge to grant jurisdiction in the case despite our client never having been in New York,” she says. “This victory is huge because it opens to the door to another form of immigration relief for people outside of New York State.”
Originally from New Jersey, Egyes came to Ithaca to study psychology, but switched to sociology after taking a course taught by Elaine Leeder. “Her class blew my mind and allowed me to see the world not just through my own experience, but through all of these different lenses,” she says. When she came out as queer during college, her parents barely blinked. “I said, ‘Mom, Dad, I have something important to tell you: I’m gay.’ And they said, ‘Ok, what was that thing you wanted to tell us?’” Knowing others were not so easily accepted, however, Egyes took an internship at GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network), and after graduation she began working there full timedeveloping and managing the organization’s student leadership program to help create safer schools for lgbt students. She went to Cardozo School of Law before starting her current work.
Immigration cases are personal for Egyes. Her grandfather fled Hungary before the Holocaust, hoping to gain immigration status in the U.S., but was denied. After he was turned away from the United States, he traveled through Central America. Unfortunately, at that time, his family was sent to the concentration camps. “Had he been in the U.S., he might have been able to bring his family over and keep them safe,” she says.
Her current cases at the Transgender Law Center span a wide gamut, including immigration, transgender soldiers in the military, and access to health care. One case she is currently working on in California, for instance, involves a young person admitted to a psychiatric hospital. “While he was there, they misgendered him and used the wrong name, and treated him badly,” she says. “A short time after he was released, he committed suicide.” Working with a law firm and another NGO, Egyes is now representing the boy’s mother, trying to force a policy change in that hospital, as well as setting a precedent nationally. “It comes down to simply treating a person with respect.”
The recent pushback on both transgender and immigrant rights by the Trump administration has complicated her work. “If feels like we are living in constant crisis, not knowing what is coming next,” she says. “Tactics that used to be effective during the Obama administration like public awareness campaigns, no longer work.” Despite those difficulties, she remains sure that partnerships between community organizers and attorneys are necessary to create lasting changes.
“Without community organizing pushing movements forward, many impact cases would never have been heard or the decision would not have made an impact on the broader community,” she says. “I have been privileged throughout my career to work with and learn from people fighting for what’s right.”