Advocates decry misgendering of Pittsburgh trans litigant

Allegheny County assistant solicitor John A. Bacharach

LGBT advocates are calling out John A. Bacharach, an Allegheny County assistant solicitor who’s filed legal documents in the antibias case of trans woman Jules M. Williams that misgender her.

In November 2017, Williams filed suit against Allegheny County and various officials for alleged mistreatment while she was an inmate at the Allegheny County Jail between 2015 and 2017. The jail, located in downtown Pittsburgh, houses about 2,500 inmates.

Williams, 40, contends she was raped and suffered severe physical and verbal abuse during various stays at the jail. Her suit accuses jail personnel of refusing to ensure her safety and privacy, thus violating her constitutional rights.

Efforts to settle the case have been unavailing. Defendants deny any wrongdoing and have asked U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan of the Western District of Pennsylvania to dismiss the case, according to court papers. 

In defense filings accessible online, Bacharach has repeatedly misgendered Williams. For example, in one filing Bacharach wrote: “The complaint claims that the county defendants were deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of [Williams] guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution by failing to provide him, as a trans-gender [sic] woman, with safe and adequate housing and other care while he was an inmate at the Allegheny County Jail.” 

Katie R. Eyer, a civil-rights attorney and professor at Rutgers Law School, expressed concern with the misgendering. “Gratuitously misgendering transgender litigants in legal filings serves no purpose other than to stigmatize and belittle,” Eyer said, in an email. “The desire of some entities or their lawyers to inflict purposeless harm on their transgender opponents is itself clear evidence of the anti-transgender animus such entities claim they lack.”

Justin F. Robinette, a civil-rights attorney, said Bacharach may have violated state-ethics rules. “Mr. Bacharach may have violated the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct which address nondiscrimination and anti-harassment based on gender identity and gender expression in the legal profession,” Robinette told PGN. “There should be no reason why this doesn’t extend to treating a transgender litigant consistent with their gender identity in court papers and proceedings. Everyone should have access to the court in a nondiscriminatory manner. Misgendering litigants doesn’t give them a fair shot. And it’s particuarly ironic in a transgender civil-rights case.”

Julie Chovanes, a civil-rights attorney and trans advocate, expressed her opinion that Bacharach violated Allegheny County’s LGBT-inclusive antibias law. 

“Mr. Bacharach is a solicitor for Allegheny County and so his actions are attributable to Allegheny County,” Chovanes said, in an email. “Allegheny County has a law prohibiting discrimination against someone because of their gender identity.  Mr. Bacharach’s conduct is a violation of his client’s own law. I would highly encourage him and his client to correct the violations and refer to the plaintiff respectfully — and in full acknowledgment of her gender identity. As a trans woman and trans civil-rights lawyer myself, I am all too familiar with this kind of discrimination. It has no place in our legal system.”

Deja Lynn Alvarez, a transgender advocate, echoed Chovanes’ sentiments. “[Bacharach] is perpetuating the stigma and hate that are directly related to the violence and murders plaguing the trans community,” Alvarez said in an email. “Respecting someone’s pronouns is not difficult. And if it is too difficult for [Bacharach] to do that, he should not be in that position. Your hate and bigotry do not belong anywhere — but especially [not with] anyone getting paid with taxpayer dollars!”

In a brief phone interview, Bacharach asserted that he misgendered Williams unintentionally. He also indicated that he won’t misgender Williams in the future. Moreover, he noted that he didn’t misgender Williams during her deposition. When asked if he would file amended legal documents without the misgendering, Bacharach was noncommittal. As of press time, Bacharach hadn’t filed amended legal documents with the court.

Williams seeks damages in excess of $35,000, along with attorneys’ fees and a declaration that defendants violated her constitutional rights. Alexander B. Wright, her attorney, declined to comment for this story. “Because of the close proximity of this [media] request and any trial in this case, we respectfully decline [to] comment at this time,” Wright said, in an email.

As of presstime, a jury trial hadn’t been scheduled, according to the court docket.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.