WBA celebrates Pride Month by celebrating the LGBTQ+ members of our community.

Photo Credit: Sarah Sharaf-Eldien

Sunu P. Chandy (she/her) is a Senior Advisor with Democracy Forward, supporting work across the teams including fighting attacks on DEI, and working alongside partner organizations to help build a nation that does right by all of us. She continues to have readings and events in connection with her collection of poems, My Dear Comrades, published by Regal House. Before starting at Democracy Forward in September 2023, she served as the Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center for six years. Sunu led the Center’s litigation efforts, providing strategy across NWLC to create better outcomes for women and girls including in schools, workplaces, and the healthcare sector. She also helped to create the Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity, provided guidance for the Center’s policy positions towards greater workplace justice, and led their LGBTQ+ rights related policy work. Sunu also had the opportunity to provided Congressional testimony in support of the Equality Act, a bill that would strengthen and clarify civil rights protections including for LGBTQ+ individuals, and she provided testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Federal Sector and #metoo. Until August 2017, she served as the Deputy Director for the Civil Rights Division with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and before that, was the General Counsel of the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR). Previously, Sunu was a federal attorney with the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for 15 years. At EEOC, she led several outreach and training initiatives including as a member of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAPPI) Regional Working Group. She began her legal career as a law firm associate representing unions and individual workers in New York City at Gladstein, Reif and Megginniss, LLP.

Sunu earned her B.A. in Peace and Global Studies/Women’s Studies from Earlham College in Richmond, IN, her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and later, a MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Queens College/The City University of New York in 2013. She is included as one the Washington Blade’s Queer Women of Washington and one of Go Magazine’s 100 Women We Love. She is a board member of the Transgender Law Center, and her family belongs to the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC.

How did your community growing up shape who you are now?
My diverse upbringing across various geographic and cultural settings profoundly shaped who I am today. I grew up in Indiana, Nashville, Jamaica, a one-traffic-light town in rural Ohio, and Chicago. We also traveled to Kerala, India, every few years to visit family. In college, I helped create a women of color group and a women of color writers’ group. After college, I spent nearly a year in India, meeting activists and connecting with family. Later, I lived in Boston for law school and then in NYC for 17 years. During this time, I was involved with South Asian LGBTQ+ groups like SALGA, similar to Khush DC, which provided community building and social justice engagement. These groups allowed me to create meaningful connections with LGBTQ+ people with similar experiences, ranging from facing racism to the joy of coming together around cultural identities. I am also grateful to groups like Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies which are now providing spaces for families of queer folks to both find community and become advocates.

What motivated you to enroll in law school?
My dad suggested that a law degree could strengthen my social justice activism. He was right that it can provide credibility, especially for me as a woman of color. However, it can also take more work for attorneys to gain trust in some community spaces. As we know, many effective activists have various degrees or none at all, relying on lived and work experiences for their expertise. Personally, I’ve enjoyed my legal career in public interest and civil rights law. I attended Northeastern University School of Law, partly because of its “Law, Culture, and Difference” course, which resulted from student activism. This, along with their co-op program, influenced my decision to attend.

What advice would you give to an LGBTQ+ law student who aspires to be where you are now?
My advice to an LGBTQ+ student aspiring to be where I am would be to discover what you enjoy and find ways to give back. Build genuine community in a range of spaces. Volunteer with organizations; I’ve served on the boards of the LGBTQ+ Bar Association in NYC and am currently on the board of the Transgender Law Center. Use your legal skills to serve, even during law school, like helping immigrants with citizenship applications or ensuring ADA compliance on public transport. Over the years I have spoken with student groups and provided mentoring through a range of pipeline type programs. Of course, there are many other ways to give back that do not require legal skills, especially if you need a break from the law. I also mentored a young person for a few years through Hour Children and this required taking her on fun monthly outings throughout NYC.

Also, seek out as much legal work experience as possible and build genuine community in those spaces. My co-op experiences at Northeastern Law led to my first role as a labor and employment associate attorney in NYC. Even remotely, connect with attorneys through virtual coffees to learn about their careers. If you’re more experienced, use your position to help interns connect with senior staff. Learn from observing attorneys you admire. I’ve had the good fortune of working with several brilliant and kind women attorneys including Amy Gladstein, Elizabeth Grossman, Jocelyn Samuels, and Fatima Goss Graves, and I now get to work closely with our remarkable and innovative President and CEO at Democracy Forward, Skye Perryman.

What does Pride Month mean to you personally, and why is it important to celebrate it?
Pride Month is a time to honor the moments when our community fought for and demanded dignity and respect. It’s also about community building and celebration, especially for those who may not have family support. Creating chosen families and spaces where we can truly be ourselves is crucial. Businesses, corporations, law firms, and other entities must continue to show their strong support for LGBTQ+ communities, including trans individuals. We also need to stay united in supporting DEI efforts in the face of opposition and specifically, push for the passage of the Equality Act to cement our federal civil rights. We also need to ensure that people in all different contexts have rights to healthcare, including fertility coverage, trans-affirming healthcare, and reproductive rights.

What progress or positive changes have you witnessed for the LGBTQ+ community in recent years?
This is a moment to celebrate and defend several new rules and regulations clarifying LGBTQ+ protections across many spaces.  Following the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision, courts and agencies have continued to affirm that protections for sexual orientation and gender identity are included in federal anti-discrimination laws that protect against sex discrimination. Federal agencies have confirmed these interpretations including in the context of Title IX (education), Section 1557 of the ACA (healthcare), and through recent EEOC anti-harassment guidance. Despite these advances, civil rights protections are under attack from extremists seeking to roll back LGBTQ+ rights and abortion rights. And we know this would only get worse, as promised with Project 2025, if we don’t vote in a way that ensures these rights are not lost once again.

At the same time, it must be named that admist a range of global and domestic challenges, we are also facing increased harassment in our nation including against Jewish, Palestinian, and Muslim community members. As EEOC has recently confirmed, these forms of discrimination are illegal and must be taken seriously.

In terms of the LGBTQ+ focused work at Democracy Forward, my organization has supported the Biden administration’s efforts to address inequities for LGBTQ+ elders, pushed efforts to revoke harmful policies that allowed health care workers to put their personal beliefs ahead of people’s health, even in emergencies, and sued to stop attacks on librarians who display books with LGBTQ+ themes from Arkansas to Alabama.

What are your hopes or aspirations for the future of the LGBTQ+ community?
My hope for the LGBTQ+ community is that we continue to build solidarity across our differences. As a board member of the Transgender Law Center, I celebrate the leadership of Executive Director Shelby Chestnut and TLC’s work supporting trans folks including through their legal helpline, litigation, and concrete support of local trans activists.

I also want to highlight the leadership of smart, dynamic Black women in multiple LGBTQ+ organizations, including Kierra Johnson, Imani Rupert-Gordon and Kelley Robinson. Their leadership underscores the connection between racial justice and LGBTQ+ justice and also gives me hope for a more inclusive movement for queer rights.

How did you get connected to the WBA? 
I was delighted to be part of the WBA program last year when I was invited to share poems from my collection, My Dear Comrades, at the gathering. It was wonderful to be there at a table alongside Nancy Pelosi and the WBA leadership and witness the warmth so many feel towards this important organization. I appreciate all of the leadership on display that evening and likewise all of the countless hours of hidden work that must go into leading this organization.

Do you have a mentor/hero?
One of my heroes I would love to name at this moment is Urvashi Vaid. We lost her too soon, about two years ago now, and she leaves a powerful legacy of LGBTQ+ rights including continually naming that the work for queer rights must center economic justice. This picture of us is from the 1990s when we first met at one of her book events, and we continued to be in touch as part of the same advocacy coalitions in more recent years. 

What is the best advice you have received?
Author Oliver Burkeman reminds us that we get 4,000 weeks in life, if we are lucky. He suggests we write a list of five things we want to do and then strike out a few of them. Then, he suggests we purposefully spend our time and energy on the top things we care about— because the absolute and undeniable reality is that all of our time is finite. I am not saying I always take this advice well, but I know he is correct. I take a deep breath and try to cultivate a more grounded presence and make more purposeful decisions with my time and energy whenever I think of this, our 4,000 weeks.