Interview with Professor Marie-Amélie George

Despite the historical and current barriers faced by the queer community—a subject she has dedicated her research to—Wake Forest Law Professor Marie-Amélie George is an eternal optimist. 

“Law can only do so much, but when we look back on history, it offers a lot of hope for the future,” says Professor George. “Change has happened before and it can happen again in really wonderful, inspiring ways.”

Professor George’s research centers around analyzing how and why laws have changed, and the ways history can provide insight into current legal debates and contemporary normative questions. Her forthcoming book, Family Matters: Queer Households and the Half-Century Struggle for Legal Recognition, is a culmination of her research, exploring the evolution of queer rights from the criminalization of queer life in the 1950s to marriage equality in 2015. 

Professor George has served on the faculty at Wake Forest Law since 2018. And now that she has tenure, she has big plans for the future.

Learn more about Professor George in the interview below.

Tell me a little bit about your background and where you grew up.

We moved to the U.S. from France when I was five. My parents, sisters, and I are the only parts of the family who live in the U.S. We grew up in the northeast New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. But I’ve lived all up and down the East Coast. And I’ve also lived in Italy, England, and Japan.

What was your favorite subject in school?

Social studies. I’ve always loved history. I’m really drawn to the idea that what we do today is not necessarily what was always the case, which means that what will happen in the future is probably different than anything we can imagine.

How did you decide to become a professor?

Begrudgingly. When I was in law school, I thought that I might want to go into academia. I did a Master’s in Women’s Studies at Oxford just to see how I felt about being in an academic role. I liked it, and I found it extremely satisfying. But I also thought, maybe I’ll enjoy being a lawyer, and I will save myself the grief of doing a PhD. I worked as a prosecutor in Miami on domestic violence issues. That was not for me. I tried working in commercial litigation in New York. That also wasn’t the right fit. And I kept going back to topics that I really just wanted to research deeply and write on. That’s when I went to do my PhD in history.

What is one thing you wish you knew in law school?

There are a lot of things I wish I had known. One of them is that we often divide law into litigation and transactional when there are so many other ways in which lawyers work and so many other contexts for being a lawyer. Second, we tend to divide it into public interest and private practice when those are not rigid categories. Lots of lawyers in private practice do a lot of pro bono. People move back and forth between the private and public sectors. And careers are non-linear. 

You are an expert on civil litigation and procedure, civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, family law, law and society, legal history, public interest, law and policy, sexual orientation, gender identity law, and state and local government. Are there any accepted truths about your areas of expertise that you disagree with? If so, what’s your viewpoint, and what evidence or experience supports it?

I have been working for a very long time on a book on the evolution of queer rights from the criminalization of queer life in the 1950s to marriage equality in 2015, and the social and legal changes around family law and criminal law that made that change possible. When we look at the gay and lesbian rights movement, it almost looks archaic. It spent a lot of time asking for straight society to accept individuals within its orbit. It was asking for a recognition that the differences that existed were legally and socially insignificant, that the law was wrong because it was treating groups as differently situated when they were similarly situated.

That today seems like a very conservative argument. You’re not asking to change society to accept more multiplicity. You’re asking for society to change around the margins. And to become a little bit broader. But when you look at what these advocates were arguing against, their positions seem so much more radical. They were really challenging fundamental norms about morality, family relationships, gender roles, and sexual ideologies. And the fact that their arguments now look conservative is a testament to how much they accomplished and how much they fundamentally transformed society. And so, for more radical members of the queer community, the idea that marriage would be the thing worth fighting for seems kind of crazy. But getting to marriage equality was really, really hard in a way that actually makes me very optimistic about the ability of American society to change, to transform, to become more pluralistic. Especially in this political moment, when there’s a lot of pessimism about the many injustices that abound. 

There has been an increase in awareness of the rights or lack thereof of transgender people in recent years. However, in 2023 alone, hundreds of anti-trans bills have been introduced in the United States, and some have even passed. Awareness doesn’t always mean progress despite the bills being introduced and passed. Has progress been made in this area? What do you think is the future of transgender rights in the United States?

So there’s a few different things going on. One is that the gay and lesbian rights movement accomplished a lot. But it was very explicitly a rights movement that focused on gender-conforming gays and lesbians. That focus was partly a strategic choice—the idea was to make forward progress on some issues, and then keep moving to widen the umbrella. So, lead with gay and lesbian rights, followed by trans issues. But the result is that we have a public that is much more familiar with gays and lesbians than with trans, non-binary, and other gender-non-conforming individuals. There is more awareness of transgender issues, but there is less familiarity than there is with gay and lesbian rights. That accounts a bit for the fact that where opponents’ focus used to be on combating gay and lesbian rights, it has shifted to trans rights. 

The second issue is that, although more young people are identifying as trans, non-binary, agender, and gender-fluid, and there are more identity categories for gender non-conforming individuals, there are fewer trans individuals than gays and lesbians. That means there’s less opportunity for people to know people who fall under this larger trans umbrella. And that contact does make a difference. 

The third thing is trans identity has taken many forms over many decades. There have been many people who may have been assigned to male at birth and identified as female or saw themselves as non-binary or identified as a gender. But the social identity category of trans didn’t come into being until the 1990s. Although there have been people who you might characterize as trans today who were part of this movement much earlier, they tended to identify as transvestites, cross-dressers, or with another identity category. If you think of trans rights not as dating back to when the gay and lesbian rights movement formed in the seventies, but to the nineties, the timeline for rights work changes. That makes the backlash to a lot of progress in a short period maybe more understandable. That of course doesn’t mean it’s right.

Do I think it’s going to change? Yes. Partly because generationally, young people are more accepting of trans individuals and more likely to identify as trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. 

What is one thing you’ve learned through your scholarship that people should know? 

Legal change comes from a lot of different places, and it’s often by people who are not lawyers or legally trained who are doing things that they don’t identify as “law.” What launched the marriage equality movement was a lawsuit out of Hawaii. There was a man named Bill Woods who was involved in the gay and lesbian community in Honolulu who didn’t like the discriminatory marriage laws and wanted to see them changed. He hunted around for couples who would go and file for marriage licenses. He expected them to be denied, and he wanted a media event. He did not think he was launching a lawsuit, but he walked them over to the ACLU when they were denied to ask for representation. He didn’t think it would lead to the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that their constitution might very well allow same-sex couples to marry. That led national gay and lesbian rights groups to start thinking about a strategy for marriage equality nationwide. But his decision – to challenge the law as it applied to people on the ground because he found it unfair – propelled an entire movement that changed the law around the entire country. There is a direct line between Bill Woods and Obergefell v Hodges.

What is your biggest win since you began your research? What did the win teach you?

I don’t know if this is a win per se, but I wrote an article on custody cases involving what I call gender-expansive children—children who were assigned male or female at birth and did not conform to gender stereotypes and explored their gender identity. They weren’t sure if they were their sex assigned at birth. When I started looking at those cases, courts and newspapers were talking about these children as transgender children, and they were fighting over whether the children were truly transgender or not, and who was right about the child’s gender identity. And I went in with that assumption, too. That these were trans children, and that was the debate.

But the more I read about it, the more I realized I had no idea. The children didn’t know, the parents didn’t know, and doctors can’t tell either before a certain age because if someone exhibits or identifies as trans post-adolescence, that tends to be their identification as an adult. But for pre-adolescent children, the science says it’s actually impossible to tell. What I found is that the courts were really asking the wrong question. They were trying to find out whether these children were trans or not, and they were asking a question with an absolutely unknowable answer, which led them to make really bad decisions. Because, instead, what all of these children needed was a chance to explore their gender identity and figure out what their gender identity was without being forced into one category or another.

I wrote an article about it, and I was really excited when the Colorado Bar Association family law section asked me to give a talk. They said, “It is in the children’s best interests to be with a parent who allows them to explore their gender identity. That’s something that we can put on our legislative agenda because we agree with you. We found your article really convincing.” So I guess my win is whenever someone says, “I didn’t think of it that way.” And that feels really good.

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing in your role and area of expertise, and how are you tackling it?

The biggest challenge right now is that there have been literally hundreds of anti-queer laws introduced by legislators, and many have passed. North Carolina has enacted quite a few laws that I would say are really, really harmful to people. And it is not the only state. There are lots of things that I would like to see happen that would benefit the community. It is impossible to fight for all of those when all of the energy is spent playing defense on attacks and the harm of these developments is so extreme. One of the challenges is the fact that it is a constant onslaught. It is incredibly demoralizing to be fighting for the rights of a group that is constantly under attack. That makes the work even more important. I try to remind myself of the broader pace of history and the change that we have seen. But in the day-to-day, it still really sucks.

What is the biggest professional challenge you have had to overcome?

The first thing that jumps out at me is that when I was working at the state attorney’s office in the domestic violence bureau in Miami, we were constantly calling victims and witnesses to court because if they weren’t there, we had to dismiss their case. But we also couldn’t guarantee that their case would go to trial. That upended their lives constantly because they were thinking about the fact that they had to go to court, which psychologically can be greatly destructive. They had to change their work schedule. They often had to find childcare. They had to figure out how they were going to get downtown for court. It was a major imposition. 

For those cases, we’d consider pleas that maybe we wouldn’t have before. In one of those cases, it had been reset three times. It involved someone who violated an order of protection. We offered a plea of probation to resolve the case so our witnesses and the victim wouldn’t have to come in again. The victim agreed to that. We all signed off on it. The defendant took the plea, and he left court, went home, got a gun, went to the victim’s house, and killed her.

I don’t think I could have done anything differently other than perhaps reset the case. And perhaps the result might have been a dismissal. There was nothing from the underlying case that would’ve indicated that would’ve been his response. But you don’t know. Domestic violence can escalate very, very quickly. I was working in a court system that I was really concerned was not serving the people it was meant to, and to a certain extent, was causing more harm because it was reducing people’s faith in the system to protect them. Then the question became, does the good outweigh the harm? And do I feel comfortable working in that system anymore? Can I do anything about the system? And if I can’t, is the answer to exit? So I left. That was one of the lowest moments of my professional life where I felt like there were lots of people who wanted to do good things, and we were not set up to succeed. 

What is one of your biggest successes?

I was interning at Sanctuary Families, which is a legal services provider for battered individuals in New York. We had a client come in. She and her ex-husband were immigrants from Côte d’Ivoire. After they had separated, her ex took their child to Côte d’Ivoire and refused to return her. She heard from friends and family in Côte d’Ivoire that they were planning on subjecting their daughter to female genital mutilation. She was desperate to have her daughter returned before that happened. 

Because female genital mutilation was illegal in New York, we talked to prosecutors about whether there was a way to bring a case against the father for making it happen overseas. They said, “No, there’s no jurisdiction basis.” We were racking our brains to figure out what we do. My job was to call the embassy in Côte d’Ivoire to see if they could intervene on the mother’s behalf to urgently repatriate her daughter, who is a US citizen. I ended up spending several weeks working with a consular officer there. Eventually, the family member with whom the daughter was living agreed to relinquish her to the custody of the State Department. Then they put her on a plane home. We got to reunite a mother and daughter before this child suffered permanent physical harm.

It was a circumstance where none of us thought we were going to be able to do it. Everything was stacked against us. The solution wasn’t a lawsuit or a law or a regulatory approach. It was about figuring out who people in positions of power were and getting them to do things. 

It felt really remarkable and gratifying to be able to do that for someone. It didn’t require a lawyer to do it, but I think being a lawyer gives you a sense of authority and makes you think about different solutions in ways that can be really powerful. I hope law students realize that what they’re learning now they’re applying long before they’re ever barred and they can do really powerful work.

What is your top strategy for success?

I read a book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The idea is we think we have a lot of time, but the average person only gets 4,000 weeks in their lifetime. By trying to do too much, we waste our time on the things that aren’t as important to us as the things that we would want to prioritize. The author recommends writing down the things that are important to you, putting them in order of importance, and focusing on the top three. And then you ask yourself all the time when you’re taking on a project or thinking about doing something else, does it get me to my top three? And if it doesn’t, you don’t do it. It’s basically an argument for being very, very selective in what you do because you only have so much time to do things.

What do you think is your future for your scholarship and yourself as a professor?

It’s funny because getting tenure is technically “the big thing.” But writing the book in my tenure packet feels like the more significant step in my scholarship because it’s the end of a big project, and I have to figure out what’s next. I’ve been writing mostly about the gay and lesbian rights movement in the eighties and nineties. That’s the central focus of the book. And when we started, I talked about the fact that they were making very conservative arguments to incrementally change the system, as opposed to fundamentally reshaping it. So I’m interested in shifting my focus to radical arguments for change.

Tell me about scuba diving. 

It is like being a tourist in an undiscovered place! There aren’t that many people around. None of the sea creatures really care that you’re there. They’re just going along with their business, and you get to see a world that you couldn’t even imagine from land. It is incredibly relaxing because you have to be relaxed to make your air last. I don’t know how to explain the joy I get at seeing an entire ecosystem that I wouldn’t otherwise interact with.