SERVING HER COUNTRY AND HER COMMUNITIES
Paula M. Neira holds both a law degree and a nursing degree, but she didn’t grow up thinking she’d be interested in either field. Neira graduated with distinction from the United States Naval Academy in 1985 and served primarily as a surface warfare officer until 1991, when she came to terms with her gender identity. At that point in time, serving as an openly transgender woman in the military “was not an option,” leading her to leave the Navy and begin a career in nursing. “Nursing allowed me to have a career path where I could continue to serve,” says Neira. Sticking to a “high-stress, life and death stakes career,” Neira served as an ER nurse for five years before attending law school.
Neira decided to attend law school so as a nurse she would “have a voice at the table” during a time when nurses were not seen as “an interdependent, co-equal profession.” After completing an accelerated program at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Neira relocated to Washington to pursue an opportunity with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), now known as the Modern Military Association of America. She served as a Staff Attorney and subsequently on SLDN’s Board of Directors and as the Co-Chair of its Military Advisory Committee. In her time at SLDN, Neira helped lead the efforts to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As a leading expert on transgender military service, she helped lead the efforts to change the regulations that allowed for open transgender service in 2016, before President Trump reversed that new policy in early 2017.
LGBTQ+ HEALTHCARE IN THE ERA OF THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
Neira began working for Johns Hopkins Medicine as the Nurse Educator in the Department of Emergency Medicine in 2008. With the founding of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health in 2017, she serves as its inaugural Clinical Program Director. In that role, Paula works with senior leadership to oversee an interdisciplinary service line that is aimed at providing comprehensive care for transgender people. Paula strives to match patients with the services they need and improve the health system’s ability to provide culturally and clinically competent care for the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, Neira currently serves as the Secretary on the Board of Directors for GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ+ Equality. Neira was drawn to GLMA, which she describes as “the home for healthcare providers,” because she wanted to serve as a voice and source of expertise on LGBTQ+ related healthcare both for patients and for LGBTQ+ practitioners. “One of the things that I appreciate about GLMA is that we are interdisciplinary – we bring people together from the various disciplines to try to advance LGBTQ+ equality within the disciplines and within the healthcare community in general.”
Reflecting on what is necessary right now, Neira asserts that there must be a “continued engagement” between the healthcare and legal professions. “So much of healthcare is driven by policy formation, legislation, and judicial decisions . . . most of us think of being healthy as not being sick or injured, but the social determinants of health such as housing, employment, and overall discrimination in society all play into whether or not people are healthy. Because lawyers are involved across all branches of the government, the legal, medical, and healthcare professions are so closely aligned.”
Neira states that the biggest issue facing our community today is continuing to create a legal framework that recognizes that the LGBTQ+ community has the same equal rights as others and that the law applies to us equally. “It’s not a matter of asking for special rights or privileges, it’s just ensuring that the law doesn’t favor one group over the other.” According to Neira, the broader challenge for the LGBTQ+ community is to banish the idea of being perceived as “other” from the mainstream narrative. GLMA has been on the front lines of partisan attacks against LGBTQ+ equality, serving as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal and Steptoe & Johnson LLP against the US Department of Health and Human Services. The lawsuit challenges the HHS’ recently published healthcare discrimination rule that purports to carve out transgender, LGBQ people, and other vulnerable populations from the protections of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, among other bases.
PRESERVING A LEGACY FOR HERSELF AND OTHERS
Neira has been a longtime member of the LGBT Bar, beginning when she graduated from law school and started her position at SLDN. From being involved in the fight to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Neira says becoming a member of the Bar was “a natural fit” for her given the Bar’s history of advocacy efforts.
Neira’s commitment to legal advocacy with the LGBT Bar didn’t stop with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. While serving on a panel on military and transgender issues at the Bar’s annual Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair in 2012, Neira came in contact with Bridget Wilson, a leading LGBTQ+ attorney who proposed the idea of the Bar taking on a project of helping to update DD 214 certificates. These certificates are given upon being discharged from the military, and document service members’ work history and eligibility for benefits. For a long time, these certificates only permitted the birth names of the veterans they were awarded to. The LGBT Bar, along with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, became “a driver in the effort to set a precedent to allow for these updates” to include name changes. In 2015, the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records and Navy Board for Correction of Naval Records agreed to issue new DD 214s to Neira as well as two Army veterans, Retired Army First Sergeant (Promotable) Dayna Walker and Retired Army Major Evan Young, which paved the way for countless others going forward.
Neira says that for her, getting her DD 214 changed was about preserving her legacy more so than countering job discrimination. “When I die, I want the name on my tombstone to reflect who I was, who I really was – making sure that my military document reflected who I am so that the right name is etched into the marble of my tombstone was important to me.” Neira is grateful to the Bar for this win both because her own DD 214 was changed and because she knows that this has made a lasting impact for other veterans to get theirs corrected as well. Neira feels that the greatest service she has given to the country and the Navy occurred after she hung up her uniform. Though she did have to sacrifice her career, “that put me on a path where I can have a much bigger impact that’s been able to help way more people than just me.”
Paula M. Neira currently serves as the Clinical Program Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health and as the Secretary on the Board of Directors for GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ+ Equality. Among her many other accomplishments, Paula is proud to be a co-sponsor* of the USNS HARVEY MILK (T-AO-206). This ship is the second ship in the John Lewis class (so named for the recently deceased Congressman and civil rights activist), and is the first ship in the Navy named for an openly LGBTQ+ person. The LGBT Bar is proud to have Paula as a member, and we thank her for her service to her country.
*A ship’s sponsor has the ceremonial duties of authenticating the ship’s keel by having their initials welded into the steel keel plate (the formal ceremony marking the beginning of construction and the ship’s life) and christening (launching) the ship (breaking a bottle of champaign on the bow). The sponsors are charged by the Secretary of the Navy to imbue the ship with their spirit, personality, and character. Pragmatically, being a sponsor means helping to support the morale of the ship’s crew throughout the ship’s operational life.
The sponsors of civilian cruise ships are called the godmother. “Sponsors are meant to imbue the ship with their spirit, character, and personality. It’s like being the godmother for the life of the ship. As a godmother I can take care of my ship and her people – they become part of my family. My nursing co-workers think of that as fairy godmother: bippity-boppity-boo! No, I’m the Godmother: I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.” (Newswise 2016)