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    Role Model Alma Soongi Beck, Esq., Mixes Legal Savvy with Community Service

    roleEven the most confident and strong among us can feel defeated by legal troubles, but that’s where Alma Soongi Beck, Esq., comes in like a superhero, resolving complex issues concerning estates, trusts, taxes, domestic partnership, property co-ownership and more with ease. Still more remarkable is that much of her time is spent conducting free workshops and doing other pro bono work that has immeasurably benefited our community over the years. It is little wonder that AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, the Golden Gate Business Association and other organizations have recognized her tireless efforts.

    Beck generously took time out of her very hectic schedule for the San Francisco Bay Times to discuss some of the current legal challenges facing LGBT individuals—particularly those of Asian heritage—and to address other topics. This graduate of both Yale and Georgetown is extremely sharp, so we encourage you not only to take her advice to heart, but also to attend one of her free workshops. For a list of times and dates, please visit: http://www.becklawgroup.com/Estate-Planning-workshops.php

    San Francisco Bay Times: You have done a tremendous amount of volunteer work over the years, given your efforts with the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, your free workshops and much more. What motivates you to do such pro bono work, and what are some of the rewards that you have received from it?

    Alma Soongi Beck: I have been involved in public interest and social activism since at least high school. I think it comes from my parents, who were always encouraging us to think beyond ourselves and our own personal well being onto broader social issues and the well-being of the rest of the world. They are immigrants from a country (Korea) that faced more war and occupation than really any human being should, and perhaps for this reason, our favorite topics at the dinner table continue to be history, politics, the betterment of society, and other fundamentals of human well being.

    In college, I remained active on race, gender, and LGBT issues, and chose to major in an American Studies Program with an Ethnic Studies concentration (my senior thesis was on Asian American Women and Flapper Culture of the 1920s). I then spent two years doing non-profit work in D.C., on racial diversity in the women’s reproductive rights movement, and in one of the first Americorps programs at the beginning of President Clinton’s first term, for training and developing public service among young adults (where, by total coincidence, Michelle Robinson (later Obama) was my co-worker before she was married!). I knew it was time to become a lawyer when I was accepted into the Public Interest Law Scholars program at Georgetown University Law Center.

    When it came time for me to choose where to take my work life as a lawyer, I was asked by a very wise colleague, “What Do You Want?” The immediate answer in my mind was to serve the LGBT community. I had tried my hand for a couple of years doing employment law, developing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for employers, and trying futilely to avoid the stresses of litigation. I had been involved in the Bay Area LGBT community for many years, mostly in Asian and Pacific Islanders LGBT circles. Back then, in the year 2000, it was clear there were few legal protections for same-sex couples beyond hospital visitation rights under the newly christened state-wide domestic partnership registry, and some of the best City/County benefits, but only for City/County employees. It was a completely different world for most LGBT couples, and without estate planning documents, people really had no protection around inheritance or control upon incapacity. After meeting with many of the members of the LGBT Bar who were estate planners, it was easy to choose where to focus.

    From there, it was just a matter of time to build the practice, go back to school for the LL.M. degree in Taxation, start volunteering to do free wills through the AIDS Legal Referral Panel (ALRP), and conduct free legal workshops to educate the LGBT community. I started with my own circles, among LGBT people of color, and then eventually took it more broadly. Back then, the important thing was getting as many people as possible to understand and do their documents, to increase the general awareness across the larger LGBT community.

    At this point, over 14 years later, the free legal workshops are just an integral part of our practice. We realize that not everyone who attends will become our clients, which is fine. Our goal is to educate the community and make sure people understand the issues affecting our community, and if they do need an attorney to assist, we can certainly help.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are a few of the key challenges that your LGBT clients are facing now, and how do you help them to resolve these matters?

    Alma Soongi Beck: On the one hand, federal recognition of marriage after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor has dramatically changed (and improved) the community’s perspective of ourselves and our relationships with our families. Not in all cases, and not everywhere, but still, the tone of how people talk about their relationships is noticeably different than 14+ years ago when I started my practice and people were more regularly calling our office because their partner died and the partner’s parents were taking the furniture and trying to get them kicked out of the house.

    On the other hand, I’m still concerned that LGBT clients who are married and some of their advisors may be more willing to be complacent after Windsor. Most LGBT couples, including married ones, are not yet ready to be treated “the same” as hetero married couples in their legal and financial work. This has been a concern in other oppressed communities, such as in anti-racism work when white folks assume that treating people of color “the same” is the goal of anti-racism work. I would probably articulate the goal more as treating people of color like “we” want to be treated, and for LGBT couples, treating them like they need to be treated, with a more discerning analysis.

    For instance, some people may want to restructure their documents, or unwind planning that was done before federal marriage recognition, or execute new deeds or property agreements that “transmute” (change) property into community property in order to take advantage of the capital gains advantages for surviving spouses. Others need counsel on the tax and financial benefits and burdens of marriage, and of state domestic partnership. The LGBT community has never been a one-size-fits-all community, and with federal marriage recognition, it still is not.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Do you think that attitudes toward LGBT individuals are changing for the better among Korean Americans? How so, and what might be done to further improve the current situation?

    Alma Soongi Beck: I think attitudes toward LGBT individuals are improving among all communities. Marriage recognition has been a game-changer. Back in 2008, soon after the California Supreme Court marriage decision, I was invited to do a talk in Seoul, South Korea, for a room full of LGBT activists. I talked about the evolving California law, but frankly, they were mostly interested in the stories—people getting married to long-time partners who may have been accepted by families, but who were now being thought of completely differently now that they could get legally married. The stories were met by most with tears of hope and disbelief.

    I realize that marriage is not the only, and not the most important, issue for the community. But it has been an important spearhead to move the community forward in many ways, both legally and socially. I hope very much that the momentum is only going to continue throughout the rest of the United States. It is bringing the country to a new threshold of justice and fairness, which can only benefit the country no matter how many feelings that some people may still have about it. The next interesting question for Korean Americans will be to see how this might continue to reverberate in Korea, where the social, political, and cultural views on marriage and heterosexism are so different.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of your favorite organizations or other resources that are dedicated to helping LGBT individuals with Asian backgrounds and their allies?

    Alma Soongi Beck: I have to preface this with an apology in advance for any I may be leaving out. My list is only as good as my own contact and exposure with the broad range of organizations that serve the Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT communities. The ones that come first to mind are some of the longest-standing Bay Area organizations, such as GAPA (Gay Asian Pacific Alliance for gay, bi, and queer men), APIQWTC (formerly API Sisters (and now Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women and Transgender Community), Trikone (for South Asian LGBT people of all genders), and the A/PI Wellness Center, which has been a safe haven for many Asian and Pacific Islander people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds seeking assistance with health issues including HIV/AIDS prevention and support.

    I’ve long been an admirer of API Family Pride, an organization for parents, families, and friends of LGBT Asian and Pacific Islanders, and “Song That Radio,” a San Jose-based Vietnamese language LGBT radio program that has been broadcasting for over a decade (quite amazing, really). I’m a newer supporter of API Equality, which does work statewide to advocate for fairness and equality in the Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT community. And, of course, we have organizations from other parts of the country, like the Dari Project based in New York to build a website resource for families and relatives of LGBT Koreans, APLBTN—a national network of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT women’s groups from many different states—and NQAPIA, the National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance. I’m sure there are others I am missing, or forgetting, who have made huge contributions toward building an LGBT Asian and Pacific Islander community across the country.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Do you think that the LGBT community, in general, needs to do a better job at improving diversity? What steps might be taken so that people from all cultures and backgrounds feel welcome and appropriately represented?

    Alma Soongi Beck: I think every community can do a better job at improving diversity, not just the LGBT community. In some ways, the LGBT community has some advantages in being able to think about diversity. For instance, as a statistical minority even in San Francisco, LGBT people involved with LGBT organizations or community activities may find it difficult to purposely or inadvertently avoid people of different races and class backgrounds. Conversely, among straight folks, it’s actually quite easy for people who stay in their own neighborhoods to completely avoid people of other races or class backgrounds for extended periods of time. This is rarely the case for LGBT organizations, gatherings, or community events. It makes the daily perspective of LGBT folks broader and more comfortable around other diversities.

    Also, as an oppressed group, LGBT people have at least some understanding of what it is like to be closeted, discriminated against, and mistreated, which also makes it easier to empathize and recognize when we are not being as inclusive as we should. So, after spending many years facilitating diversity programs for non-profits, companies, and LGBT organizations, I would say that the biggest challenge to improving diversity is probably our defensiveness. The LGBT community is particularly good at defensiveness, for good reason, as a way to cope and manage homophobia, heterosexism, and gender oppression. However, defensiveness is a double-edged sword, and gets in our way of improving diversity awareness in our own community. It usually looks something like, “I can’t be racist (or classist, or transphobic), because I’m gay.” There are other versions of this that LGBT folks may experience from gender-conforming straight people, like, “I can’t be homophobic (or transphobic), because I’m a woman.”

    The main issue with diversity is that dominant groups mostly cannot see how we are oppressive. That’s how it works. In a room of mostly white LGBT folks, the white folks will have a hard time seeing racism. In a room of mostly middle class folks, the middle class people will have a hard time seeing classism. A lesbian might be able to catch the homophobia and sexism, but might completely miss the gender oppression of the trans people, and might even inadvertently (or purposely) be promoting and encouraging transphobia.

    For this reason, my main suggestion is to be open to what might feel like criticism and attack. If someone is “complaining” to you about the lack of diversity, they are likely telling you something that you just would never learn about otherwise. It might feel crappy and critical, but really, when people raise these issues, they are offering a gift of information that you do not ordinarily have access to. I would suggest practicing responses that encourage dialogue rather than shutting it down. Instead of “I can’t be transphobic because I’m a lesbian,” perhaps an alternative might be an apology, and then asking for more information. “I’m so sorry. I’m not sure what I did. Would you be willing to explain more?” You will certainly learn something important that will improve how you handle things in the future, and will improve your relationships across diverse communities.

    I would probably add on the flip side, when we notice oppressions against us, to figure out how to articulate what we notice as kindly and gently as we can, no matter how frustrated and upset we might be about it. We really want others to be able to hear our important feedback and information, and we do not (always) need to be harsh or mean about it. I mean, sometimes we do need to be loud and obnoxious about it, but probably less so that most of us feel.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Your success is phenomenal and you are an incredible role model for many. What advice would you give to other women who may be struggling with issues of gender inequality now? As Patricia Arquette said at the Oscars the other night, “It’s time for women. Equal means equal.” Do you think we’re on the right track toward reaching equality in the workplace?

    Alma Soongi Beck: Thank you for your kind words. I love that Patricia Arquette used her privilege to say something so publicly at one of the most-watched venues in the world to raise the issue of equal pay for women. I also realize she has come under criticism as well for sounding like she was oversimplifying sexism in a way that sounded like it cannot be separated from other oppressions.

    So at the risk of sounding like I’m oversimplifying, I would say to other women, don’t believe the negative messages in your head. Those are meant to distract you from the important issues in your life and in society. You are beautiful, and do not need to alter your body or your face. You are brilliant, so trust your mind, and surround yourself with other people who believe in your mind and can remind you. Please control and stop the inclination you might feel to criticize and bring down other women, any other women, no matter how much you feel like you hate them. Focus on what you admire and want to support in them, and it will come back to you a hundred-fold. And don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t let this fear paralyze you. Some of the most successful people in the world have had to go through glorious failures on their way toward their successes.