• Print Page


LGBTQ+ Bar’s Bendita Malakia Relishes in Freedom to Define Herself

June 25, 2024

By John Murph

Bendita MalakiaIn both her professional and volunteer efforts, D.C. Bar member Bendita Cynthia Malakia is making waves in the LGBTQ+ community. She is president of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, director of diversity and engagement at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, and founder of her consultancy firm, the Malakia Group, which works with boards and executive teams on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. She also serves on the advisory board for the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.

As we continue to celebrate Pride Month, the D.C. Bar spoke with Malakia about how she identifies herself in the ever-expanding queer community, as well as how she copes with intersectionality issues as a member of several marginalized communities within the legal profession. Malakia also talks about the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association’s fight against some of the latest anti-DEI initiatives.

What do you appreciate the most about Pride celebrations?

I love Pride because it’s an opportunity for those of us who may have had to cover up in our various workspaces [or] other environments that we’re in — or even for those who are able to be [their authentic selves] wherever they go. I have that privilege. Pride is a way for us to celebrate as a community and to commemorate all members of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly those who exist, survive, and thrive in the margins.

As a Black, bisexual woman, I’m very grateful that Pride is expanding in all sorts of facets to make sure that it doesn’t just include those who have a majoritized privilege within the queer community. It’s my hope that through the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, we are continuing to diversify and expand to celebrate people during this Pride Month and throughout the rest of the year.

Do you identify as queer or bisexual?

I love this question. I use both terms interchangeably. I can’t tell you why on a given day I use one and not the other. Queer is kind of my preferred term just because it’s short. And I feel like it connects me to a lot of different people. I aim in all areas of my work to build bridges rather than to construct walls. But I also recognize that the bi+ community is one of the most marginalized within the queer community.

So, as a result, I like to elevate the fact that I’m not scared or skittish to be bi+. I think bisexuality is a real identity; it’s not a transitional phase between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Identifying as bisexual is important to me. I take that seriously as being the first bisexual president of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association. There are so many things I love about being queer. First and foremost, it allows me to define who I am by myself.

With respect to intersectionality, people have a sense broadly of who a Black woman is. People have a sense of who a Black person is, probably even more than who a Black woman is. People have a sense of who a woman is. People may even have a sense of sexual orientation or gender-identity minority. But when you say, “I’m a Black queer woman” or “I’m a Black bisexual woman,” people have no idea what stereotype to apply to you.

One of my long-term values is freedom. The freedom to define myself is really important to me. I wish other people would take the opportunity to do that. I find that queer people are better able [to do so] once they have a safe environment, psychologically and physically.

How have you navigated the legal profession as a bisexual Black woman?

That’s another great question. I’m not quite sure how to answer it because I’ve always had confidence to not be so concerned about how other people receive me. Maybe it’s my mother in my voice, saying, “You should never live your life by other people’s standards.” I’ve always recognized that I’ve been different in the legal profession.

There are minor adjustments that I make. For instance, I am a “fishnet and eyelash” girl. If I want to celebrate that part of me, that’s what I’m doing. But it took me two years of practicing at a large law firm to whip that out for a closing because it’s a little bit more of a conservative environment. I think that if you are extremely competent, you can probably flex a little bit on how much you “fit in” with a conservative work environment. I find that folks who have underrepresented identities, such as queer [individuals], have to be extremely competent, almost perfect, to flex a less conservative look.

If you’re extremely straightlaced, you dress in alignment with what people assume your gender is; you follow those norms. You may not necessarily have to be the A+ student. Conversely, if you are an A+ student, you may have a little bit more flexibility, once you’ve proven yourself substantively, to wear your fishnets and eyelashes if that’s what you want to do.

Being Black, I heard many times that “we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.” So, being above average on competence was going to have to happen to me in the legal profession anyway.

When working specifically in the DEI sector, how do you articulate the needs of the LGBTQ+ community?

I think Obergefell v. Hodges led to the idea that we, as queer people, made it. I think that decision — giving same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry — was very useful for a certain section of our community.

Mind you, there are many in our community who never subscribed to this heterosexual norm of marriage. So, it wasn’t necessarily the goal for all of us. We know that a lot of social movements, for better or worse, follow moneyed interest. So, those in our community who tended to have more money and power felt like that was a useful goal. It was the next or the last thing that they could check off to feel like they had the rights and obligations of mostly full citizenship.

In a lot of senses, they weren’t as worried about these externalities that happened afterward. You get married on Sunday, and on Monday you’re fired from your job for being LGBTQ+ in your jurisdiction. These are still real problems.

How do we talk about it? [W]ith the same fervor that we talk about other communities. I’m not a person who says that we will deal with women first. And if we’ve got time, we can deal with people of color. And then, if we’ve got extra time, we can deal with queer people. I don’t think that DEI initiatives should go that way.

People are now talking a fair amount about LGBTQ+ issues in the DEI space. And those issues are starting to permeate the workplace for a number of reasons. According to the ACLU, 510 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in state legislatures in the U.S. in 2023, which was nearly triple the number that were introduced in 2022.

If all these bills are being introduced, then somebody’s having a conversation with somebody. Some politicians believe that these are issues. In other ways, the politicians who are suppressing LGBTQ+ rights are really wrong because almost 80 percent of Americans polled in 2022 support laws protecting queer people from discrimination.quote about PrideSo, there seems to be some political drive from the top that desires to continue the structural marginalization of queer people. But guess what? We are winning. It doesn’t feel like it because of the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, but [many] of these laws that have been introduced have been defeated.

That’s what we need to remember during Pride Month. As we are celebrating and galvanizing to try to support people like trans women of color, we need to remember that the reason why these attacks are coming so virulently is because this is the natural reaction that happens in social movements. We’ve made some progress, and it’s not just marriage. We’ve made other progress down the line.

As president of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, how have you helped galvanize the legal community in light of pushback against DEI?

At the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, our first goal is to support queer legal professionals. We make sure that we’re organizationally strong to ensure that queer legal professionals have what they need, whether it’s through uplift like our [Out & Proud] Corporate Counsel Awards or our Lavender Law Conference & Career Fair, which will be coming to D.C. August 7 to 9. We’re super excited about that. It’s the largest gathering of LGBTQ+ legal professionals around the world. We call it our family reunion.

We are very excited to gather and provide many days of education, giving people access to the experts who are trying these DEI cases at all levels. We are still working on our “panic” defense work, which seeks to eliminate the defense for people [who] did something awful to a member of LGBTQ+ community because they feared queer people, which is the wildest legal defense I’ve heard of in the modern day, but that still exists on the books.

We are encouraging any large law firms and other large corporations to provide pro bono support and defense against the anti-LGBTQ+ bills that are being launched around the world. While we don’t directly provide legal services, our goal is to make sure we’re deploying lawyers who can.

We’re delighted to be in the fight with so many of these organizations. Our particular role is making sure that we’re supporting lawyers’ mind, body, and soul so that they can support our broader community and the issues that matter to us, especially during this very important election year.