Taina Bien-Aimé Taina Bien Aime may have hit the trifecta when it comes to being a minority in an old boys’ club: She’s a gay, black, female crusader for social justice and women’s rights who launched her legal career from the confines of a Wall Street firm. Unexpected as this sounds, it was all part of her plan to understand power structures at their root and upend them. Once she became a mother, her passions didn’t change, but her job trajectory did — and while the challenges to her work-life equation still exist and the financial compromise is real, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rosena Sammi: You’re a woman, you’re black, and you’re gay. Of these three things, which has presented the biggest challenge in your legal career?
Taina Bien-Aimé: Being a woman. I’ve always identified first as female. I think that defined the way my mother, grandmother, and aunties raised me. Obviously ethnicity, historical heritage, and racial heritage also define us as people of the African diaspora. But I come from a family of very strong women. As an adolescent, I quickly realized that the power stayed around the kitchen table. I’m the oldest of three and was always very observant. Often in our culture, the eldest girl becomes her mother’s confidante. For better or for worse, I was allowed to stay at the kitchen table and listen to who was getting beaten, who was getting harassed at work, whose husband had a mistress. So I was always attuned to women being second-class citizens. But then, at adolescence, I started realizing the power these women had. They had power, but it wasn’t political power, nor was it power within their communities.
I’m 58. I came of age in the ’70s. I saw the development of the women’s movement on television. My mother bought me the first issue of Ms. magazine and said, “Pay attention to this; this is really important.” My grandmother was a suffragette, and that stays with me today, even when we talk about issues of social justice and the incarceration of black men. As important as those movements are, we have to be vigilant that women of color aren’t erased, because the gains we’ve made are so fragile. There’s constant resistance to our empowerment and to our development as full human beings. We have to be vigilant in saying, “We’re still here. We’re still being discriminated against. We still don’t have access to justice when harm comes to us.” So, yeah, I think being a woman is still the main challenge.
Fighting for women’s rights seems to be in your genes. Is that what led you to law school?
When I was in my late teens, I started reading books written by women who were seminal in feminist thinking — Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Susan Brown Miller’s Rape. Those books really changed how I looked at the world. I tried to figure out why, throughout history, as smart and resilient and gifted as women are, we were always relegated to a class even worse than second-class citizenship. When we start looking at child marriage or widow burning, prostitution, female genital mutilation (the list goes on), why is it that every culture has its own method of oppressing women in the most violent way?
I went to law school not to become a Wall Street corporate lawyer but for training in breaking down systems of authority and power.
I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and enlisted in the political science and international relations faculty at the University of Geneva. I was always active in women’s issues. I came back to New York, worked for an international organization and was thinking of doing a PhD in comparative literature. It was a dean with whom I was traveling in Africa who suggested I should think of law school. I went to law school not to become a Wall Street corporate lawyer but for training in breaking down systems of authority and power. As a child of immigrants, you don’t understand political systems. You don’t challenge authority. There’s always this fear that you may get in trouble.
How would you describe your experience at NYU Law?
It was wonderful; I loved it. It’s where I met my partner, Veronica Jordan. I wanted to stay in New York City, and NYU was the best place for me for a number of reasons — including its incredible and innovative focus on social justice law.
Upon graduation you took a job at the Wall Street firm Cleary Gottlieb.
I summered at Cleary and then returned there as an associate, and I stayed for four years.
How did someone who’s passionate about social justice end up at a Wall Street firm?
At Cleary, I met a woman named Jessica Neuwirth, who had come from Amnesty International. Jessica started what is now the Women’s Rights division at Amnesty but was getting frustrated because Amnesty did not consider all of the violations that happen to women and girls as human rights violations. They considered them under the realm of culture or religion or tradition. She thought that there needed to be an organization that was based on the Amnesty structure. That became the Equality Now organization. Cleary was instrumental in the development of Equality Now, so while I was practicing corporate law, my pro bono work was developing the organization, and I became one of the founding board members.
Did you know Jessica would be at Cleary? I’m curious if, when you interviewed, you expressed this passion for women’s rights and your desire to straddle two worlds.
Cleary was a unique firm. It still is. It is not only an international firm, it’s a firm that relishes having associates from different backgrounds. You had people who have PhDs in philosophy or people who had been teachers. I guess the common denominator was that you were dedicated, you were a hard worker, you were smart, and you could contribute. Other than the international organizations I’ve worked in, it was the only corporate structure where I didn’t have to explain or spell my name.
Being African American in any corporate environment is extremely difficult.
It sounds like a great place to work, but it’s still a Wall Street law firm. It sounds too easy. Can you shed some light on some of its challenges?
My colleagues at Cleary were superb, really. I’m still friends with many of them. It helped a lot that they had a very broad, global view of the law and were very sophisticated. The clients were the clients, and corporate law is corporate law, and the hours were brutal, but having said that, being African American in any corporate environment is extremely difficult.
Being of color, you’re seen as the affirmative action candidate, which is something my sons now face in high school and college. It’s something that is indelible to the American psyche. There’s always this sense — and it may be projected, or it may be real — that there’s someone, or a group of people, who believes that you took the spot away from a Caucasian person, from a more deserving person, that you’re there not necessarily because of your credentials but because of some program. That was the same in law school. When one of my classmates, a Latino, made editor-in-chief of the law review, people did not fear saying he took the spot from a more deserving person.
Can you give me an example of when you experienced that?
Our class at Cleary was probably the first in which there was a significant percentage of lawyers of color. They were all from elite law schools and elite undergraduate programs — these were not affirmative action people — but Cleary did make an effort to diversify.
I want to stop you there. Do you think it would be bad if there were black associates who didn’t have Ivy League backgrounds?
I don’t think people understand what affirmative action is. People don’t understand that whites have had affirmative action for 400 years, so it has this negative connotation when it comes to people of color, or even women. White men have had affirmative action for the entire history of the United States.
It’s this collective inability to reconcile the history of slavery and what that means in terms of intergenerational stress disorder. That history is in our DNA; we still need to go through a process of truth and reconciliation and look honestly at the impact of the fact that this country was built on human trafficking and genocide. That doesn’t make it less of a great country. The United States is a great country, but we have to recognize the brutalities that occurred on this soil in order for us to get here and what the consequences are.
Taina leads a lean but mighty all-female team at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Photo: Allaire Bartel
Sorry, I interrupted you earlier.
I was going to give you an example. So, in the context of this concerted effort to increase the associates of color, they hired a consultant to do diversity training. The first example this consultant gave was of an African American woman who doesn’t have the credentials, someone who gets there because of affirmative action. Everyone in the room just wanted to leave — like, of all the examples you could use to challenge people’s perceptions of each other based on race and gender, this is the one that consultant chose to target.
Was there anything more personal, with a partner or a client, where you saw some pushback because of being a woman or being black?
Well, we heard a lot of stories of sexual harassment. Sometimes you’re in very uncomfortable positions when you’re working late at night in the office of a senior associate or a partner. But racially, I don’t recall anything other than just the slights that you sometimes hear. I think that I heard more about sexual harassment and discrimination.
Did you experience that?
Yeah. I don’t know of many women who didn’t in some way or another. We knew a few partners to avoid, but I don’t necessarily want to target Cleary because it happens across the board.
What was your strategy for dealing with it?
It’s always hard to do something individually because then you are targeted or ostracized in some way — not getting the good deals anymore, etc. I think the women who did want to make partner, who did want stay at the firm for longer periods of time, were keenly aware of that.
We would try to identify friendly partners who would understand and then talk to them. But it’s like any club, right? Whether you’re in the police department or in a corporation with hierarchies, it’s a band of brothers. It’s very difficult to penetrate that. And, unfortunately, things haven’t changed. Silence is the only shield. It’s sad.
I wasn’t really prepared to have a nanny during the day and a nanny at night and have Mother’s Day at the McDonald’s across the street from the law firm.
Did you have any women mentors?
There were very few women partners, maybe six. I was very friendly with a number of them, but they weren’t necessarily role models, primarily because of the way they dealt with their work-life balance. I always wanted to be a mother, and — especially as a lesbian, you go out of your way — I wasn’t really prepared to have a nanny during the day and a nanny at night and have Mother’s Day at the McDonald’s across the street from the law firm. At women’s associate lunches, you would have one woman after the other say, “I was conducting deals in the labor room.” Or, “My children know breakfast is the family meal,” and “We pay you a lot of money so you can hire a staff.” Those are the sacrifices you have to make if you want to make it as a partner, or even in a corporation. But those weren’t the sacrifices that appealed to me.
I went to a Wall Street law firm for almost the same reason I went to law school — to learn how systems of power work and demystify institutional structures. They are not authority. They are built by individuals with their own understanding of who should be in power and who should not.
Taina was named one of New York’s New Abolitionists in Lynn Savarese’s celebrated photography book, published by Sanctuary for Families.
Photo: Allaire Bartel
Can a law firm ever really change enough to accommodate and retain women?
Gloria Steinem always says, “Until now, women have worked hard to be like men, and it’s time for men to be more like women,” and that is key. The burden of those questions falls upon the women. The excuse is that we’re the childbearers, and therefore the nurturers, and therefore childcare befalls us. Anything’s possible, but there’s a lot of resistance. I do think that because there’s no equality within the home, it’s hard to have equality in the workplace.
Gloria Steinem always says, “Until now, women have worked hard to be like men, and it’s time for men to be more like women,” and that is key.
You reference not experiencing much pushback in your legal career because you were a lesbian. Do you think it would have been different if you were a gay man?
That question is difficult to answer. Although it was often said 20 to 30 years ago that lesbians “assimilated” better or were more accepted in society, the experiences are very individual. My personal thought was that my visibility was first and foremost as an African-American woman. My sexual orientation was not assumed to be gay until told otherwise or when I brought my partner to an event. If there was pushback, either explicit or imagined, I would have then ventured that it was because I was a woman of color, rather than being a lesbian.
How important were affinity groups to you?
I craved those groups, so I was with the associates of color, and the gay and lesbian came a little later. We also had the women’s affinity group, so I was in all three.
Were they useful?
I believe they were, especially in building community. For me, they were communities of support and communities of allies. I understand that some people don’t want to be tokenized or feel like they have to be in a particular ghetto. But for me, it was really a lifeline because I felt very foreign to the environment, almost like an intruder.
I think it’s this whole legacy of how the concept of affirmative action is sold and packaged. Yeah, everybody comes with her own history. And we live in a very segregated country. Even if we mix together in the subway or the workplace, we go back to our communities. Even if you look at television shows, other than the recent ones by Shonda Rhimes, it’s very segregated and very tribal.
When did you come out?
I was 24, so I was relatively old. It was kind of haphazard. There are some people who say, “I knew from the time I was five, and it’s not a choice. It’s who I am.” For me, I think it was a choice. I was a very independent teenager and young woman. By the time I was 16, I was living by myself, sharing an apartment in Geneva. When I went to university, I actually lived with a boyfriend, and then I went off to grad school.
But I was raised Catholic, Caribbean, socially conservative in that way. I grew up with the saying that Jesus forgives everything except homosexuality. Although my mother was a fierce feminist, she was very homophobic. So there was a lot of fear and shame. I wouldn’t say confusion, because I was pretty clear as to what I wanted and who I was, but vis-à-vis, it was a fear of rejection.
From your family or from the world?
From my mother; she never really wanted to talk about it. She never acknowledged my relationship with Veronica or prior girlfriends. She died when I was five months pregnant, so she never got to see her first grandchild. I love my mother deeply, but it was just this stain in our relationship.
When you were interviewing at law firms, were you open about being gay?
Yeah I was open, I was out.
I was a black woman. Being gay was just ancillary.
You’ve described the pushback in terms of being a woman and black, did you ever feel pushback because you were gay?
No. I was a black woman. Being gay was just ancillary. It’s just like an added anomaly to my existence. The pushback was from the black men at NYU. They never said it to our faces, but the homophobic remarks, the shock that Veronica and I were a couple was very impressive.
Would you bring your partner to firm events?
Yes I would. She was at Davis Polk, and yes, we went to each others’ firm events.
I understand you became pregnant while at Cleary; tell me about that journey.
I was a pioneer! I wasn’t showing until relatively late, and I had taken a month for my mother’s funeral and a grieving period. When I came back, I had maternity clothes. I know there was a lot of gossip, “I thought she was gay.”
I bet! And you ignored it and life went on?
It was just, “I’m pregnant, and that’s it. Period.” I don’t think people dared to ask.
How did that play out for you, being a pregnant associate?
It was just insane. Cleary was one of the first law firms to institute part-time and paternity leave, they were very avant garde on the issue, but it was just impossible. Part-time working until six, going home; Veronica would come home around nine; I would go back to the office and then come back at one, and the baby would wake up at five. I was like, “I can’t do this,” so I started the transition out.
You transitioned to HBO. How was that?
We were not a good match. This was truly corporate America, not an international law firm. It was Americans. Very few African Americans. It was the prototypical white male corporate environment, not a welcoming place for anyone but hardcore corporate personalities. I stayed there for four years, but I was still working as a board member for Equality Now. I was a working board member for eight years and then decided to go from HBO to Equality Now full time.
Why not leave the corporate world?
I still had loans. Going from Cleary to HBO to Equality Now was an increase in satisfaction and work-life balance but a decrease in income.
How was that transition?
It’s been tough. My partner is a corporate lawyer, in publishing. We have had to make sacrifices because of it. We still live comfortable lives, but living in New York, it’s a point of intense conversations in our relationship.
Do you feel the pull to return to the corporate world?
No, but I fully realize that this has been a luxury for me. It’s been an enormous privilege and a benefit to be able to stay in this movement. And it was a great financial sacrifice for the family, and especially for Veronica, who feels like she has an extra burden to carry.
You have two children?
I have a 21-year-old son and an 18-year-old son.
We worked hard to construct a different family structure, therefore I resent now having to fit in a box that was created from an institution that has fostered and maintained deep inequalities on women.
Did you carry both of those children?
Veronica carried the second one, but they had the same donor, so they’re biologically related. And then each of us adopted the other.
Your sons have these two strong women role models in their lives, how has that influenced them and their views on women?
They’re keenly aware about their privilege as men. They are keenly aware about the status of women and girls around the world. I think they’re both activists. They’re both feminist supporters. They identify as feminist. I don’t know if they really are; they’re a little young for that. But what they have been able to do is challenge their peers because things have not changed that much, right? So when my oldest told a high school classmate that he was a feminist, he said, “Are you out of your mind? Are you planning on washing your socks for the rest of your life?” It’s interesting that these conversations continue to occur. And I think that they’re just a lot more aware. Their antennas are up constantly for inappropriate or harmful or negative male behavior, which remain rampant.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask for your take on last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and how that may have impacted your life.
While the Supreme Court decision was a groundbreaking victory for human rights and equality, I have never been interested in marriage. Of course, anyone who wants to marry the adult he or she loves should be able to do so, but marriage is a patriarchal construct that my community of feminists have always questioned. Veronica feels quite differently, so it continues to be the source of intense conversation. We worked hard to construct a different family structure, therefore I resent now having to fit in a box that was created from an institution that has fostered and maintained deep inequalities on women. Our youngest son, who was puzzled at my reasoning when the work of marriage equality was intensifying a number of years ago, once asked me: “But momma — don’t you work to change institutions?” I appreciated his insightful comment, but my views on marriage remain the same.
A constant presence, Gloria Steinem inspires Taina. Photo: Allaire Bartel
In 2014, you became the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Can you tell me about that?
It was created in 1988 and is one of the oldest international anti-trafficking organizations. It focuses on women and children, looking at commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking as gender-based violence and discrimination. We have offices in the Philippines and Mexico and other places. Those entities work with survivors and victims of trafficking, provide services, and also work with men and boys and provide legal advocacy. Here in New York, we focus on legal advocacy.
Could you do your job without a law degree?
I could, since it’s more of an activist role. But the law degree helps in looking at the law as a tool for social change. And then, of course, you have all the implementation issues that are complicated because you have to train so many different entities, from the police to the Department of Justice and all that. We were very involved in the development of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons; the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act; federal law; and the New York State Human Trafficking Act.
You have to keep your eyes on the prize, because the resistance is fierce.
But it’s hard to effect change. Does that take away from the rewards of the job?
You have to keep your eyes on the prize, because the resistance is fierce. As I mentioned before, our gains are fragile, very, very fragile. Especially in the world of trafficking and prostitution, it’s a brutal war. It’s an ideological nightmare. We’ve had a lot victories, and we will continue to have victories, but the challenges are steep.
You mentioned that this job is all-encompassing and you work corporate law hours. How did that affect your work-life equation?