Hoping the Truth Wins Out

A young lawyer fights for LBGTQ rights.

Anna Powell Teeter

Kara Ingelhart’s (B.A. ’12, Biology, Gender Studies) office at Lambda Legal is draped with plants, snaking their vines over a copy of Michelle Obama’s Chasing Light, a “nevertheless she persisted” placard, and an assortment of political yard signs reading, “Vaginas Matter,” “Support Black Trans Women,” and “Hoosiers in Love.” A neat row of thank-you cards from clients line her window sill overlooking the Chicago Loop.

Founded in 1973, Lambda Legal is the country’s largest advocacy group for LGBTQ and HIV-positive individuals. There, Kara has worked on cases protecting service members living with HIV from discrimination, enabling individuals to change the gender listed on their birth certificates, and ensuring parental rights for LGB people, to name a few. Raised in Crown Point, Ind., she tells me that she dreamt of working in Chicago since she was eight years old. On a family trip, she saw a woman wearing a suit and tennis shoes while carrying her pumps.

“I want to be like that woman,” she told her grandmother. “I want to carry my shoes to work.”

Now, she often carries her shoes on the 25-minute walk from her historic apartment building in the River North neighborhood, where she lives with her elegant orange tabby, Fred. More than carrying shoes, though, she was driven by a deep sense that discrimination is wrong.

“All my life I have found it odd to treat someone differently based on a characteristic that has nothing to do with how they are being measured,” she says.

As a lawyer, she addresses “illogical differential treatment” using the power of language.

“I take my clients’ passionate words and make them legally resonant,” she tells me. “It’s a huge power to translate words into a tool for change.”

Ingelhart is a staff attorney for Lambda Legal, the country’s largest advocacy group for LGBTQ and HIV-positive individuals.

This belief in language’s power is reflected in her careful speech. Kara often breaks off her sentences mid-way to start again, adding a preposition or qualifier to be more accurate while she sits behind her desk, straightening the already neat piles of papers. From the outset of our interview, she makes it clear that she wants to talk about her work and her clients — not herself.

“It’s such a privilege to represent people who stand up for their rights because they know they are also standing up for a larger community,” she explains.

But it’s hard not to be curious about this 28-year-old lawyer who, only four years out of law school, is working on headline-grabbing cases, including ones involving the Supreme Court.

“I had a lot of support,” she says by way of explanation. “A lot of switches were on in my favor. Just as easily one could have been turned off and taken me down a different path. I want to pay my privilege forward to those who happen to be in different circumstances.”

The daughter of a financial planner and a high school history teacher, Kara describes growing up in Crown Point as “idyllic.” She has a younger sister, now a nurse at Community Hospital in Munster. If the pair fought as kids, they were punished with a screening of a black-and-white documentary. As a self-described “super-duper nerd,” she devoured Civil War memoirs and loved book fairs. These books and documentaries contributed to her sense of patriotism.

“It’s really important to understand the sacrifices made by the people who protected the rights we have now,” she says.

Books certainly weren’t Kara’s only inspiration, however. Her paternal grandfather, Louis E. Ingelhart, loomed large in her household. A scholar and veteran of World War II, the elder Ingelhart was the founder of Ball State University’s journalism department and an early advocate for students’ free speech rights.

“My comfort to push back against injustice comes from the lore that surrounded my grandfather,” she recalls.

She also came of age during a time in which sex and sexuality were dominating national headlines.

“My first exposure to those topics was a scandal,” she says, referring to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. “I understood how Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were treated differently [from the president] in the media, defined mainly by negative tropes.”

“My comfort to push back against injustice comes from the lore that surrounded my grandfather."

In 2008, issues of sexuality again dominated the headlines as California voters prepared to weigh in on Proposition 8, the California voter referendum banning gay marriage. Kara used a persuasive speech assignment to argue against it. At the time, like many young people, she was questioning her own sexuality, and so her argument against the referendum had personal resonance for her even then.

“I didn’t come out as bisexual until my early 20s,” she remarks. “I had feelings but understood that it was something that you weren’t supposed to feel. It was really scary knowing that I could be different in a way that would be a struggle.”

She was attracted to Indiana University in large part because of the Kinsey Institute, a research center dedicated to studying human sexuality. As an undergraduate majoring in biology and gender studies, she also worked at Kinsey on studies related to female arousal, as well as condom use, seeing this work as a “scientific way to go about social change.” In addition, Kara served as a diversity educator in her residential community and organized programs for her peers on topics like de-stigmatizing certain sexual practices.

“My cohort was really the Kinsey Institute and the diversity educators,” she explains. “For me, IU was a really welcoming liberal bubble.”

That bubble burst in 2012 when she started law school at the University of Chicago. She had changed course from biology to law because she thought she could instigate change more quickly through the courts than through science. Notoriously conservative, the law school put Kara in close proximity with people who held very different beliefs than her, good preparation for being in a profession that requires you back up your positions with carefully crafted arguments.

“Not only did I have to explain why I thought what I did, I had to learn why I thought what I did,” she tells me now. “I had to disaggregate and untangle my own rationale.” She bonded with friends over heated arguments. “From the outside, someone would think, those people are not happy with each other, but we were having a great time.”

Interactions like these helped train her to maintain professional respect and courtesy, even when her opponents take actions that are deeply hurtful to her clients.

“If you want to change someone’s mind,” she explains, “you first have to learn the road that led them to their own beliefs and see some value in their experience.”

Her 2013 summer internship at Lambda Legal opened her eyes to the issues and challenges LGBTQ people face that don’t often make headlines.

“I didn’t realize how much criminalization of queer people is still going on,” she says. “I really awoke to the insidious and invidious ways youth in the communities we serve are criminalized.”

In particular, she was interested in how LGBTQ youth are disproportionally policed and can become trapped in a cycle of incarceration. When she received a prestigious legal fellowship in 2015, she chose to use the time and resources to focus on advocating for low-income LGBTQ young people who had experiences with the justice system.

“It’s really important to understand the sacrifices made by the people who protected the rights we have now.”

Kara has worked on behalf of children who are victims of sex trafficking and youth living with HIV who are experiencing homelessness. One of her clients spent 11 months in solitary confinement due to his HIV status. In another case, Kara helped three teenagers who were suddenly forced to use the wrong bathroom when their school district caved to pressure from anti-transgender activism.

It can be emotionally taxing to work with vulnerable clients up against seemingly intractable systems. When her work gets frustrating, Kara grabs the gym bag she keeps in the corner of her office and heads to Bikram yoga.

“Sometimes I just need to be in a room that is so hot I can’t think,” she says. “I also love making ice cream and knitting.” She whips out her phone to show me her latest creation, an ice cream smoothie festooned with berries and fruit. “I lead a very joyful life.”

Kara is also sustained by her colleagues at Lambda, an office that she describes as “like a family.” But it’s the practice of law and working with clients that are her main source of energy.

“We tell our clients, ‘Look, we are really smart and we are going to take your case in front of the ultimate decider and make sure they hear the truth and your truth, full-throatedly.’ Just doing your work is a weird way of doing self-care, but I get a lot of respite and rejuvenation making a powerful argument on behalf of my brave clients.”

One of the cases she is working on now, Karnoski v. Trump, speaks directly to the sense of patriotism she developed in front of those black-and-white documentaries. This case challenges the Department of Defense’s policy banning transgender individuals from serving in the military. Kara and the team won a preliminary injunction, essentially putting the ban on pause while the case makes it ways through the courts. After losing their appeal to lift the preliminary injunction, the Department of Defense went directly to the Supreme Court. And in January 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, kicking it back to the appeals court, staying the preliminary injunction, and allowing the ban to go into effect.

In turn, this means that Kara’s clients are in danger of being discharged because of their gender identity. Her clients range in age from 18 to 38 and include highly decorated and trained service members such as an attack helicopter pilot and an officer who commands thousands of troops.

“The fact that my clients are facing this kind of discrimination—” Kara breaks off mid-sentence and looks out the window for a long time. “We have the better arguments,” she picks up again, re-straightening her piles of paper. “Let's try to uplift ourselves, uplift our clients, rejoice in the fact that we are right, and hope that the truth wins out.”

Elizabeth Hoover

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet, critic, and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie SchoonerNarrative, and The Crab Orchard Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Boston Review, StoryQuarterly, and Lunch Ticket. She writes about books and interviews authors for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bomb, The Kenyon Review, and Bitch and has contributed art reportage and pop culture criticism to Daily Xtra, Paper, and The Washington Post. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.