Travis Hardee at the University of Cincinnati College of Law

Redrawing the Legal Narrative

Travis Hardee's Fight for Inclusion

As the first man at University of Cincinnati College of Law to complete a joint JD/MA degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), Travis Hardee (MA, JD ‘24), is primed to stand out among his other male attorneys. But then, he has never been one to follow the crowd. 

“I've always recognized these battles that I've had with belonging,” he said. “Going to public school, playing soccer, and then going into the military, I was largely in majority white spaces, I didn’t have the choice [to conform].” 

Through his experiences with navigating majority white cisgender spaces, Travis often found himself grappling with the struggle to fit in as a queer Black man. As a child, he sometimes wondered if he should be acting differently to earn more acceptance and belonging. It took time for him to realize that the issue lay not within himself, but within the broader society.

“It took me a while to figure out it wasn't something that I was doing, it was just the experience that I was having in this country,” he said. “I have always loved everything about my culture and my Black identity, but when I went to school no one else seemed to give that respect or love to my community as I did.”

Growing up poor in South Carolina, Travis spent much of his time under the care of Black women who helped raise him while both parents worked multiple jobs. It was their influence and guidance that initially seeded his passion for Women’s Studies.

“Being raised under Black women, being taught how to respect, how to hold myself up, I was always like, ‘I have to go into an academic space where I can learn the issues and necessities of women and how to apply it in my future career,’” he said. 

Travis Hardee

Driven by his academic pursuits and the desire for belonging in a country where he often felt his identities were invisible, Travis decided to enlist in the military after high school. Although he acknowledged the military did not align with his values, he saw it as an opportunity to earn respect and potentially leverage it for career advancement. 

“I knew going in that morally the military wasn't going to align with my values. But I was willing to sacrifice that for the potential of having recognition,” he said. “I thought maybe I could get respect and use that in my career advancement and to make a name for myself.” 

It was not long after basic training that Travis found himself facing the kind of moral conflict he had anticipated. After witnessing several blatant acts of gender discrimination, he was faced with the decision to either climb the ranks, or side with his values–and the Black women who trained him. 

“I was getting all these opportunities that the people who trained me were not getting. And the people who trained me were Black women. So, I put two and two together– this was a form of gender discrimination,” he said. “It's those sorts of [prejudiced] things in the military that drove me out, but also inspired me to follow my law career desires.”  

“I was getting all these opportunities that the people who trained me were not getting. And the people who trained me were Black women."

Travis Hardee

While his passion for advocating for the underrepresented was fortified during his military service, Travis’ dream of becoming a litigator advocating for human rights was ignited as a small boy. Sitting in the pews at Sunday services, he would often hear stories about civil rights heroes litigating landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education. He imagined himself in their shoes one day. 

“Since I was young, I always had this picture of myself being a litigator, speaking to a judge – being one of those civil rights figures from the past, advocating for communities,” he said. “Oddly, I think some of the experiences I've had with discrimination informed my desire to be a lawyer even more.” 

Returning to civilian life, Travis pursued a major in Sociology with an emphasis on African American and Women’s Studies and a minor in Spanish at The University of South Carolina Aiken (USCA). For the first time in his life, he was being taught a more complete history of his identity as Black man and as queer, providing him with the tools to effectively communicate his experiences. Recognizing the importance of standardized education on race and gender topics, Travis emphasized that it is crucial for the country to address bias in institutions such as the military, education, and the criminal justice system. 

“From a young age I identified as queer, but I didn't know how to communicate that to the people around me…I didn't get that education until I got to undergrad,” he said. “So, if a queer Black man who wants to advocate for racial queer justice and civil rights cannot lead those conversations until I graduate from college, how am I supposed to expect majority white people to be able to have those same conversations in their own spaces?”  

After completing his undergrad, Travis accepted a role as Diversity Initiatives Coordinator at USCA, where he trained others in cultural bias and inclusion. It was there that he set his sights on law school, seeking a program that would allow him to further his education in women's and gender studies while emphasizing social justice. That’s when he found Cincinnati Law, a law school offering a unique joint JD/MA program in Women's Studies, along with renowned initiatives such as the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and the Black Lawyers Association (BLSA).

“UC was one of the only schools I could find that had a joint program in Women’s Studies and JD, which was very unique,” he said. “They also had the OIP (Ohio Innocence Project), a well-established Black Lawyers Association (BLSA), and [at the time] was led by a prominent Black woman, Dean Verna Williams.” 

Never imagining leaving the South where he grew up, Travis was compelled by Cincinnati Law’s joint JD/MA degree program, and made the move to the Midwest. 

"I want to be a face as a queer Black lawyer. As a public defender, I’ll be helping people where I can, even if that is a little chip in changing the cultural landscape... To me, helping underrepresented people at every step is restorative justice.”

- Travis Hardee ‘24 -

Glen McClain (JD ‘22, MD ‘25)

Following his Master's in WGSS, Travis sought out a variety of practical experiences in the criminal justice system, including witnessing not one, but two exonerations during an internship with the OIP. This exposure to post-conviction work solidified Travis’ commitment to becoming a public defender and equipped him with a deeper understanding of the impact of systemic issues on trial outcomes. 

“In regard to criminal justice, OIP has been my biggest chance to be thrown into something, learn from it, and use that experience to expand my knowledge,” he said. “Learning from the post-conviction side of this work can help me be a better public defender on the initial trial level. I see myself bringing in the things that I know affect every aspect of the trial, and making sure I am the best representative for my client.”  

In his final year of law school, Travis will be honing his skills as a public defender through Cincinnati Law's Indigent Defense Clinic. This will be a chance for him to try on the role of public defender before officially embarking on his career.

Additionally, his research assistantship with civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, founder of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and a civil rights attorney, provided invaluable insights into effecting broad societal change. Best known as lead counsel for James Obergefell in the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision Obergefell v. Hodges, working with Gerhardstein was an illuminating experience for Travis.  

“I wanted the opportunity to learn from someone who's worked on these topics and got connected to Gerhardstein through the Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice,” he said. “It was very enlightening to see what all goes into changing something on a systemic basis.” 

Travis Hardee

Most recently, Travis was awarded the prestigious Judge Nathaniel R. Jones Scholarship from the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati (BLAC). The honor recognizes law students with unwavering dedication to academic excellence and community service. As a recipient, Travis was acknowledged for his advocacy for marginalized groups, especially women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ as a queer Black lawyer.

“I want to be a face as a queer Black lawyer,” he said. “As a public defender, I’ll be helping people where I can, even if that is a little chip in changing the cultural landscape...To me, helping underrepresented people at every step is restorative justice.” 

Ultimately, these professional experiences as both a MA/JD student have shed light on the changes Travis personally hopes to make one day. Reflecting on all he has learned during his law school journey, Travis said he has come to realize that as a single individual, he cannot do it all. But through his education and practical experiences, he has found contentment in making meaningful changes within his sphere of influence.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself in law school...I don't feel that as one person, I can change the entire world. So I have to be content with the kind of changes I can make.” 

As he reaches the culmination of his joint JD/MA degree, Travis acknowledges the significance of his presence as a queer Black lawyer in a field lacking diversity. But, he says, there is still a long way to go. He remains steadfast in his commitment to standardizing education on race and gender bias, so much that he hopes to lead these conversations in his own workplace one day.

“Conversations must be had in the legal field about contentious issues like race and queer identity,” he said. “Throughout history, we haven’t had these conversations. Someone needs to step in and lead them.”  

Want to learn more about our student and their journey to (and through) law school? Check out more stories on the "Meet Our Students" page. See yourself at Cincinnati Law!

Author: Katie Bachmeyer

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