At the end of this month, on July 31st, Felisa Ihly, Lead Attorney with the Orange County Superior Court, is retiring after an accomplished 37+ year career in law. While her resume is packed with impressive positions and admirable achievements, it’s the fight that this supermom turned activist, organizer, and educator lead for her child almost twenty years ago, and the difference she has since continued to make in the lives of countless other LGBT young people, that make Felisa a Woman You Should Know.
According to a 1999 LA Times profile piece, “Felisa Ihly never cared much for politics, was never much of an activist when her kids were young. She worked full time, got dinner on the table each night, drove carpool, helped with homework.” But when her child Jared (now Shakina) Nayfack hit the late teen years and suffered unthinkable daily torment – being taunted, shoved, spit upon – at the hands of classmates, Felisa launched a determined crusade to keep her child, and others, safe and not the subject of abuse.
“When I was in high school and experiencing brutal bullying from students and administration because of my sexuality and gender identity, she not only took on the school, but wrote a letter to every female member of the California State Assembly (on Mother’s Day, no less) to encourage them to pass anti-discrimination legislation,” explained Shakina, now in her early 30s, in an email to the WYSK editors about her mom. The bullying got so bad that midway through senior year she enrolled in an independent study program just to be able to finish high school.
“She not only took on the school, but wrote a letter to every female member of the California State Assembly to encourage them to pass anti-discrimination legislation.”
Despite the school administration’s abhorrent inaction to the situation, the letter that Felisa penned out of love for her child had a far reaching and profound impact beyond the grounds of that one high school. In fact, it was instrumental in the crafting of AB 537, the California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000, a bill first introduced by Assembly member Sheila Kuehl – the first openly gay member of the California State Legislature – in 1995 under the name, The Dignity for All Students Act.
As the history goes, that bill kept stalling, never making it out of committee, until 1999 when Assembly member Kuehl introduced it yet again… this time as part of Queer Youth Lobby Day. Despite hundreds of supporters rallying in front of the State Capitol, flooding legislative offices to share personal accounts of discrimination and harassment, and demanding action, the bill was defeated by one heartbreaking vote on June 4, 1999.
The defeat incited outrage from supportive legislators, student activists, and citizens across the state. The response from youth activists and adult allies, like Felisa, was so strong that the bill was resurrected during the same legislative session and renamed The California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. The new bill sought to protect all categories of individuals who were protected by the hate crimes statute in the California penal code.
The Make It Real Manual from the Gay-Straight Alliance Network/Tides Center and Friends of Project 10 explains, “This simple change meant that students would be protected not only on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, but also on the basis of real or perceived gender identity. This historic move meant that transgender and gender nonconforming students would now also be protected.” And Felisa helped make it happen.
The California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000 was signed into law on October 2, 1999 by Governor Gray Davis, making California only the fourth state in the nation to pass a law protecting students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the very first state to protect students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The law went into effect on January 1, 2000.
With the bill she fought so tirelessly and passionately for passed and with Shakina finished with high school, Felisa remained steadfast in her commitment to advocate for under-represented youth by becoming involved with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization formed in 1990, by a small, but dedicated group of teachers in Massachusetts, who came together to improve an education system that frequently allowed its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students to be bullied, discriminated against and/or fall through the cracks. Today, Felisa is one of the most active partners of GLSEN’s Orange County Chapter.
Her mission also spilled directly over into her professional life. Through her long-time work as a research attorney at the Orange County Superior Court, Felisa recognized a need for young women in the criminal justice system to have advocates of their own. In 2008, she lead a coalition to start a Girls Court to provide special support to young women (ages 12 – 17) in care of the state, many of whom are living in foster care group homes. The goal: help young program participants facing mental health issues, substance abuse and academic failure to receive treatment and counseling, and to gain the skills and resources they need to achieve stable, productive lives. Under Felisa’s leadership, it became the first of its kind in the country. It’s important to note that there is also a complementary Boys Court, which Felisa helped develop as well.
On top of her professional work and activism, Felisa is President of the Orange County (OC) Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who strive for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children, and families and by safeguarding individual rights and freedoms. In this capacity, she spearheaded the creation of a resource guide for OC youth.
Armed with smarts and savvy, compassion and humanity, there is clearly no end to the passion this woman has when it comes to fighting for the rights of others. The world is a better place because of people like Felisa Ihly and we think she is a TOTAL ROCK STAR!
In her own beautiful words, Shakina perfectly summarizes why Felisa is now included among our esteemed group of inspiring WYSKs…
“My mom has always been a behind-the-scenes activist, never one for the spotlight, but she has affected (and probably saved) the lives of hundreds if not thousands of young women and LGBT youth. She will be retiring soon, and all she can talk about – aside from moving closer to her grandchildren – is what she will do to make a difference with her new-found free time. She is a personal hero of mine, and is definitely a Woman You Should Know!”