From the Closet to the Courtroom
California Lawyer

From the Closet to the Courtroom

Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation

July 2010

From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation
by Carlos A. Ball
Beacon Press, 286 pages, $27.95, hardcover

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Legal doctrines do not emerge from the ether, nor are shifts in social policy preordained. Especially when it comes to lawsuits seeking to further the rights of lesbians and gay men, change is a result of deliberate choices made by unique individuals, often in a fertile collaboration between an injured or angered litigant and a focused and, inevitably perhaps, self-interested lawyer.

Carlos A. Ball is a law professor who understands the human dimensions of gay rights impact litigation, and he writes with the eyes and ears of a journalist - at times even a novelist - as much as with the mind of a legal scholar. In his latest book he focuses on the key legal actions that have most dramatically advanced the cause of gay rights over the past three decades.

Ball's narratives are arranged in five chapters, on family, harassment, discrimination, marriage, and sex. The family tale, involving a man whose lover died of AIDS, leads to the legal recognition of a surviving partner's right to retain a rent-controlled apartment as a family member; the harassment case was brought by a Midwestern teenager who suffered horrible treatment in his high school. The discrimination story involves a lesbian cop in Colorado, and the marriage campaign has its origins with a feisty Hawaiian lesbian couple determined to change local laws. As for the sexual freedom story, after his wrongful arrest in Texas John Lawrence had the guts to complain to a local gay attorney, and that lawyer brought Lawrence's story to an impassioned advocate who discerned a chance to reverse the 1987 Supreme Court ruling upholding Georgia's sodomy law.

Each of these cases shifted the law nationally - for brutally harassed gay teenagers, for the politics of gay rights legislation, for the marriage equality movement, and for the decriminalization of sodomy laws.

Even to readers who already know the outcome of these dramas, the narratives make for compelling reading and offer valuable insight into the motivations of the parties and their attorneys. Indeed, the what ifs are most intriguing. What if these brave folks had not come forward - or what if these lawyers had wandered off into less meaningful work? Would insurance companies have forced schools to institute programs to prevent the bullying of gay teenagers? And would nearly half of the country's gay population now live in states that offer some form of marriage-like recognition of same-sex couples?

Ball offers no philosophical explanation of why the legal status of lesbians and gay men has evolved so dramatically over the years, nor is one needed to make this book worth reading. Instead, he offers lawyers an enlightening shift of focus, enabling us to understand who "makes law" in this country, and what motivates them to do so. Each of these narratives brings a landmark legal case to life, revealing the personal seeds that grew into these lawsuits in ways that are crucial to understanding how the stories of these litigants became the doctrines shaping our national legal framework.

Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator based in Oakland, is the author of Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions (Nolo Press).

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