Legalizing Gay: The Lawyers, Part 1

BostonstingIn the 1960s and 1970s, staged sting operations were a popular and convenient way for homophobic police forces to harass and arrest gay people. Morality laws on the books in most states and cities gave them the pretext, but the police often entrapped their victims into submission. That is what happened in 1978 in Boston, when plain-clothed police staked out the Boston Public Library bathroom and enticed more than 100 men over a two-week period to break the law. When the dust settled, only one of the 103 men was found guilty of "open and gross lewdness," and even that conviction was later overturned.

John Ward reacted to this gross injustice by founding GLAD. It was meant to be a resource for gay New Englanders who were threatened by police and prosecutors and it has grown into so much more than that. First, Mr. Ward filed a civil suit against Boston police and the Public Library on behalf of one of the wrongfully arrested in the 1978 sting. Then, GLAD filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court, marking the first time a document was filed at the Court where the word gay had not appeared in quotation marks or followed by the words "so-called." This is more important than it sounds: previously, gays were never considered a legitimate group worthy of a name, let alone legal protection. Almost 20 years later, Mr. Ward was the first openly gay attorney to argue a case before the Court.

In 1980, GLAD represented Aaron Fricke, whom I wrote about here, and has been a leader in the marriage recognition movement, arguing and winning cases in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

HarlowRuth Harlow, now a practicing attorney at Linklaters, has been fighting for LGBT equality for nearly as long as Mr. Ward. A graduate of Yale Law School, where she was on the Law Review, Ms. Harlow was Lambda's Legal Director from 1996 to 2003. Her career at Lambda culminated in her successful work as lead counsel and the principal strategist in Lawrence v. Texas, the foundation for every civil rights victory the gay community will ever win.

According to Professor Dale Carpenter's scholarly book, Flagrant Conduct, Ms. Harlow came to representing Mr. Lawrence with an unassailable resume of success. Just five years out of law school, she joined the ACLU's LGBT Project: She defeated Alabama's attempt to block gay student groups from public schools and universities, she won a reprieve for an HIV-positive Texas inmate who had been convicted of attempted murder after spitting at a guard, and won a successful appeal for an openly gay defendant whose trial attorney had called him "faggot" and "fairy" in court and only argued against a life sentence because "putting a gay man in prison was like putting a kid in a candy store." She was also responsible for creating and coordinating round-table meetings with other gay rights litigators from GLAD and NCLR, thus fostering unprecedented (and necessary) coordination among the groups.

DavidsonJon Davidson, a Stanford and Yale Law School graduate, has had a similarly impressive list of successes to call his own. Just a snippet of his biography speaks for itself: He has taken the lead on cases that protected domestic partner benefits; allowed openly gay high school and college students to gather and speak their minds; secured asylum for LGBT people persecuted in their home countries; and put an end to HIV-related discrimination in employment, insurance, and public accommodations. Mr. Davidson also has helped reform antigay practices of the Los Angeles Police Department and was the co-drafter of AB 205, California's comprehensive Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act.

HitchensJudge Hitchens retired from the San Francisco Superior Court bench in 2010 after more than 20 years as a respected judge and a 30 year legal career. The organization she helped found, the Lesbian Rights Project, was the first group of its kind to address issues of particular importance to lesbians. Issues like custody, adoption, access to public accommodations, and equal employment were usually at the top of the list. When the Project became NCLR, it expanded its portfolio to all LGBT issues and is today at the vanguard of transgender rights. In its history, the NCLR brought the first case seeking equal health benefits for gay partners. Its lawyers represented Annie Affleck and Rebecca Smith, among the first gay couples in America to successfully adopt a child together; won the country's first second-parent adoption case; secured custody rights for an HIV-positive gay dad whose child was kidnapped by a hostile ex-wife; and successfully litigation to settlement the first school harassment case involving openly gay and lesbian students who had been subject to verbal and physical abuse for years.

These lawyers — and so many others — have inspired many of us to dedicate our lives to the cause of civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. They not only serve as mentors, but when this or that lawyer makes his or her case — say, an Obama administration attorney arguing against the Defense of Marriage Act, or an AFER attorney arguing that marriage has long been considered a fundamental right, or when I represented a teacher who was fired simply for attending a pro-same-sex marriage rally — they rely on the legal victories of men and women like Mr. Ward, Ms. Harlow, Mr. Davidson, and Judge Hitchens. As I have argued before, every civil rights litigation victory bleeds into the next, creating doctrine and precedent that the next court can use to win us our next victory. That is why Romer, Lawrence, Perry, Gill, and other cases are so important. And, for success in those cases, we owe thanks to the lawyers that brought them.

The Service Members [tlrd]
The Boy Scouts, The St. Patrick's Day Parade, and Fighting Private Discrimination [tlrd]
The Men and Women of Faith [tlrd]
The Child Plaintiffs [tlrd]


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.


  1. Steven says

    If I were one of these lawyers, the last thing I would want is a paen from the repellent Ari Waldman, a man who bemoaned that Dharun Ravi’s life was “ruined.” Ari must have been overjoyed that Ravi got out after 20 days.

  2. Louis says

    “These men and women have been fighting for LGBT equality for decades.”

    False. These men and women have been fighting for equality for gays, lesbians and bisexuals for decades. The reactionary and homophobic concept of “LGBT” didn’t exist before the mid-1990s.

  3. Ken says

    What a very selective list. Apparently the names of people who the author knows are the ones who made it. No homework necessary to find out anyone else who might have been in the forefront 30 years ago.

  4. says

    Interesting list, and it certainly covers the major organizations. Wasn’t one of the early Mattachine goals legal advice and defense for people who had sex charges?

    I don’t know what’s “reactionary and homophobic” about including T in the mix, but I would question the accuracy of including B in discussing legal rights. Just what cases involved specifically B rights? It seems to me it would always be a question of B being discriminated against because of their G or L component. Does anyone have an example of actual legal discrimination (as opposed to bias within the LG community) on the basis of bisexuality?

  5. Louis says


    There probably were not many cases involving discrimination based on bisexuality specifically, but it seems very likely that some of the plaintiffs in these landmark cases over the decades were bisexual and of course all bisexuals benefit when sexual orientation is no longer a valid basis for discrimination.

    LBGT on the other hand is reactionary and homophobic because it is an affirmation of a defining linkage between homosexuality and crossdressing and a desire to alter one’s gender. This harkens back to the discredited theories of the early 20th century which suggested that gays were a kind of “third sex.” And LGBT affirms archaic stereotypes of gay men as wannabe women and lesbians as wannabe men – the very stereotypes that gay activists fought against from 1950 all the way up to the foul invention of LGBT. Gay men are men, lesbians are women. Being gay does not mean that you have a gender identity issue and it is a lie to lump LGBs in with Ts.

  6. Bob says

    John Ward was my neighbor in San Francisco for several years in the early 1990’s. We had, and have, a number of mutual acquaintances. I knew he maintained a practice in Boston as well but I was not aware, until I read your article, that he was the founder of GLAAD.

    As for Judge Hitchens, several years ago, prior to her retirement, I was among a group selected as potential jurors for a trial over which she was presiding. In this case at least I knew who she was. The selection process lasted several days, during which time she did her best to make things proceed with a minimum of pain and a maximum of humor.

  7. Dave says

    A lot of police call themselves the Army of God and some even have come out and said they are going to kill LGBT people. I was attacked by a Los Angeles County Police officer a year ago, my crime was being gay in public, I made a citizen complaint and they did nothing about it. One night after I filed the complaint 10 police officers went to my neighbors house at 4:00 in the morning to wake them up and tell them I called to complained about loud music. Little did the police know my neighbor called me to ask me why I called the police, he woke me up and I showed him the complaint I made on the police officer. I said it was the police getting back at me because I reported one of their officers. My neighbor said that the police are as bad as the gangs in Los Angeles, we laughed and went back to bed. True story I have poof the police tried to set me up to get my neighbors into a fight with me. This is proof gays are still oppressed by police today and yes a lot of police are anti-gay Christians who want to stop the LGBT people any way they can.

  8. Randal Oulton says

    In Canada, I’m aware how much an intellectual and moral debt we owe to GLAD in the states. My head bows.

    What I still can’t figure out is how American LGBT rights ended up still stuck in the 1970s, 40 years behind Canada. Just honestly don’t know the answer to that.

  9. Gary says

    Randal Oulton: Did you know Rick Bebout from the “Body Politic” in Toronto? He passes from AIDS in 2009. Noted Gay historian. He actually fought gay marriage for reasons explained in his website
    Rick Bebout “Gay Marriage? Wrong question. But it gets a nice Liberal answer.

  10. Justice says

    It may be just a bit too soon for congratulations. Since this whole marriage desire was manufactured by gays, we don’t have straights to blame. Nothing would please me more than to see DOMA upheld by The Supreme Court. That would be fantastic. Send gays back into the self proclaimed minority status — the same one they used to demand “equality” in the first place.