From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation

From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation

by Carlos A. Ball, Michael Bronski

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The advancement of LGBT rights has occurred through struggles large and small-on the streets, around kitchen tables, and on the Web. Lawsuits have also played a vital role in propelling the movement forward, and behind every case is a human story: a landlord in New York seeks to evict a gay man from his home after his partner of ten years dies of AIDS; school


The advancement of LGBT rights has occurred through struggles large and small-on the streets, around kitchen tables, and on the Web. Lawsuits have also played a vital role in propelling the movement forward, and behind every case is a human story: a landlord in New York seeks to evict a gay man from his home after his partner of ten years dies of AIDS; school officials in Wisconsin look the other way as a gay teenager is repeatedly and viciously harassed by other students; a lesbian couple appears unexpectedly at a clerk's office in Hawaii seeking a marriage license.

Engaging and largely untold, From the Closet to the Courtroom explores how five pivotal lawsuits have altered LGBT history. Beginning each case narrative at the center-with the litigants and their lawyers-law professor Carlos Ball follows the stories behind each crucial lawsuit. He traces the parties from their communities to the courtroom, while deftly weaving in rich sociohistorical context and analyzing the lasting legal and political impact of each judicial outcome.

Over the last twenty years, no group of attorneys has helped to transform this country more than LGBT rights lawyers, and surprisingly, their collective accomplishments have received relatively little attention. Ball remedies that by exploring how a band of largely unheralded civil rights lawyers have attained remarkable legal victories through skill, creativity, and perseverance.

In this richly layered and multifaceted account, Ball vividly documents how these judicial victories have significantly altered LGBT lives today in ways that were unimaginable only a generation ago.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ball (The Morality of Gay Rights), Rutgers professor of law, offers an in-depth analysis of the five lawsuits that have moved America closer to full legal equality for LGBT people. The groundbreaking legal decisions include Nabozny v. Podlesny (1996), in which a seventh-grader received such brutal bullying and beatings that he required abdominal surgery successfully sued his school for discrimination in refusing to protect him, after they claimed the brutal treatment was his fault because he was openly gay, and Romer v. Evans (also 1996), in which a lesbian policewoman's fellow officers harassed her and ignored her calls for backup in dangerous situations. Ball does an excellent job of showcasing the stories of the lawyers, activists, and defendants involved. He points out that although these cases were essential to get the process started, until marriage equality is protected under federal law and “don't ask, don't tell” is repealed, there is yet a long way to go. The tone of this book sets it apart from similar studies; Ball approaches his subject with vigor and sensitivity and makes a poignant plea for justice. (June)
From the Publisher
“Ball revels in a handful of important legal victories, while also delving deeply into the personal stories of each case, resulting in a richly textured account that is part history book, part colorful reportage.”— Beth Greenfield, Time Out New York
“While the gay and lesbian rights movement had its start in 1969 at the Stonewall in New York City, it has yet to have a book tell the story of its poster children and the legal struggles in which they fought. This volume amply fills this void. . . . Well written, exciting, and fun to read.”Choice Magazine
“Ball dramatically resurrects each case, bringing together opposing attorneys and litigants to show how ordinary human conflict can translate to extraordinary civil rights gain. This groundbreaking book is crucial if we are to understand the history of the rights we take for granted.”—Mary Bonauto, Civil Rights Project director for GLAD, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders
“Ball approaches his subject with vigor and sensitivity and makes a poignant plea for justice.”—Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
Ball (law, Rutgers Univ.; The Morality of Gay Rights), who's written several books and articles on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, here describes and analyzes five major state and federal court cases (on family, harassment, discrimination, sexual acts, and marriage) involving LGBT rights. Included are the legal frameworks, legal arguments, plaintiffs and major players involved, resulting decisions, and impact of cases. He notes that these lawsuits have "helped to make LGBT people visible by forcing society to grapple with both their existence and their aspirations." Though lesser known than the progression of cases that established many civil rights for African Americans, a strategic series of cases are being pursued by lawyers for LGBT plaintiffs and organizations. VERDICT While other recent books on LGBT court cases offer broader coverage, such as Susan Gluck Mezey's Queers in Court: Gay Rights, Law and Public Policy, no other book covers this particular set of cases. This will be of particular interest as the California gay marriage case wends its way through the courts and "don't ask, don't tell" features prominently in the news.—Mary Jane Brustman, Univ. at Albany Libs., NY

Product Details

Beacon Press
Publication date:
Queer Ideas/Queer Action , #4
Sold by:
Penguin Random House Publisher Services
File size:
365 KB

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction

The LGBT rights movement has had many heroes, some who have received a great deal of national attention, and others whose names we will never know. Indeed, the advancement of LGBT rights has come about through struggles large and small—on the streets, around kitchen tables, in newspapers and on the Internet, and in courtrooms across the country. The list of individuals who have par­ticipated is long, and it includes the drag queens who congregated at the Stonewall Inn and who decided in 1969 to push back against po­lice harassment and intimidation; the gay rights activists who in 1978 defeated a California ballot measure that would have led to the firing of gay public school teachers throughout the state; the thousands of volunteers who in the 1980s helped to care for, and fought on behalf of, people with AIDS; and the many who came together to mourn and celebrate the life of Matthew Shepard, who in 1998 was brutally beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, for being gay.

One important piece of the struggle for LGBT rights has involved lawsuits. This book tells the story of five lawsuits that have worked in conjunction with political mobilization and social protests to remake our nation’s political, social, and moral landscape.
In many ways, overcoming invisibility is the first step in success­fully demanding basic civil rights. In fact, it is perhaps no coincidence that Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s novel about the pain and misery associated with the invisibility of black people in America, was pub­lished only two years before the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown compelled our country to recog­nize the capabilities and hopes of African Americans. Black people after Brown may still have been hated by some and feared by others, but they were no longer invisible. After Brown, it was no longer ten­able to reject out of hand the claims of African Americans to basic equality.
Similarly, the five lawsuits explored in this book have required our nation to take seriously the claims of LGBT people to equal citizen­ship. The primary goal of laws and policies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation is to discourage LGBT individuals from being open about who they are and whom they love. In contrast, the five lawsuits chronicled here have helped to make LGBT people vis­ible by forcing society to grapple with both their existence and their aspirations.

In Braschi v. Stahl Associates (1989), an American appellate court for the first time concluded that it is possible for two men in an in­timate relationship to constitute a family. Prior to Braschi, same-sex relationships, no matter how close or long-lasting, had no greater le­gal significance than those of friends or roommates. As we will see, the LGBT rights movement used the Braschi litigation to encourage the courts—and, through them, the public—to take a hard look at a particular loving relationship between two men in order to make its case that LGBT people are as capable of forming close and lasting familial ties as are straight people.

As a result of Nabozny v. Podlesny (1996), a jury in rural Wisconsin concluded that school officials violated the constitutional rights of a gay teenager when they permitted other students to harass him in violent and demeaning ways because of his sexual orientation. Prior to this case, the intense physical and emotional suffering of countless LGBT students in American schools at the hands of homophobic students went largely unacknowledged by school officials and the pub­lic at large. It took a federal constitutional lawsuit to render visible the plight of the many LGBT students who have to cope with repeated instances of violence and harassment in the hallways and bathrooms of the country’s public schools.

Because of Romer v. Evans (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to deny LGBT people the opportunity to seek antidiscrimination protection under the law. At issue in Romer was a Colorado state constitutional amendment that would have made it illegal to protect sexual minorities against discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Supporters of the amendment hoped to push LGBT people back into the closet, but the Court rejected this effort, making it clear that LGBT people are equals under the law and that the government has an obligation to treat them accordingly.

When the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in Baehr v. Lewin (1993), it became the first American court to question the constitutionality of denying same-sex couples the opportunity to marry, and, in the pro­cess, it ignited the marriage equality movement. The same-sex mar­riage cases, of which Baehr was the first important one, have done more to increase the visibility of LGBT people than any other strategy pur­sued by the LGBT rights movement in the last twenty years. The lawsuits have forced the country as a whole to grapple with the ques­tion of whether it is legally and morally defensible to deny an entire group of individuals access to the hundreds of rights and benefits that our society allocates through the institution of marriage. As a result of Baehr, and of the same-sex marriage cases that followed, it has become much more difficult for Americans to continue to pretend that LGBT people either do not exist or that their needs and aspirations are not worth considering.

In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government cannot criminalize private and consensual gay sex. For decades prior to Lawrence, those who supported discrimination against LGBT people contended that society was entitled to use the criminal law to express disapproval of same-sex sexuality and rela­tionships. The Court in Lawrence ruled that such a position is incon­sistent with our nation’s most cherished principles aimed at protecting individual dignity and autonomy. Rather than relegating same-sex sexuality to the realm of the hidden, shameful, and degrading, the Court made it clear that the choices LGBT people make about sexual intimacy are as closely linked to their dignity as human beings as are those of heterosexuals.

Meet the Author

Carlos A. Ball is professor of law at the Rutgers Uni­versity School of Law (Newark). He has written exten­sively on LGBT rights issues, is the author of The Morality of Gay Rights, and has received a Dukeminier Award from UCLA’s Williams Institute for excellence in sexual orientation and the law scholarship. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

From the Hardcover edition.

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