Changing hearts and minds are important, but in the end, there’s nothing like having the law on your side. That’s where the best legal advocates come in. As much as everyone likes to grouse about attorneys, the fact is that the LGBT movement would be stuck in first gear if it wasn’t for legal eagles challenging barriers we face daily. Of course they are most effective when they have political headwinds at their back, which polls have reflected in our favor. The legal and the political work best in conjunction, as each of the following stalwarts know better than anyone.
Here are six (and an unwilling auxiliar) members of the profession who have helped build the freedom & equality that we are beginning to enjoy today.
Freedom to Marry Founder Evan Wolfson
No single individual has done more to see marriage equality become reality than Evan Wolfson. For more than three decades, Wolfson methodically built the case for marriage equality, beginning as a law student, through his tenure at Lambda Legal and then as founder of Freedom to Marry. Wolfson had the foresight to see that marriage was a viable cause at a time when the LGBT community was philosophically divided about its value. He was more than just a legal strategist, literally redefining the debate rebranding it as marriage “freedom” and away from the less emotionally potent “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage.” Wolfson has jokingly likened himself to Paul Revere, but he was much more like George Washington, maneuvering the way to victory despite ovrwhelming odds.
If Evan Wolfson was the force building public support for marriage equality, Mary Bonauto was the one making the argument in court with an eloquence that far outmatched her opponents. As a leading attorney at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, Bonauto repeatedly appeared in courts to argue for marriage equality and always emerged victorious, resulting in favorable ruling from Massachusetts to Connecticut. But her biggest victory was before the U.S Supreme Court, where she convinced a majority of justices that marriage equality should be the law of the land in a court with a conservative majority. “No gay person in this country would be married without Mary Bonauto,” noted Roberta Kaplan, the attorney (and herself a champion) who successful argued against the Defense of Marriage Ast 2ct.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy
Five judges constitute a majority on the Supreme Court, but one stands out: Anthony Kennedy. The Reagan-appointed justice has become the most foreceful advocate for LGBT rights on the bench, taking the lead on opinions striking down sodomy laws, anti-gay ballot measures and, most notably, bans on marriage equality. He’s done so by using language that goes well beyond legal reasoning to recognize the validity and even integrity of same-sex relationships–and their children as well. He’s become a kind of poet laureate of same- love, with such eloquent musings in his rulings such as this: “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.” Kennedy’s legal mentor was a gay man who clearly had a profound impact on his student. Would we have been quite as successful if someone else held Kennedy’s spot on the bench? Maybe. But we would never have had the same affirmations of the respect that we deserve as American citizens if it weren’t for Kennedy.
Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart
For more than three decades, Cathcart has been laboring in the field of LGBT law, the past 23 years as executive director of Lambda Legal. During that time, Cathcart has played a role in the striking down of sodomy laws, advancement of marriage equality, and protection of LGBT youth and people with HIV. He’s also overseen a major expansion of Lambda Legal’s presence, with new offices in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. Cathcart announced last summer that he will be retiring when his contract ends in April 2016, leaving some big shoes to fill.
GLAD Attorney Jennifer Levi
As head of Gay and Lesbian Defenders’ Transgender Rights Project, Jennifer Levi is at the forefront of the next big push for legal rights. Levi has been an attorney on a number of the groundbreaking cases, including a case on behalf of federal prisoners seeking to transition. Given that we’re still in the early stages of legal battles for transgender rights, you can expect to be hearing a lot more from Levi as she takes on the challenges to the legal barriers still facing the community.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Price Minter
For a purportedly progressive state, California has been a fertile ground for legal challenges to LGBT rights, and Shannon Minter (as well as NCLR executive director Kate Kendell) has often been right in the midst of the battles. As the lead attorney for the couple’s challenging California’s ban on marriage, Minter won a huge legal victory only to see it lost temporarily in the Prop 8 backlash. Minter’s work earned the attention of the White House, which named him to the president’s Commission on White House fellowships, making him one of the Obama administration’s high-profile transgender appointees..
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Yes, to his unending chagrin, the most anti-LGBT justice did us a tremendous favor. How? The crusader against pro-gay argle-bargle was instrumental in the victory for marrage equality. Scalia’s dissent in the DOMA decision became the scaffolding that judge after judge used to justify the end of statewide marriage bans. Scalia provided the backward legal reasoning for these fine judges by claiming that “the real rationale of today’s opinion… is that DOMA is motivated by ‘bare…desire to harm’” would have to apply to state bans. So removed from the reality of gay lives, so consumed in his own personal and religious biases, so filled with animosity, Scalia made the case for equality almost as well as his ideological foe on the court, Anthony Kennedy.
Who were federal judges to argue? Thanks, Tony!
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