Monday, July 29, 2013

In time of change, an affirmation of the power of the law

By James Gilliam, Guest Alumni Blogger

Twenty years ago, I attended my first gay Pride celebration in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn. It marked the beginning of my advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community -- and has informed all that I have done since. This is the work that drives me.

Over the past two decades, the tools I've used to enact change have evolved as I have continued my education. I began my career in the LGBTQ movement as the director of the organization that produced the Pride event in Nashville. But I soon learned the power of the law. City officials tried, time and again, to block the celebration. They increased the number of costly, off-duty police officers we had to hire to provide security. They demanded, the morning of the event one year, that we display documents proving that our tents were flame retardant. Every year but one, they refused to close the main street for our parade. When necessary, we threatened a lawsuit; and each time, our celebration proceeded.

I wanted to wield the power of the law for good. So I came here, to Loyola Law School, on a public interest scholarship. When I graduated a decade ago, many states still considered gays and lesbians criminals. Just months later, while I was studying for the bar exam, I witnessed the law serving as an agent of justice: In Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Texas's law -- which criminalized sexual acts between same-sex partners, but not partners of the opposite sex -- was unconstitutional.

It took another decade, but last month we once again witnessed the law's potential to expand -- not restrict -- our rights. Marriage for same-sex couples is now allowed in California, thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry. On the same day, the Court ensured that married same-sex couples will receive federal benefits, by striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act in Windsor v. United States, a lawsuit the ACLU filed with our courageous client Edie Windsor.

To me, these cases are why we go to law school. They show how essential legal tools are to safeguarding our rights. They show how we can use legal arguments to enact real, tangible change for those in our community. They show how, as lawyers, we can remain true to ourselves, to our passions.

The 10 years since I graduated from Loyola Law School have been defining ones in our fight for LGBTQ rights. The law has restored justice to California's marriage system. Roughly five years after the passage of Prop. 8, the Supreme Court's decision in the Perry lawsuit brought the freedom to marry back to the state. And in Windsor v. United States, a lawsuit has brought an end to the unequal federal benefits system, which deprived married same-sex couples of the federal benefits afforded married opposite-sex couples.

For me personally, the past decade has also been about self-knowledge, and learning how to remain true to my passions within my chosen career. Reflecting on this work, I'm reminded of why I chose the law as my profession, of why it's so important to have strong advocates who speak the language of the law.

I was born in 1970 - the same year that Pride began. Throughout my career, I have worked hard to remember that fact, to remember what I care about, and what I am working for.

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