This week, the gay community celebrated another remarkable victory in the Supreme Court of the United States. It has special meaning to me.
When I came to Florida in 1976, a graduate of the Hofstra University School of Law in New York, homosexuality was still considered deviancy of the highest order. In fact, it was grounds for the Florida Bar to deny you the right to be an attorney, because homosexuals were deemed to lack “good moral character.”
For me to become licensed as a lawyer, my first act would have to be to lie to the Bar about who I was. Fortunately, my career in Fort Lauderdale began in 1977 with a three-year stint as Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
In 1979, one of the students in my class — still a friend today — came to me with a case that had a cause. I could relate to it. He could not get a job in the Defense Department because he was gay.
Rick was an outstanding student and a cartographer who had quintessential academic qualifications. All the Army cared about though was the other, bigger “Q.” He was “queer,” he was gay, and he was gone.
I was certain Rick’s firing was a transparent violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, discrimination based solely on sex.
Unfortunately, it was also 1980, and not so clear to the courts of that era. It took 40 years to prove my point. On Monday, afternoon, by a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court finally agreed with Rick and me.
By asserting his rights in a world where they were not recognized, Rick risked everything. It took a lot of courage for him to speak out.
We were helped by the best.
Frank Kameny had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and completed a doctorate in astronomy at Harvard before obtaining a job in 1957 for the Army Map Service.
Only 32 years old, Kameny was confronted by his superiors about rumors and reports that he was a homosexual. He never denied that he was, and his admissions promptly cost him his job. Kameny, however, did not go quietly into the good night.
Barred from staying in the public sector and fulfilling his life’s work, Kameny sued the government. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost, in 1960.
Sixty years later and nine years after his death, on Monday afternoon, Kameny won in the Supreme Court too, as did LGBT everywhere.
Human rights are won when one stands up for all. The history of landmark cases in our Supreme Court has been quietly written by the unlikely heroes who dared to be defiant, and spoke up for their rights. They wound up empowering us all.
“Give me a place to stand on, and a lever long enough,” spoke the Greek philosopher Archimedes, “and I will move the world.”
A few years ago, Jim Obergefell said he wanted to marry his partner, John Arthur, in Cincinnati, Ohio, before he died of ALS. He did, and five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States sanctified that bond.
In 1961, a penniless Clarence Earl Gideon demanded an attorney in Panama City, Florida, after being charged with a felony. From that small courtroom, the highest court in the land would one day rule the Constitution requires states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers themselves.
Ernesto Miranda was a high school dropout whose lawyers in Arizona argued that he had to be read and understand his rights — before he was questioned by police.
A plaintiff named Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter, Linda, was denied entrance to Topeka's all-white elementary schools.
So too did the courage of Gerald Bostock and Aimee Stephens move the High Court in Washington, D.C., this week. They are two very human stories of courage and resolve, worth noting. Their lives gave birth to this week’s rulings.
Gerald Bostock began working for Clayton County, Georgia, as a child welfare services coordinator in 2003. During his 10-year career, he received a host of commendations. In 2013, Bostock joined a gay softball league, but that did not hit a home run for him at work or with his homophobic colleagues. His superiors fired him for it. No, it had nothing to do with his job performance, but all about who he was and how he wanted to live his life.
Aimee Stephens worked in a Detroit funeral home, showing up every day in a suit and tie, dressed as the man she was not. One afternoon in 2013, she wrote a letter to her colleagues and friends stating that she would be going to work dressed as a woman the next morning. It took all the courage she could muster.
In her letter, Aimee wrote she “could no longer live dishonestly with the agony in her soul.” Those words cost her dearly. Within two weeks, she was fired. While Aimee just passed away last month, she passes on a legacy that will never be forgotten.
All these individuals were unlikely heroes who became champions for equality. Faced with a moment, they dared to buck the odds and challenge the status quo. Someday, somehow, somewhere, ever so suddenly, you too may get that call. How will you respond? How have you?
When you encounter wrong, right it.
Where you see injustice, speak out about it.
When you see corruption, don’t tolerateit.
Another Greek philosopher, Pericles, said it best: “If Athens shall appear great to you, consider that her glories were won by good citizens doing their duty every day.”
The pandemic that is COVID-19 has given us all time to think about our lives and our destinies.
We have cleaned out a lot of old baggage. We are charting the path we will take next. Give a damn. Make a difference. Light a torch. Take a risk. Be the rainbow after the storm. Look at what these people did.
Like Robert Frost, they came upon a road, and took the one less traveled by. It has made the world a better place for all of us. You can do the same. You can be tomorrow’s hero.