Tag Archives: Lambda Legal

Our Attorney General’s “Professionalism”

One of the cardinal rules of the legal profession is to zealously represent your client–to put the interests of that client first. To be an effective and ethical lawyer, you must put aside your personal prejudices and obsessions, and focus upon the job you’ve been hired to do.

Back when I was in practice, we all knew which (few) lawyers took their clients’ money and proceeded to posture to the media, or file unnecessary pleadings, or otherwise use the lawyer-client relationship for self-aggrandizement, personal gain or ideological vendettas.

Which brings me to Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

The Attorney General is elected to protect the legal interests of Hoosiers. Zoeller, however, has consistently used the position to advance his personal religious beliefs, intervening in national high-profile, culture war cases having the most tenuous connection (if any) to Indiana. He has been especially eager to volunteer in cases involving gay rights; he spent enormous time and energy–and taxpayer resources–opposing same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court’s Windsor case.

Last week, a federal court in Indiana required Indiana to recognize the out-of-state marriage of Amy Sandler and Niki Quasney.  Niki is battling a particularly aggressive cancer, and has been told that she is terminal. The couple has two children, ages 1 and 3. Niki wants to be recognized as married in her home state while she is still alive; she wants the comfort of knowing that her family will receive the legal protections that all other married families in Indiana receive.

Zoeller immediately announced his intention to appeal. As Lambda Legal noted,

No other attorney general in the country has chosen to appeal after a court has protected the marriage of a same-sex couple on a temporary basis as a lawsuit moves forward because one of the partners is terminally ill. For example, the Ohio AG declined to appeal a court’s temporary order protecting the marriage of a man fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease as his lawsuit challenging the State’s marriage ban moved forward, even as the Ohio AG fought to uphold the ban.

When a Lambda attorney characterized the decision to appeal as “a display of cruelty,” Zoeller’s spokesperson accused the organization of an “unprofessional approach in their utterances toward opposing counsel, one not consistent with standards of civility and respect that Hoosiers and Hoosier lawyers uphold in our legal system.”

Excuse me?

Let me tell you what is “unprofessional.”

What’s “unprofessional” is using your elected position to further a theocratic agenda at the expense of voters who elected you to a secular office.

What’s “unprofessional” is volunteering your efforts–and spending our tax dollars–on cases that don’t involve Hoosiers.

What’s “unprofessional” is taking positions on behalf of all Indiana citizens with which a significant percentage of those citizens vehemently disagree.

What’s “unprofessional”–and utterly despicable–is homophobia so ingrained and obsessive that you would deny a dying woman the comfort of knowing that her children will be protected, by appealing a temporary order that applies only to her family. 

And what is really “unprofessional” is having the chutzpah to complain when someone points out your own lack of humanity and respect for the limits of the position you hold.

Tell Me a Story

There’s a fair amount of research that confirms what most of us know–humans are hard-wired to respond more emotionally to individual stories of hardship than to news of large-scale tragedies. We may sympathize and even send contributions when we hear of famine in Africa, for example, but we are much more likely to empathize and offer help when we hear the story of one person’s suffering, or one family’s struggle.  Any PR person will confirm that the best way to get public attention for a cause is to tell a story.

Last night, my husband and I heard a story. We were at Lambda Legal’s annual fundraising dinner, and the speaker was Zach Wahls, the 19-year old whose testimony to the Iowa legislature went viral on You Tube last year. (If you missed it, you can watch it here.) The Iowa legislature was proposing to amend the state constitution to reverse the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision that the state must recognize same-sex marriages, a decision allowing Zach’s two moms to finally marry.

Zach is obviously a young man with a bright future–assured beyond his years, comfortable speaking to a large crowd, and able to convey both humor and passion. Above all, he seemed real–a bright kid who simply got fed up with politicians using his family as a wedge issue,  butting into his family’s life to score political points.

He began by answering the questions he says he most frequently gets. To the question “Are you gay?” (he’s not) he responds with another question: “Does a fork turn into a spoon because they occupy the same drawer?” To questions about growing up without a father figure to provide a role model, he concedes there are differences. “When you are raised by two moms, you learn to put the toilet seat down, and to ask for directions.”

Listening to Zach tell his story, I thought again about the surprisingly rapid cultural change we’ve experienced just in my lifetime. When I was Zach’s age, no one even discussed homosexuality. The word “gay” meant happy, and no one had ever heard the term GLBT. When Stonewall set off the gay-rights movement, gays were still reviled. The goal was basic civil rights, and protection from harassment. Today, a significant portion of the population lives in states that recognize same-sex marriage, and although there are still plenty of issues and lots of bigotry, full equality is just a matter of time.

I think this unusually swift change was a result of the decision to encourage people to “come out” and tell their stories. The efforts of Lambda, the ACLU, and numerous other civil liberties groups would have been less effective without those stories.

Zach’s story was compelling, but there are so many others. We need to listen to them.

Progress is Hard Work

How does change happen?

Too often, we think of broad cultural changes as part of an inevitable sweep of history,  sort of like the process of maturation we go through as individuals: as we grow up, we understand more. This analogy conveniently overlooks the people who grow older but do not grow up. And it overlooks the role that parents, peers and educational institutions play in molding individuals.

Cultural change does not come about accidently either. A lot of blood was spilled in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans—and by forcing legal change, the civil rights movement began the lengthy process of changing attitudes. The evolution from “a woman’s place is in the home” to a society in which working women are a commonplace didn’t begin with bloodshed, but it did begin with suffragette marches and continued with the establishment of feminist organizations like NOW and NARAL. Similarly, the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians has been the product of hard work by gay civil rights organizations.

I mention that because, in my city, it is the time of year for Lambda Legal’s big fundraising dinner. On September 16th, members, supporters and supportive public officials will gather in downtown Indianapolis to hear Zach Wahls, a remarkable young man whose speech to the Iowa legislature went viral a few months ago. At 19, he is representative of a generation that symbolizes the changes in attitudes about gay families—changes that have occurred largely because of the work done by organizations like Lambda.

No organization of which I am aware has been more important than Lambda, although there are certainly many organizations doing great work on behalf of the LGBT community.

The reason I raise the importance of civil rights organizations is that there tends to be a “trajectory” of support for any cause. Early in the movement for equality—whether for African-Americans, women or gays—there is generally a dedicated, even enthusiastic, core group that supports and funds the organizations that have been formed. As those organizations experience successes, as they see progress, and as time passes, the early support dwindles and the enthusiasm flags. (Most recently, you could see this in the fight against AIDS; as new medications were developed and discrimination lessened, so did awareness. The sense of urgency abated.)

It’s well to remind ourselves that winning any battle, let alone the battle for equality, requires persistence above all.

It can be difficult to constantly pump ourselves up, to attend yet another fundraiser, yet another rally. We all get tired of emailing and calling our elected representatives, writing yet another letter to the editor. That’s why organizations are so important—they do the day to day work that absolutely has to be done if a movement is to be successful. Through our donations, we are paying others to be persistent for us. Writing a check is a lot easier for most people than doing the necessary nitty-gritty work.

Writing that check is the least we can do.

What’s the Opposite of Pandering?

As readers of my posts and columns know, I’m no fan of political pandering.

On the other hand, Mayor Ballard’s speech to the Lambda dinner last night wasn’t even the opposite of pandering. The opposite would be some sort of “Sister Soulja” moment–a stern rebuke to someone who is generally a supporter when that person or organization steps out of line.

Ballard managed to avoid both kissing up to the crowd and telling them something they needed to hear. Instead, he delivered a speech that would have been far more appropriate at a Chamber of Commerce event. While he did say “Lambda Legal”–once–he didn’t use the words “gay” or “lesbian” at all.  He didn’t talk about equality, didn’t refer to anything his administration had done or planned to do about issues the gay community finds important (or even arguably relevant). He droned on about taxes and public safety to a crowd that skews liberal on taxes and has reason to be skeptical about the use of police power.

He did include one throwaway line about understanding the importance of the arts, even though he cut arts funding drastically, so perhaps he was dimly aware that an audience of gay and gay-friendly people would have more than its share of arts supporters. Otherwise, he gave a speech that was so far from pandering, it was entirely unconnected to the concerns of his audience. Not only was it irrelevant, it wasn’t even a good speech.

The word that comes to mind is clueless.