We can be heroes: In pursuit of equality in the courts

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Jamie Nabozny as an adult. Photo: lgbthistorymonth.com

Eight same-sex couples — with a team of lawyers — committed earlier this year to overturn Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment barring gays and lesbians from the freedom to marry in the state. Their fight continues, but already their pursuit of equality has resulted in the marriages of at least 555 same-sex couples in Wisconsin.

“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, had said when he filed the equality case in Madison in February. “They have built their lives and raised children here. It is wrong for the state to treat these loving and committed couples as second-class citizens, and it is cruel to place them in a catch-22 where they can’t even travel elsewhere to obtain federal protections without their marriage being labeled a crime.”

The couples’ attorneys, the state’s equal rights leaders and the gays and lesbians who hope to take marriage vows, have heralded the couples — Charvonne Kemp and Marie Carlson, Judith Trampf and Katharina Heyning, Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann, Johannes Wallmann and Keith Borden, Salud Garcia and Pam Kleiss, Kami Young and Karina Willes, Bill Hurtubise and Dean Palmer — as heroes.

“To be a plaintiff in a case like this, you have to put yourself out there and vow to see the fight through maybe all the way to the Supreme Court,” said April Goodmann, a Waukesha resident who when the case is settled for good hopes to marry her longtime girlfriend. “These people are heroes, plain and simple. They are my heroes.”

There now are hundreds of heroes serving as plaintiffs in more than 70 marriage equality cases pending in 31 states.

And there’s a long history of heroes who, with the support of groups such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal, challenged laws and regulations, changing the lives of LGBT people in housing and schools, in the Armed Forces and on the job, at the marriage license bureau and in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Most of them have been plaintiffs, but some have been defendants.

A look at just a handful of the many LGBT civil rights cases fought over the years and the legal activists involved in them:

• Jamie Nabozny. For four years, Nabozny was subjected to anti-gay verbal and physical abuse by students at his school in Ashland, Wisconsin. Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during class and, in one assault, kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery. Nabozny sued the school district and won in a federal appeals court in Chicago, which said in 1996 that public schools are obligated to protect students from anti-gay abuse. Nabozny, represented by Lambda, also won back in Wisconsin, where a jury in 1996 also found school officials liable.

• Richard G. Evans. Evans, an administrator in Denver, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Colorado’s Amendment 2, enacted by voters in 1992. The amendment barred governments in the state from enacting non-discrimination ordinances or policies that would protect gays. The state argued that Amendment 2 simply prohibited creating “special rights” for gays, but Evans et al., represented by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, argued the measure denied gays the right to participate in the political process. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in 1996, said the amendment did not satisfy the Equal Protection Clause. The majority opinion said, “The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.”

• John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner. On Sept. 17, 1998, deputies in Harris County, Texas, were dispatched to an apartment expecting to deal with a “black male going crazy with a gun.” It was a false claim, called in to police by a jealous man. At the apartment, two deputies said they saw Lawrence and Garner engaged in sexual activity. They arrested the men for “deviate sex.” The two pleaded no contest before a justice of the peace, then appealed in Texas Criminal Court. Their case, managed by Lambda Legal, reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003 that sexual relationships between consenting adults are protected by the 14th Amendment.

• Ninia Baerhr and Genora Dancel. The women became the lead plaintiffs in Baehr v. Miike, the landmark lawsuit seeking the freedom to marry in Hawaii in the 1990s. Though state lawmakers and voters erected barriers to the plaintiffs securing that right in the 1990s, their case launched the marriage equality movement and resulted, way back in 1993, in the first high court ruling for gay marriage. Today, Hawaii is an equality state. 

• Edith Windsor. Windsor is the widow of Thea Clary Spyer and the executor of Spyer’s estate. The women married in Canada in 2007, two years before Spyer’s death, and their marriage was legal in the state of New York. But until last summer, the marriage was not recognized by the federal government, which imposed $363,000 in taxes on the estate left to Windsor. Windsor’s lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Section 3 in the Defense of Marriage Act and the full federal recognition of gay marriages.

• Miguel Brashi. Braschi and Leslie Blanchard lived together for 10 years in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, beginning in 1975. When Blanchard died in September 1986, the landlord threatened to evict Braschi, maintaining that he had no right to stay because Blanchard was the tenant of record. The 1989 case, Braschi v. Stahl, led the court to expand the definition of family in the city’s rent control regulations. The majority opinion said that protection against eviction “should not rest on fictitious legal distinctions or genetic history, but instead should find its foundation in the reality of family life.”