Defender of equal rights gets its day in Pride Parade

  • by Chris Carson
  • Wednesday June 20, 2012
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While Dashiell Hammett was writing The Maltese Falcon , a mystery set on the hard-boiled streets of San Francisco's criminal underground, Lillian Hellman, the woman Hammett would spend the last 30 years of his life with, was having a creative crisis.

Hellman was unhappy with the writing she'd been doing, and by 1930 was wondering if she would produce anything of substance. Then in 1934 she did. With a play called The Children's Hour.

The play was a success. It was also banned in some U.S. cities because of its strong suggestions of a lesbian relationship between the two main characters; two women who start an all-girls boarding school.

The LGBT Project, an arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, says on its website that defending The Children's Hour from censorship, even banishment in 1936, was the ACLU's first foray into defending LGBT culture.

In the last 76 years, the battles have changed and the stakes have been raised, from defending LGBT culture to defending LGBT people, and people living with HIV and AIDS, from having their human rights denied.

"It's been a core priority of the ACLU for decades," said Elizabeth Jill, staff attorney for the ACLU's LGBT and AIDS Project. "We have a really long history of defending LGBT rights and the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS. It is a central part of our work for equal rights around the country."

That work will be recognized at Pride this month, as the ACLU of Northern California was voted by the public to be the parade's organizational grand marshal. Brendan Behan, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, said this year saw a record number of voters take part in grand marshal balloting, and he anticipates a record number attendees, even a new record for the number of BART riders, from moving all the paradegoers into the city.

"There is a lot of energy in the community, given the president's recent announcement and the news that Proposition 8 is going to the Supreme Court," Behan said, referring to last month's announcement by President Barack Obama that he supports same-sex marriage and the decision earlier this month that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision finding Prop 8 unconstitutional would not be heard by the full circuit.

"It feels like there is a lot of momentum in the LGBT movement," Behan added.

Matt Coles, LGBT Project director, agreed, crediting that momentum with making the movement to protect the rights of LGBT and people living with HIV and AIDS "the most successful civil rights movement in history."

Coles said, if you consider that in 1967 being gay was understood in society as a "moral defect significant enough to get you fired," and only 25 years later the ACLU was able to lead a successful campaign making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, "the speed we have moved to a more accepting country has been breathtaking."

Coles went to his first Pride Parade in New York City in 1976. He won his first legal battle for LGBT rights in 1978, in San Francisco, when the city passed its first gay rights law. His work with ACLU however, didn't begin until 1989, after California repealed a law that Coles wrote protecting domestic partnerships. In 1991 he was able to help reinstate that law, and then protect it from a future repeal through referendum.

From then on Coles has been involved in every major case involving the ACLU defending the rights of LGBTs and people living with HIV and AIDS as either a lawyer or a supervisor.

A few of these cases include Gates v. Deukmeijian in 1990, that stated HIV-positive prisoners have equal rights to treatment and access to prison programs. Then in 1996, the year the Defense of Marriage Act was signed, the FBI was ruled to have illegally fired a doctor in San Francisco after learning of his illness. Coles described the case as a violation of a person living with HIV's right to privacy.

The following year, in GLBA v. Alabama , a federal court struck down a state law that banned gay students from forming groups.

An organizer for ACLU Northern California, Daniel Galindo, said that forming groups at school, like gay-straight alliances, is one of many rights that LGBT students have. Others include freedom to express themselves and wear clothing that promotes a positive LGBT message.

That last right may seem obvious, but Jill said part of the ACLU's work in schools includes a project called Don't Filter Me, which fought to end the filtering of LGBT friendly sites on schools' Internet, which did not filter sites with anti-LGBT messages.

Galindo said, "knowing your rights is the first step in being able to enjoy those rights," and enjoying those rights, he added, is essential to "making school a safe place for learning, for everyone."

The ACLU will be joined in the Pride Parade by Dreamers, or young people who will be affected by the passage of the Dream Act, Galindo said. He said the ACLU has been making efforts to show the overlapping of the LGBT movement, and the push for the Dream Act, as many youth covered by the Dream Act are LGBT. The Dream Act would provide residency to some undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children. They have to complete high school and enter college or the military. Last week, Obama issued an executive order that would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation and be able to work.

If Coles's experience working in the LGBT and HIV and AIDS movements is any indication, getting youth involved early could have positive effects on their lives.

Coles said that fighting for LGBT rights has been "my whole life."

"I can't think of anything more rewarding," Coles said, "than to know people in the LGBT movement who have put themselves on the line to make life better for others."