Carlos A. Ball’s From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2010) is a highly readable book, provided you’re at least an amateur legal junkie or willing to wade through (or gloss over) the finer details of jurisprudence. Ball takes five individual gay/lesbian rights cases from the past thirty years and takes them, chapter by chapter, in chronological order. Each case tackles a particular theme: what constitutes a family? do queer youth have a constitutional right to protection from harassment? can laws discrminate against gay and lesbian persons as a social class? is same-sex marriage legal? can states outlaw same-sex sexual intimacy?
Each of these rather abstract legal questions are grounded in the concrete, real-world examples of the case-study that is the focus of each chapter. In the chapter that wrestles with the question of what constitutes a family under the law, for example, the case examined is one in which the surviving partner of a gay man who died of AIDS contested the right of his landlord to evict him from the rent-controlled apartment he and his partner had shared, since his partner’s name had been the name on the lease. After sketching out the social and legal backdrop of the case in concise and informative detail, Ball points out that the ruling would eventually hinge on how the court(s) that heard the case understood the legal definition of “family.”
Rubenstein’s [the lawyer] principal objective, then, became to persuade the court that it was both appropriate and necessary to define the meaning of family functionally by focusing on the extent of the emotional and financial interdependence of the parties rather than formalistically by focusing on whether the parties were linked through ties of marriage, blood or adoption. These links were simply proxies: their existence allowed courts to assume that the relationship between the survivor and the deceased tenant had been a close and durable one. The proxies, however, were imprecise … Rubenstein wanted the court to focus on the characteristics of the relationship in question, rather than on the presence of absence of proxies (40).
The book elegantly shifts between specific detail and abstract legal theory, encouraging readers to understand how lawyers and judges navigate the world of the law to determine, in the end, how it is we may or may not live our lives. Each chapter ends with a section with an assessment of “the impact” that the case has had on the legal, political, and cultural landscape of queer rights in America.
I do feel compelled to point out that despite the use of “LGBT” in the book’s title, the cases all deal with folks who identify as either gay men or lesbians. Although the rights issues at stake here do, indeed, have profound effects for gender-nonconforming and non-straight folks of all kinds, the individual cases themselves deal fairly uncomplicatedly with homosexuality as a sexual orientation as opposed to heterosexuality. Only one chapter (Romer v. Evans; discrimination) raises questions about the problem of framing homosexuality as an innate characteristic for the purposes of constitutional protection. Gender presentation and identity are not discussed directly at all.
At the same time, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the intersection of social justice movements — particularly queer activism — and the law. It can be frustrating to all of us who care deeply about human rights and injustice to experience the slow pace of political, legal and social change. This book reminds us all that, as slow court cases often are to play out, the changes they bring to our lives are real and lasting. Speaking on a personal level, I was moved by how far the legal landscape has moved since the mid-1980s in terms of recognizing and protecting queer citizens. There’s obviously work still left to do — but I’d encourage you all to read this book and celebrate the work already done.
On one final note, this book is part of Beacon Press’s Queer Action/Queer Ideas series, edited by Michael Bronski. I reviewed another book in the series, Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, back in December and highly recommend it to any of you who are interested in the legal landscape for families that don’t fit the “mother-father-childen” neoconservative vision of family.