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‘From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation’ by Carlos A. Ball

‘From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation’ by Carlos A. Ball

Author: Rachel Wexelbaum

June 30, 2010

The events that often have the greatest impact on the lives of LGBT individuals take place in court.  Even today, LGBT Americans anxiously wait for the latest news on Perry v. Schwarzenegger.  It is a good bet that LGBT activists will file more lawsuits in regard to marriage, non-discrimination in military service, employment, adoption, and other issues in the near future, in the hope that those court decisions will shape federal law.

Yet before lawyers, activists, or students can fight for the future, they must look toward the past.  Rutgers University Professor of Law Carlos A. Ball does just that in his new book From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation.

According to the Lesbian and Gay Law Association of Greater New York, “This should become a basic text for college LGBT studies courses and can be read with profit by all students of LGBT law, but it is also aimed at a more general audience and is recommendable to non-specialists as well” (Beacon Broadside). Ball, author of The Morality of Gay Rights: An Exploration of Political Philosophy (Routledge, 2003), co-author of Cases and Materials on Sexual Orientation and the Law (West, 2008), and writer of many law journal articles on gay and lesbian rights and the law, has received a Dukeminier Award from UCLA’s Williams Institute for excellence in sexual orientation and the law scholarship.

From the Closet to the Courtroom addresses each Supreme Court case—Braschi v. Stahl Associates, Nabozny v. Podlesny, Romer v. Evans, Baehr v. Lewin, and Bowers v. Hardwick—in its own chapter, under the headings of Family, Harassment, Discrimination, Marriage, and Sex.  Each chapter follows the same structure, which allows Ball to build his play-by-play accounts of these cases like stone towers on solid foundations.  The organization also provides an engaging, highly detailed, well researched narrative without losing the reader.  First, in the style of a feature story or a 60 Minutes news segment, Ball lays down “The Facts” about the individuals involved in the case and the events that led them to take legal action.  Next, Ball introduces “The Lawyer,” who represents the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.  Unlike other writers who solely focus on the humanity of the plaintiff or defendant, Ball presents each lawyer as the true underdog hero of the tale.  These lawyers were not always the best in the field, and for some this was the first Supreme Court case of their career.  Ball highlights each lawyer’s training and experience in this section, and continues with “The Law”—an explanation of existing laws affecting the client, previous winning court cases which found loopholes in those laws, and how the featured lawyer constructed a winning argument for their client—and ends with “The Impact,” illustrating how the verdict of the featured Supreme Court case in that chapter affected LGBT individuals afterward.

The greatest strength of From the Closet to the Courtroom is its style. As a law professor, Ball could have easily turned this book into a dry academic tome. Instead, he appeals to the hearts of his readers by fleshing out the human players in each chapter without sacrificing scholarship.  Those who enjoy television dramas about lawyers and how they win court cases for clients in distress would easily fall in love with this book.

While Ball provides flawless accounts of the Supreme Court cases featured in the book, his focus on small twentieth century victories may give readers the wrong impression of LGBT legal history in the United States.  The subtitle of the book (“Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits that Have Changed Our Nation”), as well as its focus on victories for LGBT people, seems to imply that the five court cases featured in From the Closet to the Courtroom were the only Supreme Court cases involving LGBT people and civil rights ever in the history of the United States. Ball does not address Supreme Court cases involving gender expression in the workplace (many of which helped transwoman and military hero Diane Schroer win back her Library of Congress position), nor does he address the multiple obscenity trials waged in the Supreme Court that involved gay men and their freedom of written and artistic expression (including Allen Ginsberg and Howl).  Ball also left out cases that did not win, as well as cases that the Supreme Court simply refused to hear—especially those challenges to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.  Inclusion of losing cases, as well as cases involving heterosexual plaintiffs that had a positive impact on civil rights for LGBT people, would have strengthened this book immensely.  The inclusion of a chronology of the creation, revision, or annulment of state and federal laws enacted in the territory currently known as the United States of America would also have given the reader more concrete knowledge as to why homophobia persists in state and federal legislation.

Although From the Closet to the Courtroom is a well-written, authoritative resource on LGBT rights lawsuits that made it to the Supreme Court, a revised expanded edition will be wanted in the next five to ten years once Supreme Court cases on same-sex marriage, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and anti-LGBT discrimination in federal employment are heard.  Should he choose to embark on that mission, Ball would be the best equipped to record those stories, and to immortalize the lawyers who took on those cases.

Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation
By Carlos A. Ball
Beacon Press
ISBN: 9780807000786
Hardback, $27.95, 286 p

Rachel Wexelbaum photo

About: Rachel Wexelbaum

Rachel Wexelbaum is currently Collection Management Librarian at Saint Cloud State University. She is a book reviewer for Lambda Literary and has written articles and book chapters on LGBT librarianship.

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