Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Being a Gay Latino

I began to come out of the closet when I was a high school senior in 1971. This was a very different era, long before there gay-straight high school alliances were in place to support teenagers examining their sexuality. For me, the decision to begin telling people I was "homosexual" -- this was the only word I knew to describe my sexual orientation -- was frightening because I had no model or template for doing it or for what might happen when I did. Particularly, I was reluctant to tell anyone in my Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American family. Even more than in the mainstream, gender roles in my family were strictly defined and enforced and I believed that had my family been faced with a boy who liked other boys, the reactions would have ranged from shock and disbelief to physical violence. So, while I came out to close friends and my high school teacher mentor -- to generally supportive responses -- I kept my sexual orientation a secret from my family for almost another decade, until I was long out of their home and established in my legal career. I realize, looking back, that when I left home for college, I felt I had to choose between my authentic nature as a gay man and my ethnicity. I chose the former because I could not live any other way than as who I am, but for many years I felt as if some part of me had been severed by that choice and I mourned it. Now this is a different time, at least here in San Francisco, and I see a younger generation of gay and lesbian Latinos/as who do not feel they must choose between their sexual orientation and their families and culture. Not that our community is always welcoming of LGBT people or that old notions of machismo don't still exist, but it is at least possible to breath, to have a conversation. And I, after years of semi-estrangement, am part of my family again, a family that welcomes me and my spouse. Was what I went through necessary? I don't know. But I am glad that at least some of us Latino/a GLBT people don't have to.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Judge Stories

Dermot Meagher was the first openly gay man to be serve as a judge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and he sat in Boston. Now retired he has written a series of vignettes from his years on the bench which will be published in the spring under the title of Bench Marks: Tales of a Trial Judge. I have been reading the manuscript to provide a promotional comment a.k.a. a blurb. The stories are short, each involving a case or a character, seen from the point of view of the judge which, as Judge Meagher observes in his introduction is almost never depicted in literature about the law. Again and again in these stories one gets the sense of a deeply humane man trying to thread the law through the needle of human misery; not that the judge is naive. To the contrary, he is quite worldly but he is not cynical -- he is what was once called civilized. I love these stories and I am inspired by Judge Meagher's example. I also love the quotation with which he prefaces his stories, from Charles Evans Hughes, of all people in a speech he made as Chief Justices to the New York Bar Association: "The Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal will take care of themselves. Look after the courts of the poor, who stand most in need of justice. The security of the republic will be found in the treatment of the poor and the ignorant. In indifference to their misery and helplessness lies disaster."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Old Friends

One of the unexpected pleasures of this campaign has been connecting with old friends from high school, college, law school and from my first jobs in the law. Some I have not seen or communicated with in years but the ease with which we have picked up where we left off makes me realize how fortunate I have been in friendship. The common thread that seems to unite my friends is a quality of kindness which is a quality I value more and more as I get older. Not in the sentimental sense of being "nice" but in the original sense of word, of being "kin." It seems to me that the basis of most moral teaching is simply the recognition of our kinship with one another and the obligation that that imposes upon us to treat each other -- and for that matter, all sentient beings -- justly and compassionately. This also seems to me to be the moral basis of those strains in the law that fall within the rubric of equal protection; all are equal before the law because in some sense all are equally members of the human family. Friendship is another recognition of our kinship and I have been fortunate that, when I left home at 17 and threw myself in a world that home had not prepared me for, I met so many sisters and brothers.

The poet Yeats says it best: Think where man's glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was that I had such friends.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Law and Literature

I was at the gay and lesbian institute leadership conference over the weekend and I met several people who had read my novels. One of the asked me if it was difficult to be both a lawyer and a creative writer, a question I have encountered before. The answer is, not really. Writing fiction requires some of the same skills as practicing law: discipline, organization, the ability to think broadly and also to pay attention to detail. Writing a novel is, like producing a brief, a form of persuasive writing because the writer is attempting to persuade readers to suspend their disbelief (in Coleridge's famous phrase) and to enter into the fictional world, even though they know it does not exist, as if it did. Most of all, writing requires discipline, the same discipline required for sitting at a desk for hours, reading and analyzing case law. Writing fiction is work, it's a job or a vocation and the same work habits that lead to success in other fields, like law, are necessary for success as a writer (and by success I mean actually writing the book.)
And what about law? Well, lawyers are professional writers. Like novelists most lawyers get paid to produce written work and their ability to communicate effectively on the page is part of their arsenal of professional skills. Moreover, like fiction writers, most legal writing tells a story; even the seemingly driest insurance coverage case has a story with human beings in it somewhere. Lawyers would do well to study the techniques of fiction and deploy them in their legal writing when they are appropriate. I'm doing my part: I have designed a creative writing course for law students which I hope to teach once this campaign is over.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Passing the Bar

Three young friends learned today that they passed the bar and will soon join the ranks of California's lawyers. I congratulate them and all the other lawyers-to-be and to those who did not pass this time I would say let yourself experience the disappointment but remember, it's just a set-back, a challenge you can and will overcome. There are a number of people in our profession, including a couple of former Governors, who did not pass the first time. Remember: tests are snapshots, not judgments. Also, most of what is worth doing carries the possibility of not succeeding. I know that running for office carries the possibility of losing but that is no reason not to run and to run hard. One of the aphorisms I live by comes from the novelist Doris Lessing who wrote: What does it matter if you fail? Why are you so arrogant? Just begin.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Do You Want to Be a Judge?

Someone asked me this question last week. I don't think I'd been asked before possibly because most people I've been talking to are judges or lawyers and for them the answer is self-evident. But it's a good question and one I expect that I will be asked by voters many times in the next few months. The short answer is: I want to be an instrument of justice.

The longer answer is: I have had personal experience of discriminatory laws and unjust court decisions. I grew up in a neighborhood in Sacramento that was one of the few places in the county where my Mexican immigrant grandparents could buy property because of restrictive covenants that prohibited homeowners from selling to blacks or Mexicans. My mother told me how she and her sisters were turned away from a public swimming pool because they were Mexican and how my uncle David was punished at school for speaking Spanish. I myself attended segregated schools -- segregated in fact, if not in law -- until I was in middle school.

I also remember that morning in 1986 when I sat in my office at the law firm I worked at and read the Supreme Court's decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, the case that said that states had a right to criminalize homosexual conduct because "there is no constitutional right to homosexual sodomy." As I read those words I felt a rage I have rarely ever felt because here was the highest court in the land -- whose justices had sworn the same oath as me to protect and defend the constitution -- branding me a second-class citizen in the most contemptuous language I'd ever read in a legal opinion.

One of the lessons I've drawn from these experiences is that justice depends not only on the laws but on who is interpreting and applying the law. I want to be a judge because equality before the law isn't just a legal principle to me, it is my entire reason for being a lawyer. I will the kind of judge who treats everyone with respect, who provides to everyone a full and fair hearing, and who strives to reach a just result. I will be the kind of judge that our system depends upon: rigorously honest, impartial and independent. and I will be that kind of judge because of my experience. In my court, there will no room for stereotypes, biases or sloppy thinking. Mine will be a court of justice.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I joked to a friend last night that running for office seems mostly to consist of calling up everyone I have ever known and asking him or her for a contribution. I've raised money in the past for causes I believe in, and I have contributed freely to those causes, and many others, but it is a bit more challenging to call on my own behalf. My decision to run for this office is motivated out my desire to be of service. I think the breadth of my experience as a lawyer in my 28 years of practice, including what amounts to a kind of judicial apprenticeship working for two extraordinary judges, has uniquely prepared me for the bench. It is my hope that when the voters learn about me, my temperament, and my qualifications, they will come to the same conclusion. But I have to get the word out and this is where the money comes in. The cause I am advocating this time is my own and I am grateful to the friends who are making it their cause as well.