The history of LGBTQ organizations both at Georgetown and the Law Center is one of lawsuits, setbacks and perseverance. To gain university recognition, GU Pride launched a lawsuit that was decided by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1987. And OutLaw, theLGBT organization at the Law Center, commemorated the25th anniversary of the court decision mandating its recognition at an event Wednesday evening.
Frank Liao (LAW ’13), current president of Georgetown Law’s OutLaw, an LGBTQ student group, opened the event by noting the growth of his organization. With more than 150 members, OutLaw hosts regular events to discuss contentious issues, such as their most recent debate on bisexuality and public policy.
“The last 25 years have brought us a lot of positive changes, including a very supportive administration,” Liao said. “All of this change began with one case.”
Law Center Dean William Treanor said that Georgetown has progressed in its commitment to gay rights in ways that he said were inconceivable in 1980, when the lawsuit was launched. He emphasized the critical role of faculty in supporting the LGBT student groups at the time despite warnings that the effort was futile.
“Where we are today is a product of history, is a product of courage, is a product of leadership,” Treanor said.
The event, which was sponsored by the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, consisted of a discussion of the case and two panels. The first panel, “History of Gay Rights Coalition,” reviewed the proceedings leading up to the lawsuit. Lorri Jean (LAW ’82) was the leading student plaintiff during the case. She is currently CEO of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the world’s largest LGBT organization, and was named one of the 50 most powerful LGBT people in the nation and one of the 100 most influential people in Los Angeles. Today the Law Center gives an award to graduating students for excellence in service to the LGBT community in honor of Jean’s efforts.
Jean said that this “true David and Goliath story” began when fellow student Clinton Hockenberry approached her about starting a group for gay students at the law school. When University President Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., vetoed approval of the organization, Jean and Hockenberry hired a lawyer to defend their rights as protected by the D.C. Human Rights Act. The court ruled against them.
“I was surprised to find that while there were many gay and lesbian students, only three of us were out and there was no LGBT organization,” Jean said. “Honestly we didn’t even realize this was going to result in legal action at all, let alone a law suit that would last almost nine years.”
Despite trepidation, Jean and Hockenberry decided to appeal the decision. But the hostility did not end in the courtroom. There were several reports of violence and assaults on campus against those involved in the case as well as accusations that they caused a rise in cost of tuition. Jean said she received many threatening messages.
“Had we realized then all the forces that were aligned against us, the struggles we would have, the cost, the backlash we would face, much of it fomented by Georgetown’s administration, I don’t know if we would have had the courage,” Jean said. “The case and its history are important. They shouldn’t be forgotten or minimized just because it may be painful. It is an indisputable fact that the history of this case is not a positive reflection upon the history of Georgetown. But much of what the university is doing these days is, including this symposium.”
The case focused on a failure to agree on the distinction between recognition and endorsement.
Tensions continued to be high during the appellate process, during which Richard Gross, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Gay Rights Coalition at the appellate level, filed for contempt and suggested that Healy be arrested for failure of compliance.
Gross said that the ugly battle was worth their efforts when the D.C. Court of Appeals eventually ruled that Georgetown could not deny gay student groups the same resources as other student organizations.
During the panel, Gross said he has never been so proud to have worked on any case as a lawyer. He remembers the celebration he held once the case had been settled.
“When they left my son asked, ‘Dad that was a great party. Where were the gay people?’ And I thought that was a wonderful summary of what we had begun to achieve at that point,” Gross said.
GU Pride President Meghan Ferguson (COL ’15) attended an event on Tuesday where Jean also spoke about her experiences.
“Until this point, few people knew what really happened during the lawsuit and what it was like for the students involved; we as LGBTQ students at Georgetown were missing that crucial part of our history,” Ferguson wrote in an email. “Now that we better know the struggles that students before us went through, we can appreciate where we are now, but also recognize that we are a part of a legacy of student activism around LGBTQ issues that got us to where we are now, and that we need to continue in order to make this campus as safe and open as possible.”