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January 01, 2016

The Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice: 50th year of service to the ABA

The Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice is celebrating its 50th anniversary this bar year. Our original name—the Section of Individual Rights & Responsibility—was one forged in compromise. As noted by Former Chair, Father Robert Drinan, in a 1991 Human Rights Magazine article: “The name ‘Section of Individual Rights’ was chosen to avoid the anticipated resistance to the use of ‘civil rights.’ The term ‘Responsibilities’ was added on the floor of the House and was agreed to by the sponsors simply to avoid controversy and to ease the birth of the section.”

In other words, after years of effort, the Section was finally created, albeit with a name that in many respects had to hide the civil rights agenda that the founders were forging. In essence, the founders sacrificed a piece of their identity in order to finally move forward with their substantive agenda as a recognized entity within the American Bar Association. This type of compromise is likely familiar territory for many who are dedicated to their vision of a world in which LGBT civil rights are no longer an aspirational goal, but a dream realized.

Notwithstanding a name that sometimes caused confusion to ABA members uncertain about the Section’s role, members have always been proud of the work they do and the tag line the Section earned as: “the Conscience of the ABA”. This alternative name should have a particular resonance to the dedicated and courageous mem- bers who have played a role in the Section’s SOGI Committee over the years.

Here, too, the Committee’s name when it was created in 1983 reflects the times: the IR&R Committee on the Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men. Once formed, its founders immediately began to implement a systematic and strategic plan to expand the ABA’s policies on LGBT issues.

This strategic focus was identified as including:

  • Positions urging the enact- ment of laws and policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orien- tation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and judicial proceedings.

  • Policies supporting equal treatment by the gov- ernment of family relationships involving gay men and lesbians, including those involving adoption, second parent and joint adoptions, child custody and visitation rights, foster care, and crime victim compensation funds.

  • Efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit marriage for and to preclude the provision of the “incidents of marriage” to same-sex couples.

  • Special efforts to eliminate discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who are or wish to become attorneys.

Mark Agrast, a former Commit- tee member and Chair, reflected on his 25 years of leadership roles in the ABA working to secure the organization’s support for the human rights of LGBT persons. In praising the wide range of activities and dedication demonstrated by the Committee’s early pioneers, including Dan Bradley and Abby Rubenfeld, he noted efforts to: “… advance a series of initiatives, including policies and amicus briefs in support of nondiscrimination legislation in employment, housing, public accommodations, and the military; adoption, custody and visitation rights; and marriage equality.” Further commenting on those early years he stated: “In the early 1990s, Abby and I also organized a campaign that ultimately brought about the admission of the National Lesbian and Gay Law As- sociation (now the National LGBT Bar) as an affiliated organization of the ABA with a seat in the House of Delegates.”

For decades, the agenda of the SOGI Committee within IR&R was far-reaching and its work was comprehensive, yet more was needed from the American Bar Association. Even as the Committee could celebrate its many successes, an additional strategic focus was warranted. Former Chair Agrast observed: “Despite the Committee’s many gains, the ABA’s own diversity and inclusion efforts did not yet fully embrace the LGBT community. As chair of the Program Committee of the Board of Governors in 2007, I had the opportunity to work with ABA President Karen Mathis to establish a new Goal III Commission to promote the full inclusion of LGBT lawyers and law students within the ABA, the profession, and the justice system.”

In expressing pride in the SOGI Commission’s accomplishments, he further noted the original goal for the fledgling Commission: “My hope was that the SOGI Commission would help consolidate and extend the gains we had made in securing the ABA’s support for the rights and dignity of LGBT persons.” Those hopes were transformed into a string of successes and stunning societal changes. For example, in 2006, the ABA House of Delegates passed a Resolution urging federal, state, local, and territorial governments to enact legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity or expression in employment, housing, and public accommodations. And last year, The Commission and the Committee celebrated the Supreme Court’s recognition of marriage equality, as ABA leaders proudly touted the citation of its amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

As we look back on this significant progress, and the ABA’s recognition of LGBT rights as an essential aspect of its Goal III efforts, we should also recall that these issues were once considered controversial, and many within the ABA were apprehensive about taking positions protecting the rights of LGBT persons. These are moments of pride built from long periods of dedicated attention to goals.

Properly observed, anniversaries are milestones that offer an opportunity to be reflective, to celebrate accomplishments, and, most importantly, to develop a strategic direction for the future. It should never be enough to sit back and focus on the past, because there are always more challenges ahead.  Marriage equality, for example, is a wonderful moment to celebrate, but it still exists in a nation that offers little or no protection from being fired as a result of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This is why rest is not an option. Identifying strategies for overcoming the next set of challenges is our obligation and our opportunity.

The Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice, together with it's SOGI Committee, will continue to work closely with the SOGI Commission in the fight for LGBT civil rights and equality.  Our efforts should focus on a unified goal: to ensure that, at our next anniversary milestone, we can write about the historical work undertaken jointly by the Section's SOGI Committee and the SOGI Commission, and celebrate that both entities no longer need to exist.


Chair of the Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice,
is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership