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Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

Ruminations of a Gay Litigator

Dennis Raglin


  • The advances in gay rights and acceptance over the 30 years are truly mind-boggling.
  • Firms now aggressively recruit LGBT+ lawyers and strive to make them part of the team.
  • Even in the face of laws hostile to gay people, positive change continues. 
Ruminations of a Gay Litigator
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Grilled chicken salad. That is what I ordered for lunch when interviewing with a firm in 2004. The two guys who interviewed me ordered burgers. After I left the firm, a friend of mine at the firm shared with me that one of those guys noted after my departure that they should have known I was gay because I ordered a salad. (Note: I love burgers.)

I can’t pretend this didn’t hurt. The gay lawyer eats salad while the “real men” eat meat. It was at this firm that I came out—at 33. I had hidden my sexuality for years, afraid of how it could affect my career. I was sort of forced to come out by day care. My kids’ day care was closing at 6 p.m. and the mediation I was at with the partner was going to clearly run past that. I told him I would need to leave to get the kids as David (let’s call my then partner) was out of town. “Who’s David?” he asked. And here is where it all started. “My partner,” I replied. I remember the arched eyebrow. “OK. Talk to you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow and the days after would be different. LGBT+ lawyers, both in and out of the closet, know the feeling. That feeling of being outside looking in. Of being looked at just a bit differently. Feeling a different energy. Though no one said anything homophobic (to my face), I was the first openly gay lawyer at the firm. After my day-care-induced coming out, the same partner grew more distant. Our interactions would never be the same. The male office manager stopped making eye contact with me in the hall. It was clear this firm was no longer a fit for me.

Though California is generally thought of as deep blue today, it was borderline red in 2004, and parts of it remain red today. Remember that until 1986 and Bowers v. Hardwick, consensual gay sex was a felony. As late as the 1990s, one could lose one’s security clearance, or be kicked out of the military, if found out to be gay. The AIDS crisis resulted in a general stigmatizing of gay people—some would say that continues today. I grew up in the conservative suburbs during this time. Guys were beaten up at my high school in the 1980s if believed to be gay. So I was not at the forefront of gay rights. My being a defense lawyer had something to do with it. In 1996, I started with a firm representing large insurance carriers. The members of the firm I worked for were White, straight, and almost all male. They had been jocks in school. And so were the Midwest-based insurance company adjusters who referred us work. Two former bosses served and saw combat. All good people. They were not the guys marching at the front of, much less in, the gay pride parade back then. Things have certainly changed. Today, we see firms of all sizes and from all over the country sponsor LGBT+ activities or causes. And almost all major insurance carriers are now top-tier sponsors of pride parades and events nationwide—the Geico gecko even dressed in leather for the San Francisco Pride Parade a few years back.

Coming Out at Work

I left for a new position at a much better firm in San Francisco but was snakebitten. I decided it was best to double down and step back into the closet. Even though this was San Francisco in 2006, my previous experience reinforced my fear of discussing sexuality. I didn’t want a scarlet G(ay) right off the bat with my new colleagues. In fact, I brought a woman as my date to the firm’s holiday party. She was stunning, just like my husband, Matt, proving I have good taste at least. (One has to question whether, in marrying me, he has any.) No one at this firm gave me any reason to hide. This was a burden that I created for myself. This firm had openly out partners. I got the courage to do a “soft” coming out to one of them, the then chair of the firm’s LGBT+ group. Jim Holes helped me realize I needed to be true to myself. In addition to being a dear friend and mentor, Jim is a former member of the ABA Board of Governors and the former chair of the ABA’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. So he knows a thing or two about the LGBT+ experience in the workplace. He helped me realize that the energy I was burning by keeping that part of myself hidden was wasted. He offered that if I were to come out and put that energy into myself and career instead, I would thrive. So I did—and it did.

Since taking that leap, I have chaired that firm’s LGBT+ committee, actively recruited LGBT+ associates and laterals, spoken at conferences, served on the board of an LGBT+ bar association, mentored young LGBT+ lawyers, and worked with firms to sponsor events. And after being together for years, I finally married Matt in 2017. I take him to all the usual work functions and conferences, where he smiles and makes polite conversation and then tries to get away, as he is for some reason not as excited to talk about chemical law. Go figure. Jim was right. I learned that being my true self propelled me professionally, and I no longer had to think twice about what I said. About where I went. About what I wore. (Matt will tell you my style was in serious need of help, whether I be straight or gay.)

More importantly, being myself made me a better lawyer and litigator. Feeling comfortable in my own skin meant I could deepen relationships with colleagues, and that led to better work product. It meant I didn’t dread going to work (except on the day a motion for summary judgment filing was due). I could enjoy grabbing a beer after work and talking with colleagues about our personal lives. I could participate in groups and activities and help younger lawyers navigating the same road. Not being myself put a wall between me and my colleagues. I sealed myself off and was unhappy in the process. I never realized how much energy it took to pretend. And, Jim had told me, even when people are hiding their sexuality at work, many have already figured it out and don’t care anyway. He was right about that too.

Coming Out at Court

Does being gay really matter in court, in a deposition, or in dealing with opposing counsel? It did to me initially. I would not volunteer it to opposing counsel or co-counsel. This created some awkward moments when we lawyers chatted during a break in the deposition, where each of us was hoping the other would ask the heavy-lift questions so the rest of us could just take notes. Lawyers would talk about family, and while I would talk about my kids, I left the rest of it out or was purposely vague. I don’t do that anymore; but at the time, I convinced myself that it would weaken me in the eyes of the other lawyers, and in litigation you do not want to hand your opponent a weakness to exploit. Was being gay a weakness to exploit? I was only hurting myself in being careful about how I answered and making sure to say the “right” thing and not slip up. I look back and realize how silly that was. But, then again, being the gay lawyer in a room full of straight guys does create a different dynamic, no matter when but especially 20 or more years ago. It just does. Boys are taught during school-age years to be “masculine” and not to show weakness. They play games like “Smear the Queer” and call guys the f word (no, the other f word) when they are perceived as weak. And still do. It was this experience and being seen as weak in front of others that convinced me to hide.

Eventually, I learned to let this go. I think it’s a process all gay men have to go through to varying degrees. There will always be this element of machismo—in school and in life. There will always be anti-gay feelings and slurs, and some of that will come from other lawyers, both men and women. This is even harder for the transgender community to deal with. In the end, however, no one of importance in my career cared, and those who did were irrelevant to what I wanted and where I was going. I freely volunteer now that I am married to Matt. Opposing counsel and I shoot the breeze and talk about weekend plans with spouses, and then we talk about the deadline extension they want. Whether you’re gay or not does not change the trial date. It does not make the motion to compel any different. It does not cancel that tedious meeting with your group where you all look at your phones under the table. Work does not change just because your view of yourself does.

Gay lawyers are no different than any other professionals—we can be excited and gratified by the work we do. We can be competitive (maybe just a little). Some of us (never me) can be cranky jerks. We generally do it all in better shoes, but we experience the same emotions and have the same goals. Gay lawyers enjoy (or don’t) what we do for the same reasons any lawyer does: We like to help clients understand what the litigation or matter means for them, and we enjoy a client’s satisfaction with our work. (I would add a client paying the bill on time is a motivator as well.) Jim noted his ultimate satisfaction comes from “helping people understand a complex legal problem.” He says it’s one thing to understand something dense and arcane, but the real test is whether you have the ability to explain it to a client in terms the client will understand. A good friend, Jamie Dupree—a named partner in Futterman Dupree Dodd Croley Maier LLP in San Francisco, who has been in practice for about 30 years like me—echoes this, saying, “I like that I help people navigate some of the most stressful times in their lives. I love the strategy involved in coming to efficient and meaningful resolutions. I appreciate the gratitude that so many clients share with me. And of course, getting good results!” It is not just us more experienced lawyers who feel this way. Geoff Warner, a ninth-year associate at my firm’s Los Angeles office, notes, “a client’s gratitude for a hard-earned victory is always a highlight. . . . I suppose that’s another way of saying it’s nice seeing your hard work pay off.” He also notes that, “[t]o my competitive side: beating a jerk opposing counsel never gets old.” Ah yes, a tale as old as the law. Besting a jerk opposing counsel is a universal feeling that never gets old, whether gay, straight, or anywhere in between. Second-year associate Oscar Alvarez says he enjoys our profession because “it is the opportunity to be a lifelong student. Whether it involves adapting to a new standing order for a judge or staying current with evolving case law, the work is rarely static.” Well said.

Remaining Difficulties

Now, not everyone at work—or in society—is accepting of the gay lawyer, even today. I am not naïve. I write this article from the safety and comfort of Los Angeles. My mom wishes there were no L.A. as she hates the freeways and the crowds. She prefers the Central Valley, a more conservative and rural part of California (yes, they exist). I have lived there and been to court there. Being an openly gay lawyer there is not the same as it is in L.A. Just a 500-mile difference and a world apart. It can be more difficult. Just as it can be for those in various states and cities all over the country. I also write as a middle-aged White guy who is not just starting out. So, while others of my vintage and location may have experiences similar to mine, these experiences are much different for others. I know there are many lawyers today, of all ages, who are not out. For them, being out at their firm or to their families would be unwelcome and could hurt their careers. To them, I say I understand, and neither I nor anyone is in your shoes or in a position to judge. It is easy to tell someone that with all the progress today, you shouldn’t work somewhere where being out is not accepted. That may be true, but so are your student loan payments and rent. And this hesitancy is understandable even more in today’s world of creeping anti-gay sentiment.

But what about gay marriage, you may ask. The Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in 2015. Doesn’t that show that gays are equal now? According to Gallup, 71 percent of Americans surveyed in 2023 agreed that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized with the same rights as traditional marriage. This marks a 20-point jump in 10 years. You can’t get 71 percent of Americans to agree on anything other than disliking taxes. But doesn’t this “fix” things? I wish that were so. Yes, same-sex marriage is a positive and a huge leap forward, but it has been followed by steps backward. In many states, there is no protection in the workplace for gays, meaning you can get fired for your sexuality. “Married on Friday, fired on Monday.” While it found (by a 5–4 vote and before three new Trump appointments) a constitutional right to marry, the Supreme Court has since ruled that a business can deny service to someone for being gay. If Matt and I wanted a wedding cake from baker X, for example, and she said, “I don’t serve gays,” that is legal and we’d have no recourse. (Speaking of wedding cakes, based on the cost of ours, the baker Matt chose must have sprinkled gold in the frosting. That was nothing next to the bar tab, but I digress.) Then there is the spate of bathroom bills and laws targeting transgender kids in over 20 states. And even though Gallup says 71 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, 169 House Republicans, or almost 40 percent of the House, voted against a federal law protecting it in 2022 after Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion overturning Roe v. Wade suggested that the Court should now reconsider its ruling on same-sex marriage.

What to make of it all? So much progress and yet significant blowback. There is some red meat here for the culture wars, and I understand some have strongly held religious beliefs. While I am in no position to judge another, all I know is that at the end of the day, you can’t legislate the gay away. LGBT+ lawyers have been and always will be part of our profession. And that is a good thing because these lawyers bring with them unique experiences that benefit a firm or organization. In general, being on the outside looking in makes our ability to relate to people stronger. Jamie, my friend in San Francisco, says:

I think I may be more empathetic to the validity of different points of views given my experiences. Because there is still animus against the LGBT+ community in the larger world, being LGBT+ requires that you be a bit thicker-skinned, which is also very helpful as a lawyer. There is a lot of joy in the LGBT+ community and camaraderie, which enhances the practice of law.

This mirrors my own experience as well. Whether consciously or not, I instinctively find those in a meeting or a group who are not participating or whose body language shows they are being ignored or uncomfortable in giving their two cents (as opposed to being bored as the meeting stretches past its set ending time, something I can’t help with). I make a point of asking their opinions. It is the same in deposition. Once, on a break, a co-defense counsel wanted to know how I was able to get such good testimony from the deponent. I did not do anything I don’t already do when questioning a witness. I guess it was because, unless a witness is nasty or yanking my chain, I have a conversation while I ask questions and read the deponent. Like we all do, I sense demeanor and where the deponent is glossing over areas, and then I probe. Does my own experience mean I have a more developed sixth sense for when someone is hiding or downplaying something? Maybe. (If I do, I certainly don’t have such a sense about everything, however, given how often my daughter forged my signature without me knowing when she was in high school.)

Geoff, the associate in Los Angeles, says that being the gay lawyer

helps tremendously for establishing lasting connections with diverse clientele. There’s a benefit to possessing a life perspective formed from an experience as a member of the LGBT+ community. It becomes easier to connect with/relate to others who also identify diverse. It’s one thing to understand a client’s business, and another to understand their business perspective; but it’s something quite extraordinary to appreciate a client’s experiences that formed their general life perspective to start.


Firms actively recruit LGBT+ lawyers today, and that is of course huge progress. Firms seek the “Best Places to Work” designation from the Human Rights Campaign, which looks at how well a firm treats these lawyers, including equality in the workplace and health benefits offered to transgender employees. I attend the annual career fair sponsored by the National LGBT Bar Association and am heartened by the recruiters—the military, government agencies, nonprofits, and firms of all sizes based in all parts of the country. I am also thrilled to talk to so many accomplished LGBT+ law students—tomorrow’s firm managing partners and rainmakers. These are the lawyers who will continue propelling this industry forward with diverse and inclusive strategies. This was definitely not the case when I began practice. It is important to do more than just hire the LGBT+ lawyer, however. As with all diverse lawyers, there needs to be a support system to help them thrive. Oscar Alvarez, the associate in San Francisco, notes that, “given the growing number of LGBT+ lawyers entering the profession, it is essential to not only showcase a credible path toward advancement but also affirm that we can mold our personal and professional trajectories in alignment with our unique identities.” The gay lawyer is indeed unique. You want to nurture growth and development. Including them on the team, in the pitch meeting, on a client call are the ways to maintain talent and strengthen the firm and, ultimately, give the client even better representation. Though it sounds like a slogan from the human resources department, it is true that we are made stronger by hearing diverse opinions and putting diverse people in decision-making roles.

The advances in gay rights and acceptance over the 30 years I have been practicing, both in the law and in society at large, are truly mind-boggling. If you told me 30 years ago I’d be writing in the ABA’s Litigation Journal about LGBT+ lawyers coming out at work or Matt, I’d have told you that you were crazy. Yet, here I am doing that—a testament to how far I have come. Made possible by those who came before me, like my mentor Jim. I hope I have paid it forward to the next generation of lawyers—a fairy godfather of sorts. It gives me so much hope for the future. My son joined the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school. These are groups kids have formed across the country in the last 15 years or so, where straight students attend meetings to show support for their gay classmates, who are often bullied or feel alone. Such a club would not have been possible when I was in school. It was risky to even be associated with gay classmates and riskier still to be gay. When I told him I was proud that he supported the cause, he said that he was doing it mainly to meet the (straight) girls who attended. Progress where we can find it, I suppose.

Even in the face of laws hostile to gay people, positive change continues. The number of gay judges at both the state and federal levels is higher than ever before. Firms now aggressively recruit LGBT+ lawyers and strive to make them part of the team. As Jamie noted,

now, you almost never meet an LGBT+ attorney who is not out. That was not the case when I started practicing, even in California, but especially in other places. . . . I remember mentoring law students and young attorneys about the benefits and pitfalls of being out in their firms and in the profession. Now I see LGBT+ attorneys fully out, bringing spouses and family to legal and community events. It’s fabulous!

She’s right. I remember concerned associates who were starting out in my era had to determine if anything on the résumé suggesting sexuality needed to be scrubbed. Now it is an asset as firms realize the benefit the LGBT+ lawyer represents. How far we’ve come.

Younger lawyers today, and those who will enter the profession after them, are more confident in who they are and less inclined to hide or accept anything less than equal treatment where they are judged not by their sexuality but by the work they do, the clients they land, and what they bring to the table for the firm. Good results for the client can come in any color, including rainbow. And as they take the reins of leadership in firms, this acceptance will only grow. I am excited for the future.

And I’ll proudly continue to order the grilled chicken salad.

Dennis Raglin can be reached at [email protected].