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GLAD turns 30

by Ethan Jacobs

Bay Windows

Friday January 18, 2008

Back in 1978, about 30 years before Larry Craig and his "wide stance" had pundits and late night comedians buzzing about bathroom hook-ups, Boston police launched a sting operation targeting gay men cruising at Boston Public Library (BPL). They sent in undercover cops to solicit and arrest men, and in two weeks they made 103 arrests. Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), said that such arrests had been common in Massachusetts and around the country and that most men arrested under those circumstances opted to handle the matter quietly, forgoing legal representation and accepting whatever deal police or district attorneys were willing to offer. But the BPL sting triggered an outpouring of anger in Boston's gay community, and activists organized demonstrations in front of BPL, accusing police of entrapment. The protests also convinced a young attorney named John Ward to found GLAD, which would go on to win marriage rights for same-sex couples in Massachusetts, secure disability protections for people living with HIV across the country, and win numerous other legal victories on behalf of LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS throughout New England.

This year marks GLAD's 30th anniversary, and the organization plans to honor its history through a series of events and public education programs. On Jan. 23 Buseck joins pundit Keith Boykin, sexpert Susie Bright and cultural commentator Michael Bronski for a forum at Old South Meeting House looking back at the BPL sting that triggered GLAD's formation and examining America's changing attitudes toward sex. The forum, titled "Sex on the Margins," will explore how issues like civil marriage rights have impacted the gay community's approach to issues of sexual freedom.

Other events on tap for GLAD's anniversary include an April forum on Bragdon v. Abbott, the landmark case that GLAD argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 in which the court ruled that people with HIV are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a November event marking the fifth-year anniversary of the Goodridge decision. GLAD also launched an anniversary website that will include a monthly podcast series highlighting some of GLAD's groundbreaking cases.

Buseck, who began working with GLAD as a cooperating attorney and a board member in 1980 shortly after passing the bar, said that GLAD's work defending the men arrested at BPL represented a turning point for the LGBT community in Massachusetts. GLAD's early work was one of the first instances of the LGBT community representing itself in the courts. Buseck said Ward was one of the first openly gay attorneys working in Boston in those years, and Katherine Triantafillou, who was not part of GLAD but who was also actively advocating on behalf of the gay community in those years, was one of the only openly lesbian attorneys in the city.

"Until this time there were no out gay people in the courts really standing up and defending us," said Buseck. Of the 103 men arrested, only one was convicted, and his conviction was later overturned. As its first case, GLAD represented one of the men and sued the police for entrapment. After nearly a decade the case was settled.

While issues around police entrapment have largely faded in Boston, Buseck said the scandal around Idaho Sen. Larry Craig shows that police departments are still working to target gay men, often with little to no evidence that they are engaging in public sex. In 2001 GLAD settled a case on behalf of a gay man suing Massachusetts State Police for ordering him to leave a public park on the suspicion that he was there to engage in sexual activity. As part of the settlement state police issued an order to officers explaining that they cannot order someone to leave public land to deter cruising if they do not witness unlawful activity.

"In some ways the Larry Craig incident reminds us that there are some patterns in culture that haven't changed completely, that are still there, still dangerous," said Buseck.

Buseck said GLAD grew slowly over time. The firm depended largely on volunteer attorneys until the mid-80s, when GLAD hired Denise McWilliams as its first staff attorney to focus on HIV/AIDS law. McWilliams now works at AIDS Action Committee. In 1990 GLAD hired its second staff attorney, Mary Bonauto, who successfully argued the Goodridge case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

As GLAD grew over the years its cases thrust the organization into the national spotlight. In 1995 Ward became the first openly gay man to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, representing gay and lesbian Irish-Americans suing to be allowed to march in South Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade. GLAD lost that case, but Buseck said even that loss had an upside.

"That decision was the first time the Supreme Court talked respectfully about the gay and lesbian community," said Buseck, contrasting it to the anti-gay ruling in the Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy case. "It was a horrible loss, but there was a little bit of a silver lining."

Three years later GLAD returned to the Supreme Court and won the Bragdon case, setting national precedent on the legal rights of people with HIV.

Buseck said of all GLAD's cases Goodridge had perhaps the greatest impact on the LGBT community's understanding and engagement in the legal process.

"The Goodridge decision and the threat to the Goodridge decision brought out so much community mobilization, more than we had seen in a long, long time other than some around HIV and AIDS, in the interim between 1979 and [the present day]. ... The thread that runs through that is just the ongoing legal fight for, whether you call it equality or dignity, something that taps into that sense that we are part of a broad legal journey to get that legal recognition of our equality and dignity, which is not there yet," said Buseck.

GLAD's "Sex on the Margins" forum will be held Jan. 23 from 6-8 p.m. at Boston's Old South Meeting House. The event is free, and a reception will follow. For more information on the event or for other information about GLAD's 30th anniversary visit or call 617.426.1350.

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