Stephen Lachs, California, 1980
Born September 1939
Superior Court Judge
Los Angeles, California
10 million constituents
Appointed September 1979
Elected June 1980
Re-elected 1986, 1992
Essay by Stephen Lachs for Out and Elected in the USA
If it is difficult being openly gay now, it was certainly more so in 1979, even in a major city such as Los Angeles. You could count the politicians who would support our cause on the fingers of your hands. To be found out as a homosexual was almost certainly the end of your career, particularly in the professions, and the dangers of arrest by the police or assault by people filled with hate was such that most gay life was kept as far from the public as possible. Yes, we existed, but by all means we had to remain unseen.
Because of the dearth of openly gay people in any public office, my appointment as a Superior Court Judge, the first openly gay judge anywhere, was news all over the world. I ended up giving many interviews on radio and TV shows, and speaking to groups across the entire country. The excitement my appointment generated and the novelty of an openly gay person in public office was such that I received mail, addressed to the Los Angeles Superior Court, from many hundreds of people who knew me only through their local newspaper or TV news. Happily most of the mail was congratulatory – people thanking me for being a positive role model for our community – but some was just plain “I hate gays” mail.
I believe that my being a judge changed many perceptions within the California judiciary. Judges all over the state had to deal with a colleague who was openly gay, which is quite different than reading about us in a magazine. During the ensuing years, while being prohibited by our Cannon of Ethics from participating in politics, I’ve managed to raise issues of concern to our community, such as whether judges should be allowed to be members of organizations which discriminate against gay men and lesbians. In fact, I’ve concluded that my being an effective judge for 20 years, being completely open abut my sexual orientation and continuing to participate in gay and lesbian organizations, has been the biggest political statement I could ever have made. But, I found that being out and open also changes people on an individual basis.
Early in my judicial career I had a deputy sheriff assigned to my courtroom as a bailiff. He was quite cold at first, but after some months he allowed himself to join in the general courtroom talk. Eventually the two of us would spend some time each day in discussions about various things. On the last day I was assigned to that court, as I was packing books in my chambers, he asked if he could come in, and when he did, he closed the door after him. I had no idea what he wanted. He proceeded to tell me that when he was first assigned to my court he fought it with his supervisors, as he didn’t want to be in a courtroom with a fag judge. They stuck to the assignment, however, and so he came to work with the attitude that he’d just sit, do his job, and leave. It took him months of being with me on a daily basis before, in his words, he realized that society had messed up his thinking and caused him a great disservice in teaching him over the years about the alleged evils of gay people. And now he cherished the friendship that we had. While I was blinking away tears, he gave me a small, hand-blown glass scales-of-justice as a going-away gift, which I still have. It sits on a shelf in my chambers, symbolizing what we each can do to change our world a slight, but necessary bit.
I can not write about my career without remembering the many men and women, much more courageous than I, unselfish, idealistic and willing to risk everything for their cause, who laid the groundwork for my appointment and my subsequent four elections. They have been my support and my comfort for many years and they have changed the history of our country.
But, certainly the most important personal result of enjoying a few moments of celebrity status was that in 1980 I was invited to speak at a local university. I met a man to whom I took a quick liking. When I finish this piece, I have to call him and find out when he’ll be home for dinner.