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LBGT judges celebrate landmark rulings that paved way for equality

June 20, 2018 By Clarissa Sosin Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Hon. Paul Feinman, an Associate Judge in the New York Court of Appeals. Eagle photos by Clarissa Sosin
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When Kings County Family Court Judge Javier E. Vargas was appointed to the bench five years ago, the fact that he was an openly gay man was a non-issue. He knew that hadn’t always the case though. So, when he showed up at the N.Y. State Supreme Court House at 60 Centre St. in Manhattan for a LGBT Pride event about two lesser-known landmark rulings that advanced LGBT rights, he was curious to learn about the trailblazers who made his career possible.

“I wasn’t expecting that, how hard it was for us to become judges,” Vargas said after the event. “Most of us are younger than them so we don’t know all … the struggle that they had.”

The event, titled “July 3, 1973: The Day the Court of Appeals Made Pride Possible in New York” was one of a series of events hosted by the Richard C. Failia LGBTQ Commission of the New York Courts in honor of LGBT Pride Month. It focused on the fight behind two landmark decisions from the New York Court of Appeals — Harris L. Kimball v. The Florida Bar and State v. Thom — that made it possible for lawyers to be openly gay and for LGBT organizations to incorporate.

“We wanted to share sort of an early chapter in LGBT history that I think a lot of people today don’t know about,” said Matthew J. Skinner, the executive director of the Failla Commission.  “Once upon a time, there was a fight just to incorporate LGBT organizations and to be an openly gay lawyer at all and so we were hoping to bring people back to the time period in the early Seventies where those were really the big battles of the day.”

The event also honored William J. Thom, the same Thom in the Thom decision, the founder of the national LGBT legal organization Lambda Legal and the first openly gay judge to be appointed in New York.

In a brief speech, Thom told the audience about how Lambda Legal came to be and the struggles he faced trying to incorporate the organization. When he began practicing law in New York City in the 1960s, being gay was still considered a mental illness he said. Unlike most legal defense and education funds, his couldn’t say who it benefited in the name because you couldn’t have the word “gay” in the name of an organization.

“I wasn’t setting out to benefit Lambdas, whoever they may be,” he said to the crowd.

Other judges, both retired and not, then spoke about their experiences as an LGBT person in the legal world. Hon. Rosalyn H. Richter spoke about becoming the executive director of Lambda Legal at the age of 24. She said was grateful to her straight feminist professors in college and at law school because there were no lesbian role models for her to look up to. Ho. Paul G. Feinman talked about founding the first LGBT group at his law school in the Midwest. Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven, Hon. Michael R. Sonberg, Hon. Marcy L. Kahn, and Hon. Deborah A Kaplan also shared their stories.

Another speaker was Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School. He stood in the rotunda of 60 Centre St. where history was made, where the trail was blazed, so that judges like Vargas and many others who followed that path to their current positions on the bench, he expressed his appreciation with exuberance.

“Happy Pride and hurrah for the Court of Appeals!” said Leonard.


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