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SPOTLIGHT ON:(Back to Menu)

Professor Carlos Ball – Advancing the National Conversation About LGBT Rights

In his new book From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation, Carlos A. Ball, Professor of Law and Judge Frederick Lacey Scholar, focuses on the background, history, and impact of five leading gay rights cases. Braschi v. Stahl Associates, Nabozny v. Podlesny, Romer v. Evans, Baehr v. Lewin, and Lawrence v. Texas “have helped to make LGBT people visible by forcing society to grapple with both their existence and their aspirations,” Ball writes.

Ball family in Spain   
Professor Carlos Ball (r) with his partner Richard Storrow and their sons Emmanuel and Sebastian in Santa Susanna, Spain.
 
 
For legal scholars, the book provides a cogent account of the LGBT rights movement’s judicial strategy as exemplified by the five landmark lawsuits. It has been described by Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, as “a uniquely illuminating account of gay rights litigation.” In its eloquent telling of the stories of the plaintiffs and their lawyers, From the Closet to the Courtroom captures the interest of the general reader as well. Ball, another reviewer wrote, “appeals to the hearts of his readers by fleshing out the human players in each chapter without sacrificing scholarship.”

The author of numerous articles, chapters, essays, and a leading casebook on sexual orientation and the law, Ball in 2004 received a Dukeminier Award for excellence in sexual orientation and the law scholarship. His works in progress include a book tentatively titled Making Families Through Love and Law: The Stories of LGBT Parents in the Courts.

Ball received his B.A. summa cum laude from Tufts University, his J.D. from Columbia Law School, and his LL.M. from Cambridge University. He clerked for Chief Justice Paul Liacos of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and then worked for the Legal Aid Society in New York City. Before joining Rutgers in 2008, he was a member of the faculty at the University of Illinois College of Law for eight years and Penn State University School of Law for five years. He teaches Property, Land Use, and Sexual Orientation and the Law.

Ball discusses his work in the following Q&A:

What led you to law school and then to become an academic?
I am not one of those people who wanted to be a lawyer since they were little. Instead, I went to law school because I wanted to keep studying after college and the law seemed interesting enough. It was in law school that I fell in love with the law. I found it all fascinating, from the commercial law classes to the civil rights ones.

After law school, I worked as a public defender in Manhattan. I loved the job, but I found that I did not have the time to think and write about some of the more interesting legal issues that I was running across. That is when I started thinking about becoming an academic. I was looking for a job that would give me the freedom to explore the legal issues that were interesting to me.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Teaching has to be the most rewarding job in the world. I have been teaching for almost 15 years now and I still cannot believe that they pay me money to stand before a group of highly intelligent and motivated students and talk about legal issues and doctrine that I find fascinating.

I particularly like the interactive nature of the law school classroom. I think I would bore myself (and my students!) if I went into a lecture hall and spoke non-stop for an hour. But the process of engaging with students in a conversation makes it stimulating and fun (at least for me!).

   

What moved me the most about the cases that I write about in my book were the personal stories of courage and determination on the part of the gay litigants. One of the downsides of the “case method” of teaching law is that we tend, in the law school classroom, to move from one case to the next without paying much attention to the lives of the individuals involved.


It is a cliché but true that teachers often learn as much from their students as the other way around. So ultimately what I enjoy the most about teaching is that it encourages me to learn. 

Did you know before beginning From the Closet which cases you would include? What surprised or moved you most in writing the book?
I knew all along that I would include the two most important U.S. Supreme Court cases on gay rights (Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas). I also knew that I had to do a same-sex marriage case. As for the other two cases, I wanted to choose ones that most people are not familiar with. So I chose a housing case from the mid-1980s that led the New York Court of Appeals to become the first appellate court in the nation’s history to rule that two individuals of the same sex in a committed relationship could legally be deemed a “family.” 

The other case involved a gay teenager from Wisconsin who was brutally harassed by some of his classmates for years because of his sexual orientation while school administrators refused to intervene. This young man eventually sued the school system and he was awarded almost a million dollars after a jury concluded that school officials violated his constitutional rights. 

What moved me the most about the cases that I write about in my book were the personal stories of courage and determination on the part of the gay litigants. One of the downsides of the “case method” of teaching law is that we tend, in the law school classroom, to move from one case to the next without paying much attention to the lives of the individuals involved.

One of the things that I wanted to do with my book is to tell the stories of the real human beings who have been behind some of the gay rights cases that have helped to change this country in fundamental ways over the last 25 years. I was personally moved by their stories, and I hope that my readers will be as well.

Does your next book, on LGBT parenthood, similarly focus on the human stories behind the cases?
Yes. My next book, which is currently being reviewed for publication by the New York University Press, tells the stories of LGBT parents who, over the last 40 years, have battled in the courts to gain legal protections for their relationships with their children and who, in doing so, have transformed American family law. In my opinion, it is not possible to fully understand how and why the law involving LGBT parents has so drastically changed over the last four decades without also understanding the backgrounds, hopes, fears, and aspirations of the LGBT parents who have battled for their rights in court. So while my forthcoming book is about reforms in the law of LGBT parenting, it is also about many of the LGBT parents who have made those reforms possible.

You’re a frequent Huffington Post blogger as well as author of numerous law review articles. Do you find one type of writing more satisfying than the other?
I love all kinds of writing. Early on in my career, I wrote almost exclusively for law reviews. I also wrote a scholarly book on political theory called The Morality of Gay Rights. All of this writing was aimed primarily at academics. I have tried, over the last few years, to broaden my audience a little bit. My most recent book, From the Closet to the Courtroom, is aimed not only at academics, but also at a general audience that is interested in gay rights issues. So too is my forthcoming book on LGBT parents.

As for my blogging on the Huffington Post, I see it as a way of participating more directly in the national conversation about gay rights. It is satisfying to work on a blog posting for a few hours and then see it online soon after I finish writing it. It is also great to get feedback from readers through their comments. But writing books and law review articles can be satisfying in a different way because they allow one to spend the time grappling with the subtleties and complexities of legal issues that — it goes without saying — cannot be captured in a blog.

You have been in Spain, where same-sex marriage is legal, during a period in which there have been major U.S. court decisions on same-sex marriage and gays in the military. Has that altered your perspective on the future of LGBT rights in the U.S.?
I am indeed spending my sabbatical in the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona. I think it is remarkable that Spain, a country with a very rich Catholic tradition, recognizes same-sex marriages. But the thing about a nation’s tradition is that it can be complicated and can push in different directions. This is a country that went through a brutal civil war in the 1930s, and then lived under a right-wing dictatorship for almost 40 years.

Despite that difficult recent history, Spain has emerged as a vibrant and tolerant country, one that is trying to do the right thing on many different social issues. So I guess being in Spain gives me hope for the United States. If Spain has come around to making marriage equality available to same-sex couples nationwide, maybe so can we!

Listen to Professor Ball discuss From the Closet to the Courtroom as well as his optimism about additional anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in this Illinois NPR interview.