Last edited: July 31, 2004

After Battling for Gay Rights, Time to Shift Energies

New York Times, July 8, 2003
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By Robin Finn

First, the Supreme Court gives Texas a disapproving slap by striking down anti-sodomy legislation. Next, Wal-Mart clambers aboard the equal rights bandwagon to mollify its gay employees. Then there’s the blessing recently bestowed on gay men and women by Canada, where non-heterosexual marriage is on the verge of legal codification.

It might be a cavalcade of human rights long overdue, but doesn’t all this progress signify in Ruth E. Harlow’s expert legal opinion that, after 15 years of unrelenting litigation toward gay rights, it finally, really is O.K. to be gay? As a lesbian of long and public standing, Ms. Harlow should be hitching up her low-slung jeans, flinging off those no-nonsense, black-rimmed specs, and turning cartwheels in the privacy of her Brooklyn apartment, should she not?

But Ms. Harlow is not. She isn’t one for spontaneous outbursts. She’s a neatnik, so orderly that the crates of documents she hauled home this afternoon from her last day at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund are already stacked in her home office below the perfect rows of Matchbox miniatures she collected as a child. She harbors no clutter, be it emotional or decorative.

Ms. Harlow—lead counsel in the Supreme Court case in which two Texans, John G. Lawrence and Tyron Garner, took on the state of Texas for jailing and fining them on a 1998 sodomy charge and received vindication on a historic scale on June 26—does not reciprocate with a cute rhymed couplet in response to her visitor’s O.K.-to-be-gay question. She barely cracks a polite smile.

She leaves the levity to her Labrador retriever, Potter, whose nonstop giddiness dovetails interestingly with Ms. Harlow’s sobriety: once Potter gets overly rambunctious, into her crate she goes after a reprimand, the better to let Ms. Harlow do some serious, undistracted reflecting on gay rights and her (now-finished) role in obtaining them. Following her lead, everybody in the room attempts to be on their best behavior—or risk a scolding.

“Because all of these issues are so personal, and in some instances the treatment of gays has been so horrible, I’ve felt a lot of responsibility toward my community,” says Ms. Harlow, meaning the homosexual community she joined when she came out at Yale Law School after a confusing, tomboyish girlhood in Midland, Mich.

“But I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve given all the energy I have to give toward gay rights. It’s taxed me to where I felt I had to make a change, personally.”

So it apparently is O.K. enough, legally and socially, to be gay these days that Ms. Harlow, at 42, has given herself permission to leave the gay rights platform for a career sea change: no more litigation. Four months before the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in Lawrence v. Texas, she gave her notice at Lambda Legal, which she joined in 1996, serving as legal director since 2000. Four days after the ruling, she’s out the door.

She intends to spend her second career as a residential architect—not that she’s lightening up. Her client list will again be composed of second-class citizens, but this time, the lines of demarcation and discrimination are fiscal, not sexual. Ms. Harlow wants to build housing, perhaps prefabricated but what she calls “enlightened,” for low-to-middle-income Americans. She is enrolled in a summer course at Columbia, then plans to apply to architecture school. She was committed to the switch, but the Supreme Court ruling made it easier to leave the law.

“What happened there is that the majority of the court caught up with the vast majority of Americans,” she says. “This case was all about the right to privacy in one’s own bedroom; it’s a very basic freedom most Americans took for granted, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a so-called homosexual agenda.”

As for the next issue—same-sex marriage—Ms. Harlow favors it: “There’s no question that marriage is not a perfect institution, but it is the institution that both in the law and in society is held up on a pedestal as something respected by the community. If it’s reserved only for heterosexuals, gay people will always be, to some extent, second-class citizens.”

As Ms. Harlow sips lukewarm Orangina and not quite relaxes in a French club chair in the living room of her spotless, minimalist Park Slope abode, she recounts her battles leading up to last month’s Supreme Court decision to overturn its own 1986 ruling on same-sex intimacy including Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and Able v. the United States (which challenged the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy).

Though she was lead counsel for Lawrence v. Texas, she did not argue the case—she deferred to Paul M. Smith, an openly gay man and a litigator with Jenner & Block, a Washington firm. “I’d never argued a case in front of the Supreme Court,” she said, “and I was afraid I’d inevitably be perceived as just another gay activist. This was Paul’s ninth case before the court. It was still, for me, a storybook case.”

When Ms. Harlow told her parents she was gay, she said her father, a lawyer for Dow Chemical, was understanding, but that her mother was reluctant to accept it. “She was fearful it meant I’d be the kind of person who spent their life in porno theaters,” she recalled. Ms. Harlow is, for the record, spending life with her new partner, Kristi Mathus. And Potter. And Baby Kitty, a feline whose reserve matches her own.

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