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The Impact of Jean Dubofsky on the LGBTQ+ Movement

Jean Dubofsky is our 2023 Changemaker Awardee. She will be honored at this year’s GAYLA.

Why is it, you might wonder, that Jean Dubofsky has been selected to receive Out Boulder County's 2023 Changemaker award?

For decades, LGBTQ+ people in this country encountered the three-legged stool of structural oppressive forces pushing back against our visibility and our access to equal rights. One of those legs was religion. Religion was not a monolithic entity in the early days of the queer and trans movements, and it is even less so now.  Nonetheless, many mainstream religious denominations had strict prohibitions against same-sex relations and relationships.  

Mental health theories and policies constituted the second leg in the anti-LGBTQ+ stool. Mental health professionals had long assumed that negative stereotypes and lies about LGBTQ + people in popular discourse were actually true. The legal status of LGBTQ+ people counted as the third strike. The very actions that LGBTQ+ people took to express the tenderest of emotional attachments were considered perverted and were deemed illegal. 

Taken collectively, these legs of the stool of prejudice and discrimination were invoked any time LGBTQ+ people moved out of the closet and even more forcefully when we demanded to be treated as human beings. "No, why should you be treated as acceptable? What you do is a sin." "No, you can't have rights. Everyone knows you're sick." "What do you mean, give you rights? What you do is illegal!"Over time, LGBTQ+ people and cis/het allies called into question the biases and fought against the discriminatory rules. The movement was slow-going, with some progress, many false starts and predictable backlashes. Queer history timelines catalog some of the progress as well as some of the push-backs within each of these three categories. Progress and pushback, progress and pushback. 

One of the most important moments of progress on the legal timeline occurred on May 20, 1996. That was the day the US Supreme Court declared Colorado's Amendment 2 unconstitutional. Amendment 2 had been a voter-approved amendment that effectively legalized discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. The Amendment 2 campaign had divided families, communities, and the state. Its electoral passage stunned many who had believed it would never pass. Fortunately, there was a small cadre of just-in-case people who had been working behind the scenes to bring a legal case against Amendment 2.  To use airplane language, they prepared for action in the unlikely event that Amendment 2 passed, which it did by 53% of the vote. This team managed to get an injunction so that the amendment did not go into effect. They then shepherded the case through district court, the Colorado Supreme Court and, ultimately, all the way to the highest court in the land. By a vote of 6-3, the US Supreme Court ruled Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion established that the state could not make LGB people a stranger to its laws.

That ruling—technically referred to as the Romer v Evans decision—said Colorado could not abandon LGB people with no legal recourse in the face of discrimination. The impact of the decision went beyond the letter of the law. The Romer decision represented the first time the Supreme Court referred to sexual minorities as human beings who should be treated with dignity. The spirit of the decision prompted other positive decisions from other courts and eventually influenced changes in how people thought about LGBTQ+ people. It was a sea change. Little wonder that a good (straight) friend of mine left a phone message as soon as he heard about the Romer ruling. He simply sang his message, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." No need to say (or sing) another word. 

So, where does Jean Dubofsky fit into this history?

Remember that group of just-in-case people? Jean was one of them. Once it was clear Amendment 2 would go into effect in the absence of a legal challenge, this group (including Boulder attorney, Jeanne Winer) went into direct action. Jean, who was a former member of the Colorado Supreme Court, led the way. When she argued the case before the US Supreme Court, her grasp of the issues and her preparation were superb. At one point, Judge Antonin Scalia—no friend of the queer community—tried to catch Jean in a mistake about the placement of an argument in a brief. She gently but deftly let him know that it was he who was mistaken. That's pretty much who Jean is—brilliant and consummately prepared and able to let her legal skills do the talking.

Research on heterosexual allies suggests there are two major types of allies. The first type includes those whose motives are rooted in their roles and relationships; we often think of them as situational allies. They do good work around LGBTQ+ issues because of a specific relationship or because someone, often someone important to them, has asked them.  

The second category of allies includes people whose ally work is grounded in deeply-held principles. Think of justice or fairness or moral imperatives. Jean Dubofsky clearly falls into this principle-based ally group.  She has not only been one of the most influential attorneys for LGBTQ+ rights in our country's history, she has also worked for the rights and well-being of members of many other marginalized groups as well. 

Jean Dubofsky has made a lot of good change in the world. She has been no less than heroic in her efforts to make the world a better place. It is so just that she receive this award, along with our respect and gratitude. See more about Jean and her award here.


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