Legalizing LGBT Politics

Works-in-Progress Series

Featuring Gwendolyn Leachman, Sears Law Teaching Fellow, The Williams Institute

Thursday, May 2, 2013    
12:20-1:40 pm            
UCLA Law, Room 1314
*Lunch Provided

CLICK HERE TO RSVP OR CALL (310) 267-4382.

Abstract: Critical legal scholars have argued that progressive movement lawyers, as professionals and elites, tend to substitute their own agendas for those of their clients. Lawyers, the argument goes, focus on legally achievable ends, which are often less radical than the substantive goals articulated at the movement’s grassroots. But lawyers and litigation strategies can also shape social movement agendas indirectly by privileging some priorities over others, and indeed some social movement organizations over others.

This talk reexamines critiques of progressive lawyering through a case study of the movement for LGBT rights, generating new insights into the conditions under which litigation comes to dominate non-legal strategies for social change. Leachman argues that litigation does have an impact on social movement priorities, but through different mechanisms than those identified by critical legal scholars—that litigation strategies have set the LGBT movement’s agenda more as a result of subtle institutional dynamics than the volitional ethical choices made by movement lawyers. Using quantitative and qualitative analyses of original empirical data on the LGBT movement from 1985 to 2008, Leachman shows that litigation garnered more media attention than any other movement tactic and that litigating organizations survived longer than all other types of LGBT movement organizations. At the same time, protest organizations seized on the legal issues projected in the mainstream media to form their agendas, subtly redirecting those protest organizations away from their original priorities and toward legal goals. These findings suggest that litigating organizations will have greater visibility, permanence, and autonomy than others in their movement, and consequentially that the priorities these organizations pursue will come to dominate other movement efforts.

Leachman argues that the dominance of legal priorities in the LGBT movement’s agenda is at least partially responsible for the marginalization of lesbians and gay men of color and queer people, whose anti-essentialist demands are not easily translated into legal claims. Understanding the largely inadvertent institutional mechanisms of intramovement dominance will help lawyers in the LGBT movement and other civil rights movements to provide more effective representation of marginalized communities.

About: Gwendolyn Leachman earned a JD from UC Berkeley and was admitted to the State Bar of California in 2011. She was awarded the Law & Society Association Graduate Student Paper Prize in 2009.  During law school, Gwendolyn was a member of the California Law Review and served on the editorial board of two student journals.  Her scholarship has appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law and the Annual Review of Law & Social Science, and she has publications forthcoming in Studies in Law, Politics, & Society and the International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences.

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