Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender–The Question (concluded)

          I could know I was defending the guilty, not merely assume it, only if the clients told me they were guilty. That only happened a few times, and I felt no moral qualms even in those situations. For example, Mary was a hooker on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue–not the high-rent avenue then for anyone, and certainly not for a prostitute. She would do just about anything for a bit of food and some drugs. An undercover cop approached her and asked if she knew where he could make a big drug buy. She didn’t, but she asked what was in it for her if she could find out. He said $50. This was the equivalent of five or ten tricks for her.

She located where to get the drugs, and when the undercover returned, she took him to a seller in Harlem. She left after pocketing five tens. The cop made the buy, and Mary was arrested for aiding the sale. She told me this. She was guilty. She was not offered a plea bargain. We went to trial.

If convicted, the sentencing law required that she get a life sentence with at least a fifteen to twenty-five year minimum. That meant that she would have to serve whatever minimum a sentencing judge imposed before she would be eligible for parole, and, of course, she could be imprisoned until she died. I did not think such punishment just. She did something illegal, but a person such as she, who was barely surviving, could hardly turn down $50, and for that $50, offered to her by the police, she would get a life sentence. She was convicted. She got life as was required. And I felt that it was an injustice. If, by some miracle, I had gotten an acquittal, I would have rejoiced.

          I did think about the consequences of one acquittal, however. I represented a man, Ron, on the illegal possession of a gun. He told me a story that had some plausibility but was not likely to be true. The trial went surprisingly well. From the evidence, I began to believe that he might be innocent, and to my surprise, he was acquitted.

A few months later he called me. He was in jail again. He was charged with rape. I wondered what I had done. Had my acquittal gotten a woman raped? He wanted me to represent him, but his case had not been assigned to me, and I said no. Later the attorney who represented him on that new charge told me that it was as phony a rape case as any he had ever seen. Ron was acquitted of the rape charge, too. He was apparently innocent.

This sequence bothered me. Most often after an acquittal, I had no further contact with the defendant. Ron’s situation made me wonder if I had the moral luxury of feeling good about an acquittal simply because normally I did know whether the person I had helped free went on to do bad things. Would I have more doubts about what I did if I always found out what happened after a client was acquitted?

On the other hand, Ron made me think that for one of the few times I had abandoned my defender ethic. I had brushed him off instead of defending him again because I did not want to confront the possibility that he had committed a rape for which I perhaps should have felt a responsibility.

          Almost always, however, I could do the work and do it without moral qualms. I learned that the trial system works better than many believe. Attorneys want to believe that their skills and tactics make adifference. Once in a while the attorney does have a huge effect, but generally the attorney, at best, can only be a little bit better than the evidence presented at trial. My experience and my scholarly work convince me that almost always the verdict follows the evidence. If there is strong evidence that a person is guilty, almost always a guilty verdict follows.

          But the real reason I could do the work is that even though I respect police work, I also fear the power the police have. The same for prosecutors and judges. That fear allowed me to be a defender. The poor and the outcast need someone to stand up for them against a powerful government and its representatives.

(To be continued sporadically)

Related Post: May 29, 2019.

Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender–The Question

          “How can you defend the guilty?” This is The Question I have been asked many times. Sometimes my answers have been platitudinous: To function properly our legal system requires defense of all, guilty or innocent. Sometimes my answer has been facetious: A defender prefers representing the guilty. If the client is innocent and acquitted, it is merely the system working. If the client is guilty but found not guilty, it must mean that the defender is a really good attorney.

Sometimes I gave a third answer that was slightly less facetious: The defender wants to represent the guilty because there is a lot less pressure. It feels much worse to have an innocent client go to jail than a guilty one.

No matter what my answer has been about defending the guilty, the looks on the questioners’ faces never indicate that they are satisfied with the response. The Question, however, is one asked only by those outside the public defender business. We did not discuss it among ourselves, and I only occasionally reflected on The Question.

          There is no one answer to The Question because there are many different components to the public defender’s job. Defenders spend the overwhelming amount of their effort in the plea-bargaining process, not trials. The goal is to get a more favorable plea or sentence than would occur without the defender’s efforts. The defender knows that almost always the client is going to be punished. The issue is how and how much. I was like most defenders who know that the criminal justice system is awful in many ways. Our sentencing laws are often ludicrous; prisons are terrible places; prosecutors are arrogant; judges are often dim. It is (usually) easy in the plea process to try to help even the bad people in such a bad system.

          I did not romanticize those charged with crimes. I met many people who I thought should be punished. Even so, when I saw the system operate, I saw its many, many flaws, and it was seldom a moral challenge to try to help those caught up in it.

This was fueled by my anti-authoritarian nature. I believe in a strong government, but we must have checks on the government’s power. We must try to ensure that when the government exercises power, it is doing so properly. Danger lurks if we don’t. The government’s ability to fine, imprison, and even execute is among its most awesome powers. When, as happens so often in our criminal justice system, the government seeks to impose its will on the outcast and the poor, we need to have someone pushing back against the government. Defenders act in the deeply conservative traditions of our country by trying to check governmental power. I could defend not just because I was defending an individual but because I was fighting the government. And that also meant defending the guilty.

          The person asking The Question about defending the guilty, however, is not asking about plea bargaining. They are really asking, “How can you defend someone whom at trial you know to be guilty?” How can you work for an acquittal of someone who has committed a crime and very well may commit more crimes?

The questions seem to imply that this must be a common situation, but obtaining a not-guilty verdict for one who was guilty seldom occurred. Few who admitted their guilt to me went to trial. Mostly those who said they were guilty wanted to get the best plea bargain possible.

Clients going to trial almost always maintained their innocence. I did not simply accept what they said. Often the defendants who told me they did not commit the charged crime related stories that struck me as bullshit. If I had to make the decision, those guys were guilty. But they said they were not, and it was not my job to pass judgment on them. And every so often that farfetched, remarkable story had truth in it. They were entitled to have someone fight for them because even if all the indications were to the contrary, they might not be guilty. My duty was to present the best possible case for them, and let the jury decide.

(concluded July 17)

Related Post: May 29, 2019

The Mind of a Tennis Player

I admire the players as I watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Of course, I admire their athletic ability, as I do top performers in other sports. They are faster, stronger, more coordinated, quicker than mere mortals, but I also think about how they are different in ways that I can’t see in their contests.

They have honed and maintained their skills in hours upon hours of practice. This includes repeating the same motions over and over. The normal body might rebel at this. We would get micro tears, muscle strains, or stress fractures. Day after day of typing can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. The repetitive tasks on an assembly line can lead to joint or back problem. The athlete’s body, however, tolerates physical repetition or else the athletes would not be as skilled as they are.

Such practice, however, also requires a special kind of mind. Many athletes have regular practice sessions of four or more hours, and there would be no point in spending this time unless the athlete can concentrate on what they are doing during this time. I know that I cannot. I have practiced some of the sports I have played, but after fifteen minutes my attention begins to wander. My performance falls off, and if I continue, I begin ingraining worse habits than when I began. Good athletes not only have better athletic ability than I, they have minds that allow them to focus in ways I do not.

These body and mind attributes are there in all great athletes, but the nature of tennis means that its players must also have an additional mental attribute that many sports do not require.   Unlike in most sports, the tennis player does not get coaching during the match. Yes, I know that illegal coaching from the stands goes on, and that limited coaching is allowed in some tournaments, but the basic point remains. Tennis players almost always must decide whether or how to adjust tactics during a match without a coach’s help. Even in other individual sports this is rare. The boxer every two or three minutes hears from the trainer who also shouts instructions doing the round; golfers regularly talk with their caddies, who also help read the greens; the track athlete’s strategy is almost always set before the race begins. Tennis players in matches of one, two, three, or four hours must be able to make adjustments, decisions that they must make without outside help.

The solitary nature of tennis also means that when players hit a rough patch, lose their edge or focus–which often happens in a long, close match–they alone must find a way, if they are to be successful, to regain the lost form. The tennis player does not have what is available in team sports: teammates to buoy up the player or fill in for a while or up the level of their own play so that the player’s slough can be tolerated. The tennis player must do it alone.

I watch a tennis tournament, and I admire not only the players’ skill, reflexes, power, and grace, but also their remarkable mental agility and resilience.

Snippets

The Wimbledon tennis tournament is played at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. I am not a member. Is there a Partial England Tennis Club that would have me?

I am writing a book for my level of tennis: The Offensive Use of the Short Lob.

Executive privilege is incomprehensible.

Needed, but often reprehensible.

I recently shaved off the beard I had for the last three years. Some friends noticed and commented that I look younger. I don’t ask, “Than what?” Others see my face as changed but don’t know why and ask whether I got a haircut or new glasses. Some others ask if I have lost weight. I wish.

MY JOB IS

KEEPING FACES CLEAN

AND NOBODY KNOWS

DE STUBBLE

I’VE SEEN

BURMA-SHAVE                                                    

Many of us have many personal electronic gizmos—phones, tablets, watches, fitness and GPS devices—that need regular charging. Can’t they make them so the same charging cord could be used for all of them?

I heard a woman on her phone say, “He is self-aware of that.”

The op-ed headline asked, “How Should Christians have Sex?” The right answer is obvious: Missionary position.

Near the front step of the country house lay a dead, baby skunk. My mind reverted to old-world peasantry and wondered if this was some sort of message. If so, it failed. I neither knew what it meant nor who had sent it.

The crying, three-year-old girl said to her Dad, “I’d rather be invisible.”

A reason I am not a conservative: I am not inordinately afraid of or repulsed by people who do not appear to be just like me.

I am Donald J. Trump.

High I.Q I claim, but grump,

History’s not my forte.

Rebel’s had no airport?!

It’s the Fourth. Celebrate Lincoln, Too

John Adams predicted that the fireworks and other hullaballoo would be held annually on the second day of July, for it was July 2, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Lee Resolution for independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. John was close, but give him no cigar. (Did the founding fathers smoke cigars or only pipes?) We, of course, instead celebrate the Fourth of July, which this year lands on July 4. July 4, 1776, was not the date on which the thirteen colonies declared independence; it was, however, the date when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

The Declaration now plays a frequent role in our Fourth of July celebrations, but that was not true in the eighteenth century. The act of independence was considered important, but not so much the document that proclaimed it.

In the early nineteenth century, the Declaration of Independence produced controversies. Slavery was at the core of the disputes. At issue was the Declaration’s most famous passage: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The apparent hypocrisy of that pronouncement in a slaveholding country was almost immediately pointed out by the British.

Abolitionists in the nineteenth century maintained, against much evidence, that the Founding Fathers had been opposed to slavery in principle. Those who supported the extension of slavery into American territories argued that the Declaration was irrelevant because it was not the Constitution. Moreover, they maintained that the assertion “all men are created equal” was false, that it was not a self-evident truth, but a “self-evident lie.”

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas maintained that the Declaration referred only to white men. Abraham Lincoln said that the Declaration did not “declare men equal in all respects. . . . They defined with tolerable distinctness in         what they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable (sic) rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had not power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society which should be familiar to all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

 

Whether historically correct or not, Lincoln’s view of the Declaration became widely accepted. He further cemented that reading with the Gettysburg address’s opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When I learned what a score was and subtracted eighty-seven from 1863, I realized that he was referring not to our Constitution, which does not contain a broad statement of equality, but to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration had been seen by many as a dead instrument that had accomplished its purpose—separation from England. Lincoln, however, saw it as still living in all ages providing a goal for which we should always be striving.

On the Fourth of July we should honor Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the document, but we should also honor Lincoln for reviving the Declaration of Independence so that it remains relevant today and tomorrow as an expression of what should be best about America.

People the Barricades! We Need a Pronoun Revolution (concluded)

Until recently I had not paid attention to how often we use binary gendered pronouns, but, of course, they are nearly ubiquitous, and I am now more sensitive to their use. I might be asked, “What is Amelia doing?” My response, if I am being diligent in the way I ought to refer to the NBP (the nonbinary progeny), might be, “AJ is working for a neat nonprofit.” If the conversation continues, however, the conversation sounds stilted if I remain as diligent in respecting AJ as a nonbinary person. “AJ each day helps collect the flowers. AJ is responsible for managing the volunteers. AJ makes sure the bouquets are correctly delivered.”

If you are explaining someone’s work, your conversation would be dotted with binary gendered pronouns. “He balances the books.” “Her boss really seems to value her.” “He often gets aggravated by his job, but he is good at it.” While using gendered male pronouns after indefinite nouns and pronouns may seem technically noninclusive, but are grammatically inclusive, our binary gendered pronouns exclude much of humanity.

I don’t have pronouns to use for my child (and referring to the adult, accomplished AJ with “child” seems demeaning). Perhaps worse, years of conditioning often has me using “her” or “she” when I refer to AJ, and each time I hear such a gendered term leave my mouth, I feel is if I committed a small act of betrayal.

But if I could train myself to eschew the gendered pronouns, what would I say instead? I could just keep repeating “AJ” or replace it with nouns like “the child” or “the offspring” or “the descendant” or, after explaining it, “the NBP,” but all these formulation in ordinary conversation would sound from silly, to pretentious, to nonsensical.

Some nonbinary people state the desire to be referred, pronoun-wise, as they, them, and theirs. That doesn’t work. Not only does it jar on the ear, it often is unclear. “AJ was passing a store with friends. They went in, and they bought a bag of carrots.” If “they” could refer to AJ, did all of them go into the store? Did all of them buy the vegetables? Or was it only AJ? If AJ wanted third-person collective pronouns to refer to AJ, I would try to do it, I guess, but the NBP has indicated that it is not a successful solution, and I agree.

Some other languages offer possibilities with problems of their own. On a trip to Thailand, a guide told me that the Thai language has pronouns for those who are not one of the binary genders. That would be better than what English has, but it is still a limited solution. It is often not apparent that a person is nonbinary. Should a correction be made every time the wrong-gendered pronoun is used for that person? Won’t that stilt conversations and writings?

Chinese offers another path. The spouse worked for decades with a man from mainland China, and he told her that he had trouble with English gendered pronouns because Chinese uses a universal pronoun. She had forgotten the pronoun, so she chatted with our always pleasant and smiling mailman, who is ethnic Chinese. He told her that the universal Chinese pronoun is “ta” as in “tada” and said that it covers he/she/it and him/her/it.

I am little surprised that there is one pronoun for both the objective and subjective cases. It seems as if this would lead to confusion. Last week Evan Osnos, New Yorker reporter and author of the National-Book-Award-winning The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (a marvelous book. Go read it.), told me that the universal pronoun did not cause problems in Chinese because that language was about context, and in context ta was almost always clear.

I am not sure that would hold for the English language. Imagine: “Both my son and daughter want the panda, but I bought it for ta.” Of course, with this simple formulation, the ambiguity could be avoided by replacing “ta” with the favored child’s name, but most often we would say “his” or “hers.” My guess is that sometimes the lack of the subjective/objective distinction with a universal pronoun would lead to problems in English. But what problem is there if there were one pronoun for he/she and another for him/hers, say, for example, ta and tans? Wouldn’t the meaning almost always be clear? “AJ ( or a more gendered moniker such as Amelia, Herman, Waldemar, Heidi) works for the Teddy Bear Restoration Company. Ta is good at tans job.”

Is our language really enriched by having gendered pronouns? Or do gendered pronouns make us instinctively think in unnecessarily gendered terms. “Jones has been CEO for a year. She is excellent.” This construct makes us think of the officer as a woman, which only distracts from the message to be conveyed—the person is good at the job.

Perhaps someone could create a new set of pronouns so that the language does not act as if the nonbinaries don’t exist, but so far I haven’t seen anything emerging. I am left in a quandary, but I should be joined in my predicament by all those who value the more precise use of our language.

How do we get better pronouns?

People the Barricades! We Need a Pronoun Revolution

Pronouns were once only a pip pesky. She, her, hers went together. These pronouns all referred to a single person. He, him, and his likewise. They, them, theirs referred to more than one person. “You” presented the only problem since it was both singular and plural. The southernism “y’all” makes some sense.

Pronouns after singular nouns of indeterminate gender, however, do present a problem. Grammarians would say that this sentence is correct: “A writer must work his ass off to make a living.” Of course, women are writers, and the sentence does not seem to include them. Even so, when I first learned this element of grammar, I was told to use “his” in such a sentence because “his” was no longer male in this context but encompassed both genders.

That may be what grammarians taught, but that was not always the instinctive response to the sentence. It takes some mental effort to include females in the collection of people who are writers when “his” is used, while the notion of male writers is an instinctive reaction to the sentence. Of course, the sentence could say, “A writer must work his or her ass off to make a living.” This removes the gendered ambiguity, but a price is paid by producing a clunkier sentence. (And why is it that the phrase is almost always “his or her” and seldom “her or his”? Is it because we are used to males taking precedence?)

The solution for this problem is relatively easy. Make the singular nouns of indeterminate gender plural. “Bakers want their bread to be savored.” “Writers must work their asses off to make a living.” Inclusive, clear, and without thuds.

The similar problem with indefinite pronouns is harder to solve. These include anyone, everyone, no one, none, everybody, someone, each. Grammarians maintain that all indefinite pronouns are singular, and both these sentences are grammatically correct: “Everyone should bring his own beach towel,” and, “Everyone should bring his or her beach towel.” However, “his or hers” brings that inelegance to the injunction, and the universal “his” not only is not inclusive, it introduces an ambiguity. Will towels be provided for the females coming to the clambake?

Many good writers are rejecting the fuddy-duddy grammarians and now follow an indefinite pronoun with a plural pronoun. “No one wants their advice ignored.” “Everybody should bring their own beach towel.” I admit that since I was taught under the old grammatical regime this still grates a bit on my sensibilities, but it is a good solution. When a grammatical rule prevents a better, clearer formulation, the grammatical rule should bend, and our language will improve. And as good writers and speakers increasingly use a plural pronoun after an indefinite one, the jarring note that it produces in a few of us will soon disappear.

However, there is another pronoun problem for which I have not found a good solution. Some pronouns—I, me, you, they, and their companions—are not gendered, but others are—he, she, him, her, and their companions. The gendered pronouns, however, are only binary—male and female. What pronouns, then, should be used for the sizeable portion of the population who are neither male nor female, who are nonbinary?

I have a personal stake in this. The person whom I referred to on this blog as “the daughter” is nonbinary. Although this blog is titled “Amelia’s Dad,” that child is now called AJ (and I need to change the blog’s title, but my limited skills have not so far found how to make the change efficiently to “AJ’s Dad.”)

I wrote a recent post about AJ and me. In it I referred to AJ as the nonbinary progeny and abbreviated that in the post as the NBP. I was trying to be cute, but I also like the ring of NBP partly because it sounds much like MVP. In the post, it was all right to use non-binary progeny and NBP because it was clear to whom (yes, I am part of the declining population who still uses “whom”) I was referring. In ordinary discourse, this does not work. Few of my conversational partners would know that NBP referred to AJ.

(concluded July 1)

George and Gay Pride (concluded)

I had a fair number of dinners with his gay friends after George told me that he was gay. They were perfectly nice, but it was all somewhat sad.  George was not part of a chic or sophisticated gay life. The talk was basically about drugs and who was hot (which required being young), but undertones of fear often came through. They lived in the shadows, in compartments. I heard even fifty-year-olds voicing a concern that their parents would find out about their lives.

George, I was convinced, wanted something more than he was getting out of this gay life. In the straight world, he did not acknowledge all of his life. In his gay compartment, however, it was almost all talk of sex and drugs while he also wished to talk about politics or baseball or TV or movies. That, however, was not his group, and George was compartmentalized, too. In a world where few could openly acknowledge they were gay, he seemed to have no way to meet new gay friends that had wider interests.

When I left the job, I did not see George regularly. Ours was the kind of friendship that needed the shared stimulus of work to continue our closeness. We still did have an occasional dinner, but our conversations now were often about a darker world enveloping George and his friends. The AIDS epidemic had hit. As we walked down the Village streets, he would see someone and say, “His lover died last month.” “His lover died six months ago.”  George had been to several dozen funerals in the last year. He told me about the AIDS death of former colleagues of ours, people whose sexuality I had never thought about. Not surprisingly, a depression hung over George and his friends.

And then George got the disease. We had dinners a few times after that. He was quite accepting even though he knew he was dying, and with the hospital bedsides he had attended, he was aware how awful the death from AIDS was. Even so, he did not seem to be sorry for himself. He almost seemed grateful for what awaited him. As death approached, George’s one true concern was that he had had unprotected sex with someone, and he kept trying to convince himself that it had happened before he had been diagnosed.

George accepted that he was gay. He knew that is who he was. He knew it was not something he had chosen, but growing up when he did, he also seemed to accept a certain self-hatred because of who he was. As death approached, he wanted that self-hatred over. Stonewall had happened, but the gay pride movement had barely started, and George was not part of it.

Much has changed in the decades since George told me that he was gay. Some of it has been personal. Other men have come out to me as gay. I have looked back and realized that friends I had were gay. But society has also made changes. As more and more people lived openly as gay or lesbian, more and more of the rest of us realized those we love and respect include non-straight people. Many of us have become more accepting and less fearful of those whose sexualities differ from the majority in the country.

Laws have also changed. Gay sex is no longer a crime. (Those who rail against big government, of course, should applaud this change. What could be more the sign of Big Brother than mandating what you can’t do between consenting adults in private?) Same-sex couples can get married and more often are treated similarly to heterosexual couples. I think back to George’s time when I knew a same-sex couple who had been together for over twenty years, longer than many marriages I knew. One got injured. His partner was not allowed in the hospital room because he was not a “relative.”

Of course, the world has not shed all its prejudices about gays and lesbians. Regular reports reveal attacks on people around the country because of their sexuality. Some “Christian” ministers call for the execution of gays, and more subtle discrimination, from churches to jobs to friendships, still abound. And, of course, many foreign countries have not come even as far as we have.

Even so, I wish that George had lived into a time when he would have seen some of these positive changes. I don’t how, if at all, the possibility of marriage would have affected his long-term relationship that fell apart, but I do know that I would have loved to hear George’s descriptions of his participation in a Gay Pride parade. I would have loved it for George not only to acknowledge his sexuality but to have had the chance to celebrate being gay.

George and Gay Pride

I don’t remember telling any, but I would not be surprised if I had. Surely I heard gay jokes, although back then they might have been homo, or possibly fag or pansy jokes. I do remember being with a group yelling what I am sure many thought were witty remarks at an effeminate boy in our high school. I was mute. If they would have been anti-Semitic or racial comments, I might have objected, but I did not try to stop the not-completely-understood homophobic remarks. This is not one of my proudest childhood memories.

Mostly, however, in my childhood and beyond, as far as I knew, gays did not exist. This changed when I became a public defender and I met gays. Some were gay prostitutes whose clients seemed often to be truckers from New Jersey who drove through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan. As with other prostitutes, I wondered about their lives and could not imagine that theirs was a satisfying existence.

A few times I learned a client not charged with prostitution was gay because his sexuality was integral to his defense. The charge might have been robbery or burglary, and the client would say that he had been in some sort of homosexual relationship with the supposed victim, who often had a respectable status or job. The defendant would claim that he had been promised money or other goodies from the complainant. The pledged largesse was not forthcoming, and the client would say that he taken money or a TV out of the complainant’s home, and he was only taking what he was due.

I remember my jail visit the first time I represented someone in such a case. The client gave me his version of the events telling me he was gay and that the complainant was a closeted, fearful gay. The client seemed eager that I understand better. He was dressed in prison garb. He said, “I want you to see how I really look.” He pulled out a picture of himself in drag with full makeup. “This me. Don’t I look pretty?” I did not know how to respond. I had seen Milton Berle and other TV comedians dressed up in female clothing. I was always amazed at what seemed to be the unrestrained, raucous response of the studio audience upon seeing a man in woman’s clothing. I just thought it was stupid. Now, I was holding a picture of the person sitting across a metal table from me who was dressed in drag. I did not know how to respond. I knew that it was not funny. I knew I was uncomfortable (but why?). I think I mumbled “Yes” in response, and I thought that my 1960s boyhood in a small midwestern town had not really prepared me for this.

The gay men I defended all fit into a prejudice I held without even thinking about it. Homosexuals were outsiders. They stood apart from my “normal” society. George changed that.

George, another public defender, was my office mate in those public-defender days. We got friendly by talking across our desks about cases, defendants, prosecutors, judges, and our colleagues. Comfortable with each other, we became friends outside the office. For several Thanksgivings the spouse and I went to his mother’s house. There was a lot of scotch and new traditions. George was Lebanese-American. We did have turkey, but only after many Middle-Eastern dishes. The most memorable was beautiful raw lamb–which George’s mom would only buy from one particular butcher–drizzled with olive oil.  This took me back to my childhood.  My family had no idea what steak tartare was, but we had as a regular treat what we un-euphemistically called raw hamburger. I loved it on rye bread, topped with uncooked onion and much black pepper. And I found that I loved raw, ground lamb, too.

After a couple years of friendship, George told me that he was gay. Four decades ago, this was a huge deal.  George, who was nearing forty, said that I was the first straight person that he had come out to, and he was the first person I knew, other than those clients, who acknowledged being gay.

The spouse and I joined George again at his mother’s for Thanksgiving a few weeks after his announcement to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, George picked that holiday to tell his mother and brother about his sexuality. I could tell that something was different. The friendly, bantering family atmosphere to which the spouse and I had been welcomed was now quiet, sullen, and tense.

George later told me his mother was shocked when he first told her that he was gay, and she refused to believe it. However, over time her love for her son won out and she came to some sort of acceptance.  The brother, on the other hand, could never accept who George was and basically disowned George from that day on. I don’t think that the two ever talked again.

George, who had hidden his life from me for the first years that I had known him, now welcomed me into more of his activities. I hung out with him near his apartment at various Greenwich Village gay spots, which early in the evening were like any neighborhood restaurant or bar—guys shooting pool or laughing over a beer. Later at night, however, the places often transformed into identifiable gay places. George would gladly introduce me around almost as if he were happy to show off a straight friend to those who kept hidden their sexuality from those who were not gay. These men were friendly, but I was often a bit uncomfortable. Often sexual images that made me uncomfortable were projected on the walls, drugs were prevalent, and George’s friends were uncomfortable themselves in talking to a straight man. (Once or twice, the spouse went to these spots, too. When a bartender would spot her, he would embarrassedly turn off the projector although the slide shows of good-looking men sucking each other’s dicks made her much less uncomfortable than they did me.)

(concluded June 26)