A groundbreaking class at Rutgers Camden examines recent setbacks for the LGBT community in the historical context of other legal struggles for the group.
Pioneered by Rutgers Distinguished Professor N.E.H. Hull, “Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals in American Law and History” traces the history of discriminatory practices toward the LGBT community starting in the 17th century.
Under Hull’s guidance, students mark the changes in law beginning with old sodomy laws and continuing to the present day.
Hull’s inspiration for the class dates back to the 1980s when she interned at a law office in Georgia.
A client accused of sodomy was a schoolteacher and “frightened of the consequences” of his accusation, said Hull. At the time, the Supreme Court was hearing a case on sodomy laws so the lawyers hoped the outcome would benefit their client.
Unfortunately, in 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the sodomy laws and their case was ruined. ”It bothered me,” Hull explained.
Now a professor of law at Rutgers, Hull said the topic of LGBT rights comes up fairly often in other, seemingly unrelated areas of law.
Though the sodomy laws were finally overturned in 2004, the question of gay and lesbian rights comes up frequently in Jurisprudence classes, which focus on the philosophy of law.
LGBT concerns can also be found in elder law. “As same-sex couples get older, how to protect their rights is a major issue,” said Hull.
In addition to elder law, the LGBT community faces civil rights challenges in family, property and disability law.
Hull explained that the sodomy laws on the books until very recently legitimized discrimination against the LGBT community. Without a federal rule, many states would have kept the sodomy laws. Unfortunately, sodomy and similar laws “make discrimination against LGBT individuals more viable,” said Hull.
Courts “needed to get rid of sodomy laws before modern culture could make serious changes in civil rights,” Hull said. “The changes in culture that accompany changes in law” are consequently a common discussion topic in the course.
Though pure interest was a major motivating factor for the class, the growing area of LGBT concerns is becoming significant as a study of law. “Frankly, it’s crucial to have some background on the history of gay rights issues because the likelihood they come up in legal practice today is very strong.”
Because it connects to so many areas of law, it is important that students are “sensitive and aware,” said Hull. “It’s a ripe and important area of curriculum concerning civil debate.”
Colleen McCafferty is a second year law student taking the class. She agrees that “this class has been really effective in tracing sodomy laws and their relationship to the stigma people have toward homosexuality… Seeing how laws have hindered rights throughout history is really beneficial to understanding gay rights today.”
Because the class was offered “sort of late,” there are only four students in the class this semester.
Hull is unsure when the class will be offered again. With the impending presidential election, she hopes to teach a course on women’s suffrage and right to vote issues. Plans are also in progress for a course focusing on marital rape and domestic violence.
However, she has enjoyed teaching the class and if there is an “overwhelming desire” from students for the class, Hull says that she would be pleased to teach it again.