All Out Politics: Exclusive Interview with Gloria Allred (Part One)

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The Divine Ms. A talks about her special relationship with LGBT America and civil rights in the 1970s

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I first watched Gloria Allred on television when I was a wonky 13-year-old news geek. That was 1982 and Allred was a bright, young liberal voice on a Los Angeles public affairs television show on KNBC, Channel 4, called “Free 4 All.” 

To say she was fiery or passionate about women’s rights, minority rights and civil rights, moreover, would be an understatement. Allred, now 72, was barely past her 30s at the time. Ten years later, while still a community college journalism student, I met her at a party at the home of future Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. I remember being surprised by how mild-mannered – even, dare I say it – shy “the real” Gloria Allred was in person. 

Our paths crossed a couple more times in my coverage of LGBT news and issues as a journalist through the years. Allred has always been a sought-after source for germane quotes on issues of equality, even when she’s not directly part of the story. 

But with surprising frequency, reporters like me find that behind the scenes Gloria Allred and her firm, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg are the lawyers working quietly, out of the public eye – yes, quietly and out of the public eye – on behalf of victims of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.    

Unexpectedly, earlier this year, I thought I needed Allred’s services. I was sure I had been discriminated against on the basis of my sexual orientation by a newspaper in San Diego, which I won’t name here. I had been in the running for a job, but was told by the editor there that he had concern that the publisher might be offended by my presence in the newsroom because, while editor of LGBT Weekly, I had been responsible for content that was critical of said publisher’s anti-LGBT-equality political activities. 

Gloria Allred’s response was lightning-fast, highly engaged and supremely sophisticated in terms of her interpretation of how anti-discrimination employment laws applied to my circumstances. 

Even though this would have been a high-visibility case – and one that many in the LGBT and progressive-politics communities would have judged as containing a compelling narrative – Allred and one of her partners did what only good lawyers do when declining a complex case: They educated me about the difference between being illegally discriminated against because you’re gay and being lawfully passed over for an opportunity because a prospective employer just doesn’t like your politics. 

This may surprise some readers who know me and maybe even some of those who think they know Allred’s politics: I believe she and I both want to live in a country that’s free enough to give employers the right not to hire people because they just don’t like their politics. In the end, I thanked Allred for helping me grow in my understanding of the law, democracy and my own political values.  

However, where there is illegal discrimination and when she does take a case, “Glo All” goes all out on behalf of her clients. Case in point: Two weeks ago she held the hottest-ticket press conference in San Diego since that city’s troubles with rampant accusations of sexual harassment began allegedly committed by its mayor.

Allred announced the filing of a sexual harassment suit against San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, for allegedly committing sexual harassment and engaging in illegal conduct against his former communications director, Irene McCormack-Jackson. Allred lambasted Filner, a former congressman, for his claim that he “needed help.” (Filner begins a two-week behavioral rehabilitation program this week, but will do his mayoral duties in the mornings and evenings.)

During that press conference, Allred – ever the marketing genius and princess of P.R. – coined the now ubiquitous term “the Filner headlock,” a reference to the way the mayor allegedly dragged women in an ostensibly jocular fashion into meetings.

Then this week she again held court with San Diego’s press corps at the downtown Westin Hotel to introduce Mayor Filner’s eleventh accuser of sexual harassment.

This week’s press-conference takeaway was a suggestion for new signage at City Hall that, Allred says, should read: “Warning Women: Mayor is in his office. Proceed at your own risk.” 

Allred’s high-profile cases are only part of her work. 

She has delivered the commencement speech to graduates at the University of Pennsylvania; she has won awards and accolades as a civil rights and women’s rights crusader from organizations too many to name here; and she is consistently recognized as a “super lawyer” by the profession’s top registries and publications. In 2006, she gave the keynote speech at the American Bar Association’s 

“Law Day.” 

Of course Gloria Allred has a syndicated reality-scripted hybrid television court show entitled “We The People.” But, for LGBTs; women, at-risk and abused children and youth; the disabled and minorities, it will always be her work to protect and defend the vulnerable and the oppressed that matters most. 

For the gay community, specifically, Allred’s aggressiveness fighting for equal access to the things in life that make us human has been a crucial contributor to our community’s success in securing the right to marry who we want; to eat in whatever dining establishments we want and event to get pedicures wherever we want. 

In her book, “Fight Back and Win,” Allred recounts how disturbed she was by a judge’s decision in 1987 to allow Jessica’s Nail Salon to discriminate against Paul Jasperson, then one of Los Angeles’ most renowned hair stylists, whose appointment for a pedicure was canceled by the owner because he had mentioned that he was HIV-positive. 

“(Judge Lawrence Waddington’s) decision was wrong,” writes Allred in a chapter of the book entitled “Little Things Start Big Changes.” “It ignored all the medical testimony we presented showing that pedicures and manicures could be performed safely on people with AIDS. We felt the judge’s decision could fan the flames of AIDS hysteria that were sweeping the country and foster the mistaken impression that people who disclosed they had AIDS could be denied services by businesses in order to protect employees and customers against the virus.” 

Allred writes that she was also concerned that people living with HIV/AIDS would stay in, or return to the shadows and not disclose their status to anyone anywhere as a result of a decision like Judge Waddington’s should it be allowed to stand. 

In her book, she further notes that the judge’s ruling risked rolling back the small but significant progress represented by West Hollywood’s progressive law protecting people living with the virus from discrimination.

Allred fought on on behalf of Jasperson, and won on behalf of all people affected by HIV/AIDS. 

In 2004, it was Allred who began petitioning for same-sex marriage licenses in California. Acting on behalf of her clients Robin Tyler and Diane Olson, a loving (now married) California lesbian couple, and Rev. Troy Perry and his (now) husband, Philip Ray De Blieck, she succeeded in 2008. For nearly five glorious months, thanks to Allred, there was marriage equality in California. Recall, George W. Bush was still president then.  

Similarly, fighting discrimination against same-sex couples was a precursor to future battles in an early 1980s case of Allred’s involving a popular fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles, known for its romantic booths. 

In the Q&A that follows, you’ll appreciate the stinging wit in Allred’s choice of titles for her book’s chapter about the wrath she wrought upon Papa Choux for discriminating against her clients, a lesbian couple named Zandra Rolon and Deborah Johnson. The chapter about the long-since bankrupt restaurant is called “Curtains for Papa Choux.”

429Magazine: How would you describe your relationship with the LGBT community? 

Gloria Allred: I have been filing cases on behalf of victims of discrimination on account of their sexual orientation or because of their HIV status – or their perceived HIV status or their condition of AIDS ever since the early 1980s; so that’s more than 30 years. We did it when almost nobody was willing to do it, filing civil cases; and I think the reason they were reluctant was because they were afraid of being called gay or lesbian. I was never afraid of anything like that; I never thought there was any shame in people thinking your were gay or lesbian. 

429Mag: So, you’re fine if people say “oh, she’s a closeted lesbian;” but you are a heterosexual woman?

Allred: I don’t care what people assume. I focus on the issues; and there are many issues that need to be focused upon. I focus on the needs of my clients, which always come first… But from the beginning, my goal was not only to win rights – the right to be treated equally – for individuals who are gay or lesbian. But also give individuals who experience discrimination their own voice. 

429Mag: Is that where your fairly masterful employment of the media helps your clients? 

Allred: Yes, and this goes back to the late [nineteen-] seventies when Morris Kight – one of the elders, if you will, of the gay community in Los Angeles – had meetings in his house in Hollywood. Morris invited me over to the house. There were not really that many people who were gay or lesbian leaders in L.A. at the time. And he said, “Gloria, I want you to lead the cases.” I said, “Well, why me?” He said, “Well, because we don’t have anyone else. We know you; and we know you care about civil rights.” 

429Mag: What was the first case you took on after that meeting with Morris Kight and the L.A. LGBT leaders? 

Allred: The first case that I can remember that I did was that Papa Choux case. Papa Choux was a fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles. My clients were an African American woman and her Latina partner. They were both businesswomen; made a reservation to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And, in the Papa Choux restaurant, they had a special section for romantic dining. Patrons would walk up a few steps into a special section, which was a semicircle of booths with sheer curtains. Violinists would come by and play the violins; you could close the curtains and, you know, dine in semi-privacy and kiss or do whatever you were going to do that was appropriate…have your wine. They made a reservation for the booths and were seated there at first, but then told by the manager that they could sit anywhere in the restaurant but there. And they were told one of the reasons was because it was for couples only. And they said, “Well, what are we?” We’re not chopped liver; we’re a couple. Then they said that it was a house policy that no one could sit in that section unless they were a couple. 

429Mag: A man and a woman?

Allred: Yeah, meaning a man and a woman. They said, well, that’s ridiculous; we’re not going to move. Then, the owner came and said there was a city ordinance. 

429Mag: That was not true though, was it?

Allred: No; it wasn’t true. They said, “Well, we’re just businesswomen, but we know that can’t be true.” He said, “You’ll have to move. You can sit anywhere in the restaurant, but not here.” So, they asked themselves, “What would Martin Luther King do?” They decided that the answer was that he would want them to call me. And so they did. It became a very famous case. We even had the judge visit the booth, which I called the “corpus boothae.” The press came along. The court decided against us. We appealed and won. The case set the precedent that businesses [in California]can’t discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. We actually got to cite that case as precedent in other cases. 

429Mag: That win must have been gratifying. Did it give you encouragement to continue fighting on behalf of LGBTs? 

Allred: It was and it did. It was at first very distressing to lose at the lower court. But new interpretations of the law are made at the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. This was the first time for many in the public to hear women self-identify as lesbian; they were businesswomen and they were well spoken; and they were on radio and on television standing up for their rights. It made an impression. One of the opposing attorneys said, “but Gloria, we didn’t know they were lesbians; they were dressed so nicely.” (Laughs)

429Mag: Your clients are always right by your side during your press conferences; and, unlike a lot of similar press conferences, where attorneys don’t really let their clients say much, you sometimes have yours speak at length and even interact with the media. Is that always a good idea? 

Allred: I always have them speak. I’m not only speaking for them; I’m speaking with them. I’m also trying to create a climate that’s favorable to civil rights. 

429Mag: You’ve kind of trained a generation that the route to success in fighting the good fight toward winning equality and respect for civil rights means being willing to lose at first, but continuing with appeals – all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. 

Allred: One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve been willing to go the distance. When you’re fighting for civil rights, it’s sometimes two steps forward and one step back. I think people do understand that you have to commit to going the distance. Civil rights are an evolution; and you have to bring people along. Whether it’s being in the gay and lesbian pride parade, which I’ve been in every year since the late 1970s in West Hollywood; or marching in Washington D.C.; or litigating for LGBT people. I’ve done everything I could do. 

We represented a veteran who had someone at Boys Market [a former chain of southern California grocery stores]say over a loudspeaker, “Faggot, get out of the store.” We’ve represented clients in AIDS discrimination cases and set precedent. We sued Magic Mountain over discrimination of people who were gay or lesbian.

429Mag: Weren’t you the first to actually challenge California’s defacto ban on same-sex marriage? 

Allred: Yes, that was in 2004. We were the first to challenge the family code limiting marriage to a man and a woman in California. We filed a discrimination suit for my clients Robin Tyler and Diane Olson after we went to the Beverly Hills Courthouse together to apply for a marriage license for them as a couple. They were denied, of course. We announced that we would challenge it; and that was before San Francisco began marrying couples. That was before anyone even knew they would be marrying same-gender couples.  We went all the way to the Supreme Court – including challenging Proposition 8.  

429Mag: So, the Supreme Court is not an unfamiliar place to you. 

Allred: Actually, we’ve been there three times. 

429Mag: What was the difference between what you did with Robin Tyler and Diane Olson in Beverly Hills and what Gavin Newsom did as mayor of San Francisco? 

Allred: We were the first because we went right to the heart of the matter by directly challenging (the California Family Code) as being unconstitutional. What Mayor Newsom did was he allowed couples to marry before a judicial determination found that the law was unconstitutional. So, I knew immediately, when he started marrying couples three hours [after our announcement]that those marriages would not be valid. Sure enough, they were later found not to be valid. He just decided he could marry, but there had been no determination that the ban was unconstitutional. 

429Mag: So you guys weren’t coordinating with the folks in San Francisco; this was all just coincidental timing? 

Allred: I didn’t know if he was aware of what we were doing. We were not aware that he was planning to do anything about marriage licenses. My guess is that they had planned that and we had planned what we were doing separately. When we got back to our offices and they told us, “they’re marrying people in San Francisco,” we were like, “What!” But we knew that alone would not do it. That’s how we won the right for same-sex couples to marry in 2008. 

Of course, Prop. 8 passed. Then we filed a writ with the California Supreme Court. We were the only law firm of all the firms that were present after Prop. 8 passed who argued to court that those 18,000 couples who had married – that those marriages that took place before Prop. 8 passed – should remain valid even if the court allowed Prop. 8 to stand, which of course we asked them not to do. We didn’t want those marriages that had already taken place to be found invalid. So, the Supreme Court called on us to make that argument, because we were the only attorneys to have briefed that.  

429Mag: Without your brief and your argument, would those marriages have survived? 

Allred: Without that argument, I don’t know what they would have done.  

429Magazine

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Please visit 429 Magazine’s “All Out Politics” by Thom Senzee two weeks from today, for Part Two of our Q&A with Gloria Allred to read about her response to some leaders in the LGBT community who asked her firm to stand down from filing a challenge to Proposition 8 with the Supreme Court of the United States in 2009. Also, read about her 1970s run-in with Maureen Reagan, daughter of Ronald Reagan. 

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