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Respectful Gay Marriage Debate An 'Enormous Step'


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you might have heard about that disturbing story out of Steubenville, Ohio, where a young woman was assaulted at a party. One of the young men involved actually took pictures and bragged about it, and nobody at the party intervened. So that made us think about what kinds of conversations people are actually having with teens about sex, and what kinds of conversations they should be having. So we've invited three people who've been doing that, and they'll be with us in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the those two landmark cases before the Supreme Court involving California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. And if you've been following this, you've probably heard a lot about the legal issues involved, but today, we wanted to hear one person's story, so we called Robin Shahar.

She had had a job offer with the Georgia Attorney General's office back in 1991, but it was revoked after then-attorney general Michael Bowers learned that she was planning a Jewish wedding ceremony with her female partner. She sued in federal court, but she lost her case, and the Supreme Court refused to take it up on appeal. We wanted to hear the rest of that story, so we called Robin Shahar, and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROBIN SHAHAR: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So your story actually begins when you were a law student. Pretty customary that you, you know, work in the legal field in the summer. You'd worked with the Georgia Attorney General's office, right, between your second and third years of law school?

SHAHAR: That's exactly right. And it is very customary when an employer likes the work of a second-year law student, that the employer will offer that person a job that will begin when they finish law school.

MARTIN: And so you were a pretty good student?

SHAHAR: That's what happened with the attorney general.

MARTIN: A pretty good student? Did a good job in that summer internship, or associate, or whatever they call it?

SHAHAR: Well, yeah. And part of what's interesting about my case is I did do a good job that summer, but also I graduated sixth in my class from Emory Law School. I was a Woodruff fellow, so I had a full-paid merit scholarship through law school.

MARTIN: So they offered you a job, which would commence after you finished law school. How did you find out that they were revoking the offer? And what did they say?

SHAHAR: I was called into Mr. Bowers' office, and was handed a letter that he had written. It said that he had learned of my - and I'm quoting - "purported marriage to another woman," unquote, and that to not fire me would be tacit approval of the marriage, and he was therefore not - he was revoking his offer of employment.

MARTIN: He said this to your face?

SHAHAR: Oh, no. It was in a letter.


SHAHAR: And I did ask to meet with him, and he refused to do so.

MARTIN: How did you react? I know that sounds like a ridiculous question, but I have to ask: What went through your mind when you're reading this?

SHAHAR: It was stunning to me. You know, I perhaps naively understood or believed that I would be judged on the merits of my work, on the merits of who I am as a person. And growing up, while you hear about discrimination, it is something that happens to other people. For that to actually happen to me, for it to be there in writing, was pretty overwhelming, and I was somewhat in a state of shock and distraught, extremely distraught.

MARTIN: Do you happen to know what the law in Georgia was at the time about same-sex relationships, you know, apart from marriage? Was there any legal sanction against same-sex relationships at the time that you were aware of? And just more - sort of more broadly, like, what was the environment there at the time? Did you - you said you were blindsided, but I'm kind of wondering, had you had any clue that there was this kind of deep opposition to this? Even though, again, the ceremony would have been a private ceremony. There was no legal, you know, state recognition of it. It was a private matter.

SHAHAR: That's right. That's right. It was a religious ceremony, actually, but that's correct.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

SHAHAR: There was no state involvement. I mean, Georgia is obviously a very conservative state, and Michael Bowers is the attorney general who was the Bowers in Bowers versus Hardwick. So I was certainly aware of his opposition to sodomy. Interestingly, you know, sodomy is no longer permitted in this country. Part of the argument of sodomy is that it was being used to harm gay men and lesbians.

And I'm a very good example of that, because what Mr. Bowers said was if I'm getting married and I'm a lesbian, I must be committing sodomy. And, you know, people did not make - did not jump to that for heterosexuals. You know, we don't think about: What are they going to be doing sexually? So in that situation, his assumption of sodomy was used against me and as a justification for firing me.

MARTIN: So, to sort of make a long story short, you contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. They did take the case. You did sue Mr. Bowers and the office in federal court. I assume it went on for a long time, as these cases often do. What was the end result?

SHAHAR: The end result was we lost. I mean, interestingly, when it went to the court of appeals, it starts with a decision by a panel of three judges, and we won at that level. We got a beautiful decision, very much of it talking about gay and lesbian commitments, and that they should be protected, and acknowledging the intimacy and the right of intimate association that goes along with them.

That decision was then heard en banc, which means that the full court, the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case, and they came down with a decision that was very upsetting. It justified the termination, and it even compared it to firing someone for being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. So it was a really, just a deeply disturbing decision. We then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.

MARTIN: So how do you feel now, seeing the court taking up the federal Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, which is a measure in California that barred same-sex marriage? What are your thoughts now, as you see these cases before the court? Do you feel vindicated, or do you feel sad, in a way, that you felt that we could've had this conversation sooner?

SHAHAR: I don't feel sad. And I would say I don't - well, I definitely believed at the time of the loss that it takes many cases that lose in order to get to a case that wins. Because part of what happens is education, and I truly believed that some day, people would look back at the decision in my case with some shame, like they do with Plessy versus Ferguson, where the courts have said something that is so clearly discriminatory, we wince when we read it.

I did not believe that in my lifetime I would see the reversal that I'm now seeing. And that doesn't mean that I expect the Supreme Court to give the gay and lesbian community exactly what they want. I mean, I don't know what the court will rule, but the fact that this is even being discussed in a respectful, serious way is an enormous step forward. And for me to be observing it and here participating in this conversation, frankly, is very moving for me.

MARTIN: Do you feel, though - how can I put this - any sympathy for Mr. Bowers? Because the - my guess is that he simply felt he was reflecting the norms of the community, of what just seemed obvious to him. And it's unfortunate you never got a chance to talk to him about it, because it would be interesting to hear what he'd have to say about that. But...

SHAHAR: You know, it's very - I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

SHAHAR: No, finish.

MARTIN: Do you - no, go ahead.

SHAHAR: It's very interesting. Right after the 11th Circuit en banc court ruled, there was a huge controversy that came out, because Mr. Bowers came out - hang on - and admitted publicly that he had been having a 10-year adulterous affair. Sodomy was illegal in Georgia, as was adultery. And he was running for governor at the time, and ended up - he had been really the favorite, and ended up losing that primary, but was given a lot of heat by the press and the public for having been hypocritical.

So while I understand your point about his perhaps reflecting what other Georgians believed, to do that based on sexual orientation, but not to apply it to himself and his own conduct, shows how discrimination is used and justified when in reality, when you dig a little bit deeper, the justification just isn't there. It doesn't hold up when you see that it's being applied differently to straight people than it is to gays and lesbians.

MARTIN: So what was the rest of your life after that? You were able to, you have been able to work as an attorney. What happened next? After the job offer was revoked, I assume you had to go on and get another job. Were you able to?

SHAHAR: Yes, and it's interesting because with my graduating at the level that I did, had I not been fired and had it been very public, I really realistically could have gone to a big firm if that's what I wanted, although that never was what I wanted. I worked in private practice for a couple of years, and since then, for about 18 years, have been working as a lawyer for the City of Atlanta.

Now, I always wanted to be a government lawyer. I always wanted to be involved in public service, and I have loved my work.

MARTIN: Do you feel, though, on the other side of it that that experience affected you on a personal and an emotional level? Whether the stress of going through that, do you think that it influenced the other relationships in your life? Do you mind talking about that?

SHAHAR: Oh, no. I mean, I think it's given me an interesting perspective. It was a very painful process. It was a scary process, to be out at a time when a lot of people weren't out, particularly in Georgia, and I had to come to terms with a decision that compared me with being a member of the Ku Klux Klan which, for me, it was just horribly insulting and painful.

But it has given me a perspective, which is important in this situation, that civil rights really is a march and that all of us have to participate in that march, and we may not see the end of that march, but it really is step by step by step forward, and I've had to console myself by understanding that I am a participant in that and that education and being out and living with integrity is part of what pushes that march forward.

MARTIN: Robin Shahar is currently a lawyer for the City of Atlanta. She was kind enough to join us from NPR member station, WABE, in Atlanta to tell us her story. Robin Shahar, thank you for joining us, and I understand you're celebrating Passover this week, so if I could wish you a happy and a sweet Passover, as well.

SHAHAR: Thank you, Michel.


MARTIN: Coming up, by now, you've probably heard about that very disturbing case out of Steubenville, Ohio, where a young woman was sexually assaulted at a party. One of the young men even took pictures and bragged about it. So now, we're wondering what are you saying in your house about this?

MALIK WASHINGTON: We teach our daughters to value their bodies and value sex, and we have this idea of saving themselves, but when it comes to young men, the idea is just that boys will be boys.

MARTIN: We'll talk about what kind of sex education teens really need. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE. From NPR News, I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.