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March 9, 2007

You are here to help the neediest, Rhonda Rivera tells law students

Columbus--Former Ohio State University law professor Rhonda Rivera returned to the school on March 3 to speak to Outlaws, a new group for LGBT students at the Moritz College of Law, at a banquet that drew around 100 people.

The evening began with a reception and sit-down dinner followed by an address to the audience by Rivera, introduced by Mary Jo Hudson.

Marc Spindelman, professor of law, thanked Moritz dean Nancy Rogers and assistant dean Monte Smith for their support of the Outlaws. He also thanked the three students who had been responsible for the evening’s event – Alan Showalter, Lauren Fontana and Kristin Harlow. Spindelman said that they served “to remind all of us the difference three individuals can make to the life of a community.”

He praised Hudson, a former Columbus councilor appointed director of the Ohio Department of Insurance by Gov. Ted Strickland, “for being the highest out ranking official in Ohio currently, perhaps even in its history.”

Hudson, taking the podium, in turn praised Rivera.

“I would not be doing anything without her,” she said referring not only to Rivera’s longstanding career as an LGBT lawyer and activist, but also to their long friendship and professional relationship.

Hudson said that she had a challenge for the audience, especially the LGBT law students. “There is very little of the history of our movement that has been passed down, been written down.”

“Tonight, you’re going to learn a lot of history,” she added, “because Rhonda Rivera is history.”

Hudson praised her for being on the front lines of the early struggles for LGBT rights and equality.

“She created the specific area for LGBT people within the law. In 1979 Rhonda wrote a seminal legal and scholarly article about how gays and lesbians were treated under the civil law.” Hudson pointed out that in those days “we were still not doing the bisexual and transgendered thing.”

She went on to say that in addition to being invaluable to the national impact Rivera had on “protecting our jobs, protecting our families,” in 1985 when the AIDS crisis was growing, Rivera was “the first to attack the issue of AIDS and how the law is applied so that people did not lose their homes, their jobs could have access to health care.”

“Things that would today be considered barbaric,” she said, “were common practice then.”

Hudson also spoke about the effect Rivera had on Columbus and Ohio, away form the national front.

“In Columbus she made sure that the city’s non-discrimination ordinance passed” on a second try. She also “worked towards sexual orientation not being a barrier to adoption.”

Rivera had been asked to speak about history and LGBT civil rights. But she decided to forego her prepared remarks and took questions instead, saying she could “cover more issues that way.”

“Teaching the lawyers of today is one of the most important teaching jobs in America,” she told the audience.

One of Rivera’s key messages was the obligation that lawyers had to help the most unfortunate. “It is not just the job, but the honor of every attorney to represent those who can’t in any way get an attorney.”

When asked to address how the AIDS crisis impacted the struggle for equality of LGBT folk under the law, Rivera said, “At first it was a distraction.”

She said that just as the issues of gays and lesbians were beginning to become part of the national dialogue, AIDS came along to complicate issues.

“But, gay men who were not particularly political, not concentrated on the issues of life, found themselves discriminated against,” she explained. “The upper-class, elite, educated white men who were not as political as the lesbians began to get mobilized.”

“The big problem today,” she added, “is that people think it’s over. The AIDS epidemic is not over.”

A student asked Rivera to address how relationships between out law students and closeted ones should be dealt with.

“Coming out is such a personal thing,” she replied. “I would like to say that you can be out from day one and it wouldn’t affect your career, your life. But it’s not true. If you’re in the top ten percent it may not be an issue in getting a job. But if you’re not in the top ten percent, getting a job itself is hard enough. If you’re gay or have mannerisms that are considered gay it can be a problem,”

“Being in the closet is not irrational,” she went on. “People who are out should never out the closeted. It is an immoral and unethical behavior. The only people who should be outed are hypocrites.”

She did say that coming out would make closeted people “psychologically healthier and happier” although that doesn’t necessarily mean that other forms of suffering would not be visited upon them.

Doug Whaley, another stalwart LGBT activist, asked about Rivera’s early career and the threats she often received for being at the front of the struggle. “What was the moment at which you were most frightened?”

“I often was not aware, to be honest,” Rivera said of the threats. She spoke of the death threats she received, especially during the times of Pride parades. She related how at one early Pride celebration on the steps of the Statehouse it was revealed that there might have been a bomb under the stage.

Another person asked Rivera to address the issues of the early street protests of the LGBT movement compared to today.

“I don’t understand why Americans aren’t in the street right now,” she answered, to applause. Rivera spoke about how civil liberties had been seriously eroded in recent years in addition to other political misdeeds by the current administration over the last six years. Rivera had promised earlier in the evening that she was not going to get political, but joked that she simply couldn’t help it.

Rivera said that in the early days of the LGBT equality movement, street action was key. She also said that we needed to thank all the “wide-eyed liberals” who marched in front allowing the meeker ones to follow. She also said that ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was key to getting the issue noticed and dealt with.

An African American student spoke about how the gay equal rights movement has had a white face to this day. Rivera agrees and said, “We don’t have a good track record. Many of us are ashamed of it.”

“The very nature of our society sets minorities against each other,” she said. “We need brave black and Hispanic leaders to come forth” and demand a place at the table, she said. “I know that this is putting the burden on the victim again, but that is necessary so that the movement is more diverse.”

Rivera ended the session by saying that LGBT folk, and lawyers in particular, needed to recognize the special vantage point they had with their experiences.

“Being lesbian taught me about suffering, about depression,” she said, noting that these things helped her become a better person, particularly when it came to serve other people who had been on similar journeys. She said that she had learnt to “embrace the exile of being a gay person” to positive effect.

She returned to her refrain about helping the neediest.

“Do what you are here to do. Make enough money to live. But you’re here to help people--the poorest, the people at Guantanamo, those who otherwise cannot get representation. You have to understand you have a special mission. I implore you all to take up that mission,” she concluded.

Most of all, she urged, “Be ethical, be conscious of conflicts of interest. Your purpose in life is to help everybody.”

Outlaws was organized to give LGBT law students and their straight allies a chance to come together socially and politically. They can be reached at




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