BY KAREN OCAMB | There’s a critical overlooked fact in the brief release from Gov. Jerry Brown’s press office announcing out attorney Dean Hansell’s appointment to serve as a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles. He’s gay. He joins the approximately 17 other openly LGBT judges among the 430 judges serving on that court. But what makes Hansell’s appointment so significant is that he has spent more than 20 years in the public eye fighting for LGBT dignity and equality, visibility once considered a death-knell for judicial advancement.
Hansell’s appointment is something of an ironic full circle for Brown, who has had the unique distinction of serving California as governor two times, decades apart. At the beginning of his second term during his first stint as governor in 1979, Brown—enlightened by the failed anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978 and hoping to win favor with a new group of out gay political fundraisers before his presidential bid—appointed MECLA co-founder Stephen Lachs to the L.A. Superior Court, making him the first openly gay judge in the world. In 1980, Brown appointed longtime gay activist and attorney Rand Schrader to the L.A. Municipal Court, just as the Christian Right gained prominence in the conservative administration of Ronald Reagan. Outspoken advocacy for LGBT civil rights was tainted as “judicial activism,” though even being gay was cause enough for recusal, as evidenced by the unsuccessful attempt by the ProtectMarriage advocates to vacate quietly gay District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in the federal Prop 8 trial in 2011.
To be sure, there have been LGBT judicial advancements in California, often through careful political campaigns and elections. But appointments carry a different political weight and despite the Judicial Applicant and Appointment Demographics Inclusion Act signed into law by Brown in 2011, the demographic categories cited by Brown’s press office of self-identified appointees only include: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African-American; Hispanic; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; or Other/Unknown.
The press office did not explain why sexual orientation and gender identity are not listed, though the office did cite a number of “notable firsts” from 2011-2015: Marsha G. Slough, the first openly gay justice in the history of the Fourth District Court of Appeal; Luis A. Lavin, the first openly gay justice to serve on the Second District Court of Appeal;Therese M. Stewart, the first openly lesbian justice to serve on the California Court of Appeal; Jim Humes, the first openly gay justice ever appointed to the California Court of Appeal; and Kimberly Colwell, the first openly lesbian judge ever appointed to the Alameda County Superior Court.
Of that list, only Therese Stewart might be recognizable to the general LGBT public for her work on marriage equality as Chief Deputy City Attorney for San Francisco. And, as the Bay Area Reporter noted in 2012 about the LGBT makeup of the state judiciary, it is difficult to see how the judiciary reflects the LGBT population if applicants, appointees and politicians quake at the prospect of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.
That’s why Hansell’s appointment is so crucial, despite the press office rendering him invisible. The L. A. LGBT community knows who he is.
“Hansell, 64, of Los Angeles, has been a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP since 2012,” the press release says. “He was a partner at Dewey and LeBoeuf from 1988 to 2012, where he was an associate from 1986 to 1988. Hansell served as a police commissioner at the Los Angeles Police Department from 1997 to 2001. He was an associate at Donovan, Leisure, Newton and Irvine from 1984 to 1986 and at Lillick, McHose and Charles from 1982 to 1984. He served as a prosecutor at the Federal Trade Commission from 1980 to 1982 and as an assistant attorney general in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office from 1977 to 1980. He earned a Juris Doctor degree from the Northwestern University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts from Denison University. Hansell fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Arthur H. Jean. He is a Democrat.”
The Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” condensation of Hansell’s legal qualifications does a disservice to the extraordinary service Hansell has provided to the LGBT community since 1988. That year, he helped co-found the L.A. chapter of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, one year after the mainstream media ignored the important 1987 March on Washington.
This was at a time when the media fueled panic about the spread of AIDS and treated vile rhetoric spouted by hateful anti-gay homophobes as a legitimate “opposing point of view,” regardless of how many times station owners and publishers were asked if they would similarly give the KKK a platform to “oppose” an African American civil rights leader.
“The media’s ability to shape perception is powerful,” Hansell wrote in his GLAAD/LA newsletter column in 1993. “Mischaracterization has a substantial impact on molding public opinion about who we are, and, despite great strides, we have a lot of work to do.”
And while the LGBT community today is stressing the importance of “intersectionality” and coalition work with other struggles, Hansell advocated for that in 1992.
“Any strategy to address the issues of homophobia in Southern California must take into consideration our burgeoning Hispanic population,” he wrote in the newsletter, with a version written in Spanish. “[W]ith death squads and government torture and killing of gay and lesbian and AIDS activists in countries such as Nicaragua, Colombia and even Mexico, for many Hispanic lesbian and gay activists in Los Angeles many of our issues seem almost luxuries when compared with the life and death issues encountered in many Latin American countries.”
In 2013, Hansell received GLAAD’s first Founders Award in recognition of his 27 years of service – which included operating the pre-Internet telephone hotline for reports about media discrimination out of his home. Indeed, Hansell has famously used his home to host numerous LGBT non-profit and political fundraisers.
Hansell also received acclaim for his work as board co-chair of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center in 2003 for helping convince former executive director Lorri Jean to return to helm the center after a run of weak leaders.
But perhaps some of Hansell’s most important public work advancing the LGBT movement came during his service on the L.A. Police Commission from 1997-2001, a period of time best known for the horrendous Rampart scandal in the LAPD.
Hansell,an Eagle Scout, sunk his teeth into a less understood but also devastating scandal of having the anti-gay Boy Scouts of America run the LAPD’s popular youth training program. In 2000, Hansell held hearings to prove the connection between the nebulous-sounding “Learning for Life” organization running the Explorer Scouts and the BSA, which officially declared gays unfit to be “morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed.” Hansell sought “to convince the Boy Scouts to end discrimination toward lesbian and gay representatives and if not successful, consider alternative models to the Explorer Program.”
Politics and conservative pushback stalled the transition until 2009, when the LAPD finally launched their own Explorer Scout program after the Police Commission—with continuous pressure from Hansell’s gay and lesbian successors—finally voted to end their relationship with the BSA over anti-gay discrimination.
Today, wit the appointment, Hansell has let go of his political backyard parties, Hansell served as out L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s appointee to the Civilian Oversight Commission for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the chair for the Working Group overseeing the commission.
It is with all these years of visible service and LGBT cultural competency and experience that Hansell will serve as a judge on the L.A. Superior Court. It’s a clear signal that other openly LGBT civil rights advocates can consider out judicial advancement, too.
“Although I have greatly enjoyed private practice,” Hansell says modestly, “I am excited about being able to devote myself full time to public service. I am excited about going on the bench.”