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social sciences

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ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project  
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Chastened by the loss in Bowers v. Hardwick, ACLU lawyers felt the need to develop a strategy that would avoid precedent-setting rulings that could stymie the quest for equality for a generation.

Nan Hunter, then a young lawyer with ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, was selected as the first director of the LGBT & AIDS Project. She is credited with developing the successful effort to establish AIDS as a protected disability.

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In 1993, she joined the Clinton administration to work on health care policy and law. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School and is now Professor of Law at Georgetown Law School.

When Hunter received an Award of Courage from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFar) in 2000, she reminisced about the challenges that confronted her as she assumed the helm of the LGBT & AIDS Project at a very "scary time": "There was a tremendous amount of loose and easy talk about quarantine, forced testing, mandatory reporting, and those sorts of draconian measures, and it was completely up in the air whether laws like that might simply roll through Congress and many of the state legislatures. It was a time of crisis." Thanks to the Project's success in court and in educating the public about AIDS, the most extreme measures were defeated.

Since its modest beginnings, the Project has grown to include more than 25 staffmembers, including several full-time attorneys who monitor legal work across the country; a litigation director; a federal legislative director who lobbies Congress; an education team that informs the public of the Project's litigation and legislative campaigns; and a senior strategist who coordinates the Project's efforts and makes long-range plans.

Matt Coles has served as Executive Director of the LGBT & AIDS Project since 1995. A 1973 graduate of Yale University and a 1977 graduate of the University of California's Hastings College of Law, Coles practiced law in San Francisco for ten years before joining the ACLU of Northern California as a staff lawyer. He has become one of the country's leading experts on glbtq legal issues, ranging from employment discrimination and AIDS law to marriage equality advocacy and litigation.

Coles has helped draft several significant gay rights laws, including San Francisco's statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, California's law banning discrimination in employment, and the first domestic partnership law that allowed couples to register their relationship.

Perhaps Coles's greatest triumph in the courtroom was as one of the principal attorneys in the challenge to Colorado's Amendment 2, which resulted in the landmark ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996), which established the principle that laws cannot be enacted simply because of hostility to glbtq people. He was also the lead attorney in several significant AIDS cases and in a challenge to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

The 1990s

Despite the disheartening ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick , the ACLU and its new Project soldiered on in defense of glbtq rights, enjoying some surprising successes in both state and federal courts during the 1990s.

For example, a federal lawsuit led to the agreement by the CIA to no longer discriminate against gay and lesbian employees (Dubbs v. CIA, 1990); a federal court struck down an Alabama law that forbade gay and lesbian groups at state colleges and universities (GLBA v. Alabama, 1997); and the U. S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law restricting gay materials on the Internet (ACLU v. Reno, 1997); while the highest state courts in Kentucky and Maryland, respectively, struck down sodomy laws (Wasson v. Commonwealth, 1990; Williams v. Glendenning, 1999).

Another state court that struck down a sodomy law was the Georgia Supreme Court, which in 1998 declared unconstitutional the same law that the U. S. Supreme Court had upheld in Bowers. It may or may not be relevant that the 1998 Georgia case, Powell v. State, involved charges of heterosexual sodomy.

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