Teach Your Students Well

“After my first year as one of a very small number of ‘out’ students at Marquette, this class was like a life raft,” Jo Futrell said. “To be in a law class where I could speak from my own perspective as a lesbian—that was a big deal.”

Attorney Christopher Krimmer explains how he came to teach a class on sexual orientation and the law at Marquette University—a Jesuit Institution.

When Christopher Krimmer attended law school in 1994, he didn’t come out to his fellow students. However, once word got out that he was gay, he experienced a change in the way classmates regarded him, ranging from avoidance to name-calling.

He transferred schools and found that he could be openly gay and be just another student at his new law school. Not only was he not discriminated against, but he was welcomed with open arms.

After Christopher graduated, he started to think about how he wanted future students to have a greater understanding of the challenges faced by members of LGBT communities as well as a foundation of case-law knowledge to help them effectively represent LGBT clients. He worked for the AIDS Network and taught at the University of Phoenix. Then, he submitted a proposal to Marquette University Law School’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Peter Rofes for a class on sexual orientation and the law.

Interestingly, Marquette was the first law school he attended; the one where students called him “pretty boy” and requested changes to avoid sitting next to him in class. But, it turns out that students—and faculty and staff—of every stripe can be found on the campus of a Jesuit university as well as at a state school.

Rofes told Krimmer that he was very interested in his class proposal, and he ran it past the academic faculty board. There were no objections. In fact, Rofes said, “I found my colleagues receptive to the idea and, in many respects, profoundly enthusiastic about offering the course. I had no pressure from anyone in the law school or university to refrain from offering the course. None. Zero.”

Christopher will teach the class again this academic year in his role as adjunct professor. He hopes there will be a broader representation of the viewpoints of his students.

“I couldn’t get lively debates going in my class,” Krimmer said, “Because all 16 students were within the same area of the sociopolitical spectrum. I had to play the devil’s advocate. So, I had the “Religion and Society” professor (a vocal opponent of gay marriage) come teach my class one day. I traded classes with him, so I taught law and religion, and the late Professor Howard Eisenberg taught about gay marriage.”

Krimmer said the “Religion and the Law” students were respectful, thoughtful and intuitive. “I didn’t get a lot of pushback from them,” he said. “Maybe the gay issue isn’t as dramatic for the younger generation. It was a really positive experience.”

In fact, the class evaluations Krimmer received from his students indicate that the entire class was a positive experience.

Jo Futrell took Krimmer’s class and had this to say about it, “Because of Christopher’s class, I finally understand the constitutional standards of judicial review because the LGBT case law made sense to me; it has a direct impact on my life and my community. Plus, we had real discussions about sexual orientation in the legal context—something that is impossible in other courses. It gave me a firmer foothold in law school and a sense of possibility as a gay attorney. Finally, it made me a better advocate for LGBT clients—it made me want to take that on as part of being an attorney.”

Jo found some more personal benefits from enrolling in the class as well. “After my first year as one of a very small number of ‘out’ students at Marquette, this class was like a life raft,” she said. “To be in a law class where I could speak from my own perspective as a lesbian—that was a big deal.”

The class wasn’t filled with LGBT students, though. Jo said she knows of straight students who have recommended it to their straight friends.

This is good news for people like Peter Rofes, who hopes Christopher’s class will become a permanent part of the curriculum. “LGBT people have distinct legal needs and problems, like a host of constituencies in a pluralistic society. We want to prepare lawyers to practice law in the twenty-first century. Lots of attorneys will have to do estate planning for same-sex couples, represent same-sex individuals in matters of custody and placement, etc. We want our students to be well equipped to help gay men and lesbians solve legal issues in the twenty-first century.”

Krimmer is busy practicing law as well. At Balisle & Roberson, S.C., he is happy to say he works with strong advocates for LGBT communities, and a primary focus of their practice is with LGBT communities. He listed the many legal services his firm offers LGBT people or those who are in a relationship with someone who is: adoptions, powers of attorney, wills (estate planning) child custody/visitation disputes, partnership agreements …

After identifying the need for a college course on Sexual Orientation and the Law at Marquette University, Krimmer is writing a book, *Sexual Orientation and the Law in Wisconsin* (State Bar of Wisconsin, projected for early 2010) for attorneys, explaining how to represent gay and lesbian clients. The book spotlights different areas of the law in Wisconsin, how each affects LGBT communities and how to make your law firm more receptive to and comfortable for LGBT folks.

“I’m an opportunist,” Christopher said. “I believe in the opportunity of asking. If you don’t ask, it may not happen. You have to create the opportunity or at least plant the seed.”