A Celebration of Courage 2012: Remarks by Suzanne Goldberg

Introduction of Karen Atala, Recipient of the Felipa de Sousa Award
Photo by Syd London.

Congratulations, Congresswoman Baldwin. I have long admired your work and it is especially exciting to see your contributions recognized in this global context.

Nearly ten years ago, Karen Atala – herself a lawyer and judge – was called into court in Chile. 

Her former husband had filed a vindictive lawsuit against her seeking custody of their three daughters. 

Why? Because she is a lesbian and because her partner had begun living in the home where she was raising the children. 

After two years in Chile’s court system, Chile’s Supreme Court agreed with the children’s father and denied Judge Atala custody of her daughters

In this terrible decision, the high court cited "the potential confusion over sexual roles" and the "risk to the integral development of the children from which they must be protected."

But, fortunately for all of us, you did not stop fighting.  Judge Atala took her case all the way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest-level court for the Americas. 

That Court ruled, just a few months ago, that Chile had violated the basic human rights of Judge Atala and her children guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights. 

Importantly, as part of that ruling, the Court held – for the first time ever - that the American Convention bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It is a terrible thing to have to fight a custody battle, and still, in making her way through it, Karen Atala gave us all a gift – and we all owe you great thanks.

As Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s former executive director, put it when she issued a statement after Judge Atala’s earlier victory at the Inter-American Commission in 2010,

"You used human rights law to extinguish the use of hostile, tired old myths that are used to stifle the dignity of LGBT parents."

Myths that children need a father in the home to be raised "correctly" that our gender or sexual orientation, standing alone, defines us as a good or bad parent, and further still that relationships with our partners present immoral models for our children.

I’ll mention just one other aspect of Judge Atala’s gift to all of us – Decisions like this don’t just break new legal ground – they also, perhaps most importantly, help change the social and political climate and create new openings for change.

And, though change comes in fits and starts, we must recognize the most recent change –– which surely would not have happened without this decision – Is Chile’s passage of a new antidiscrimination law – not perfect, to be sure, even as it comes in the wake of a horrific antigay hate crime?

But we cannot see this change without recognizing that Judge Atala’s victory in the Inter-American Court opened the door to enable this to happen in Chile and that reverberations will be felt all over. 

We are grateful to you, Judge Atala, for standing up for all of us and sharing your courage to give us in what is one of the great LGBT civil rights and human rights victories in the Americas.

Please now join me to watch this excerpt from Judge Atala’s testimony:

Many of you may be curious as to the origin of the Felipe de Souza Award. The award commemorates Felipa de Souza, a woman who was convicted and tortured in Brazil by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1591 for having sexual relationships with other women.

An everlasting symbol of courage and perseverance, IGLHCR has honored this brave woman by presenting this award to LGBT-rights related grassroots activists since 1994.

This year, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission is proud to honor Judge Karen Atala, and I am honored to present this year’s Felipa de Souza award to her on its behalf.

My aim is to find new ways to challenge and undermine discrimination,” says Goldberg.

Suzanne Goldberg Currently directs Columbia's Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and she teaches at the Columbia Law School. Her areas of expertise include Theory and Practice, Sexuality and Gender Law Civil Procedure, Civil Rights, Lawyering and Social Change, Equality Theory and Immigration and Asylum related to gender and sexual orientation joined the Columbia faculty in Fall 2006.

Law clerk to Justice Marie Garibaldi, New Jersey Supreme Court, 1990-91
Skadden Foundation Fellow with Lambda Legal Defense, 1991-93
Senior Staff Attorney with Lambda Legal Defense, 1993-2000
Adjunct Professor of Law, Fordham Law School, 1996-2000
On faculty of Rutgers Law School-Newark, 2000-2006
Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School, 2004-05
Member of the New Jersey Civil Practice Committee of the New Jersey Supreme Court (2002-06)
Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law Annual Review Board of Advisors (1999-present)
Founder and past president of the Board of Directors of Immigration Equality (formerly the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force)

After returning to the United States, Goldberg earned her law degree with honors at Harvard and clerked for Justice Marie Garibaldi ’59 at the New Jersey Supreme Court.

She spent the next decade as a senior attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. “I always wanted to use law as a means for achieving social justice,” Goldberg says.During her time at Lambda, Goldberg served as co-counsel on two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases: Romer v. Evans, which invalidated a Colorado constitutional amendment that blocked LGBT individuals from receiving anti-discrimination protection, and Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down that state’s anti-sodomy law. Soon after, Goldberg chose to turn to academia. “After 10 years of full-time practice, I wanted an opportunity to step back and reflect more deeply and critically on a broader set of issues,” she says.For more about Suzanne Goldberg visit: http://www.law.columbia.edu/magazine/60105/suzanne-b-goldberg