TURNING A MAJOR CORNER
"COME ON, CHAI. You know he really likes you. You know it makes a difference when people know someone who's gay. You should do it."
Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum was giving herself a coming-out pep talk, summoning the courage to share an important aspect of her identity with her beloved mentor, Justice Blackmun. She'd remained close to him after clerking for him in 1986-87, the term after his ringing Hardwick dissent. Blackmun knew all about Feldblum's career, including her part in pushing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 through Congress. She wanted to be equally forthcoming about her personal life. But, she recalls, "I knew it was not going to be easy for him."
Blackmun was on record advocating "tolerance of nonconformity" in his Hardwick dissent. By then, he knew, via the grapevine, that ex-clerk Al Lauber was gay. But, as Feldblum was keenly aware, the chasm between uneasy tolerance and true acceptance can be difficult to cross. She'd watched Blackmun, who'd nearly drowned in hate mail after his 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, react with surprise at the number of gay people, including the son of dear friends, who wrote to express gratitude for his Hardwick dissent. "So," Blackmun told clerks, "I guess there are a lot of homosexuals in this country." Feldblum recalls, "He was shocked."
Chai (pronounced "Hi") Feldblum finally talked herself into coming out to Blackmun in late 1992. Over breakfast, a meal she had shared with him countless times in the justices' private section of the court cafeteria, she broke the news. "Well," Blackmun responded, "you know