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‘I absolutely refuse to let the defendant victimize my client’

Attorney Laurence Best explains how coming out as gay later in life allowed him to finally lead an 'authentic and whole life'

‘I absolutely refuse to let the defendant victimize my client’
Courtesy Laurence Best
Laurence Best

In the spring of 1949, a future out and proud gay lawyer was born in the quiet deeply southern town of McComb, Mississippi.

As the boy grew, he recognized he was different and not like the other boys. Rough and tumble was not his style … playing house was more like it for him.

At 7, his best friend took away his new bicycle reducing him to tears as he ran home to his grandmother for help and consolation. Neither was given, nor even considered.

‘Don’t be such a sissy. Go down there and take it back. Hit him if you have to, but I won’t hear “I can’t”!’

And so he did, though it did not actually come to blows that day. On other days in the years to come, in other battles, it would.

So he learned to try to fit his square peg self into the round hole expected for him. He did not succeed and suffered with anxiety, inferiority, inadequacy, and profound alienation.

Still, he was a good student which offered some hope of a better life, a way out, and some kind of respectable life in the distant future where he would not be assaulted with ‘sissy.’

Other terms such as ‘fairy,’ ‘fruit,’ ‘queer,’ and ‘faggot,’ however, were destined to come his way later on. He learned to hear those words even when unspoken … even when not thought.

Eventually, his own internal voice learned to use those same words as he internalized the derision and scorn of too many others.

As time passed his ambitions grew and he knew he wanted to succeed … really to be respectable. He began to think that if he could just manage a family, a luxurious home with a swimming pool, and a flashy car that life just might become tolerable. Then and only then would others respect him so he could respect himself.

He would need a lucrative career. He would also need to seal up this alien defective part of himself that was attracted to men and somehow manage to ignore it as if it did not exist. He would simply never act on it. Surely it could be done. It would be done.

‘Three children followed and hard work was demanded to support a growing family’

He began Tulane University School of Law in 1971 immediately after marrying his high school sweetheart. He borrowed the money for his education and she supported them both with her misplaced love and her full-time jobs.

In spite of the recession of 1974 and a dearth of legal openings, he got a job with a litigation firm in Houma, Louisiana through a connection with a family friend. He’d wanted to go into real estate law, but had to take this position or nothing.

He really had no idea what litigation was or what it demanded. What he learned was that it terrified him and involved ‘rough and tumble’ of a different sort, for which he felt no more equipped.

However, three children followed and hard work was demanded to support a growing family. He did what he had to do and became a civil defense litigator. He focused on the tasks before him each day and labored on because to fail would have meant intolerable humiliation to a young man who was already humiliated each and every time he looked in the mirror.

His senior partner was a well-known plaintiff oilfield litigator who taught him everything he knew, but only by example and without instruction whatsoever. So he watched and learned. Although he handled mostly defense cases, he also tried ‘dog’ plaintiff cases assigned to him and lost the early ones.

However, after a few years in the very early 1980s, he reached a turning point when he won a federal court Jones Act plaintiff trial against a prominent defense attorney. He rejected the $20,000 offered in settlement and got a jury verdict of $120,000, a result thought impossible by both the defense and his own senior partners.

Months later, one of the jurors saw him on the street and spoke to him. She complimented him on his presentation, conviction, and passion.

‘After 20 years of faithful marriage, his life, as he knew it, collapsed’

Success came, including a home he designed with a swimming pool and three luxury cars in the driveway. More success followed over the years to come, but his internal disconnect and lack of wholeness persisted.

After 20 years of faithful marriage, his life, as he knew it, collapsed at 42 years of age when he realized he could not go on for even one more day. The stress, anxiety, and depression of the closet had become too much to bear.

In 1991, I came out to my wife and children, aged 15, 13, and 9, and embarked on a new life; finally and at long last an authentic and whole life.

We separated and I soon met the man who would become my husband. We married with family and friends in attendance in 2001 in Vermont after it legalized same-sex civil unions.

New Orleans Federal District Court Judge Helen (Ginger) Berrigan (a personal friend and former civil rights and gay rights activist herself) officiated with a Vermont Justice of the Peace.

She later invited Kory and I to be her guests at a US Fifth Circuit Judicial conference where, to the best of our knowledge, we were the first invited openly gay couple. Kory and I have now been together 21 years. I love him. It is that simple.

After coming out, I immediately became a vocal and sometimes very public gay rights activist as a member of the Louisiana Forum for Equality and the Human Rights Campaign among other organizations.

My young children saw my frequent letters to newspaper editors published and saw me on television interviews about gay rights. None of this was easy for them, but they bravely soldiered on and perhaps even understood. They all now support my activism and are activists as well, each in their own way.

Professionally, I managed to keep my many oilfield defense clients, although I would paint too rosy a picture if I did not admit to business reversals that resulted from my coming out. Many underwriters just did not want to do business with openly gay people in the early 1990s; not that they would admit that to my face.

In some quarters that persists. Still, I have survived and prospered. I have been a full-time marine and energy plaintiffs’ personal injury attorney for many years now. Judges and lawyers have been unfailing respectful and polite. Many have been frankly supportive.

I have been a member of the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel since 1977 or so. Kory and I attended our first LADC Annual CLE tip in 1998 as an openly gay couple.

We have traveled widely with them ever since and have made many close friendships. We are still the only gay couple on these trips, but we have always been welcomed with open arms. None of this is what I expected in 1991, when I was convinced I would lose my practice.

Instead, by 2012, I was named to Louisiana Super Lawyers. One of my sons is now a lawyer with an excellent firm here in New Orleans. The other is a successful tech entrepreneur. Their sister is a writer and also cofounder of The Gay Dad Project, a Web-based organization to assist children with a gay parent. I am so proud of each of them.

‘My courtroom righteous indignation and truly felt anger and passion benefit my clients’

My trial work is still characterized by intensity, zeal, and passion. I sometimes tear up in closing arguments, though not by plan or design. But now I know where all that courtroom passion comes from. You see, every time I speak to a jury, though it appears I am fighting hard for my client, I am really just fighting for myself … fighting for my very life.

I am literally acting out and channeling the rage and indignation I have always felt over the mistreatment and persecution that accompanied my natural sexual orientation.

I absolutely refuse to be a victim and in turn, I absolutely refuse to let the defendant victimize my client. My courtroom righteous indignation and truly felt anger and passion benefit my clients, but really … it is just me standing up as proud and strong as I can for the frightened and rejected little sissy who was deathly afraid to fight.

This is one of many personal stories from LGBT lawyers that appears in Out and About: The LGBT Experience in the Legal Profession – a new publication from the American Bar Association (ABA), in collaboration with The LGBT Bar. For more information on Laurence Best, check laurencebest.com

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