Being the first openly gay man to be appointed to the state court bench in Florida, Broward County’s Judge Robert Lee of the 17th Judicial Court is both a trailblazer and an activist. He began his distinguished career as an attorney before researching the winning brief in a case for Broward United Against Discrimination. This gave him the drive and the direction toward becoming a justice.
Lee was named one of Florida Agenda’s Top 100 Movers and Shakers of 2015. We recently had an opportunity to talk to him about his storied career and his opinions about the current political climate.
Berkley: Describe the work you did with Broward United Against Discrimination.
Lee: Back in the early 1990s Florida was fighting the American Family Association’s own legal attack on LGBT citizens’ rights, similar to the issues we are now seeing in North Carolina and Mississippi. I volunteered for around three years on the legal side, and we won the battle. It’s one of the reasons I feel that our state will never have to deal with the type of discrimination happening in North Carolina—we already fought that battle and won. When I was working with Broward United Against Discrimination it was suggested to me that I should become a judge, which would be a path that would change my life.
Do you think being gay separates you from other judges?
It does change things in many different ways. Judges come and ask for help in dealing with both personal and professional issues. I have been asked to put together LGBT education material for judges. I feel like you have an extra task of educating your colleagues.
You participated in the historic Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in 1993. How did that shape your perspective?
It was the biggest wake-up call in my life. It was the first time I was somewhere and the majority of the people were gay. There were a million people, serious about their rights, grouped together based upon the areas they were from. You were able to see the vastness and diversity of our community. It was incredible and influential.
What are the most important legal issues facing LGBT citizens today?
It seems in South Florida that we have a lot of rights now, but it might not be so true in rural areas. I think that the transgender issue is going to be a big deal. There is a lot of fear about that issue.
What were the hardest cases to preside over?
There were two cases in which the people did NOT want a gay judge. They wrote a formal complaint. My Chief Judge asked me why I didn’t step down, and I told him I felt like I had an obligation to be on the case. It was hard because I knew they were disgusted the whole time, but I stuck with it. It’s only happened two times in nineteen years, so that‘s pretty encouraging.
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