The Good Fight
Human rights pioneer Gloria Allred empowers victims, blasts bigots, combats injustice, and recalls her first thirty-seven years as a warrior
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Fred Brashear, Jr.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”—Gandhi
(Inscribed on the first page of Gloria’s book, Fight Back and Win)
If you don’t recognize her name then you haven’t watched television, read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or been on the Internet in the past thirty-some years.
Gloria Allred is a fighter. Well, not a boxer, though she does duke it out in court. Gloria Allred is a civil rights lawyer who fights for human rights. She’s represented such high profile clients as Rachel Uchitel, who had a relationship with Tiger Woods, the Nicole Simpson family in the O.J. Simpson case, Amber Frey in the Scott Peterson trial, and she brought lawsuits against Mike Tyson and Charlie Sheen for assault. Gloria also defended Paul Jasperson, in one of the first, if not the first HIV/AIDS discrimination cases.
All of these cases were a collaborative effort between Gloria and her firm, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, located in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles. Gloria met Maroko and Goldberg while attending Loyola Law School and they’ve been partners for thirty-seven years. The firm employs ten attorneys and a support staff. During our time together she mostly used the term “we” when referring to any legal action taken on a case. She’s forthright and upfront, pointing out that she does not do it alone. “I give great thanks to my partners to put up with me for thirty-seven years. They are brilliant attorneys in their own right,” she offers, in her velvety yet authoritative voice. “They’re real mensches.”
Today Gloria is positioned on a creamy white leather vintage desk chair in the stylish, contemporary meeting room of the firm. A huge light-hued marble top conference table dominates the room, which overlooks CBS Television City and Griffith Park Observatory, and offers a spectacular view of the Hollywood Hills. Photographs of Martin Luther King, marching suffragettes, Amelia Earhart, and César Chávez grace the walls.
Gloria is dressed all in snazzy black—a turtleneck, pants, and boots—and hugged by a waist-length soft peach-colored light linen buttoned jacket. The former Watts teacher has topped it off with a smart ensemble of a large gold necklace, tiny-hooped earrings, and a sparkling diamond ring on her finger. She sports peachy colored lipstick, and champagne-blonde streaks in her bouncy hair. She’s a Carolina Herrera dream. Her svelte figure, hearty glow, and radiant smile belie the fact that she is seventy-two. Gloria looks twenty years younger. The passion and compassion she has for her work contributes greatly to her youthfulness.
Last year she was reveling in her new syndicated TV show, We the People with Gloria Allred, and she was also elected to be an Obama delegate at the Democratic National Convention. Her show is slightly different from other court shows in that actors reenact real cases instead of real people presenting their own cases. “It’s really been a lot of fun,” she says about the first season. “It’s scripted to the point where the actors play the plaintiff and defendant, but they don’t know what I’m going to ask. Neither do I.”
Gloria has had other avenues of notoriety as well. She’s been parodied on Family Guy and Saturday Night Live, has appeared in such TV series as JAG and The Fran Drescher Show, and in movies like Rat Race and John Q. Bebe Neuwirth [A&U, December 2011] even portrayed the lawyer in the 1990 telefilm Without Her Consent, which dealt with a rape survivor whom Gloria represented.
Gloria’s assistant pours us some bottled water. When the topic of AIDS is broached, Gloria lights up like a trial attorney about to raise an objection. “I think HIV/AIDS has dropped in the marketplace of ideas and has been relegated to a lower level of discussion than we used to have,” she announces, pondering, stressing the importance for more research funding and HIV prevention education. “Politicians generally pay attention to issues that are in the public’s mind, in the public marketplace of ideas, and they’re the ones who control the major funding of AIDS, not the private funding. The good news is that the LGBT community still cares deeply about it and they are better organized than they were thirty years ago. They know how to fundraise and know how to exercise political clout and muscle. That’s important because that means elected officials and those who hope to be elected officials need to be more accountable in order to win the support of that important community.”
Ms. Allred should know. She’s been active in the LGBT community since the seventies. (“Every year for nearly forty years, no matter where I am, I fly back for the gay pride parade. I’m there!” she boasts. Just weeks ago at this year’s gay pride parade, she cruised down Santa Monica Boulevard sitting atop a convertible dressed in a wedding gown, complete with veil and bouquet, in support of marriage equality.) Way before it was fashionable, in 1983, she fought for two lesbian life-partners who were refused seating in one of the six private rooms at the posh Los Angeles restaurant, Papa Choux. The two women won their discrimination case and were awarded $500 in damages and the owner of Papa Choux was ordered to pay their substantial legal fees.
Three years later, she represented thirty-five year old Paul Jasperson, a respected hairstylist, who had AIDS. The case was filed against Jessica’s Nail Salon in West Hollywood, which cancelled Paul’s appointment for a pedicure, after the receptionist overheard him talking to others about his recent diagnosis of AIDS. They told him they weren’t accepting any new male clients. As Gloria states in her book, Fight Back and Win, “The salon’s actions were astounding to me, especially since West Hollywood had just enacted one of the strictest city ordinances prohibiting businesses from discriminating against those who were HIV-positive or had AIDS. Its conduct was also a violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in all business establishments.”
In January 1987, the lawsuit was filed. Like Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010], Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] and several others, Gloria was not afraid to step forward during this time of extreme fear and plague-like frenzy. Paul’s civil case went to trial in February 1988. Judge Waddington ruled in favor of the nail salon saying, “There is an extremely small, but nonetheless real, risk of exposure to AIDS from the procedures of a pedicure.” Gloria and Paul were livid. This decision could further the panic surrounding AIDS, plus it totally ignored West Hollywood’s new ordinance. They appealed, but, before the case went to court, Paul died in 1989.
At the appeal, the salon’s attorney made a motion to dismiss the case since there was no need for an injunction as Paul was dead. “Ordinarily, a case is moot if the client is no longer alive,” says Gloria in a serious, measured cadence. “But we fought that motion in this case arguing that if the court granted it, other defendants would delay AIDS-related cases until the plaintiff died and then make similar arguments that their case should be dismissed. Then laws protecting persons from discrimination on account of AIDS or HIV-positive status would be rendered meaningless,” clarifies Gloria. “Lawyers for such victims might think it was useless to pursue such cases since their clients might not live until the end of the long legal process. As a result, if that were to be permitted then AIDS discrimination would run rampant and unchecked. Think about it….”
She coughs lightly then takes a sip of water. “Civil rights lawyers, if they knew that they had an HIV-positive person or person with AIDS coming into them about a case of discrimination, they might think, ‘Well, there’s no point in pursuing it because this client may not live long enough till the end of the case and then I will put in all this work for nothing.’ The defendants often do drag it out. They don’t want that final Day of Judgment to come. They’ll drag it out, hoping that the plaintiff will die.” Gloria stated to the court there needed to be an exception for those who have HIV/AIDS. It was a thunderclap moment. In a precedent-setting decision, the court agreed with her. “It allowed victims of AIDS discrimination to seek an injunction even after death, which was extremely unusual. It assured people with AIDS that ordinances passed for their protection were valid and…,” she pauses for effect, “in December of that year, 1989, the Court of Appeal reversed Judge Waddington’s decision—and we won.”
The case carried on for another sixteen years due to a lengthy battle with the nail salon over attorney’s fees. “That’s the second longest case I’ve ever done,” notes Gloria. “But it was well worthwhile. We are so proud of Paul that he wanted to pursue it. It was a pioneering lawsuit and it is one of the most important cases our law firm has ever won.” She crosses her arms and smiles. “It really was very sad that he wasn’t there to see the appeal in the end, but in a way, I felt that his spirit was still with us.”
After Paul’s case, Gloria handled many other AIDS discrimination lawsuits, as well, some public, some private. In 1991, she filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing for Everado Mariscal, twenty-six, who was suspended from his job because he publicly disclosed that he was HIV-positive. Several other of her cases involved suing dentists who denied services to their patients who had HIV/AIDS. At one point, Gloria represented a physician who was HIV-positive in a discrimination case against the hospital where he worked. The case resulted in a confidential settlement.
“It’s easy to forget that AIDS was viewed like leprosy,” she declares, earnestly. “For Paul, he had to not only cope with the illness, and there were obviously fewer medications available then, but he had this whole issue of being humiliated and shut out.” Gloria is visibly moved and her piercing brown eyes become moist. She continues with a slight cry in her voice, “It was just so unfair. So how do you not want to support someone who is going to be willing to fight this battle and to fight it publicly? He said, ‘This is just so wrong!’—and…I…loved…him…for…that.” She takes a moment, clearing her throat, and rocks faintly in her armchair. “It was definitely heartbreaking to me when he did pass away. But he knew we were continuing to fight for him and this was an important legacy that he was leaving behind. It took heroes like Paul to begin to raise public awareness by challenging those who discriminated against people who were HIV-positive or who had AIDS.”
Gloria’s nurturing demeanor is a soft cover for the fighting tiger that lies within. The lady is classy and bright, and she continues to battle the war against injustice. What motivates this gifted dynamo? Why does she care? She replies, pressing with urgency, “What I don’t understand is how people don’t care.” She takes a pause. “I don’t think it’s unusual that I do care. When I was in college I was taught how to make a moral choice and if you have the opportunity to help, and you have the desire to help, and you have the ability to help, it’s the only moral choice you can make. I have all three of those,” she points out, folding her hands on her lap. “This is the only moral choice I can take. It really is my duty, more than a choice, because what I want to do is empower those whose rights have been denied and, it really is a team effort,” she asserts. “We do it together. It is extremely empowering for them to know that they are not only standing up for themselves but often it has an impact on others.” She smiles, wrinkles her nose, and remarks, “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, isn’t this case just about a pedicure?’” Gloria clears her throat. “How trivial is that? Well, if you think Rosa Park’s issue was just about a bus ride, maybe then that’s why you would think that.”
“Fighting injustice is empowering,” rouses the pro-choicer, who doesn’t take vacations because she feels her life is a vacation. (She does enjoy walking the Malibu beach where she owns one of two homes in the L.A. area.) “I love my life. It’s a wonderful adventure everyday. I honestly get up every day, and I’m charged every morning because there’s so much injustice. I see it or hear about it and go—WHAAAT??! And then I think about options to do something about it if it’s happening to one of my clients. I mean, people come to me, I don’t go to them. There’s always new…,” she stops, then chuckles with a knowing widsom, “…unexpected and exciting developments to deal with. Many twists and turns. So there’s a great deal of strategizing. I’m an optimist but I’m realistic. Equal rights is the public policy of our nation and we want it to be the reality for people in their daily lives, so we’re very proud of our clients because they are the real heroes. I’m a strong advocate, a warrior, and that’s what people want when they come to me.”
Indeed, and Gloria believes in training from a young age, too. This attorney, who once fought the Archdiocese of Los Angeles over sexual abuse, has one child, Lisa, and she had her (marching) on picket lines when she was seven. While there, somebody said to Gloria, “I can’t believe you brought a child that young to a picket line.” She countered with, “I’m just embarrassed that I didn’t do it before this. Why did I wait so long?” For her two grandkids, she didn’t. She had them on picket lines at a younger age and they even rode with her in the gay pride parade down Santa Monica Boulevard as well. Both her grandchildren, Sarah and Sam, are college age and are leaning toward a legal career.
Gloria instilled in them “tikkun olam,” Hebrew for the Jewish concept of “I’m here to help repair the world and make it a better place.” “I don’t believe that we have a right to be here just to take up space on the planet,” she contends, continuing, “I am privileged to be able to have been able to obtain a wonderful education in public schools and then go to college. I come from a little row house in Philadelphia with parents who had an eighth grade education. [How wonderful it is] to have the opportunity to give it back, pass it on. It is really a duty and a privilege most of the world doesn’t enjoy. Most women aren’t going to be privileged in this way.” She delicately sweeps bangs off her forehead. “We do have a duty to make this a better world and to always be conscious that we have that opportunity to live our values.”
“I believe what Mother Jones said, ‘Don’t agonize, organize.’ Political organizing is really important. Everybody can do something. I remember when there were no gay or lesbian individuals in the state legislature or Congress. That’s changed because of organizing, because of education, because of enlightenment,” explains the proud feminist, who counts Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Emmeline Pankhurst as her inspiration. “None of that has happened by accident. It’s all the wonderful people who work behind the scenes, some of them in front, who get out there and make this happen. There’s always something for someone to do, and usually more than one something.”
Gloria has made things happen. She’s changed the course of history. She’s made a positive change in many lives. “Little did I know that when I started out,” she reminisces, briefly glancing at her cell phone and black leather key holder that lay next to her on the table, “I had no idea that I’d still be doing this thirty-seven years later. If God gives me another thirty-seven years I’ll be very happy. I do feel the clock ticking and I feel I have to make sure that I invest every moment that I can in doing my part in helping to empower others.”
When asked who else she thinks has helped to empower others in the AIDS epidemic, she replies instantly, “Anyone and everyone who has done what they could in this battle because nobody is required to do anything. So those who do what they can in their own way, whether it’s to educate, whether it’s to help fundraise, whether it’s to caregive, whatever it is, they all deserve acknowledgement and gratitude.” She strikes a pensive pose. “The epidemic is a challenge—and an opportunity for all of us. Some have more risk than others, but I don’t think anyone has less responsibility than anyone else. Even as ill as Paul became, he still wanted to fight on. He did. And he won.”
Gloria offers a one word opinion to these luminaries she’s encountered over the years
Ronald Reagan: President.
Barbara Walters: Caring.
Rush Limbaugh: Entertainer.
John Travolta: Accused.
Donald Trump: Ego.
Geraldine Ferraro: Pioneer.
O.J. Simpson: Killer.
Tiger Woods: Betrayal.
Gary Busey: Actor.
Fran Drescher: Hilarious.
Chaz Bono: Brave.
Bill Maher: Commentator.
For more information about the work of photographer Fred Brashear, Jr., visit his Web site at www.Fredbphotography.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Scott Bakula for the June cover story.