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Honoring James Esseks

Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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March 30, 2012

Every day is a day to celebrate James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and AIDS Project. How could we not? He’s wicked smart, strategic, organized and charming to boot.

But today there’s even more reason to toot his horn. Last night, James was awarded the 2012 Community Vision Award from the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York. It is an award presented annually “to honor individuals or organizations with a distinguished record of service to the LGBT community, including a sustained commitment to achieving equal rights for all members of the LGBT community.” It makes us proud to see James recognized for what he is; a true leader in the effort to achieve equal rights for the LGBT community.

James has been a part of the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project for more than a decade, joining the Project as its litigation director in 2001 and becoming its director in 2010. In his role as director, he oversees legal, policy, and legislative advocacy around the country to make sure that LGBT people are treated fairly and with dignity no matter where they live. That means working to ensure LGBT people can have families and marriages and relationships just like the rest of us; that LGBT people can’t be discriminated against in employment and housing and lodgings; that schools are safe places of learning for LGBT youth; and that people living with AIDs aren’t subject to discrimination and have access to health care.

In his tenure, the project has celebrated tremendous victories — court rulings striking a ban on adoption by lesbians and gay men in Florida; striking a ban on foster parenting by lesbians and gay men in Arkansas; declaring that the Library of Congress engaged in unlawful discrimination when it withdrew a job offer after learning that the job candidate was transitioning from male to female; freeing Matthew Limon from a 17-year jail sentence for having consensual sex with another male teenager; finding unlawful a school’s refusal to hold a prom in order to prevent Constance McMillen from attending with her girlfriend. Those victories are just the tip of the iceberg.

Those accomplishments are real. But they are not what most distinguish James. He brings heart to his work — tears when he talks of the courage of the project’s clients, glee when the Department of Justice does the right thing, and fervor when we just need to sue someone. He is deeply touched by his clients, profoundly respectful of his staff, and committed to the core to making the world better for LGBT people.

So here’s to James, for his leadership and work and all he brings to the office. And here’s to the entire staff of the LGBT and AIDS Project for their tremendous work to advance equality.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the organization that presented James with the award. It is the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, not the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Law Association of Greater New York.

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