A Problem With Jury Duty

I was recently called to jury duty at a federal court in Los Angeles. Because it is a federal court for the Southern California District, I would have had to go to downtown Los Angeles to serve -- a distance of over ten miles. As I was without a car at the time, that would have required me getting up very early -- I was expected to report at 7:45 am -- and traveling in the dark by two busses and a subway. I've attended jury selection before in my area, and because there is a State Court in downtown Beverly Hills, a short distance from where I live, easily walked to from where I live, this had never been a problem before. However that would not be a solution this time.

As the weeks toward my proposed service neared, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed. I could, if needed, solve that car problem. I could even bear to take that public transportation and since I'm a senior, complain about the four-hour travel time if I was selected and see what happened.

So no, that wasn't the problem. That wasn't what was getting me riled up. But something was, and every time I thought about it, I became angrier and angrier. This was very much unlike me: I'm an easygoing guy; perhaps too much so for my own good. So what was going on?

Then I happened to read an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times. It was about global warming, but it began with the writer speaking about her stint at jury duty and how simple that had been because, unlike the many complexities of global warming, she and the other jurors had been given a clear cut rule on what the law was they would have to apply to their case by a judge.

That's when I realized what had been bugging me.

If I were put on a jury I would, like her, be sworn to uphold the law.

This sounds really quite simple, and judges do in fact go out of their way to simplify those laws pretty precisely when a case is to be decided. I know, because. I've served on juries before: both criminal and civil ones.

But now that was exactly the problem.

Because I could no longer swear that I would uphold the law. In fact, I couldn't swear that I believed in the law: or in the American legal system.

This clearly was a problem: I could be faced with being asked to be sworn in, and what, refusing? Being held in contempt?

How has this come about?

Very simply put, it's come about because I'm a gay man and I have been an out gay man since the age of 22: that means since the year 1966. In whatever state, city, or borough across the United States that I have lived in, until the year 2003 and the Supreme Court Decision on Lawrence vs. Texas, I have been a criminal.

Often doubly and triply criminal, by the nature of my everyday contacts with other gay men, i.e. other criminals, and by the nature of my relationships with other criminals, i.e. I've been sexually criminal. In many places in this country during those 37 years, I could be arrested and successfully prosecuted for having sex with another man in the privacy of my own or his home. In some states I could be jailed for up to twenty years for what I did in private. In some places I could be put to hard labor and in others even executed.

I was a criminal. Got it? I was a criminal for most of my adult life.

Is it so far-fetched to think I could have lost my life for being an open gay man? Many men faced exactly that during those 37 years: murdered in their homes, beaten to death in public places, killed while incarcerated from untreated disease or by getting on some other criminal's bad side. In most of those cases, the deaths of gay men were treated as though they were criminal's deaths, i.e. seldom was someone brought to justice for their deaths. After all, they, we, were criminals.

And that is the legal system I was being asked to uphold?

Forget about it!

But wait, you say, those are state laws. What about this federal court I was being asked to serve on? That had nothing to do with it. Or if so, little, right?

Wrong! What about immigration? What about gay men regularly deported because federal marriage laws don't protect married binational gay couples, long after Lawrence vs. Texas -- deported back to regimes that will imprison and even execute them. I know several cases where the personal relationships of friends went through years of extreme hell and in some cases they were forced to end those relationships because of those federal laws.

What about federal laws about drugs? I don't believe or condone any of them. Or federal laws about guns? I don't believe or condone any of them: no one, including nations, ought to own a gun or any other weapon. Truth is, I'm not sure how many federal laws I would not uphold in a court of law. There's probably a half dozen more I haven't even thought about.

Before you serve on a federal jury, an application is sent to you asking you if you've ever been convicted of a crime. It doesn't ask if you've been a criminal for 37 years until all of a sudden, one day, the law, not you, but the law, changed -- and suddenly you were "not a criminal."

I'm 68 years old, and I'm as much a criminal now as I was at the age of 22. And, I'm even more of a dissident than I was then.

Because then, I naively believed I was protected by the law and by the American legal system. Today, almost five decades later, I'm far wiser. I know that I've merely, cleverly, or luckily, somehow managed to sidestep the laws against me. I know that the only people actually protected by the law, by our legal system, by America, are the same people who have always been protected by it -- from the time of George Washington on -- rich, white, heterosexual, males.

Not criminals, like me.