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Several years ago Jon Davidson and his older brother, Peter, were playing Pictionary, the board game in which the object is to identify a person, place or thing from sketches drawn by another player. On one particular sketch, the siblings came to the same conclusion, but from philosophically opposite perspectives. “He kept saying it was a homeless person,” Peter Davidson says with a chuckle, “and I kept saying it was a bum. Different ways of looking at things.” Peter’s now a bankruptcy lawyer, handling high finance and enforcement actions by government agencies for Los Angeles’ Rein Evans & Sestanovich. Jon’s one of the nation’s most prominent gay rights lawyers, putting a human face on issues — such as discrimination, AIDS and same-sex marriage — that directly affect gays and lesbians’ lives. “He’s always had a big heart,” Peter Davidson says, “and always tried to help people.” For 17 years, Jon Davidson has been in the forefront of the gay rights movement, handling some of the nation’s highest-profile court cases — for seven years as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and for the past 10 years at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation’s leading gay rights law firm. His colleagues rank Davidson as one of the best at what he does. Matthew Coles of the ACLU’s national office in New York, called him “one of the top gay rights lawyers of all time.” Now, at one of the most critical junctures in gay rights history, Davidson has moved into his biggest role. Two weeks ago, he moved from Los Angeles to Lambda’s New York headquarters to become the group’s legal director. In his new post, he will become Lambda’s public face and set its legal direction — and to some extent gay groups’ political agendas — for years to come. Coles, director of the ACLU’s lesbian and gay rights and AIDS projects, calls it “an incredibly significant position.” “And I can’t quite honestly imagine anyone doing a better job,” he said. Davidson, 49, was born in New York to a homemaker mother and a father who worked as a hospital administrator for the Veterans Administration. His dad’s job took the family through four states before it landed in Los Angeles, where Jon attended high school. He went to Stanford University with the intention of becoming either an English professor or a psychiatrist. But both professions ultimately lost their allure. “All graduate students in English seemed to be getting jobs as taxi drivers or bartenders,” he says, “and everyone in graduate school for psychiatry seemed like they needed therapy themselves.” Davidson was more intrigued by his brother’s experiences at UCLA School of Law. Jon had been politically active in high school on issues such as the environment and farm workers’ rights and felt that the law provided “a way of getting back in touch with things that interested me.” But his first two jobs out of Yale Law School had nothing to do with civil rights. He was a federal court clerk for a year, then joined L.A.’s Irell & Manella where he practiced entertainment law for eight years. Despite the parties and Hollywood clients, Davidson wasn’t satisfied. “I was focused on making partner,” he said, “and when I did that, I said, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life?’” So in 1988, he jumped at the opportunity to join the ACLU and plunge into a career in civil rights. Since then, he’s had a hand in so many important gay rights cases that it’s impossible to name them all, but among them are actions: � against the school board of Nassau County, Fla., in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a contagious disease constituted a disability. The disease involved was tuberculosis, but the case was widely viewed as a statement on protection for people with AIDS. � in which the city of Los Angeles settled an employment discrimination case filed by the city’s first openly gay police officer. � in which a gay Nevada student’s discrimination suit led to changes in the Reno school system. � a failed suit by a former Eagle scout challenging the Boy Scouts of America’s policy of excluding gays from membership and leadership positions. Davidson also was co-author of California’s domestic partnership law, which the ACLU’s Coles calls “unquestionably the best” such law in the country. Davidson’s new position will keep him from taking on new litigation. But he plans to stay involved with three cases — San Francisco’s fight for same-sex marriages, a California Supreme Court case accusing a San Diego country club of discriminating against a lesbian couple, and a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals case filed by a Mexican man denied asylum for not looking gay enough to have persecution problems. “It’s hard to think of an issue that Jon has not been involved in,” says Evan Wolfson, who five years ago lost on the same Scouts issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wolfson, executive director of New York’s Freedom to Marry and one of the leading legal proponents of same-sex marriage, says Davidson is “someone you would call on pretty much any question.” Kathryn Kendell, executive director of San Francisco’s National Center for Lesbian Rights, credits Davidson with “understanding the myriad ways in which discrimination laws can wreak havoc on the lives of gay people.” “His mission in life is to ameliorate the damage,” she adds, “and he has succeeded beyond the resumes of virtually any of his peers.” Even Davidson’s opponents hold him in high regard. Gail Cohen, who represented an insurer that unsuccessfully tried to deny coverage to a man infected with HIV, calls Davidson a “classy guy” and says the brief he filed in that case was top-notch. “It was original, creative, extremely well written and a very persuasive piece of advocacy,” says the partner in L.A.’s Barger & Wolen. “It was the best among all of the ones filed in that proceeding and, believe me, there were a lot of briefs filed.” George Davidson, a partner in New York’s Hughes Hubbard & Reed who squared off against Davidson in the Boy Scouts case, calls his former foe “a pleasure to work with.” “Jon’s a person who is deeply, personally committed to his cases and the issues involved,” says Davidson, who’s not related to Jon. “But he doesn’t let it get personal.” In his new job, Davidson will be much more of a supervisor in that he will shape the legal program and develop lawyers’ talents. “He’s had a very broad docket, and our western regional office in Los Angeles has been involved in a very broad range of issues,” says Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart. “He’s played a role in shaping Lambda’s docket nationally. His is a voice that people listen to.” Davidson feels he couldn’t be taking over as legal director at a better, or more exhilarating, time. While gay rights face the “most organized opposition we’ve ever seen,” he says, there also are 15 states that now prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, two where couples can marry or set up a civil union, and three with substantial rights provided through domestic partnerships. “We certainly have gotten the nation’s attention,” he says with a laugh. “It went from the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ to the ‘love that won’t shut up.’” It’s just such unflagging passion that Davidson’s allies say they’ve always seen and fully expect he’ll bring to his new job. “California’s partial loss is the country’s immense gain,” says Wolfson. “I prefer to look at it as California’s gift to the country.”

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