Eskridge’s advocacy and passion have influenced countless law students and the United States Supreme Court.
William “Bill” Eskridge Jr. ’73, the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, is a long-time gay rights advocate, a sought-after legal and historical expert in gender sexuality, a nationally recognized scholar in statutory interpretation and an acclaimed teacher. He represented a male couple seeking a marriage license in Washington, D.C., and called on the U.S. Supreme Court to hold gay marriage constitutional—in the early to mid-1990s. An amicus brief he wrote in the early 2000s strongly influenced the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the nation’s sodomy laws, a key factor in the same-sex marriage movement.

Eskridge made his way to Davidson in 1969. The academics were challenging because he wasn’t as prepared as many of his prep-school classmates, and he was bullied his first year on campus.

“I was frightened to death; I know it was irrational,” he said. “It was hate and fear.” He believes the abuse stemmed from homophobia, but he was not yet out as a gay man.

Fortunately, Eskridge’s freshman year was the last of the bullying. He did well academically and emerged as a top student. He focused on academics, teaching Sunday school at Davidson College Presbyterian Church and making friends among other top students.

“I adored the faculty and felt intellectually liberated,” he said.

After graduating second in his class and summa cum laude with a degree in history, Eskridge pursued a doctorate in the same subject to fulfill his dream of becoming a college professor. It was “my first, second and third choice,” he said.

But when he arrived at Harvard, he was shocked. The job market for Harvard PhDs was weak. Hoping it would rally, he completed his master’s program, including writing two theses, and passed his Ph.D. oral exams with distinction. But when the job market worsened, he abruptly changed course.

“I took the LSAT, did well enough on that and left immediately, as did the majority of my class,” he said. “Both of my grandfathers were lawyers, so I knew law was honorable and that I could make a comfortable living.”

He chose Yale over Harvard for law and soon took a big step in coming to terms with being gay: taking advantage of counseling offered through the student health plan. His counselor recommended he attend a panel discussion that became “a big turning point.” The panel included doctors and openly gay people, and the audience was primarily gay.

“I learned that as early as the late 1960s, research showed homosexuality as a natural variation (in sexuality),” he said. “Honestly, that was the most useful thing—very eye opening—and I was surrounded by intelligent people who treated homosexuality as normal.”

Eskridge began teaching at the University of Virginia, then Georgetown and, in 1998, began his career at Yale. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls Eskridge “a gem that shines brightly.” They met as law students when he was her editor for a note in the Yale Law Journal.

“He is loved by his students because he loves teaching and them,” she said. “His humor makes them laugh, and his observations make them think. His colleagues widely respect and cherish him because he helps bring out the best in their work with his thoughtful reviews. He was the same when we were students. He is gentle and always helpful.”

Eskridge has written four books on sexuality, gender and the law, and the one from 1999, Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet, played a major role in both the majority and dissenting opinions in the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down state consensual sodomy laws.

Eskridge was featured in the fall 2015 issue of the Davidson Journal. Read the full story.

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