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An LGBTQ Rights Pioneer’s New Life as Murder Mystery Novelist

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Thirty-two years ago, Jewish lesbian activist Jeanne Winer (pictured above, second from the right) patrolled Colorado malls wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Sodomy Patrol.” It was political action, guerilla-theater style, from Winer’s feminist collective protesting a Supreme Court decision to uphold a Georgia anti-sodomy law. It was, she told reporters at the time, a protest against “how far right the country has gone.”

Decades after her own activism began, Winer is as relevant as ever. A Jewish lesbian law expert, she was one of the two lead trial attorneys in Romer v. Evans, a landmark civil rights case that successfully challenged a constitutional amendment in Colorado that would have struck down state and local laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The case, which made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, ultimately helped pave the way for the Obergefell decision in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

Jeanne Winer Portrait

“I came out as a lesbian in my early twenties. It was my political activism that led me to become a criminal defense attorney,” explains Winer. “I loved defending people, saving them in any way I could.”

What’s remarkable though is that Winer isn’t just a great attorney; she’s a pretty scintillating novelist. Her second book, Her Kind of Case (Bancroft Press) is an absolute rarity on the shelves: a fascinating legal mystery thriller revolving around Lee Isaacs, a multidimensional 60-year-old female attorney. It’s no wonder that Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal all gave the mystery a starred review (something just a handful of other books accomplished this year).

“When I started work on Her Kind of Case, I knew that my heroine would be a strong feminist,” she says. “I also wanted to tackle the twin issues of homophobia and religious intolerance.”

The book takes a heartfelt but intelligent look at some very timely issues through a courtroom lens — including LGBTQ youth homelessness, hate crimes, white supremacy, and religious zealotry — while letting the protagonist experience her own fundamental changes as a multidimensional character.

While the novel discusses LGBTQ themes, it also focuses on the life of an older female defense attorney, a field heavily dominated by men. (As of 2016, only 10% of lead criminal defense attorneys were women.)

“Women are especially well suited to being criminal defense attorneys,” Winer says. “We are just as savvy as men when it comes to lawyering, but we might have a leg up when it comes to connecting with our clients and getting them to not only trust us, but to understand exactly what they have to do in order to comply with all of the rules and demands that will inevitably — unless they are completely acquitted — be imposed on them. As a female criminal defense attorney, whenever I was faced with sexism, I either willfully ignored it or tried to somehow use it to my advantage. Lee handles it the same way.”

What’s even better, is that Lee is the kind of character we’ve literally never seen in literature. The loving widow of an out bisexual man who inherited his gay best friends in death; a powerful fighter who is losing stride but still physically quite capable (nee, still powerful); a daughter so close to her father they talk nightly; and an attorney morally compelled to defend a killer in court, even as her others begin to question her morality. Lee is the kind of woman all Baby Boomers dreamed they’d become, and she’s the kind of woman we rarely read about in literature or see in films and TV. Her Kind of Case is a witty, intelligent, and immensely readable book that I read, uninterrupted, beginning to end, because I had to.

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