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Me vs. Ken Starr

Me vs. Ken Starr


The dean of Pepperdine University's law school, Ken Starr argued for President Clinton's impeachment and for upholding Prop 8. So, what happened when gay Pepperdine alumni confronted Starr on his Prop 8 win?

I had been warned: Don't be seduced by Ken Starr's charisma and charm. The advice struck me as odd. "Charisma" and "charm" did not rank high when playing free association with "Ken Starr." But my experience of charming fundamentalist preachers who would smile as they consigned me to the netherworld for my sexual orientation put me on notice.

When I began thinking in more objective terms about Ken Starr as a charming fellow, it started to make some sense. Certainly, Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Calif., would not have chosen a blustering, brash, hyperpartisan ideologue to be its dean. They needed not only someone with huge name recognition to bolster its emerging national reputation and ranking, but also an individual with a persuasive charm to court alumni donors. Besides, it was only reasonable to assume that given his success in life, Mr. Starr undoubtedly possessed social grace and sound political instincts.

I was mentally ready. He wasn't going to seduce me. No way. The mission I shared with four fellow Pepperdine alumni was clear. We were determined to take Dean Starr to task in a face-to-face meeting for his representation of the pro-Prop. 8 groups before the California supreme court.

When I first heard the news that Starr had agreed to take on the case, I was embarrassed to be a Pepperdine alumnus. My embarrassment became resistance. I would not stand by as Starr tarred my alma mater's reputation by associating it with an unjust and immoral antigay ballot proposition.

I decided to give him an earful. A few former classmates and I penned a strongly worded letter to Dean Starr and the university administration, voicing our collective disappointment and disgust that our school had become synonymous with the advocacy of a proposition that would pass judgment on people and make it yet more difficult for LGBT people to enjoy equal protection. More than 160 alumni felt the same way and signed on to our letter. Two associate deans at the law school responded with a letter of their own, defending Mr. Starr and the school. Notwithstanding their ardent defense, the letter concluded with an invitation to meet and begin a dialogue on the issues of Dean Starr's representation and the school's perceived ambivalence toward LGBT causes.

We accepted.

It's amazing how disarming a smile can be, especially from someone whom so many abhor. Yet that's what happened. Mr. Starr walked in and with a smile and a sense of ease impressed our small delegation of dissenters as a pleasant, gracious, and engaging host. After a bit of small talk, we got down to brass tacks.

The five of us were passionate and firm in expressing the myriad range of responses engendered by Dean Starr's representation of Prop. 8 supporters. Of course, Mr. Starr is more than a charmer. His presentation buttressed his reputation as a brilliant advocate, and it was not surprising to hear from him his very worked-out, intellectual, and rational world view about individuals' legal rights, constitutional frameworks, and the need to preserve both, even at the expense of a protected minority class of people. Because the Prop. 8 case raised issues that he felt had the potential to threaten this sacred constitutional paradigm, he told us that he took the case with little regard to the real and personal impact his successful representation would have on not only fellow Californians but also, as he called it, "members of the Pepperdine family."

Perhaps I did fall prey to his charming ways. Perhaps he is just a good actor. I don't really know. What I do know is that his eyes seemed to open when he heard from two gay alumni about how he had personally caused anguish in their lives. As he listened, I noticed a shift in his demeanor evidenced by a concerned look on his face, followed by a sudden realization that flashed in his eyes, and then it happened. He said it: "I'm sorry." He admitted that he had not anticipated the intensity of opposition that his representation had evoked.

Before you get too excited, let's be clear: He did not apologize for taking the case. But to me, it was apparent that until now he had been so successful in compartmentalizing his legal representation, keeping it separate from any emotional reality or awareness of how he might personally harm a group of people with his advocacy. He seemingly had an epiphany that this case was about more than a constitutional point of jurisprudence. It touched on his role in presiding over a "family" of current and former students.

To its credit, Pepperdine taught me to always get it in writing. I knew I wasn't going to get a written apology, but I certainly wasn't about to leave without some commitment as to how Dean Starr would try to mend Pepperdine's image and reputation, especially for those current, former, and prospective students who do not espouse his views on Prop. 8. He promised he would take a very personal and introspective look at his role as a lawyer and the types of cases he takes in the future. He explained that it is now clear to him that his actions have hurt part of the "Pepperdine family" and affected how many people perceive the school.

Where the dean finds himself on such matters, the school still has a long ways to go and the distance it needs to travel remains his responsibility. He promised to review Pepperdine's ongoing discriminatory stance toward gay students, including its refusal to allow a student group to form to discuss LGBT legal issues. And he agreed that for as long as the school's prejudicial and religiously inspired policies toward gay and lesbian students continue unabated they should be transparent and explained in promotional materials so that prospective applicants are not blindsided once they became students.

As the meeting concluded and the deans promised to get back to us in writing after the spring finals had concluded, I was completely unprepared for the final shock: Ken Starr gave me a hug. It wasn't one of those college-dude-handshake-double-pat-on-the-back hugs. This was a bona fide, sincere embrace with more than a suggestion of affectivity you would get from someone you had known and cared about for a long time. I was charmed.

Even though Mr. Starr may have won his battle in court, it does not absolve him of the responsibility he has to the "Pepperdine family." It's time for him to prove to the world that both he and Pepperdine aren't antigay and end all discriminatory practices at the school. Now more than ever do we need a hug. But I'd rather have equality.

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