Exile No More


Bill Eskridge ’73 achieves national acclaim as legal scholar, LGBT historian

When William “Bill” Eskridge Jr. ’73 received an honorary doctorate of laws from Davidson at May’s commencement, it was one more public affirmation for the distinguished Yale law professor and legal scholar: he is an exile no more.
Not at Davidson, not as a gay man and not as a law professor who early in his career was called a “faggot” by a fellow faculty member.

As a young adult, he was so fascinated with the topic of exiles that he wrote his undergraduate honors thesis at Davidson and his primary master’s thesis at Harvard on religious exiles. “Toleration Thought,” the concept of tolerating those who hold different views from one’s self, intrigued him. “I know it was related to my sexuality,” says Eskridge, now 63.

Bill EskridgeToday as the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, he is a sought-after legal and historical expert in gender sexuality, a nationally recognized scholar in statutory interpretation and an acclaimed teacher.

He is the sixth-most “cited” lawyer in legal articles over the last 10 years, according to August 2015 rankings by research service HeinOnline. A longtime gay rights advocate, 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.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls Eskridge “a gem that shines brightly.” They met as law students in the 1970s when he was her editor for an article in The Yale Law Journal.

“Davidson likely has many distinguished alumni, but few will be as well loved and respected in their fields as Bill,” she says. “He is brilliant, charming and caring.”

The oldest of three children, Eskridge was born Oct. 28, 1951, in Princeton, West Va., a small town where Interstate 77 and the West Virginia Turnpike converge. His family lived a variety of places because of his dad’s job as a bank examiner with the U.S. Treasury. When his parents split up when he was 11, his mother brought him and his sister and brother back to Princeton to live with her parents.

The family moved into the third floor of a 17-room, Chinese Chippendale home, built in 1914 by his great grandfather as a wedding present to his grandparents. His mother went to work as an analytical chemist at a plant that made cigarette filters, located nearby in Narrows, Va. His father never paid child support, Eskridge says, and lost his job as a bank examiner. Nonetheless, “I was close to Daddy,” he says, also noting his closeness with his mother as well.

Progressing through school, he was a top student who “was sheltered in many ways,” he says. Going to college close to home appealed to him, Virginia Tech especially.

“Davidson was not on my radar … but totally on my mother’s,” he recalls. “We were devout Presbyterians. Mother was educated (at Hollins in Roanoke, Va.) and knew the toney schools. There were not many conservative schools in the South that were top ranked academically.”

Eskridge made his way to Davidson in 1969 but soon had “the worse year of my entire life,” he says.

Not only were the academics challenging because he wasn’t as prepared as many prep-school classmates, Eskridge says, he was bullied. He returned to his room one day to find that fellow students had removed all his belongings and put them in the bathroom across the hall. He also fended off being thrown fully clothed into the shower—he locked his arms around the pipes under the sink—but nonetheless was tossed in a few nights later. Over lunch one day, several students had a lively discussion and ignored his comments. “The worst was that these were my friends,” he says, calling the lunch incident “probably the cruelest thing they did.”
“I was frightened to death; I know it was irrational,” he says. “It was hate and fear.” He believes the abuse stemmed from homophobia, but he was not out as a gay man. Asked if the students’ actions could simply be seen as harmless pranks, he responds, “It wasn’t done to anyone else on fourth (floor) East.”

A close friend who lived on second floor Cannon, Kes Woodward, says he learned of the abuse many years later. “I am embarrassed to say it (the bullying) never even occurred to me. Bill was definitely different and did have mannerisms that I would (today) associate with that (being gay), but he was so devoted to scholarship. I saw him more as monkish.”

Hate & Fear

Eskridge says he had known since he was nine that he was gay. He read about it in Time magazine, other periodicals and books, including ones by nationally recognized sexuality experts William Masters and Virginia Johnson. But nothing prepared him for how single-sex schools at the time were often bastions of anti-gay sentiment.

“From the 1930s to the 1980s, homosexuality was despised, and the Southern approach was to keep your mouth shut,” Eskridge says. “What we understand now is that when society is homophobic—and America was wildly homophobic at the time—single-sex institutions are under enormous cultural pressure to be more homophobic than the rest. Part of the male-bonding experience in a homophobic society is to be aggressively antihomosexual,” he says, citing the work of the late Eve Sedgwick, a leader in Queer Theory.

Eskridge didn’t talk to anyone at school about the abuse. “I was so traumatized, and being Southern, you didn’t talk about it,” he says. He cites religion professor Sam Maloney, history professor Brown Patterson and others he could have approached, but adds, “I don’t think I could have talked to anyone intelligently. I would have broken down.” Noting there was no counseling or assistance like there is today (see sidebar), he says, “It never occurred to me that you should go to your college and get counseling about your sexuality or about emotional bullying.”

Fortunately, Eskridge’s freshman year was the last of the bullying. He not only did well academically his first year, he emerged as a top student. He was president of the honor society for outstanding freshman students, Phi Eta Sigma. “His knowledge of everything was so encyclopedic,” Woodward recalls. “He was held in awe. He was well known throughout the classes for holding study sessions. He challenged his fellow students and prepared them for tests.” This academic prowess provided a shield. “When you got to be known as an academic superstar, you were basically untouchable,” Eskridge says.

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 says. He developed friends through the debate team and became close friends of Marianna “Missy” Boaz Woodward, who transferred from Agnes Scott College, married Kes Woodward in 1971 and would become the school’s first female graduate in 1973. An accomplished potter and pediatrician, Missy died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2010.

During Eskridge’s time at Davidson, 1969-73, war protests and the civil rights movement swept much of the nation, especially college campuses. A “hotbed of rest” is how he describes the campus. He grew up in a family he characterizes as “antiracist.” He had close friends who were African American or mixed race and went to public schools that “integrated without a fuss.”

“I had no idea that people thought integration was Satan and that it would mean the rape of white girls,” he says of anti-integration rhetoric at the time. A top debate student in West Virginia during high school, Eskridge gave what he calls “the most heartfelt extemporaneous speech of my entire life” on the assigned topic of Martin Luther King and then encountered a rarity—not winning. “The judges hated it; it was supposed to be more critical,” he says. “I was too enthusiastic.”

After graduating second in his class and summa cum laude in history in 1973, 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 says.

But when he arrived at Harvard the same year, 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 says. “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. “No one at Harvard or Yale would have bothered me, but I got a sense (through counseling) that being gay was fine and there were faculty members who were thought to be (gay),” he says. “It was not considered a big deal … but I would still cry and cry and cry.”

His counselor recommended he attend a panel discussion that became “a big turning point,” he says. The panel included doctors and openly gay people, and the audience was primarily gay. “They talked about homophobia as the problem, not homosexuality; it was a different mindset,” Eskridge remembers. “I learned that as early as the late 1960s that research showed homosexuality as a natural variation (in sexuality). Honestly, that was the most useful thing—very eye opening—and I was surrounded by intelligent people who treated homosexuality as normal.”

He soon started coming out to his friends. But when he confided in ones from his Davidson days, “it went very badly,” he says. “They were stunned and couldn’t deal with it.” The exception was Missy Boaz Woodward. “She was wonderful, not shocked, very supportive and said the right things. The male Davidson grads, including medical doctors, didn’t have a clue on how to be supportive.”

Love & Respect

After graduating from law school in 1978, Eskridge clerked for a judge and worked five years in private practice before making his way to teaching law students at the University of Virginia (UVA) in 1982.

He was not out professionally because he thought it would be “lethal” for receiving tenure. Yet he didn’t get it anyway and was told he could re-apply later. Based on a highly favorable recommendation of a tenure subcommittee, he was stunned. In 2009, Eskridge testified to his shock before a U.S. House committee as an advocate for workplace legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. He testified that he didn’t get tenure, in part, because of being gay, but the UVA law school dean in 2009 denied the claim.

Eskridge also cited abuse from the head of the tenure committee, who wrongfully thought he had complained to the law school dean

Eskridge tracks

In the New York Times, Eskridge tracks how “religious practice and doctrine can change when public attitudes and the law change,” as evidenced by race relations in the United States.

about the committee’s tenure process. He “stormed into my office and screamed at me for 10 minutes or so,” Eskridge testified. “With clenched fists and a beet-red face, the chair of the committee threw a tantrum that included a string of accusations, such as ‘stabbing me in the back’ and behaving in the treacherous manner that he and his colleagues ought to have expected of a ‘faggot.’”
In tears, Eskridge threw the man out of his office and later learned confidentially from other tenure committee members that he likely would never receive tenure at the Charlottesville, Va., school.

“The irony is that today I am one of the most cited law professors; that’s pretty good for someone denied tenure at UVA,” he says. “Whatever determination I had to be successful and write good law review articles was fueled by UVA. Also, I realized being professionally closeted was ridiculous. You are still going to be discriminated against so the only way to deal with that was to fully come out of the closet.”

Which he did. He resigned at UVA to join the law faculty at Georgetown University in 1987. He was the first openly gay faculty member at the law school, he says, and perhaps at the university overall. In 1998, he left for a similar teaching job at Yale, where he is today.

“He is loved by his students because he loves teaching and them,” Sotomayor says. “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.”

That same temperament has been evident in Eskridge’s recent ties with Davidson. He helped bring Sotomayor to campus last spring, has supported the Gay-Straight Alliance and advises the school on encouraging pre-law students to apply to national schools. “I think we’re making progress,” he says.

Eskridge has written four books on gender sexuality, and the one from 1999, Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet, played a major role in the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in June 2015. In the early 2000s, Eskridge wrote an amicus brief based largely on the book, and the Supreme Court followed his submission extensively in decriminalizing sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, a decision that leaped a big hurdle for the same-sex marriage movement.

The 360-degree view in his pivotal brief was reminiscent of those religious exiles long ago who promoted “Toleration Thought,” captivating Eskridge’s imagination as a student and perhaps providing a little solace in his journey as a gay man. It is also critical to why he’s highly respected as a scholar and historian, Sotomayor says. “Bill is able to see both sides of any issue and to challenge the assumption of any argument at its core without belittling.”

In the New York Times, Eskridge tracks how “religious practice and doctrine can change when public attitudes and the law change,” as evidenced by race relations in the United States. Read more.


Today Davidson students who are sexual minorities or simply trying to understand their sexuality have an array of resources available. The Queer Mentorship Program buddies LGBTQ freshman and transfer students with LGBTQ upperclassmen, and the Lavender Lounge resource center, located in the Residence Life Office, provides meeting space as well as books, films, TV shows and other educational materials.

“We’ve created a lot of safe places for queer students to be out, whether in confidential settings or in the community,” says Becca Taylor ’06, assistant dean of students. “We also have a lot of resources today for students who are bullied or harassed.”

The college also has done specialized training with student organizations, faculty and staff, including a three-hour educational training available to anyone in the Davidson community. Since fall 2013, nearly 400 have participated in Safe Space training, which informs participants about how to be LGBTQ allies.


About Author

A Charlotte-based writer and editor, Susan Shackelford is a Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. She grew up admiring Davidson basketball and scored her only soccer goal against a Wildcats' women’s club team. A midfielder, she is grateful for the highlight moment. Shackelford is also a former reporter for The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer.

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