Leading the way, the California way

Meet Californians who fought to make California a more just place.

When it comes to creating a more just and inclusive society, California is a leader in many ways. Our state became the first to end the collection of fees in the criminal legal system and guarantee health care for all immigrants. Bold and expansive legislation and legal advocacy are not new for the Golden State, where California has long been known as a powerhouse and incubator for first-of-its-kind legislation and legal precedents.  

As the ACLU SoCal celebrates its centennial year, we look back at the stories of Californians who fought alongside us to make California a better place for all. Their stories and courageous actions have paved the way for progress not only here but across the country.  

Before Roe v. Wade, there was People v. Belous... 

Years before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Roe v. Wade, the California Supreme Court considered the abortion rights case of People v. Belous in 1969. The ACLU SoCal filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the defendant, Dr. Leon Belous, arguing that it was unconstitutional to penalize him for connecting a woman seeking to end her pregnancy with another person willing to perform an abortion. The brief argued that banning abortion violated not only privacy rights, but also equal protection guarantees. It noted the ban’s impact on women – especially for poor women and women of color – who were far less likely to be able to access one of the ban’s exceptions or travel outside California to escape it.  

In 1969, our state’s highest court ruled in favor of Dr. Belous, marking the first time a U.S. court had found that the right to privacy encompassed abortion rights. This California decision was then cited in the Roe v. Wade opinion that protected abortion rights nationwide from 1973 to 2022.  

Today, we’re advocating for legislation to block unconstitutional reverse demands, so that individuals can’t be identified, and targeted by law enforcement simply because they spent time at a sensitive location like an abortion clinic. We are committed more than ever to fight for reproductive justice – including access to safe and legal abortions.  

Advancing the safety and rights of LGBTQ people in all spaces 

There are approximately 14,000 people detained in Los Angeles County jails – making it the largest and most expensive jail system and most expensive in the nation. While the ACLU SoCal fights for the prevention of incarceration, we also advocate for the rights of people currently incarcerated. This includes the LGBTQ community. 

In the 1980s, the ACLU SoCal filed a class action lawsuit, Robertson v. Block, which resulted in a historic court-approved settlement committing the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to take specific measures to protect gay people in its custody. But LGBTQ people continue to be targeted for violence and harrassment in the LA County jails. 

For decades, the ACLU SoCal advocates have contributed to the introduction and passage of state-level bills addressing gender, sexuality, and reproductive justice issues behind bars. In 2020, we helped pass Senate Bill (SB) 132, seeking to allow transgender people to be housed within state prisons in accordance with their own perception of health and safety. 

Such policies protect the rights and dignity of thousands of incarcerated individuals and have inspired similar progress in other jurisdictions.  

As advocates, we know our work doesn’t stop at passing legislation. Today, our efforts also involve full policy implementation in California. This includes fighting for investment in mental health care, drug treatment, and other community-based programs to prevent incarceration

The ACLU SoCal has also fought for the rights of LGBTQ people in the military.  

In the late 1970s, the ACLU SoCal filed a lawsuit on behalf of Joanna Clark, who had been discharged from the U.S. Army because of her transgender identity – even though the Army knew she was trans when recruiting her. Clark ultimately settled her case for $25,000 and an honorable discharge. This case represented the first known win by a transgender enlistee in legal action against the U.S. military. 

We’re proud to work with the LGBTQ community and fight for their right to feel safe in all spaces. 

Fighting for the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS 

At a time when our country was beginning to grapple with the HIV and AIDS epidemic, the ACLU SoCal strove to center the experiences and needs of people living with HIV and AIDS.   

In the mid-1980s, we represented Ryan Thomas, a boy living with AIDS who was blocked from attending kindergarten in San Luis Obispo County based on fears that others could get HIV from him. A federal district court held that excluding Ryan from public school because of his HIV status violated the Rehabilitation Act, which bars discrimination against people with disabilities in federally-funded programs. It noted that, contrary to the school district’s claims, there was no medical evidence that Ryan could transmit HIV by biting another student.  

That case set an example for the rest of the country, including Indiana, where Ryan White who was fighting a similar battle.  

In 1992, we represented Sal Fuentes, a Ventura County man who sought medical care for an injury at an urgent care clinic but was turned away because of his HIV status. The clinic eventually agreed to compensate Fuentes for the harm he suffered. Fuentes’s case helped medical professionals start to understand that rather than discriminate to try to protect themselves from HIV exposure, they needed to use “universal precautions” like gloves when treating all patients. This case represented one of the first successful uses of the Americans with Disabilities Act to address HIV discrimination.  

In 2017, ACLU SoCal advocates worked in coalition to help pass SB 239, which modernized California laws that had previously criminalized and stigmatized people living with HIV. That successful campaign has served as a model for advocates in other states. 

Leading by example is the California way, as shown by the stories of people like Dr. Belous who fought for abortion rights, Joanna Clark who fought for LGBTQ rights, and Ryan Thomas who fought for the rights of people living with HIV. They remind us that change doesn’t happen overnight, but when we work together, change is possible – especially in California — and we should be so proud. 

This year, the ACLU SoCal celebrates 100 years of changemaking. We look forward to continuing to lead the way, the California way.  

This article is part of the ACLU SoCal's centennial series, exploring the affiliate's long and evolving work and impact in the southland. The series lifts historic milestones and facts documented in the "Open Forum," the ACLU SoCal's newsletter published from 1924 to 2004. This year, in partnership with the California Historical Society, the ACLU SoCal has published and digitized the "Open Forum" in its entirety. Explore the archives and read more about how the ACLU SoCal fought for a more just and inclusive California.