Joe Tom Easley, a nationally recognized attorney and LGBTQ rights advocate who has taught at three U.S. law schools and served on boards and in leadership positions at several national and DC LGBTQ and advocacy organizations man, died Feb. 13 at a hospital near his Miami Beach residence of complications associated with lung disease. He was 81 years old.
Peter Freiberg, Easley’s husband and partner of 39 years, said Easley’s skills as a negotiator, speaker, teacher and political strategist enabled him to serve as a volunteer advocate for LGBTQ and civil rights causes from from the late 1970s, when he began as a tenured law professor at American University Law School in D.C.
In 1978, according to Freiberg, Easley was appointed assistant dean at UA Law School in addition to his teaching duties at a time when he came out as gay. “At that time, there were very few university administrators,” Freiberg said.
From 1981 to 1983, Easley worked as a professor at Antioch Law School in DC, where he also served as an advisor to LGBTQ student groups. Antioch Law School later evolved into DC University Law School.
Freiberg said that when Easley left Antioch in 1983, he began his affiliation as a lecturer with BARBRI, the nation’s largest training and coaching program for law school graduates preparing to sit their state bar exam.
“Based on student reviews, he was an extremely popular lecturer, making even his assigned, somewhat difficult topics — contracts and real estate law — interesting and enjoyable,” Freiberg said. He said the BARBRI organization arranged for Easley to travel to cities across the country to give his bar prep lectures, usually in the months leading up to when the winter state bar exams and summer are given to future lawyers.
He continued his lessons with BARBARI until his retirement in 2013, Freiberg said.
Easley became active in the DC Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance from 1980 to 1982, according to Freiberg, and in 1982 Easley was elected president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, DC’s largest local LGBTQ political group. Freiberg said that around this time, then-DC Mayor Marion Barry named Easley a member of the DC Police Civilian Complaint Review Board, which LGBTQ activists played a leading role in persuading the DC Council to create.
“Joe Tom was certainly a passionate, articulate and politically savvy human rights advocate in many ways, most crucial in the fight to establish a civilian complaints commission,” said Craig Howell, LGBTQ activist from DC.
In 1983, Easley moved to New York to live with Freiberg after the two became a couple that year. Shortly thereafter, Easley, while continuing his activism, enrolled in graduate school at Yale University where he earned a master’s degree in public health in 1986. Freiberg said Easley went on to teach the public health law at Yale Medical School on a part-time basis for the next two years. During his time as a student and as a teacher at Yale, Easley commuted from Manhattan to New Haven four days a week, Freiberg said.
Easley, an only child, was born in Robstown, Texas near Corpus Christi and spent his early childhood in Truby, Texas, a small farming town where he started school in a one-room schoolhouse. His family moved to Eagle Pass, a Texas border town on the Rio Grande in 1950, Freiberg said, where Easley graduated from Eagle Pass High School.
He received his undergraduate degree with a major in English from Texas A&M University in 1963. Freiberg said that when Easley was about to be drafted into the Vietnam War in 1966, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served at a naval intelligence base on a small island. near the Alaska-Russia border.
“After a year, he was told that a friend who had proposed to him for sex before he joined the navy had informed the government that he was gay,” Freiberg said of the brief period. of Easley’s military service. “His commanding officer told him apologetically that he had no choice but to deport him – all gay men were banned from service – but that because of his exemplary service he would ensure that Joe Tom receives an honorable discharge and veterans benefits.”
His Navy benefits through the longtime GI Bill Veterans Education Program helped pay for Easley’s tuition at the University of Texas Law School at Austin, where he graduated. place.
During and shortly after his law school years, Easley became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and during summer vacation as a law student became involved with the first group of Ralph Nader’s “Nader’s Raiders,” drawing attention to government and corporate malfeasance, according to Freiberg.
After law school, Easley clerked for a federal judge in Boston from 1971 to 1972 before serving as an adjunct professor for the next two years at the University of Georgia Law School in Athens, Freiberg said.
Easley then left for Europe in 1975, where he worked for the European Bureau of Consumer Organisations, based in Brussels. Among other things, he participated in an investigation into price fixing by pharmaceutical companies.
Freiberg recalled that during his career, Easley also taught part-time for short periods at the University of Virginia Law School and Cardozo Law School in New York.
He said Easley’s dedication to LGBTQ equality and civil rights for other minorities, including African Americans, started strong when he returned from Europe to the United States to begin teaching. at the American University of DC.
In addition to his affiliation with local DC LGBTQ groups, over the next 30 years Easley became involved with and helped advance the work of a number of national LGBTQ organizations. Among them was Lambda Legal, the New York-based LGBTQ litigation group for which Easley served on the board from 1981 to 1991 and as co-chairman of the board from 1983 to 1987.
From 1988 to 1995, he was president of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Foundation, which later changed its name to Human Rights Campaign Foundation. He also served on the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a national group that helped LGBTQ service members facing discharge from the military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. .
Freiberg said Easley’s own release from the Navy for being gay helped solidify his commitment and dedication to the cause of LGBTQ service members.
With Easley’s active involvement, SLDN played a significant role in the successful campaign to persuade Congress to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act, which continued to be used to remove LGBTQ people from military if their sexual orientation or gender identity has become known to military authorities.
Freiberg said Easley’s skills as a public speaker on behalf of LGBTQ equality surfaced in 1988 when he delivered the closing address to more than 200 LGBTQ leaders from across the country attending a ” war conference” in Warrenton, Virginia, convened by AIDS activist Larry Kramer. to draw attention to the continuing AIDS epidemic, anti-LGBTQ court rulings, and anti-gay vitriol from religious right groups.
In what he and Easley also saw as a move for LGBTQ equality, Freiberg said he and Easley in 2003 traveled to Toronto to legally marry. Their marriage became what the couple believed to be the first same-sex marriage to be featured in the New York Times wedding celebrations report.
“We were convinced that legal marriage wouldn’t make any difference in our relationship, and it didn’t,” Freiberg said. “But we wanted to make a political statement that our love and devotion were equal to anyone else’s, and that same-sex couples deserved equality before the law, including benefits and responsibilities,” Freiberg said.
“His whole life was driven by a desire to work for social justice and to do good,” Freiberg said. “He supported the underdog, whether it was LGBT people, African Americans, an injured Iraqi boy, or a disabled person, which he was for his last three years.”
Freiberg was referring to the national media attention Easley received in 2005, including an article in The New York Times, after he arranged for an Iraqi boy injured in Iraq by a US bomb to be brought to the United States for medical treatment.
“Joe Tom Easley was a dear friend and mentor who taught me so much about leadership, LGBT politics, the law and giving,” said Vic Basile, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and longtime advocate. LGBTQ rights. “He led by example, giving generously of his time and vast knowledge to help others in need, never asking or expecting anything in return,” Basile said.
Easley was predeceased by his parents, Tom Lee Easley and Lady Hampton Easley.
He is survived by his husband and partner of 39 years, longtime journalist Peter Freiberg; his sister-in-law and brother-in-law Eileen and Barney Freiberg-Dale; his niece, Sabrina Freiberg-Dale; his nephew, Hunter Dale and his fiancée Eve Lichacz; a cousin, Jane Hays; and many friends around the world.
Plans for a memorial service, including a memorial event in DC, will be announced. Contributions in his memory may be made to Lambda Legal, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Parks Foundation.