A brave face for his students

School of Law Professor Marc Fajer. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

School of Law Professor Marc Fajer. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami

A brave face for his students

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
First Law School LGBTQ Alumni event honors Professor Marc Fajer.

It’s no surprise that students love to gossip about their teachers. But when School of Law Professor Marc Fajer started working at the University of Miami, he wanted to quell the rumors instantly.

To be upfront with his students, Fajer wrote an article in the law school’s student newspaper, revealing his homosexuality to the UM community. On his first day of class, he handed out the pamphlet to his students. It was not a common thing to do in 1988 — a time when HIV was on the rise and a positive test result was a death sentence.

“I hope those of you who are not out will not be afraid to come and talk to me,” he wrote.

Fajer’s bold act comforted many LGBTQ students and faculty. Ultimately, it transformed the law school’s atmosphere to be a more welcoming, inclusive place, said Miami Law Professor Stephen Schnably.

“One contribution Marc made was he normalized being gay, and he created a safe environment for those who were fearful of coming out at UM’s law school,” said the law school’s associate dean for administration, Raquel Matas, who is also openly gay. “We were all very fortunate that we had Marc Fajer’s home where we could gather and feel safe.”

For the past 30 years, Fajer has continued to be a strong support for his students. That is why the School of Law, with the participation of the UM Alumni Association and the LGBTQ law student organization, OUTLaw, decided to honor Fajer in the law school’s first LGBTQ Homecoming event Thursday night. The event, organized in conjunction with the LGBTQ 'Canes alumni affinity group, attracted more than 100 lawyers, faculty, and students and unveiled a new law scholarship in Fajer’s name for students involved in LGBTQ advocacy.

“This time next year a Fajer scholar could be among us,” said Anthony Stewart, director of development for the law school, to rousing cheers.

Liz SchwartzMiami family lawyer Elizabeth Schwartz, who graduated from Miami Law in 1997, extolled Fajer at the event. In 2010, Schwartz’s work helped pave the way for same-sex couples to adopt in Florida. Schwartz also worked on a successful 2015 court battle to overturn the same-sex marriage ban in Florida. Schwartz said her time at Miami Law helped shape her career. 

“Professor Fajer was a safe space when we really needed it and it was hard to come by,” said Schwartz, who is also openly gay and married to her wife, a fellow UM alum. “I talked to a lot of students tonight who shared how he made us feel loved and accepted...and normal.”

Although she did not have Fajer as a teacher, Schwartz said he has been a vital mentor to her. Fajer emphasized how crucial it was for Schwartz to use her legal expertise to help people who are often marginalized get equal protection under the law.

“He helped me navigate the landscape of marrying your professional and personal passions, and helped me articulate the need to advocate for our community,” Schwartz added.

Fajer, who teaches courses on property law as well as antitrust, housing discrimination, and disability law, was instrumental in starting the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers Association in Miami (GALLA), which brings together legal professionals and students across South Florida for networking, Matas said. Fajer has also served as an adviser to OUTLaw and its predecessors, alumni said.

“For many of us, the legal profession is still pretty conservative, so finding someone [like Fajer] who has been out for so long is really reassuring,” said third-year law student and OUTLaw president Candelario Saldana.

Many alums felt joyful that the event was so well attended and that they had a chance to reconnect with old classmates. While Saldana said OUTLaw currently has about 80 members, just about six years ago, the numbers were much smaller. Municipal government and real estate lawyer Gigi Soliman, who graduated in 2012, said she was shocked at how many people from the LGBT community were packed into the room Thursday.

“In the face of adversity, we are getting stronger, so this event brings a lot of hope to me,” said Soliman, who was the first openly gay president of the Student Bar Association in 2012.

Despite the cheerful environment and praise for Fajer, many speakers, including Fajer, acknowledged the challenging current political climate for the LGBTQ community.

“To recognize Marc’s courage and leadership is so important,” said Law Professor Donna Coker, who teaches criminal law, evidence, and gender violence law. “We are in a moment of renewed discrimination, and right now we are experiencing a rise in hate groups, so it’s really important to honor our heroes.”