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Q&A: The attorney who practically invented gay divorce — before gay marriage was legal

Frederick Hertz, 65, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has lived in the Bay Area for 40 years after coming to Berkeley to attend Boalt Hall Law School in 1978. He is an attorney specializing in the dissolution of LGBT relationships and the co-author of several books, including “Legal Affairs: Essential Advice for Same-Sex Couples,” “A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples” and “Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples.” He lives in Oakland

J.: Your law practice has focused on gay divorce for the past 30-plus years, long before gay marriage became legal and leveled the playing field. How did you come to specialize in this area?

Frederick Hertz: I was working for a small real estate firm in the mid-1980s, and because I was out and active in the LGBT community, I started getting calls from unmarried couples — LGBT couples, as well as straight couples — who were breaking up and fighting over real estate they held in common. Married couples fighting over real estate are in the family court system and use a family law attorney to help them. But unmarried couples were, and still are, in the civil court system.

In the mid-1990s, around the time that Hawaii ended its ban on gay marriage, I got a call from a New York Times reporter who wanted to write about the subject. I said, “That’s boring. You should write about gay divorce.” So he did. Two hours after the article came out, I got a call from an agent who asked, “Do you want to write a book about it?”

Frederick Hertz
Frederick Hertz

And before that, you were working on legal matters affecting the LGBT community?

I’ve been working on LGBT partnership and marriage issues since 1982. I testified in favor of San Francisco’s domestic partnership law, which Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed. In 1983 I was one of the co-founders of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel to provide free legal services for people with AIDS. The challenges of having so many friends and colleagues who were dying were a much bigger issue in those years [than gay divorce]. I served on ALRP’s board for many years.

Talk about your work with refugees and the specific challenges faced by LGBT refugees.

I sponsored a gay Syrian refugee [in 2015]. It is very hard for any refugee to get into the U.S. now, but on top of that, gay refugees from the countries named in the travel and refugee bans are unlikely to have family members who can provide the “close family relationship” connection to overcome the exclusion.

My father did refugee work with Russian Jewish emigres in the Twin Cities in the 1970s, which is a direct link to the work I’ve done with … the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration and LGBT refugee services of JFCS East Bay.

You have talked about the importance of family and community, and your background is solidly Midwestern Jewish. What was it like growing up?

I am a fifth-generation St. Paul, Minnesota, Jew. My mother’s side of my family arrived in 1872, and all eight of my great-grandparents lived in St. Paul by 1884. They were mainly Baltic Jews from Latvia and Lithuania and were peddlers, haberdashers and tailors. One of my great-great-grandfathers co-founded the first Orthodox synagogue in St. Paul. His widow founded the first Conservative synagogue in the city. My mother, who is 94, is still active in her synagogue.

I grew up in a completely Jewish world with dozens and dozens of cousins. It was an intact, happy, thriving Jewish community — Hebrew school, United Synagogue Youth, a completely kosher home. I was raised with these key principles of life: closeness to family, economic responsibility or self-sufficiency, and giving back to the community. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they were always volunteering at Jewish organizations.

You rebelled against your Jewish upbringing for about 15 to 20 years because you found it “claustrophobic and restrictive.” But you have re-engaged with the community, including working with JFCS East Bay and others. How did that come to be?

It was through the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where I found a community that was cultural, artistic and creative in a way that mine wasn’t. It was open to diversity. Through the festival, I reconnected to other Jewish institutions. I have found the festival as meaningful and important to my heritage as synagogue involvement. I’m also a donor and strong supporter of New Israel Fund, and I went to Israel with NIF on an arts and justice tour in 2016.

It is interesting to note that while you have long been an advocate for marriage equality and other LGBT rights, you and your partner of 35 years have not chosen to marry. Why is that?

While I very much fought for the right to get married, I see being married as an alternative. We have already structured our legal and financial lives in a way that works for us. We’re not interested in the state regulating our lives.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.