Office of Student Affairs
Senior Board of 2015
Rochelle Cooper Dreyfuss
Tom Stoddard–though more famous as a civil libertarian and gay rights advocate–was first and last a teacher. His brother John Stoddard remembers Tom, as a small child in the early 1950s, making John “learn all the capitals of all the states and of every country in the world. He knew them, and he wanted me to know them, too.” And only days before Professor Stoddard, at 48, succumbed to HIV disease, he submitted grades for his “Legislation” course. Despite the sudden physical decline that forced him to cancel class sessions before the end of the semester, he marked papers and exams at the hospital and then from his sickbed at home.
The Greeks had a saying, “The good die young.” Rarely has this been as true as with Tom Stoddard, who in the short years given to him made an indelible mark as a hero in the struggle for the rights of lesbians and gay men. He did it all–courtroom advocate, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, head of Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and a colleague who taught (at New York University) one of the first courses given in any American law school centering on legal issues surrounding homosexuality. Tom will be remembered for many things, but mainly for his success, as the New York Times recognized when he died, in “bring[ing] issues affecting gay men and lesbians into the mainstream of legal and political debate.”
It has become something of a conventional wisdom over the past decade to assert that there is no necessary tension between the aims of civil liberties and public health. Like all such wisdoms, although often true, there are occasions when bitterly contested battles make it clear that the picture is far more complex than the world as defined by mantras. Too often lost in the debate over claims about the salutary or baleful impact of the civil libertarian perspective on public health is some understanding of how that outlook emerged, took hold, and then achieved some currency. It is a history that can teach us much. And it is there that Tom Stoddard played a central role, for he helped to shape a rights-sensitive conception of public health.