Multistable Figures: Sexual Orientation Visibility and Its Effects on the Experiences of Sexual Minorities in the Courts


A multistable figure is a cognitive illusion in which a single drawing contains multiple, competing images. On first viewing a person will see one image, but not the other – it usually requires additional information to trigger the viewer’s awareness of the second image. However, once you know about the disparate figures in the illustration, you cannot erase that knowledge from your mind and see a sole image as you did originally. This inability to ignore information and its effect on subsequent experience has parallels in lesbians’ and gay men’s treatment in the courts.

Courts today are deeply involved in matters involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. Same-sex marriage, custody disputes, conflict with religious claims and other more routine criminal and civil cases all bring sexual orientation minorities into the judicial system as parties, witnesses, lawyers, or jurors. In addition to serving as legal institutions, courtrooms and courthouses are also workplaces for LGBT and heterosexual staff. Nevertheless, little is known about the actual experiences of gay men and women, either as court users or as court employees.

This article examines the results of all the empirical studies of LGBT persons’ treatment in the judicial system and analyses common patterns among the research. Since sexual orientation is not uniformly apparent, but varies with individuals and over time and location, the article specifically explores how visibility of minority sexual orientation affects the perceptions, personal experiences, and treatment of court users and employees. The article also references behavioral and economic literature on LGBT persons at work and in other settings to show the similarities and differences between gay persons’ interactions with judicial systems and with other social institutions.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Comparative and Foreign Law | Courts | Judges | Law and Gender | Law and Society | Legal Profession | Sexuality and the Law

Date of this Version

August 2006