Sacramento lawyer a ‘Legend in Courage’

Rosemary Metrailer  stands on the deck outside her home near Nevada City . In the 1980s, she won a lawsuit against the Rev. Jerry Falwell and forced McClellan Air Force Base to give women civilian employees  the same raises as men.
Rosemary Metrailer stands on the deck outside her home near Nevada City . In the 1980s, she won a lawsuit against the Rev. Jerry Falwell and forced McClellan Air Force Base to give women civilian employees the same raises as men. rpench@sacbee.com

Rosemary Metrailer still practices law part time from her hillside cottage in the pines outside Nevada City, where she and her wife, Tina Costella, moved in 2002 from their longtime home in Land Park.

But through the 1980s and ’90s, Metrailer was a partner in a pioneering, all-female Sacramento law firm that fought for gay rights and against job discrimination and sexual harassment. Metrailer won a high-profile case holding the Rev. Jerry Falwell accountable for making homophobic statements, for example, and fought successfully to make McClellan Air Force Base give its female civilian employees raises and promotions on par with its male employees.

Now, at 70, the pioneer has become a legend, at least according to the documentary filmmakers behind “Legends in Courage,” an oral history and video project devoted to Sacramento’s gay and lesbian activists. Metrailer is the first, albeit reluctant, subject in what producers say is intended as a series of profiles available on YouTube and social media and in local library archives.

“I’ve never been one to toot my own horn,” said Metrailer. “It’s embarrassing. But it’s important for people to see what it took to get where we are today. We have same-sex marriage today and protections for workers. That didn’t just happen overnight.

“It’s important for younger generations to understand how we got where we are and what it might take to keep it.”

To her, the word “legend” means she has helped make history. But to her former Sacramento law partner, Carolyn Langenkamp, who has known Metrailer since they were law students at UC Davis, she’s always been larger than life.

“I think she was a legend when she was 30,” said Langenkamp. “I was a first-year law student when Rosie was third-year. She was a bright, shining star even back then. People talked about her that way.

“There was a sense of gratitude and admiration for her even then.”

Metrailer grew up on a farm outside Fort Wayne, Ind., in the 1950s. Her father was an electrical engineer who taught his three daughters that they could be and do anything. Metrailer went to Wellesley College, where she majored in political science and became acquainted with a classmate a few years behind her, a Midwestern girl named Hillary Rodham who went on to be known to the world by her married name, Hillary Clinton. The two have stayed in touch through the years.

“Wellesley opened up a huge world to me of thinking and questioning and figuring out what we could build on,” said Metrailer.

A few years after her 1966 graduation, she returned to Fort Wayne, where she was a civil rights activist and War on Poverty worker. By 1974, she began her legal studies at Davis, graduating in 1977. She worked for a few years with then-mayor Phillip Isenberg’s law firm before she and Langenkamp formed their own general legal practice in 1981.

It was still a man’s world, and in many ways, women in the workplace were dismissed as outsiders.

“When I started practicing law in Sacramento, I had to fight my way in,” said Metrailer. “I’d try to go into judge’s chambers and I had to work my way through the bailiff first. They were sure I was some secretary.

“One of my biggest memories is being in chambers with the male judge and lawyers. They started passing around pictures of the prostitutes picked up the night before and all the men were making comments. You really knew what your place was.”

In 1984, the Rev. Jerry Sloan, former pastor of Sacramento’s gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church, came to Metrailer to sue the Rev. Jerry Falwell for breach of contract. Falwell, the Christian conservative who founded the Moral Majority, had sermonized on his nationally syndicated “Old Time Gospel Hour” about the annihilation of “a vile and satanic” gay church. When Sloan later confronted Falwell on a Sacramento TV show about making that statement, Falwell denied on the air having done so, saying he’d pay Sloan $5,000 if he could prove it.

Sloan did, via videotape and audiotape, but Falwell refused to pay.

“Rosemary did an excellent job with the case,” said Sloan. “We didn’t have to have witnesses. We had the tapes.”

Metrailer prevailed, winning $8,982, seed money that went toward founding Sacramento’s Lambda Community Center, now the Sacramento LGBT Community Center.

“Jerry Falwell was bigger than life,” said Metrailer. “We made him be accountable for the hatred he was espousing. The case made international news. It was in People magazine. It was all over everywhere.”

More consequential was the class-action lawsuit that she and Langenkamp filed in 1982 against McClellan for its decades-long, systemic discrimination against women working as civilian instrument mechanics. The employees had bake sales to pay for their legal representation, Metrailer said. The case was settled in the women’s favor in 1988.

“These weren’t bra-burners,” said Metrailer. “They were women our mothers’ age, but they knew no matter how hard they worked, they wouldn’t get raises or promotions. They were locked into low salary rates and that would affect what they received in retirement.

“We got them upgraded. They got back pay and retirement benefits. We changed how the Air Force has to advance civilian women. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Over time, she specialized in business and personal injury law and gave up litigation, while Langenkamp specialized more in job discrimination and sexual harassment cases. But together they fought for civil rights on behalf of women, gays and lesbians, and minorities.

“We wanted to use the law to work for social justice,” said Langenkamp. “When we started, women were underestimated. Our talents were not recognized. We were systematically discounted. We felt we needed to be visible and be the best lawyers we could and make a statement about what women could do.”

By 2002, Metrailer and Costella, an environmental consultant, moved full time to the cabin in the woods outside Nevada City, on property that Metrailer had bought in the 1980s. The two, who have been together for 23 years, were married in August 2013 on a nearby lake.

“I never thought same-sex marriage would happen in my lifetime,” said Metrailer. “But it really felt good. It felt good to say, ‘I do.’ It meant a lot.”

That was about the time that filmmaker Dawn Deason and financial consultant Camille Wojtasiak approached Metrailer about being the first subject in their “Legends of Courage” series.

“People are aging, and their stories get lost,” said Deason. “Men and women in the LGBT community really have done so much for the civil rights of today’s LGBT youth. With the fast and furious changes of the past few years, up to and including marriage, it seems like everything happened overnight.

“It didn’t. People struggled. They lost jobs. And people like Rosemary were beacons of hope.”

Metrailer appreciates the recognition, but the attention overwhelms her.

“I’m proud of some of the things I’ve done, the changes I’ve helped make,” she said. “As a kid of the ’60s, it’s important you have your footprint in the world and make things a little better for people in the future.

“But being called a legend is embarrassing.”

Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.