IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

California Supreme Court's 1st gay justice left the NFL to pursue a law career

Martin J. Jenkins, a barrier-breaking judge and former pro football player, told that accepting his sexuality was “bar none” his greatest challenge.
Image: Martin J. Jenkins.
Judge Martin J. Jenkins.NBC News; The University of San Francisco

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit]

Upon being unanimously confirmed as a California Supreme Court justice in November, Martin J. Jenkins made history as the first openly gay justice and third Black man to serve on the state’s highest court.

In an interview with the LGBTQ magazine Advocate, Jenkins called the distinction “an interesting notion.”

“There were others before me who were qualified and who weren’t out or weren’t selected. So being the first, and being an African American man, too, is a big responsibility,” he said. “I know how being in the minority feels, and so my plan is to do the job as well as I can. Hopefully, I’ll have the ability to shine a light on the possibilities for people who look like me or have the same orientation as I do. I think it’s also important to make sure you conduct yourself with honor and integrity with the way you do your work.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Jenkins grew up helping his father, a clerk and janitor with the city and county of San Francisco, clean office buildings and churches, according to a statement issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom after he selected Jenkins for the state’s highest court. As a young man, Jenkins briefly played in the NFL after signing with the Seattle Seahawks. But after realizing “his true calling was becoming a lawyer,” he enrolled in the University of San Francisco School of Law and obtained his degree in 1980, according to the statement. Jenkins later became a civil rights attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice where he “pursued cases involving police misconduct and cross burnings,” and also worked to “promote gender equality through cases on pregnancy-related leave and sex discrimination.”

Prior to joining the state Supreme Court, he served for over 30 years as a state and federal judge, according to the official California Supreme Court Twitter account. In an interview with, Jenkins, now in his late 60s, said that accepting himself as gay was “bar none” his greatest challenge.

“The most important thing is making sure that I see myself as I am, the best self I can be,” he said in the interview. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and I don’t see any reason to change that formula now.”

Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram