During LGBTQ+ History Month, Devine Timoney Celebrates Janelle Fulton, the DRI Diversity and Inclusion Committee’s newly appointed Chair of the LGBTQ+ Subcommittee.
Here is her story.
October is LGBTQ+ History Month, and October 11 is National Coming Out Day. In honor of this, I’d like to share a bit of my history.
I was raised in a small rural town in Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half west of Philadelphia. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the words “homosexual” and “queer.” I heard those words from my father, but he didn’t tell me what they meant. Specifically, he told me that my Uncle John, my mom’s beloved younger brother, was a homosexual and “a queer.” That was the sum total of what he told me in words. His tone and the look of disgust on his face told me that “homosexual” meant something very bad and very shameful. I was six years old.
I had not yet met my Uncle John, because he and his partner, Bob, lived in Palm Springs, California, on the other side of the world. But Uncle John and Bob were moving back to the area to be closer to my mom. Over the following years, I learned that Uncle John and Bob had been in a committed, monogamous relationship since their early twenties, that they were successful businessmen, and that they were warm, loving, kind, and generous to everyone. I learned that their relationship was healthier and happier than my parents’ marriage had ever been. They were together for 45 years, until Bob died in 2011 at age 69. They were never able to legally marry. That right wasn’t granted until 2015.
When I came out to my mother, she cried. I was 20 years old, and I was devastated. I felt shame. Then she cupped my face in her hands, looked me in the eye, and said, “Oh honey, I’m not crying because you’re a lesbian. I’m crying because I know how difficult your life is going to be.”
I’ll tell you some of the ways my life as a lesbian has been difficult, and I’ll start with my own family, because that is where it started for me, and that is where it starts with many members of the LGBTQ+ community.
My father was a fundamentalist Christian, and “homos” and “queers” seemed to be his favorite target. No matter how many times I told him that his words and views offended me, he continued to “preach” to me that “homosexuals are deviants and should be put on an island and blown up.” That is a direct quote; I heard it many times.
My father never recognized my partner as my spouse. Instead, even after we had been together for over a decade and had children, he continued to ask me when I was going to get married, and he would introduce me as his “spinster daughter.” My father likewise never recognized my children as his grandchildren. He insisted that they call him “Mr. Fulton.” At Christmastime, my father gave special gifts to each of his grandchildren, except for my children. The pain and anger I felt when I heard my father utter homophobic slurs was nothing compared to the gut-wrenching mix of emotions I felt when he disrespected and shamed my children.
In his last years, I had to financially support my father. He had not saved money for retirement because he was convinced the Lord was going to come again “any day now” and take him home to heaven. In 2017, as I walked towards the door of my father’s church for his funeral, which I had paid for because he did not have life insurance (again, the Rapture was overdue), I looked at the church’s letter marquee. I honestly should have known better, but hope springs eternal. Rather than the uplifting, encouraging message that many churches post each week, this church’s message read: “Homosexuals will burn in Hell.” I have to admit that, despite all of the years of progress our society had made by 2017, that I had made personally, there, with the anger, I felt that old, familiar shame.
You see, my father wasn’t alone in his thinking. Growing up, society taught me that homosexuals are perverts, sexual deviants, and child predators. People to be feared and hated and ostracized. People to be shamed and ridiculed and cast out.
Society also taught me that it was not safe to be LGBTQ+, because it was socially acceptable, and even encouraged, to bully, harass, and shame those who were suspected of being homosexual because of their mannerisms, those who just couldn’t hide it, and those who had the nerve to be unapologetically out and proud. I can only remember one or two of those boys, who sought refuge in theater and marching band. There were no openly lesbian kids in my school, which covered seven municipalities and an area of 140 square miles. No one even talked about being bisexual, nonbinary, or transgender.
When I was a freshman in high school in 1984, there was a witch hunt against the girls’ swim coach (and one of our gym teachers) who someone “accused” of being a lesbian. Parents wanted her fired, and a lawsuit ensued. There was never a claim that she acted inappropriately with any student, just that she was a lesbian. In fact, she wasn’t a lesbian. In fact, she was married to one of the science teachers, Mr. Dyke (I do so swear or affirm). Mr. Donald Dyke. True story.
I’m sure not all LGBTQ+ folks experienced the same kind of upbringing, but I think many did, and I think many still do. In many places, it is still not safe to be identified as LGBTQ+.
In 1998, one year after I graduated from law school, two young men offered to give 21 year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard a ride, but instead drove him to a remote area, brutally beat and tortured him, and tied him to a barbed-wire fence, where they left him to die.
You may be thinking that was nearly 25 years ago. In Wyoming. Ok, fair enough. More recently, in September 2014, in the Center City Philadelphia district affectionately referred to as “the Gayborhood” due to the concentration of gay-friendly bars, businesses, and residences, three suburban young people in their mid-twenties viciously attacked two gay men who were simply walking down the street. The threesome began by yelling homophobic slurs, and then punching the men repeatedly in the face. One of the victims spent five days in the hospital and suffered a fractured jaw, requiring his jaw to be wired shut for two months.
According to a 2020 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault, than non-LGBTQ+ people, and six times more likely to experience violence by someone who is well known to them. LBT women are five times more likely than non-LBT women to experience violent victimization, while GBT men are more than twice than likely than non-GBT men.
The LGBTQ+ community has fought long and hard for equal treatment under the law – to be able to marry and have the legal recognition, status, protections, and benefits that come with marriage, to have parental rights, to keep our jobs, to serve our country openly, and to not be arrested for being gay or lesbian.
In the early 2000’s, my partner and I wanted to have children. At that time, because we could not legally marry, the non-biological parent in a same sex relationship had to petition to adopt the child in order to have parental rights. However, many states, including my home state of Pennsylvania, did not permit second-parent adoptions. Some states, such as New Jersey, did allow the non-biological parent to adopt, and New Jersey law permitted any adult from any state to petition for adoption within 90 days of the child’s birth in New Jersey. So, by finding an obstetrician in New Jersey and driving at least an hour each way for every appointment, I was able to adopt my own children. That meant I had to hire a lawyer, get fingerprinted, have a criminal background investigation completed, and have an adoption counselor inspect my house and interview me to make sure I was a fit parent and could provide a safe home environment. And don’t think it was a rubber-stamp process, because it wasn’t. It was invasive. It was embarrassing. It was expensive. It was offensive. It was shameful.
In an ultimate display of absurdity, I have a friend whose fertilized eggs were implanted in her partner. Her partner gave birth and was thus legally the biological mother. My friend then had to petition the court to adopt the children who were actually biologically her own children.
In 2003, around the same time that I was going through the process to adopt my first child, I was an associate in a Philadelphia firm that had about 165 lawyers. I was the only openly LGBTQ+ attorney in the firm. The firm required all attorneys to attend a diversity training. At that time, it was intended more to protect against liability than to foster equality and inclusion, but it was still a good thing. That is, until a senior partner stood and proclaimed: “You can tell me I can’t discriminate against Black people, and you can tell me I can’t discriminate against women, but my God commands me to discriminate against sodomites.” In a room full of lawyers, no one said a word. In fact, as a lesbian, I could be legally and openly discriminated against by my employer until June 2020 – two years ago – when the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Title VII’s workplace protections applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.
On, September 20, 2011, the legislature finally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which had been the official United States policy on military service of non-heterosexual people since 1994. The policy prohibited people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the United States military because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was officially repealed in 2011, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which the federal government enacted in 1996 and defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, was still the law of the land and meant that, although and service members could, theoretically, serve openly, their partners were barred from access to the same benefits afforded to heterosexual couples, such as base access, health care, and military pay, including family separation allowance and Basic Allowance for Housing with dependents. Additionally, while service members could serve openly, sodomy remained statutorily illegal in the Armed Forces until 2013.
In June 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states. However, even though “gay marriage” has been legally recognized for seven years, many family lawyers still recommend that same-sex parents go through the adoption process to protect against the threatened attack on gay marriage.
As you are probably aware, in his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, published on June 24, 2022, almost seven years to the day after Obergefell was published, Justice Clarence Thomas urged the Court to “reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents,” specifically including Obergefell. Many in my community fear that this was just the endorsement that opponents of gay marriage have hoped for since 2015. Indeed, several lawmakers have already stated that they will enforce their state’s laws banning gay marriage, much in the way at least thirteen states had “trigger laws” in place to immediately ban abortion following Dobbs.
In response to Justice Thomas’s remarks, and in an attempt to preempt the Supreme Court being asked to reconsider Obergefell, in July the House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill intended to codify federal marriage equality. However, the bill faces strong opposition in the Senate when it is put to vote, and my community faces the very real possibility that we may lose this right and once again be considered “less than.”
So, while the LGBTQ+ community no doubt made significant progress in the first 20 years of this century, this progress is continually under attack, and my community fears that we are in a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario. In just the first six months of 2022, even before Dobbs, we have seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed, much of which is targeted at my transgender brothers and sisters. These include an Alabama law criminalizing medical care for transgender youth, a Utah ban on transgender girls participating in school sports, and Florida’s law limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.
In addition to this wave of recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, many states continue to criminalize same-sex relationships. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas made sodomy laws unenforceable. However, many states have refused to repeal or amend their statutes that make same-sex relations criminal acts. Until 2013, Montana’s definition of “deviate sexual conduct” included “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex,” and sodomy was still illegal in the US Armed Forces. That same year, Virginia finally repealed its “lewd and lascivious cohabitation statute.” However, to date, 14 states have not yet formally repealed their laws against same-sex sexual activity among consenting adults. Often, the state’s sodomy law was drafted to include other forms of “deviant” sexual conduct such as bestiality, and states have made no attempt to separate them. Eleven states – Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina – still have statutes banning all forms of sodomy regardless of the participants’ genders, and three states – Kansas, Kentucky, and Texas – specifically target their statutes at same-sex relations only.
While you might think these laws are not enforced, and cannot be enforced under Lawrence, I note that Lawrence was one of the other decisions Justice Thomas suggested should be reconsidered in his Dobbs concurrence (meaning that two of the three decisions Justice Thomas wants to overturn are directed at the LGBTQ+ community). In response, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would defend the Texas law banning same-sex relations if the Supreme Court overturns Lawrence.
This is, in my opinion, one of the most critical times in LGBTQ+ history and the fight for equality. I am thrilled that DRI is fully committed to Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in particular has provided a safe, warm, and welcoming space for me and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
We all have a story to tell, and I thank you for taking the time to read mine. This is just part of one white lesbian’s story. LGBTQ+ people of color and those with disabilities face even more discrimination, financial instability, and threats of violence.
As a women and minority-owned law firm, Devine Timoney Law Group has a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to building a firm that reflects our society and embraces and celebrates the unique perspectives of our colleagues and our clients.