From Personal Triumph to Public Victory

Working at the center of the high-profile fight for gay and lesbian rights and marriage equality doesn’t appear to be a source of stress for Shannon Minter.  He has fought uphill – and very public – battles his entire life. To name but two: when Sharon Smith’s partner, Diane Whipple, was mauled to death in 2001 by a dog, he fought–and won–her right to file a groundbreaking wrongful death suit. He also defended the rights of a transgender father, Michael Kantaras, in a custody battle waged entirely on Court TV.

In 2005, Minter was one of only 18 recipients of the Ford Foundation's "Leadership for a Changing World" award. He was also awarded an honorary degree from the City University of New York School of Law, the Anderson Prize Foundation's Creating Change Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and numerous other honors. Shannon also serves on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

Having created a national name for himself in the marriage equality movement as legal director with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Minter admits that the fact that he’s married to a woman raises eyebrows. But that’s because most people don’t know his own life story, which is as dramatic and courageous as some of the cases he’s represented.

Born in a small East Texas town as a female Shannon, Minter self-identified as a lesbian in high school, went to college at University of Texas at Austin, and then law school at Cornell. It was when he was at Cornell, and interning for NCLR, that Minter started a program to provide assistance to LGBT youth. During this time, he also came to terms with his own transsexuality, although he did not have reassignment surgery until four years later.

“Like so many transgender young people,” he said, “I never felt quite at home in my own skin. It was a real internal struggle.” It was during this time that Minter’s parents disowned him.

“They told me to never come home again,” he said. “We didn’t even speak for seven years.”

He especially missed his elderly grandmother, with whom Minter had always been close.

Minter’s sexual reassignment surgery was completed in San Francisco during his years of excommunication from his family, so they did not know that he was now a male. Soon after surgery, he met Robin Gilbrecht, a single mother and executive director of Heads-Up, a mentoring organization in Washington, D.C. They decided to marry in 2001. It was a decision that changed his life in more ways than one.

“I decided I would ask my favorite aunt and uncle to come out for the wedding,” he said. “And they were wonderful – totally embraced me for who I was.”

Minter’s uncle died suddenly after the wedding, and Minter’s cousin decided that he couldn’t take the silence in the family any longer. “He told everyone who I’d become, and how’d I’d gotten married,” said Minter. “After that, they were back in contact with me and I got to go home for the first time in seven years and see everyone.”

He paused, unable to speak as he fought tears. “My grandma held out her arms and just hugged me.”

The turning point, he said, was his marriage.

“Marriage provides the kind of common vocabulary that everyone can understand. When people ask what a married man knows about not being able to get married, I tell them I know a lot. Marriage has been transformative in my life.”

He smiled, allowing himself to enjoy the moment. But quiet moments are few and far between for Minter, whose work at NCLR makes him a critical player in the movement as it charts the path to full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. 

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund has supported NCLR’s work for more than a decade. In addition to providing grants for the group’s core operations, the Fund has provided extensive leadership development support to and her staff through the Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) program.

“Having support from the Haas, Jr. Fund has been absolutely critical,” enthused Minter. “They get it, they really do. It’s not just about marriage, it’s about dignity and respect.”

Marriage provides the kind of common vocabulary that everyone can understand. When people ask what a married man knows about not being able to get married, I tell them I know a lot. Marriage has been transformative in my life.
- Shannon Minter
  Legal Director, NCLR