The most powerful arguments in the California Supreme Court hearing on gay marriage were made by lead attorney Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights – an organization supported by the Haas, Jr. Fund.
“With regards to the question of possible adverse consequences,” said Minter to the assembled justices, “and with apologies to Shakespeare, petitioners have come here today to praise marriage, not to bury it. Petitioners deeply value the tradition of marriage and wish to participate in it with all the joy and responsibility that it brings.”
He concluded with an impassioned plea: “People want to marry the one person they find irreplaceable. We demean ourselves as a society if we do not give people that choice: whom to marry – and whether to marry.”
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Minter’s plaintiffs, stating, through Chief Justice Ronald George: "Our state now recognizes that an individual's capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation.”
The verdict sent shock waves across the country and was cause for jubilation in the LGBT community. For Minter, the “best moment” was seeing the founders of the NCLR so over the moon with joy that some had tears in their eyes.
“Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg founded the NCLR more than 30 years ago, and I’d never seen them looking so happy and proud. It was like seeing your parents that way!” he smiles. “And their focus, then and now, was all about the family – which was alien to the gay experience at the time. They were visionary.”
Soon after the court’s ruling, Minter sat down with the Haas, Jr. Fund to discuss what it meant to him – both professionally and personally. The 47-year-old was exhausted from having gotten only three hours of sleep, having had to file an urgent response to briefs filed by opponents to gay marriage. But he was smiling and comfortable in blue jeans as he put his feet up on the conference table at the NCLR.
“It’s been quite a ride,” he said, in a slight Texas drawl, “Since the victory it’s felt like people are throwing fast balls at my head.”
He ought to be used to it, having 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 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 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Distinguished National Service Award from GAYLAW, Cornell Law School’s Exemplary Public Service Award, the Unity Award from Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, the Advocacy Award from the San Francisco Bar Association, and the Justice Award from Equality California. Shannon also serves on the American Bar Association Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
Having created a national name for himself in the right-to-marry movement, 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, college at University of Texas at Austin, and then law school at Cornell. It was when he was at Cornell, and interning for the NCLR, that Minter started a program to provide assistance to LGBT youth – and 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.
His 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 will be few and far between in the next five months, before the issue goes before voters.
It will be a tough fight, although current polls show that the California electorate is more accepting of gay marriage than ever. Because the NCLR is a non-profit, it survives on donations from organizations that wish to see equal rights for all – organizations like the Haas, Jr. Fund.
“Having support from Haas has been absolutely critical,” enthused Minter. “They get it, they really do. It’s not just about marriage, it’s about dignity and respect – which was the crux of our case.”
He continued, “Those principles are what helped sway the court. I could tell by the way they responded that they had adopted some of our language – by the number of times that they used the words dignity, respect and equal stature of families.”