by Julie Currin, Esq.
To begin to learn more about this diverse community, I did several immersion exercises. I took a few days to binge-watch all the current episodes on the NETFLIX series “Queer Eye”. In this series, five fabulous gay and/or transgender men help a nominated “hero” take a step forward in self-esteem, fashion, grooming, and furnishings. Recently, they worked in Japan which added a new cultural dimension to the prior stories based in Philadelphia, PA, a couple of Georgia cities, and a few more places in the Southeast United States. I also read a Gender memoir by Jacob Tobias called “Sissy” about growing up gender non-conforming and nonbinary. I attended a web-based continuing legal education program for LGBTQ+ Visibility Week on Seminal LGBTQ+ legal cases in the U.S. and U.K. and I did online research for tools used by clinicians with this population.
My study was designed around several same-sex marriages that were just now beginning the process of divorce in Virginia. I wanted to find out the historical background of our clients to include family makeup, religiousness, coming out narrative, activism, trauma assessment (PTSD), basic alcohol screening and where indicated, suicide risk. Then I wanted to answer two questions for use by the law firm where I am employed. First, did the client feel accepted and treated with respect? And second, how did the client feel the legal system was working for them as these are some of the first same-sex marriages interfacing with Virginia’s divorce laws.
Same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia on October 6, 2014, in the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case of Bostic v. Schaefer. Yet it wasn’t until February 2019 that the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to explicitly and legally include surrogacy contracts for same-sex couples. In these intervening years, no changes were made to divorce law in the Commonwealth that might specifically address specific LGBTQ+ case differences. So how is the old law working for same-sex couples in divorce?
D, a 25-year-old white male who identifies as homosexual was born in Georgia. He described his childhood as “traditional” although his parents were unmarried. He attended church in his early years but did not feel his family held any strong religious beliefs. He spent developmental years 6-12 in a group home along with 2 maternal brothers and one sister due to his mother’s mental health issues. It was only after many narrative questions, when an open-ended catchall inquiry was made, that molestation by a maternal uncle at age 4-5 and by a teenage boy at age 6 was disclosed as “maybe impacting his sexuality.” D is in the Navy and did not self-identify as gay until approximately 16. He hid this since he attended a “ghetto” school which he defined as a lot of fights, nearby gunshots, and violence. He first came out at 19 and first told his father at the age of 20. He waited longer because his Dad had made unaccepting comments about a lesbian step-sibling and he felt he would be kicked out of the house. He told his father when he was leaving for boot camp and so was out of the house. His father was upset and took months to get over it. His mother was more accepting, as were a younger half-brother and a maternal aunt. He does not feel that his Navy career has been impacted by this life choice. He presented as very easy-going, described himself as a “clean freak” who generally laughs off or lets slide offensive gay slurs or jokes. He did not scale for alcohol abuse, briefly overusing at home between 20 to 22, nor for PTSD or suicide risk. He does not engage in activism.
The AUDIT-C or Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Concise was utilized for all participants. I also used the PCL-C or PTSD Checklist – Civilian Version and standard questions about suicidal ideation, any prior attempts, and current thought patterns.
The main reason D feels his marriage did not last had to do with his mate not making the effort to be included in D’s extended family and feeling financially taken advantage of. He did not feel in any way judged by the staff at our law firm nor did he feel that the legal system was working any differently for him than a straight couple.
Having been the attorney working with D, these were not surprising results. However, the late in the interview disclosure of youthful sexual exploitation made me aware of how important open-ended catchall questions can be in a narrative approach.
My next participant was E, a 32-year-old Black Navy man born in Kingston, Jamaica. E told me that childhood abuse was normalized in Jamaica during his early years. He described being beat with paddles and belts. He felt his father beat him more because he liked boys and tried to “beat it out of him” including hitting him with tree limbs, throwing stones at him, and punching him in the stomach. He recognized his sexuality early at age 5 or 6, had his first experiences about 11 or 12, and at the age of 14 came out and was rejected by both parents initially. One sister was accepting. He feels he had to hide his inner self and be hypermasculine which caused great psychic stress culminating in two suicide attempts in his early twenties. Even now, E experiences psychosomatic reactions. He said it is not easy being gay and Black, that it is stressful. He struggles with self-acceptance and feeling worthy of God’s love as a result of his family upbringing and religious indoctrination. These are still impactful. He does not abuse alcohol. He feels African-Americans are less tolerant of homosexuality and that the church is hypocritical. Because he is in the military, he continues to have to restrain his normal reactions to gay-bashing and feels that overt instances of public discrimination have increased under the current President. He has symptoms of PTSD. He uses exercise as a coping mechanism.
E is married to a Muslim born in Senegal who has not come out yet to his family. He feels two masculine gay men have a harder time making a relationship work like his marriage. Although they began a divorce, E and his spouse are pausing in that process to try to work things out. He felt accepted and not judged coming to our law firm for help. He does not perceive at this stage of litigation that the legal system has treated his case any differently. He would like me to interview his spouse.
S is a 47-year-old white Bisexual female born in California. She is highly educated and very verbal. She describes herself as a “nerd jock.” She has a degree in Psychology and teaches middle school health science/gym. S has had significant relationships with men but leans more toward women. She too has a military background. She felt the need to hide her sexual identity when stationed overseas and when teaching in rural Virginia. She feels accepted at the school where she teaches now. She did not have a strong religious upbringing. She did not screen in for alcohol abuse. She does have symptoms of PTSD, including memory problems when highly stressed, anxiety and depression.
S married cross-culturally, an Asian woman with medical issues and raging tantrums. After 9 years together and despite couples counseling and in-home separation, the parties are in an acrimonious divorce at this time. There are accusations of adultery and domestic violence. S feels the Courts treated her request for a protective order differently than in male/female cases. Although she felt accepted at our firm, she feels her case is not progressing in the same way traditional couples divorcing would. She feels the length of time it’s taking is traumatic and wonders if her attorney is making the same efforts, filing the same paperwork, pushing as hard in her case as in straight divorces. She is interested in reading the final study paper.
I had hoped to include one more female participant in this first grouping but was not able to schedule the interview before the deadline for this paper. Nor do I include the first interview I reported because it was not as in-depth and did not have the benefit of the tools used in these three cases. Nor was I as immersed in LGBTQ+ issues at the time that I met with the first person.
As the first foray into these issues suggests, there is much we can learn about treating our LGBTQ+ clients with understanding and respect. The truth is that we are “counselors” of law and when we identify issues that impact our client’s directly and potentially their cases, we have a duty to advise. This could go so far as to take the form of a referral for professional counseling assistance but at minimum, we should be including additional questions in our intake documents and interviews to be better stewards of equal justice for all.
Julie Currin, Esq., is an attorney in Virginia Beach.