I first thought I wanted to be a lawyer when I was attending second grade at an elementary school inhabited by a bunch of enlisted military brats on a large military housing unit along the coast of South Carolina.
It was a fleeting thought and left me later that afternoon when I shared it with my parents and my father said ‘Girls don’t do that! That’s a boy’s job!’
I didn’t think about it again until junior college, and it would be at least another 10 years before I thought about it yet again. On this last occasion, I was driven by personal experience and burning desire to stop being limited by what others thought I could or should be doing or not doing.
I was 30 something, had an 8-year-old daughter who I had won custody of in an ugly divorce (my parents gave money to him so that he could get custody of our daughter since I had come out and was a lesbian) and a partner diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer, who was still working for the local paper as a photojournalist.
However, it was painfully obvious to us that the battle would be long, but we would lose our time together eventually.
I was also enrolled in college for the third time pursuing a four-year degree. I was taking accounting classes, and realizing that it wasn’t what I wanted so I changed my major to sociology and asked my partner what she thought about my going to law school.
She was supportive, and I set my trajectory while involving myself in activism for my community in many different projects and organizations.
My partner lived to see me enter law school but passed about two weeks before finals of my first semester. Her father then decided to have an attorney write a nasty letter to me over her camera equipment, photos, and a potential tax refund. I got to keep it all but not without having to hire an attorney to do so.
Thus, I knew what I was doing with my law degree before I attended my first day of orientation. I was going to be a voice in this southern region of oppression for people like me and families like mine.
I practice law in Northeast Florida which is often referred to by locals and visitors alike as Southern Georgia. The indigenous people of the area are accustomed to expressing their differences with the precursor ‘Bless your heart …’ before they stab you with their tongue.
We all know the ‘rules,’ and everyone is expected to observe them. My people are from Savannah, Georgia, and I was raised outside of Charleston, South Carolina, so my childhood was immersed in this aura times then.
Since I am located where the panhandle and peninsula meet, I often jokingly refer to it as the armpit of the south. During dark summer nights when the temperature and humidity are high and my patience with oppression is thin, I often find myself feeling like I am caught in a perpetual headlock.
My life as a lesbian made me an outsider which placed me outside the rules, across the boundaries and forced to live a life driven to always look from the other person’s perspective. Isn’t that what being a good lawyer all about?
I have used this well-honed skill as a family law, estate, and probate attorney. I have shamed other attorneys into doing the right thing in a case, even if the law allows their client to take half the house from their deceased daughter’s partner of 26 years because the backward-thinking title company thought it was a mistake for two women to own a house ‘with joint rights of survivorship.’
I also told this same attorney, I would be more than happy to set a court date in front of the judge so his client could call herself a woman of God and make her argument that it was okay for her not to speak to her daughter for two decades because she was a homosexual, but claim she was entitled to half her home at the same time.
I have filed motions to strike on attorneys who file divorce pleadings against my transgendered clients alleging that my client is wasting marital assets in pursuit of ‘elective’ surgery. These same clients freeze with fear over not just the relationships with their children, but that the threat their parents, aunts, and uncles, etc., will be ‘told about this’ by their now-angry spouse.
I share my own experience of absolute parental and extended family rejection and assure them I am an anomaly and my family is not like theirs, so they can be sure they will not be abandoned.
I also point out that despite my circumstances I have adjusted well and my life has been better than to have had to constantly deal with the bigotry of those who call themselves family but constantly punish you for being who you are.
I have been a quiet pillar of encouragement and present an example to other gay and lesbian parents who find themselves in custody battles with opposite and same-sex parents, as they fear the perceived social biases of judges and opposing counsel. Some of it is justified, much of it is not.
I chose to live my life truthfully many years ago and did not give that up when I became an attorney. I did let my buzz cut of seven years grow out and pulled out my eyebrow ring when I entered law school, but I didn’t give up speaking in a loud voice.
I do not hide my sexual orientation from my clients, many already know having heard of me through the LGBT community grape vine or from a previously satisfied customer. Others suspect and sometimes ask, and others discover it through casual conversation about families, children, and spouses.
The judges in my local area know I am gay and don’t appear to care. There is one I know holds a differing opinion on the matter but is always professional and polite in his dealings with me and my clients and I with him.
I politely disqualify him from any case I may have that even remotely involves an LGBT person, and he politely recuses himself. We politely agree to disagree and see each other as human beings.
Other judges have been supportive to the extent of coming to my defense. One judge actually got up during a dinner CLE at a local Inns of Court meeting and read bar rules about unprofessional behavior when I recounted stories during a diversity training of being addressed by other attorneys as a ‘shim’ (a she/ him), a dyke, and other untoward unprofessional phrases. The judge followed it up with stating that she did not want to hear stories like that from me again.
As a child I kept my head down collecting stray coins from parking lots and store floors hoping to eventually collect enough to buy some cherished item. As an adult I keep my head up with my eyes forward, knowing opportunity is available if you recognize it.
So, I collect my pennies of accomplishment and remember them during disappointments to fuel my drive to continue when all hope appears to be gone.
This is one of many personal stories from LGBT lawyers that appears in Out and About: The LGBT Experience in the Legal Profession – a new publication from the American Bar Association (ABA), in collaboration with The LGBT Bar. More information on Carrington M. Mead, at carringtonmead.com