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The Unlikeliest Gay Rights Leader in Texas

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Anne Wynne says she's not surprised she became a gay rights leader, but it's still a heck of a story. It's not every day that a rich girl from one of the most segregated enclaves in Texas grows up to be a divorce lawyer with a husband, three kids, and a passion to make sure that gay people have rights, too.

"I think I just came into this world noticing how people treated each other," she said. "We knew what bussing was long before anyone else did, because the grandson of our maid walked to the corner every morning and got on a bus to go to school in South Dallas, while I walked two blocks to our neighborhood school."

Growing up in a home in which the maid wasn't allowed to pee (she had a separate apartment off the garage) gave Wynne a rooting interest in civil rights that led to law school and politics. Texas Governor Ann Richards made her the first woman to serve on the General Services Commission and later the Texas Transportation Commission. Richards also introduced her to the man who became her husband, Fred Ellis, then one of her fundraisers and now a TV writer. After Democrats were exiled in the 1994 elections, Ellis and Wynne got busy raising three children and building their careers. As she later said, "Rights for gay people weren't on my radar screen."

But in 2004 Wynne watched in shock as Republicans passed same-sex marriage bans by easy margins in 11 states.

"I was like, 'My goodness, where are the people who think like my husband and I do?'" said Wynne. She tried to find a group for straight people that stood up for gays and lesbians but had to start her own. She named it Atticus Circle, after her favorite fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch, the quiet lawyer who stood up to the lynch mob in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It might sound strange for a divorce lawyer (whose firm, by the way, handled my divorce) to campaign for gay marriage, but her expertise in family law clued her into the fact that hundreds of thousands of gay people were creating their own families, marriage certificate or no marriage certificate.

"I started seeing some family law cases come down where same-gender couples were splitting up. We wouldn't let them get divorced, because we wouldn't let them get married, but they were having children and they were splitting up. The parent who was on the birth certificate was saying to the parent who wasn't, 'You're never going to see your kid again!'" remembered Wynne. "When you start thinking about kids not having any rights because of the prejudices of the grownups, it's just like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa! I gotta go get involved.'"

Her career as a gay rights leader has produced some surprising successes. She orchestrated the lobbying effort that resulted in Governor Rick Perry signing two anti-bullying bills to protect gay kids. And Wynne just came off a six-year stint on the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where she worked to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

You might not know it from watching the Republican presidential primary, but Americans are increasingly blasé about two dudes getting married. Back when Wynne was throwing up her hands in 2004, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage. But a year ago, the polling had swung the other way, and now 53 percent favor what Wynne and other advocates call "marriage equality."

"That doesn't mean that it's over by any means, because every day that somebody goes to bed and worries whether they're gonna get fired because of who they love, or their family isn't worth as much as mine, you don't stop," said Wynne.

Her next fight is to make it illegal to fire someone just because they're gay. That's legal in 29 states, where gay employees have fewer rights than American soldiers had before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed. Ironically, Republicans such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) want to use "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" model to deal with workplace discrimination of gays and lesbians. Stay in the closet and no one gets fired.

"Plenty of work to be done," said Wynne.

I wouldn't bet against the divorce lawyer who grew up in a house so divided the maid couldn't use the toilet she was cleaning.