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William S. Singer

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Reflections on 30-Plus Years As an Out Gay Lawyer

Posted: 03/26/2012 4:10 pm

In January 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union (New Jersey) announced that it is awarding me its Bill of Rights Award for my legal work. About a month later, the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Section of the New Jersey Bar Association unanimously awarded me its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. The unexpected honor of receiving two awards for my legal work for the LGBT community compelled me to reflect on my career as an attorney.

The arc of my career in some ways reflects the evolution of the modern LGBT movement. When I started my legal career in 1971, gay men and lesbians were scorned and lived in the shadows. Our sexual orientation was criminalized and pathologized. No one even discussed the existence of transgender individuals. Aware of my same-sex attraction since childhood, I never felt that I could live a fulfilled, happy existence as an openly gay man. As a result, I married a woman in 1970 (just after the watershed Stonewall riot) and pursued my legal career. In 1973 another lawyer and I opened our own law firm. With some luck and hard work, the firm prospered and grew to eight lawyers.

But by 1981 I realized that ultimately I would regret not owning up to who I am and that I could no longer live a fictitious life. By making a decision to "come out" as a gay man, I understood that I would lose my marriage and possibly my position as a partner in the law firm, as well as family and friends. Ultimately, all these forecasts came true. When my law partners realized that I had left my wife because I was gay, I was expelled from the law firm. At that time, unlike today, there was no state law protecting me from such overt discrimination. Reflecting on that event 30 years later, I can better understand the fear of my partners and how having a gay law partner in a small law firm in a semi-rural part of New Jersey was threatening to them. Yes, it would have been nice of them to have been courageous, and today it might have unfolded differently. At the time, though, I simply moved my office down the road and started building my practice all over again, eventually working with a law partner who is generous in spirit.

That was in the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was emerging. In response, I helped found the Hyacinth Foundation to assist people living with AIDS. I started its legal committee and did deathbed wills in hospitals throughout New Jersey and New York City. I earned the moniker "The Angel of Death," as my presence at a patient's bedside meant his remaining time was short.

During the late 1980s, I became the General Counsel to the fledging National LGBT Bar Association, which is now a thriving nonprofit and affiliate of the American Bar Association. As a sole practitioner out in the "sticks" of New Jersey, that position gave me the opportunity to connect with other lesbian and gay attorneys around the country and not feel so isolated. I have now served as General Counsel for 24 years.

I love being a lawyer, much more than I ever expected. As a gay man, I have been able to use my skills to help my community, not just in New Jersey but also in states more hostile to our community. For example, I counsel female same-sex couples who are creating their family and live in hostile states to come to New Jersey to deliver their child. We can obtain a birth certificate naming them both as parents. Even more importantly, the parents are able to complete a confirmatory adoption. As a result, when they return to their home state, they have a judicial order entitled to full faith and credit by the United States Constitution. One of my clients called this process "the underground birth canal."

I have also assisted out-of-state couples who came to New Jersey to do civil unions. When their relationships ended, they were unable to terminate them in their home state. States make it easy to get married, but they have lengthy residency requirements to obtain a judicial termination of the union. These couples become "wedlocked." Under the right circumstances, I have been able to convince a judge to use his or her equitable powers to waive the residency requirement and give a couple a termination of their New Jersey civil union.

The one achievement of which I am the proudest is my creation of the LGBT Family Law Institute. FLI is an annual meeting of vetted, seasoned attorneys in LGBT family law. We are having our fourth meeting this year. FLI attracts attorneys from throughout the United States, as well as from western Europe. The sessions are closed-door and off-the-record. It gives us an opportunity to network and share strategies. We also have an active listserve that helps connect attorneys, particularly those living outside metropolitan areas, who have that same sense of isolation that I had. I receive a great sense of gratification reading posts from attorneys in rural areas or hostile states who express their appreciation for their ability to use this forum to discuss issues with others and to counter their sense of loneliness.

Some people think that I am special, having been an out gay lawyer for so many years. But as I remember all my colleagues who died during the AIDS holocaust, I know that were they still alive, my story would not be unique.

Reflecting on these accomplishments, I realize that these awards are not capping a lifetime of work. Rather, they are reinvigorating me and refreshing my sense of purpose.