LGBT advocates laud gay Judge Tonya Parker’s decision not to perform marriages, but she calls resulting media attention ‘an incredible distraction’
A week after making national headlines over her refusal to marry straight couples until marriage equality arrives in Texas, openly gay Dallas County District Judge Tonya Parker is focusing on the work in her courtroom.
The national attention brought hundreds of emails, creating an “incredible distraction from my duties with the court,” Parker said, declining to do a longer interview with Dallas Voice. “I don’t want to distract from doing the things I am responsible for.”
Parker, who is the first openly LGBT person elected judge in Dallas County and is believed to be the first openly LGBT African-American elected official in the state’s history, told an audience at a Stonewall Democrats of Dallas meeting on Feb. 21 that she doesn’t — and won’t — conduct marriage ceremonies until same-sex couples can legally wed in the state.
Parker said she refers couples to other judges to perform the ceremonies because “it’s kind of oxymoronic for me to perform ceremonies that can’t be performed for me” and uses it “as my opportunity to give them a lesson about marriage inequality in this state because I feel like I have to tell them why I’m turning them away.”
The Dallas Voice YouTube video of Parker’s comments at the meeting reached more than 27,000 views in a week and hundreds of stories — from the Washington Post and the New York Daily News to London’s Daily Mail — mentioned Parker’s comments, leading to the massive number of media calls and emails to her office.
Responding to supportive and critical comments, Parker posted a statement on her Facebook page on Saturday, Feb. 25, stating that “Nothing would demean the integrity of our courts and judiciary more than if I went around believing and, worse, acting as if I am ‘above the law.’ I do not and am not. Simply put, I am not required to perform marriage ceremonies. As a civil district judge, I have that privilege. I have not exercised, and will not exercise the privilege as long as the state law limits my ability to conduct the ceremonies equally.”
According to Chapter 3 of the Texas Family Code, a district judge is among the judges and religious leaders allowed to perform marriages and “may conduct the marriage ceremony.”
The term “may” is defined in the terminology section of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct as a term that “denotes permissible discretion or, depending on the context, refers to action that is not covered by specific proscriptions.”
When asked about the Facebook statement, Parker said she wanted “to just make sure that people understand that I don’t view myself as being above the law and just to respond to that because I’m very troubled by any perception that I am doing something that flies in the face of my oath and my duty to apply the law of the state of Texas where I have a duty,” she said.
“I just want people to understand that I’m not violating the law and I think that my initial statement, as well as the one I posted on Saturday on Facebook, I think that well explains where I am on those two things.”
Despite repeated requests, Parker has never agreed to do an in-depth interview with Dallas Voice, either before or since being elected in 2010.
Parker also isn’t believed to have sought an endorsement from the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs openly LGBT candidates nationwide.
She does now appear on the group’s list of out officials, who are placed there if the Victory Fund confirms that they are out or if a news article mentions them being open, spokesman Denis Dison said.
The organization that backs LGBT candidates is projected to endorse a record number of 200 LGBT candidates this year, up from 164 in 2010 and 112 in 2008, and has already selected 77 to endorse, Dison said.
“Our numbers have been going up consistently,” he said. “And you just have more candidates running who are running openly now.”
Declining to comment on whether Parker sought the Victory Fund’s endorsement in 2010 because the group doesn’t talk about candidates until they’re endorsed, Dison said candidates are always encouraged to be honest when questions of their sexual orientation arise — before moving on to talking about the issues.
“The overall advice is to remember that you’re running to represent an entire community and the things that matter to that community are the things that are going to get you elected,” he said.
During her remarks at Stonewall Democrats last week, Parker also said she adds the term “partner” to the Supreme Court directions for jurors that outline that they cannot discuss cases with their husband or wife, something Harris County 215th District Court Judge Steven Kirkland said he also does.
Kirkland, the only other out district judge in Texas, was a municipal court judge in Houston from 2001 until he was elected as a district judge in 2008, with support from the Victory Fund. He is also among the four Texas candidates out of the 77 the group has endorsed this year.
Kirkland said he’s never heard of any judge, gay or straight, declining to perform marriages. He said he’s conducted marriages in the past because many of the couples were friends.
“I do that as a gift to them,” he said. “It’s something that I can give them and I’m happy to do it and I love being a part of that process.”
While “judges have an obligation to make sure the courtroom procedures and proceedings are done in an unbiased manner,” Kirkland said Parker “found a really eloquent way to make a point on marriage equality and I applaud her eloquence.”
He said he conducts his courtroom with inclusiveness and often speaks to student groups about being an out judge as his way to help the LGBT community.
“Each of us have our own path to walk, our own way of being a judge, and each of us have our own way of contributing to our community as a judge and I’m proud of Tonya for picking her way,” Kirkland said.
Openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who works closely with judges and oversees court records, said he supports the efforts of LGBT officials to address LGBT issues affecting part of their constituency.
“It is important to have people within the institution, within the political subdivision, who are willing to say, ‘Hey, this is important. This needs to be done,’ and make it an issue,” he said.
Fitzsimmons was endorsed by the Victory Fund in 2006 and again in 2010, and he was the first Dallas County department head to implement a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation after coming into office in 2007. He added transgender employees to the policy a year later, he said. He’s also been an outspoken advocate for Dallas County to add domestic partnership benefits.
“I’m not making laws and those kinds of things, but I’m part of the county establishment,” he said of his influence.
Calling the authority to perform marriage ceremonies in Texas “inherently discriminatory,” Fitzsimmons said Parker has a choice about whether to do so.
“You can’t fault her for that. It’s pretty gutsy to be out there and do that, so I think the community is justifiably proud of her and proud of her gutsiness,” he said. “Not everybody would do that, so it speaks to her character and it speaks very well of her character.”
Lesbian activist Pam Gerber has known Parker for about seven years through their involvement in Stonewall Democrats together. Gerber said she is “consistently impressed with [Parker’s] factualness and her pragmatism,” calling the judge’s decision one of “the utmost integrity.”
The risk that the decision will possibly harm her at re-election time is slight, Gerber said, as Parker’s stand is “very consistent.”
“I think that if she runs for office, she might lose a few votes, but those are votes that she probably wouldn’t want to have anyways,” she said.
Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas, met Parker nine years ago at a Lambda Legal event and said she’s probably garnered support among allies from the widespread news, adding that marriage equality cannot be won “with just gay votes alone.”
“It did not surprise me at all,” Coleman said of Parker’s stand. “I always found Tonya to be a very smart and articulate woman and lawyer and a very strong advocate, not only for LGBT issues but also for other issues. I’m very proud to know her and for what she’s doing.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.