Wednesday, 06 October 2010 20:23

Section J: A Journey for Justice in Tennessee

Written by  Angel Chandler


In May of 2007 I entered into the beginning of a lengthy legal battle with Chancellor George Ellis that has yet to be resolved; a battle over my partner's right to live with me and my children.

Our story started in 1997 when I met my partner, Mary, while I was working at a bookstore. We started out as friends and have been a committed couple since 1998. We had our shares of ups and downs, as every couple does, and we managed to build a stable and loving relationship. We were both social workers, working mainly with at-risk youth, Mary a child counselor and crisis worker and I working with foster children and children in residential facilities, so neither one of us were strangers to handling tough problems and looking out for the best interest of children. Mary had known my children since my daughter was 2 and my son 4 years old and had a positive relationship with both.

I lived in Trenton, Tennessee when the court battle started, a small conservative town in Gibson County, approximately an hour from Memphis. Trenton is similar to many small southern towns where the baptist church is at the center of community events; large crowds gather to support and celebrate their local high school football team, but where few celebrate diversity. There are three kinds of people in most of these small towns: whites; blacks; and outsiders, the category LGBTs fall into. Most LGBT in Trenton and places like it are not out of the closet, even with one another. So, for Trenton to be at the center of a gay rights battle was strange, but fitting.

The battle began when my two children's father and I had worked out a simple change of custody/visitation. We had one attorney who made the necessary changes to an old parenting plan from another county in Tennessee. However, when I reviewed the plan before signing it I noticed an added section, "Section J", which specified the inclusion of a "Paramour Clause". A paramour clause by definition is a local court rule which, when entered into a parenting plan, prevents anyone who is in a relationship with the parent from staying overnight in the presence of the children between the hours of 11:00 pm and 7:00 am who the parent is not married to, which in Tennessee would apply to all gays and lesbians. Upon objecting to the inclusion of the clause and refusing to sign it, I was told that Chancellor Ellis, the presiding judge in Gibson County and the Chancellor for a four county district, had ordered all parenting plans in Gibson County and any county under his jurisdiction to have the paramour clause included, without exception. Since our previous parenting plan was from another area of Tennessee I had no idea that this was a requirement for the Chancellor. Outraged that such a intrusive and fundamentalist "rule" existed, I hired an attorney and began fighting for the right for my family to stay together. As the case continued and looked more and more bleak, I began contacting numerous organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who took my case. Christine Sun, Southeastern Regional Senior Counsel for the ACLU's LGBT Project, took on my case in 2008 and has been fighting for the right for my partner and my children to be in the same home ever since. Ms. Sun has been lead attorney in many high profile gay and lesbian cases including the case of Constance McMillan (the high school student in Mississippi who was not allowed to take her girlfriend to the prom), and was the recipient of the Best LGBT Lawyer Under 40 award by The National LGBT Bar Association in 2010. We were in the best of hands and knowing that was one of the few things that kept us moving forward during the entire ordeal.

Before the first hearing in 2007 I had high hopes. I believed that if the judge knew the whole story he would not require such a restriction on our lives. If I could show that I had a stable, loving, long-term relationship with someone whom my children were bonded with then the only choice he would have would be to remove the paramour clause. The only reasonable thing was for the judge to recognize that stability is paramount for a child as is having as many positive influences as possible involved with their care. I kept believing, regardless of the evidence in front of me, that the judge wouldn't actually split my family up, especially since the children's father did not ask for it and had no objection to my relationship. I was wrong. One hearing after another, my "lifestyle" was scrutinized, I was told that I would do what the judge wanted or I was "choosing your libido over your children", and I was silenced in the courtroom, not given the right to speak or testify until the last hearing in 2010. When I asked to testify, to tell my side of the story, I was told by my attorney that the judge had made it clear: if I put my testimony on record, he would rule against me, and I was advised not to "push" the judge.

The case continued and Chancellor Ellis ordered complete psychological examinations for all four parental figures and my two children. I held out every hope that my partner and I would come through in a positive light and the judge would be forced to remove the restriction from the parenting plan. However, the results came back and, although my partner and I both did get glowing results in our individual assessments, in observations regarding our relationship and my partner's relationship and interactions with my children, the judge continued with the inclusion of the paramour clause, stating that it was Tennessee law that the paramour clause be included, regardless of the results of the psychological examinations.

The ACLU took over the case and appealed the judge’s ruling, stating that no law existed that requires a paramour clause in parenting plans. One year later the appellate court in Memphis, TN came back with a ruling. It was a unanimous decision in my favor. The court clearly stated that no law exists which states a paramour clause has to be added to parenting plans and that paramour clauses can only be added to parenting plans when it is clearly shown to be in the best interest of the children on a case-by-case basis. The appellate court sent the case back to the lower court in Gibson County, back to Chancellor Ellis' courtroom, ordering him to review the case again and to decide if there was evidence that the paramour clause was in the best interest of the children. By this time I knew there was little hope that the judge would rule in my favor, despite the evidence.

In March 2010 I went back to Gibson County to testify for the first time (despite several court appearances and multiple hearings I was never allowed to speak, even when I had requested to and once when I insisted I was told by my attorney that the judge had stated to my attorney that if I testified he would rule against me). The case was presented by the ACLU, the positive psychological examinations re-entered into evidence, and the argument made for my partner, my children, and me to rebuilding the life that the judge took away from us. However, after hearing all the evidence, none of which identified any reason for a paramour clause to be included, and after the children's father's attorney on record having no objection to the paramour clause being excluded from the parenting plan, Chancellor Ellis ruled against us. In his decision he twisted my testimony, stated that I had testified my family unit consisted of my partner only and not my children (which was totally false), and stated that the children were damaged by my relationship. He re-entered the paramour clause to the parenting plan, once again criminalizing my relationship.

Again, the ACLU appealed, and again the appellate court ruled in my favor in July of 2010 in what the media called a "Landmark lawsuit" as the story made its way around the media across Tennessee, North Carolina, and many online news outlets including The Advocate. The appellate court cited the positive psychological examinations as evidence that the paramour clause was not in my children's best interest. The appellate court's decision (Barker vs. Chandler 2010) made it clear to all courts across Tennessee that ruling against the best interest of the children and ignoring the law will not be tolerated, especially to simply satisfy one's own agenda. More importantly, the court's decision made clear that a person's sexuality does not constitute bad influence or a bad environment.

My case is an example of a trend that has been prevalent in many small southern towns and across the country of judges taking control of people's lives, separating stable couples, removing role-models and caregivers out of children's daily lives, and putting a financial strain on couples who are forced to maintain two households simply because they are LGBT and don't have the right to marry. What is more frightening and outrageous is the system itself that allows people like Chancellor Ellis to take power and impose their own bigotry from the bench with the only recourse being a lengthy and quite expensive appeal. Justice is reserved for the wealthy, or those who have an organization such as the ACLU go to battle for them as I fortunately did.

We often hear about many kinds of discrimination and I, as a lesbian, have faced many of them as most of us have: discrimination in the workforce; harassment; bullying; etc. What I found particularly vile about this form of discrimination was that this one individual, Chancellor Ellis, had so much control over my life and was policing my behavior, my relationship, my family, what and who I was in the privacy of my home for no reason other than prevalent homophobia that is not only tolerated but encouraged in many places.  I, and countless others, owe a great deal of gratitude to the ACLU and other organizations like it who are leading the battle for LGBT rights.

My partner and I moved to Asheville, NC where we found an open and affirming community. West Tennessee was no longer an option for us, even though both of us grew up very close to the area. My children both stayed in Tennessee with their father and I have been driving to Tennessee regularly to visit with them. My children are now 15 and 17 years old. My son is in his senior year in high school and will be attending college next fall.

Regardless of the appellate court's ruling, the judge has yet to sign the parenting plan. In fact, he refuses to do so. The ACLU attorneys continue to work with the judge to attempt to resolve the issue without further appeals. However, I have accepted that this is unlikely to happen. With the appellate court's ruling my partner and children are now allowed to be in the home together regardless of whether or not Chancellor Ellis decides to do what is right and sign the parenting plan minus the paramour clause. This Christmas will be the first time my children and my partner will be in the same home at night for over three years.