How Penn Law Became One of the Nation’s Most Gay-Friendly Schools

Dee Spagnuolo L'03 (left) and partner Sasha Ballen have their hands full with three active children. Beau, 3 (on top); Elio, 6; and Marina, 6. Sagnuolo, a former Penn Law class president, and Ballen are fighting the State of Pennsylvania's effort to revoke their marriage license. Photo by Carly Teitelbaum.

Dee Spagnuolo L’03 (left) and partner Sasha Ballen have their hands full with three active children. Beau, 3 (on top); Elio, 6; and Marina, 6. Sagnuolo, a former Penn Law class president, and Ballen are fighting the State of Pennsylvania’s effort to revoke their marriage license. Photo by Carly Teitelbaum.

THE STORY HAS become something of a legend, told around the table every year at an annual chili supper for Penn Law’s gay and lesbian population that’s hosted by Dean of Students Gary Clinton and his partner, attorney Don Millinger L’79. It begins like many a hand-me-down tale: On a sleety, snowy February night in 1994, Clinton says he, Millinger and guests were ladling chili and passing around drinks when they noticed a fellow student peering through the front window. Sensing his hesitation to come in, Clinton threw on a jacket so he could go out to ask the straggler why he was waiting out in the cold.

“I’ve never been to a gay party before,” the young man answered, shivering.

“What are you looking at?” asked Clinton, slipping into his daytime role as student caretaker. “What does it look like to you?

“It looks like a bunch of people having dinner.”

This rather obvious reply was a clear sign for Clinton that the guy was all but begging for someone to tell him it was OK to go inside. The story ends on a happy note: He joined the party, the chili was delicious and within a year he was climbing the officer ranks in Penn’s LGBT group Lambda Law.

Students who hear this tale today listen with mouths agape, baffled that a gay Penn student would be ambivalent about attending a gay party. After all, they do go to a school that is renowned for its LGBT-inclusiveness. (In the past decade, media outlets like Newsweek and The Advocate have consistently ranked it as the most gay-friendly university in the nation.) But that’s why Clinton continues to keep the story in rotation, to remind students that — much like America’s gay rights movement — Penn Law’s journey to becoming the rainbow-flag-waving institution it is today “is really about an evolution and not a revolution.”

HE AND MILLINGER arrived at Penn Law in 1976 to nary an LGBT presence. “Don, as far as we know, was the first openly gay man here,” Clinton says. “We were certainly the first openly gay couple.” Now, keep in mind this was seven years after New York’s Stonewall riots planted a seed that was slowly blossoming into a national gay rights movement, but, as Millinger explains, “it hadn’t quite ripened yet to the point where there would have been an active gay group at Penn.”

A few telltale signs, however, showed Millinger that the movement was well on its way. For instance, in his first year he was required to take an income security course that focused on government welfare programs for the economically and socially disadvantaged. In his third year, he took part in a Penn-funded clinic that provided free legal service to people who couldn’t afford it. “There were a lot of messages out there that proved Penn is a place that’s progressive and supportive of people who are not in the mainstream, and at that time gays and lesbians were a marginalized and often disadvantaged group.”

Case in point? When he graduated in 1979, he didn’t know a single openly gay law firm partner in Philadelphia. “At the time there was great fear that being [out] would hurt your career, or would inhibit you getting a partnership.” He began to see change — on the world stage and on Penn’s campus — during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. “We were threatened so significantly as a community that it changed a lot of people’s consciousness, and the laws of activism.”

During the height of the epidemic, Millinger used his know-how as a corporate and business lawyer to help local HIV-fighting organizations like the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force get up and running. He says the formation of these types of politically charged groups, and new LGBT-centric policies like the 1982 amendment to Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation, generated more LGBT-focused discussions in Penn Law classrooms. “As those things were happening in the outside world, they were being reflected on professional school campuses. And because of Penn’s history [of championing social justice], they were quicker to embrace those sorts of things than some other colleges.”

But that momentum was short-lived.

THE STOCK MARKET crash of 1987 threw the legal market for a loop. Suddenly firms were laying off people and gay law graduates began to shuffle back inside the closet. “I think people were so concerned about their futures and the job market, which they realistically perceived as a really conservative place,” says ACLU Pennsylvania Senior Staff Attorney Mary Catherine Roper L’93, an out lesbian who noticed the effects when she arrived at Penn as a second-year student in 1991. She recalls going to her first meeting for gay and lesbian students held in a bar across the street from campus. “One of the first things that was brought up by the few people who attended was that the group needed bigger signs hung up about the meetings” so people could read them from far away. “Literally, people did not want to be seen standing in front of a posting for the Gay and Lesbian Law Students Association.”

Though she was disheartened by the lack of enthusiasm in her peers, she remembers finding overwhelming support from the administration. “Gary Clinton was one of the first people I met as a transfer student. It made a huge difference having a role model like him. It showed me that, from at least an official position, I was fine. I had nothing to worry about.”

By the time she graduated, she noted that things were starting to loosen up when “some younger students arrived wanting to do active, public things.” Coincidentally, this was also the same year “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being debated (and eventually enacted), firing up young, progressive thinkers in a way that hadn’t been seen since the ’80s. From there the LGBT milestones kept piling up. In 1996, in Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court struck down a Colorado amendment denying gays and lesbians protections against discrimination. The entertainment industry was forever changed in 1997 when Ellen Degeneres came out on national TV. And in 2000, Vermont became the first state to legally recognize civil unions between gay and lesbian couples.

STUDENTS WHO ATTENDED Penn in the aughts remember an institution that was not only gay-friendly, but, well, maybe a little queer itself.

“I would say Penn has a reputation of being a very gay law school,” says New York attorney Bud Jerke L’10, who recalls realizing that before he even applied in the fall of 2007. “On its application, Penn had a box where you could self-identify as ‘LGBT.’ The only other [dozen or so] schools I applied to that had that was Cornell. … I took that as a real confidence sign that the school acknowledged a need for a diverse student body that includes LGBT persons, not just racial or gender minorities.”

And he was right. He started at a time when Lambda Law was one of the most vocal groups on campus. He saw gay and lesbian students voted by their peers into high-ranking class-office positions (seven of the last 10 class presidents have been LGBT.) He sat through lectures led by professors like Tobias Wolff and Seth Kreimer, two veritable firebrands in the modern gay rights movement. And those chili suppers hosted by Gary Clinton and Don Millinger had evolved from 
an intimate get-together with 20 students to an all-out party that’s 60 to 70 people strong. But perhaps the gesture that impressed him most was the school’s continuous protesting of JAG, the legal arm of the armed forces that came to recruit on Penn’s campus.

“Prior to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ there was a lot of controversy, because gay students weren’t eligible to be part of JAG (the military’s legal arm),” he says. Despite years of trying to ban it, the Solomon Amendment legally required Penn to allow JAG to recruit on campus, but it wasn’t about to roll out a welcome mat. Every year at recruitment time he’d watch with pride as students, faculty and administration showed up in droves waving flags, toting pro-equality signs and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Lambda.”

I guess we all know what happened to “don’t ask, don’t tell” next.

Spagnuolo and Ballen rest on the steps of University of Pennsylvania Law School. Photo courtesy of Carly Teitelbaum.

Spagnuolo and Ballen rest on the steps of University of Pennsylvania Law School. Photo courtesy of Carly Teitelbaum.

IT’S THIS KIND of rebellious spirit that will perhaps go down as Penn Law’s greatest contribution to the LGBT community. Through its dedication to advocating for social justice, it is effectively charging up and sending out an army of do-gooders ready to put up their dukes to fight the good fights. And the army keeps getting larger. This fall eight percent of the IL class will identify as LGBT, one day joining the ranks of those alums who are now out there taking on some of today’s biggest battles, which at the moment — at least on the LGBT front — seem to revolve around marriage equality.

Mary Catherine Roper is working with a whole team of Penn folks, including law school professor Seth Kreimer and lecturer Mark Aronchick C’71, and three recent grads, John Stapleton L’02, Rebecca Melley L’07 and Dylan Steinberg L’06, on a lawsuit to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. Former class president Dee Spagnuolo L’03 recently joined a separate, more-grassroots marriage fight — and made history — when she and her partner of 17 years, Sasha Ballen, became the first same-sex couple in the state to receive a marriage certificate after a Montgomery County clerk defied state law and began issuing them to homosexual couples in late July. When the State Department of Health eventually sued to invalidate the licenses, Penn alumnus Robert Heim L’72 agreed to represent them and a few dozen other couples, pro bono.

As a straight man, Heim didn’t necessarily have as much of a personal investment in the case as Roper and Spagnuolo. In the early 70s, when he was at Penn, gay issues were barely even talked about, usually pushed to the back burner by discussions about Vietnam. But his decision to take on this case, like many of his fellow alumni will agree, stems from the opportunity Penn gave him to look at all issues with an open mind, and then charge ahead with what he sees as a worthy cause. “The school teaches you to think carefully about the issues and listen to others, and then make a judgement after you’ve thought and listened and understood,” he says. “That’s a great gift Penn Law gave all 
of us.”

This story was published in the Fall 2013 edition of Penn Law Journal, and shared with G Philly courtesy of Editor Larry Teitelbaum. You can see that issue here