Minersville Case Victory for Gays
Mother Says Son was Unlikely Champion But it was in Her Nature to Fight
Allentown Morning Call,
November 11, 2001
101 N. 6th Street, Allentown, PA, 18105
By Elliot Grossman
As a former union president, Madonna Sterling finds it difficult to walk
away when she sees an injustice.
So after her son killed himself four years ago, allegedly because a
policeman threatened to label the teen a homosexual, Sterling filed a federal
lawsuit accusing the officer of invading her son’s privacy.
Last week, when a jury rejected her claim against the Schuylkill County
officer, Sterling lost the battle on behalf of her son, Marcus Wayman. But
along the way, she and her family won a major victory for the gay rights
The American Civil Liberties Union is calling a pretrial appeals court
ruling in that case a monumental achievement for gay rights.
The 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia declared that people
have a constitutional right to protect the privacy of their sexual
"Despite the verdict, they established a very important precedent that
helps a lot of people," said James Esseks of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay
Rights Project. "They should take some solace from that."
The 3rd Circuit’s ruling carries legal authority in Pennsylvania, New
Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands, the areas covered by the court.
In addition, the ruling has influence across the nation because it is the
first on the issue so other appeals courts will look to it for guidance. The
U.S. Supreme Court has not clearly defined whether individuals have a right to
protect their sexual orientation.
The 3rd Circuit ruling was a wake-up call to government employees,
teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and others, who might be tempted
to reveal the sexual orientation of a teen or adult, according to Esseks.
Since the November 2000 ruling, the ACLU has been publicizing the ruling to
Though the ACLU encourages people to voluntarily disclose their
orientation, it wants gays to have the right to keep that detail private if
they desire. The 3rd Circuit ruling gives them that right.
"They get to decide when to make the information public and when not
to make that information public," said Esseks, litigation director for
the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
About 6 a.m., April 18, 1997, Wayman committed suicide by shooting himself
in the head. Wayman, a senior at Minersville Area High School, allegedly was
distressed that his family would be told he was homosexual.
The night before, Minersville Patrolman Scott Willinsky allegedly
threatened to tell the teen’s step-grandfather he was homosexual. The
alleged threat was made after Willinsky confronted Wayman and a male friend in
a car outside a Minersville beer distributor. He cited them for underage
On the witness stand, Willinsky denied that he made the threat. But he
admitted telling Wayman’s friend that night that the Bible forbids
After listening to evidence from both sides, it was up to the seven jurors
to decide whether Willinsky made that threat. U.S. Magistrate Judge Arnold
Rapoport, who presided over the trial, and the 3rd Circuit had already decided
that such a threat, if made, would have violated the teen’s privacy rights.
The jury concluded that no threat was made, ending the three-day trial in
In its 17-page ruling, the 3rd Circuit said the right to privacy protecting
sexual orientation is not absolute. It has to be balanced against a possible
responsible government reason for disclosure, the court said.
"We carefully guard one’s right to privacy against unwarranted
government intrusion," Judge Carol Mansmann wrote for the 2-1 majority.
"It is difficult to imagine a more private matter than one’s sexuality
and a less likely probability that the government would have a legitimate
interest in disclosure of sexual identity."
Examples of a legitimate government interest would include medical,
financial and behavioral information about police officer applicants to
determine whether they were capable of working in stressful and dangerous
situations, according to the court.
In a footnote to the ruling, the court said Willinsky claimed his role as a
small-town police officer had parental overtones and should lessen the
expectation of privacy in Minersville. Minersville, about four miles from
Pottsville in central Schuylkill County, has a population of 4,500.
The court rejected that contention. A person’s rights cannot be
diminished by demographics, the court wrote.
Minersville’s lawyers had asked that the case be
dismissed because of a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Georgia’s
sodomy law. That law made it a crime to engage in sodomy, even at home.
The Supreme Court said the Georgia law did not
violate privacy rights, handing a major loss to the gay rights movement.
But in ruling against the Minersville lawyers, the
3rd Circuit decided that the Supreme Court ruling did not apply to the
Eric Ferrero, public education director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay
Rights Project, praised Sterling and her family for having the courage to
pursue the case.
It was the first case known to the ACLU in which a family sued to try to
hold a government accountable for a forced "outing" or a threatened
outing of a gay or anyone else.
"A lot of times . the grief or fear or whatever else is so powerful
that families sort of go away and deal away with that in private and don’t
take a stand," Ferrero said.
The ACLU assisted Sterling’s lawyers, David Rudovsky and Alan Yatvin of
Philadelphia, in pursuing the case. The ACLU also paid some legal expenses.
In addition, the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, a New
York-based gay rights organization, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the
3rd Circuit, arguing for Sterling’s side.
Lambda presented the appeals court with social science research, showing
the risk of forcing teens to reveal their sexual orientation. Many go into
hiding, run away or try suicide. And according to Lambda, one-third of all
teen suicide attempts involve gays.
Sterling said she was an unlikely person to carry the banner for gay
rights. During the trial, she and her son’s friends said her son was not
"I don’t necessarily feel I’m the most qualified to do so,"
she said. "Unfortunately, circumstances in life put me there."
But she’s pleased that she helped advance the cause.
"I just do not feel police have the right to harass people because
they feel they’re gay," she said. "I mean, what does that have to
do with anything?"
Sterling was experienced in the legal arena. Years ago in Texas, she headed
a union representing Army Air Force civilian employees.
So it wasn’t her nature to walk away from a fight.
"It’s not in my DNA," she said.
Marcus Wyman Memorial Campaign
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