Last edited: January 02, 2005


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
Fax: 610-820-6693

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 movement.

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 orientation.

"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 educate officials.

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 drinking.

On the witness stand, Willinsky denied that he made the threat. But he admitted telling Wayman’s friend that night that the Bible forbids homosexuality.

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 Allentown.

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 Sterling case.

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 gay.

"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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