2006 Central Iowa Activist Awards: Human & Civil Rights
By Beth Dalbey
Des Moines attorney Sharon Malheiro shakes her head at the divisive tenor of the political debate over civil unions and wishes business leaders and voters would demand that candidates this fall talk about issues that really matter to Iowans, such as how to clean up the state's waters or develop its renewable fuel potential.
"Quit talking about amending the Constitution and passing laws that make it more onerous and discriminatory," she said. "Quit engaging in this rhetoric the rest of us have gotten over."
Malheiro, a senior shareholder at the Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Roberts law firm, proudly calls herself a gay rights activist, knowing at the same time there are people who see her cause as one that seeks "special" rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals.
"We still aren't treated equally," she said, pointing to the 1,052 rights that married people have, but are denied to same-sex couples. "We're not asking for special rights; we're asking for access to the same rights.
"Everybody should be able to live their life honestly and without fear, and that means being able to be who you are when you are at work, be who you are when you are in a restaurant or at a grocery store, and it also means having access to the same rights, privileges and obligations," she said. "If we're allowed to have these legal rights to families, we also have legal obligations that come with them that any parent or spouse would have. If I've been married for 25 years and my spouse has stayed at home and taken care of the house and kids with no specific means of support and we split, there's probably cause for alimony."
The issue of gay rights "seems somewhat personal," she conceded, "but it has an impact on businesses."
"If your employees are happy, are healthy, and they have a balanced home life and are not worried about providing for their families, they can be more focused on their work," she said. "We don't realize that when we debate the civil union issues."
Public policy that extends to same-sex couples the rights and privileges of marriage also helps businesses recruit employees from a broader base, she said. "Somebody who lives in a city, town or state where there are more legal protections and obligations is less likely to relocate," she said. "If you have an inclusive work environment where everybody knows everybody's appreciated and where they can be open and honest, you're going to have a more productive worker."
Though a sea change may not yet have occurred in public acceptance of LGBT families, "we're farther along than people think we are, or that it appears we are," she said. "We're actually talking about it in public. We're debating it in public. LGBT families are living more openly, which I think helps shatter stereotypes and then promotes inclusion and understanding."
A good example, she said, was in the public debate over the upcoming Valley High School production of "The Laramie Project," a play based on interviews conducted after the 1998 murder Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was kidnapped, savagely beaten, tied to a fence in freezing temperatures and left to die. Much of the public debate surrounded the use of offensive language in the play, rather than Shepard's sexual orientation.
"I believe part of the objection is based on content . but maybe by not expressing and verbalizing it, we actually are moving forward," she said. "Maybe by using the smoke screen of the language, people are realizing that it's not OK to gay-bash. Ten years ago, people could have said, 'It's about gay stuff, so it's not appropriate."
As an attorney, Malheiro often fights the battle for inclusion and acceptance in court by representing LGBT clients who believe they have been discriminated against. "I'm fortunate that the firm allows me to do the pro bono work in that area," she said. "As a body of lawyers, we realize we have been given an opportunity and a gift as lawyers, and because of that we have a social obligation. I can go home and feel good about what I've done."
For example, earlier this year, she represented a woman whose partner had died and whose former husband contested her will. The lesbian couple had been together for 12 years, and the deceased woman's former husband had harassed them for most of their lives.
"The ex-wife knew that if anything happened to her before partner died, her ex would try to take everything away, so she wrote a homemade will," Malheiro said. "She didn't have all the specific legal language, but it was witnessed and met the minimum requirements."
Malheiro's client prevailed in court when her partner's former husband financed a lawsuit filed by his sons claiming the will was a forgery, "but she didn't know for four or five months while the case was pending whether she would win and, if not, whether she would be homeless."
Despite progress in debunking the stereotypes associated with LGBT individuals, openly gay workers still worry about discrimination. "Even in Des Moines, with a city human rights ordinance, there are ways of firing somebody and not telling them what the actual reason was," Malheiro said. "They may face certain ostracism by coworkers, and if they are in a business where they have to generate business and people won't hire them because they are gay, they could have a loss of earning or a loss of revenue."
Malheiro is a cooperating attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and is working with that group on several LGBT equality issues in Iowa. President of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center of Central Iowa, she facilitates workshops on civil rights, workplace rights and other issues that gay and lesbian families face for such groups as federal parole officers for the Southern District of Iowa, the Des Moines Human Rights Commission, the Iowa prison system, Iowa State University, the Central Iowa chapter Society for Human Resources Management and many local businesses.