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In Pride talk, gay D.C. judge recalls suspicion of her ‘alternative lifestyle’


When D.C. Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo first applied for a job in the Justice Department in 1993, FBI agents showed up at her parents’ home to confirm that she had come out to them as gay.

The agent doing her background investigation “made a point of asking me about what she called my, quote, alternative lifestyle, unquote,” Demeo recalled in a panel discussion Thursday hosted by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia. “I said, ‘I’m not really sure what you mean by that, because I don’t consider my life alternative. You know, Princeton, NYU — pretty standard traditional lifestyle.’ But I said, ‘I think you’re saying because I’m gay. So if you’re asking me about that, yes, I’m gay.’ And then I was barraged with a bunch of questions.”

When she arrived at the Department of Justice later that year, Demeo started the agency’s first Pride organization. Some employees refused to hang up fliers for the group or tore them down, she said. Members were careful not to meet in the building. DOJ Pride successfully changed the security clearance procedures and helped put in place anti-discrimination measures.

“I’m just hopeful that those early years made a difference as we look down now, some 27 years later,” she said.

Demeo addressed the Justice Department office with J. Paul Oetken, appointed in 2011 as the first openly gay male federal judge, and Todd Hughes, who became the first openly gay federal appellate judge in 2013.

The virtual discussion was one of several hosted by Acting U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh, the first person of color to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, “to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in everything that we do,” he said at Thursday’s session.

“Just listening to all the challenges, the adversity and everything that you’ve had to overcome, it’s just so inspirational,” Parekh told the judges.

Since January, the office has hosted a diverse group of speakers. Sri Srinivasan, chief judge of the D.C. U.S. Court of Appeals and Vanita Gupta, a high-ranking official with the Justice Department, spoke during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Judge Cheryl Ann Krause from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals spoke during Women’s History Month. Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber, also had a discussion with the office. The Thursday session was open to reporters.

When Demeo was nominated to the bench in 2010, a conservative group labeled her a “radical lesbian,” and she was pilloried by Republicans for her work for a Latino civil rights group. Then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tried to block her appointment. So did Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who she noted went on to serve as attorney general.

“Women of color, people of color, out gay people . . . if we work for certain causes on behalf of certain individuals, we’re perceived as, we can never be objective or fair,” she said. “But the same standard doesn’t necessarily apply to others.”

Although she was ultimately confirmed by a 66-to-32 vote, with a handful of Republicans joining the Democratic majority, she described it as “a very emotionally difficult time.”

Hughes and Oetken faced less opposition. Both said they were lucky to have the help of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization. For his federal judgeship in Manhattan, Oetken said he also had the enthusiastic backing of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Still, he recalled, “There was a big question mark in my mind and probably in some of the senators’ minds about what is this going to look like, what’s going to happen here, is there going to be more scrutiny? Are they going to be talking to people I’ve dated, and are they going to be looking at parties I’ve been to or, you know, dating applications or whatever?”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in D.C., which deals with patents and other financial issues, “was a very obvious place to put an openly LGBT person,” Hughes said. “It’s a specialized court, it doesn’t have home state senators. It doesn’t hear any of the hot-button political issues.”

From 1992 to 1994, however, Hughes stayed closeted while clerking for a “very conservative” judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. A year after Hughes left, the judge upheld an anti-gay measure in Cincinnati on the grounds that “homosexuals generally are not identifiable ‘on sight’ unless they elect to be so identifiable by conduct.”

Hours before the discussion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Philadelphia Catholic foster-care organization that won’t serve same-sex couples. But the narrow ruling did not win the support of the most conservative justices, who would have struck down the city’s anti-discrimination law altogether.

“That seems to be sort of where the rubber meets the road these days, in terms of the cutting edge legal issues,” Oetken said.

But, he added, the change in a couple decades from the experiences they had were “dramatic.” The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015; Demeo recalled previously “the humiliation I felt” when she was separated at customs from her partner and children. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination laws extend to gay and transgender people.

Those rulings and others have “brought LGBTQ people to a place where they’re much more likely to be out among friends and strangers and in the workplace and everywhere,” Oetken said. “The speed of that transition is something that I think about a lot. And it means a lot.”

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