Q & A With Hon. Tonya Parker

Elizabeth Lindsay-Ochoa


We are very excited at SOGI to be presenting you with the Stonewall Award.  If you can tell us more about your story, you have some quite unusual things about you: openly gay judge, woman of color who also happens to be in Dallas, Texas and an elected judge. . . . I find your background fascinating.  Tell me more about your experience and how you got to be where you are.

HTP: Thank you again for the opportunity to visit with you.  It is nice to have someone be interested in the path that I have traveled and certainly in connection with the Stonewall Award.  As you know from the review of my bio materials, I practiced law for over a decade before running for public office and this bench in particular.  During the course of my practice, there was a period of time where I was not open and authentic with everyone about what I refer to as my relationship orientation.  

I use that term [relationship orientation] instead of sexual orientation because I think it contributes to the problem that members of the LGBT community face of being put into a box.  Too often people are placing attention on one aspect of who we are versus looking at us in our totality.  I was a communications major in college, and language is very important to me.  So I stopped using the term sexual orientation some time ago in favor of the term relationship orientation; I think that is a more fair way to characterize our orientation.  It is not just about sexuality, but it is how we relate to people on many different levels.  Throughout the interview I will probably use that term . . .

I like the term.

HTP: There was a period where I was not able—well I felt that I was not able—to be open and to live an authentic life in terms of sharing . . . widely my relationship orientation, and that was a very difficult period of my life.   To have to have a different existence publicly than the one that you have privately is something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  

Early on in my career, I went on a fellowship to Europe, and I was on that fellowship for an extended period of time.  While I was there, I had a lot of time alone because the fellowship required us to travel to several different countries in Europe during a period of a little less than 30 days.  So we were on planes and in airports a lot.  During that time, I made the decision that when I returned to the United States; I would endeavor to live a whole life, an authentic life, and an integrated life.  So, I did that. 

It was difficult in the sense that it’s hard to get people on board with the fact that you have not been able to share everything about yourself with them.  You go through those experiences of trying to get people who had been a part of your life on board fully.  Going through that process, people came up to me, and shared with me as well.  It hit me one day, “Gosh, there are a lot of lawyers in the LGBT community, and it’s important that we be open and accessible to one another so that we have the support group.”  I later came to appreciate how critical living an authentic life is in the journey toward full equality in all respects. 

Several years later, I decided I wanted to run for public office.  As you alluded to in your opening remarks, I paused to consider how it might play with the public, the fact that I am a member of the LGBT community and an African-American female.  Once I started testing the water, I found that we have an extremely open community here in Dallas, the political community in particular.  It is extremely open and accepting of people from every facet of life.  We have a very strong Stonewall Democrats chapter in Dallas County that really vets candidates seeking office in Dallas County to assess the extent to which they accept and embrace folks across the spectrum.  As I got out there, I quickly realized it was really going to be ok.  I had no idea that I was going to be the first openly gay, African-American elected official in the state of Texas.  That never entered my mind.  Someone brought the reported fact up to me probably a year after I had been on the bench. 

That’s the intro on how I came to do this and … the thought that I gave to doing it from this standpoint.  Ultimately, I was persuaded that I had had the kind of career where the legal community would say, “We think she can be a good judge, and we’re not interested in discriminating against her on the basis of her relationship orientation….we want to focus on the things we know about her as a lawyer and how we think that’s going to translate to the courtroom.  Fortunately, that’s what people did and how I got the opportunity to do this job I love.  

I must point out that you have very, very high approval rating, so you are doing a very good job, and people respect what you do very much.

HTP: Thank you for that compliment.  Certainly, I was very humbled by the public’s response to the effort I give in preparing for and presiding over the docket each day.   

The other part of my response was the feeling that, maybe, I had really done something for lawyers of color, women lawyers, and LGBT lawyers that would open the door that much wider for them to have opportunities to serve in the judiciary.  I think that’s what really bowled me over, the idea that my service could lead the way for others to serve because people will see what can be missed when people are discriminated against on the basis of immutable characteristics.  If the public would have done that, I would never have gotten a chance to serve.  That’s what those poll ratings mean to me more than anything.  

I’m going to ask the elephant in the room question.  You came to national attention when in 2012 you decided you were not going to marry any straight couples from your courtroom.  The reaction you had from that...was...well, if you just google your name...

HTP: It’s funny that you bring that up because on October 28 [2016], I gave a local TED talk.    The title of the TED talk is “Lessons in the Label.”  It was the first time I spoke publicly about that whole experience in 2012.  

The way that it came about was through a speech I gave at a Stonewall Democrats meeting.  The president of the club had invited me to talk with them about my first year on the bench.  My first year on the bench was in the year 2011, having been elected in November 2010.  

I went to their meeting in February 2012 and gave a 20-25 minute presentation on the things that I had done in the first year on the bench to turn the court around, because the court was in really horrible shape when I inherited it.  I talked to them about policies we had changed and instituted and some of our accomplishments, such as trying a significant number of the oldest cases on the docket to reduce the backlog.  At the conclusion of my remarks, I addressed a question that I had frequently gotten as to whether my being a member of the LGBT community ever had an impact or any bearing on the work that I do as a judge.  I related that it, of course, does not impact the way that I make legal decisions.  I make an effort every day to make decisions based on the law on a particular case without regard to who is standing in front of me in that way. Then, I explained that I did not exercise my privilege to officiate marriage ceremonies because I could not do so equally for all couples who desired to be married.

It wasn’t lost on me that while that is a privilege of my office; it is a privilege that I enjoy under color of law. There was something in me that felt it was wrong for me to exercise that privilege for one group of people when I could not exercise it equally for same-sex couples.  I believed in my heart exactly what the United States Supreme Court held in June of 2015: that to do so would be a violation of federal law.  That was the reason why I just said I don’t feel comfortable doing this, and I’m not going to do it until I can exercise the privilege equally for all couples.  Since the marriage equality decision last year, I have officiated scores of weddings for all types of couples.  

What’s important is that when that story first broke, people were under the mistaken belief that this was a job duty and that I was engaging in an act of civil disobedience by not doing it.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  I am a civil trial judge, and I preside over civil litigation matters.  Officiating marriage ceremonies is not a duty of my office, it is not a responsibility of my office; it’s a right and privilege that comes with my office that I get to decide whether to exercise.  People did not appreciate that fact initially.  I issued a written statement explaining this but declined any interviews.  I just want to get back to the business of running the court, and that’s what I did.  

The truth is, people would have had every right to be upset if I was refusing to perform a duty of my office simply because I didn’t like it or agree with the law.  But that wasn’t the case.  It was a crazy time . . . I can’t begin to tell you how crazy it was.

I can’t imagine the calls and emails into your office.

HTP: My poor Court Coordinator.  Her email address is public.  To the extent that people wanted to say not so nice things to me, they said them to her.  

I can’t imagine what it was like to get that much spotlight, very quickly.  

HTP: That’s part of the reason why I did the TEDx talk—to have an opportunity to help people understand what that time was like for me and how the event impacts my life even still today.  

As you mention, if you google “Judge Tonya Parker” that’s still very much a part of what you’re going to get.  It was cathartic to go through the process of putting the TEDx Talk together.

 Is there anything else that you want the readers of the newsletter to know about yourself?

 HTP:Two things.  First, I want people to understand that I am keenly aware that the best way for me to serve any and every group with which I’m affiliated—the LGBT community, the African-American community, and women lawyers—is for me to do a bang-up job every day.  The mission is to give 100% each day, each proceeding. I miss the mark plenty of times, but I want people to know it is not because I am not trying to give my best efforts. 

 Second, I know that it matters that I’m here, and that I’m open and authentic with the way I live my life.  LGBT lawyers get to come into the court room, and, as I mentioned in my TEDx talk, they get to focus on practicing their craft.  They don’t have to be preoccupied with whether or not their hair, clothes, [or] mannerisms conform to gender stereotypes.  They never have to worry that I’m going to be distracted by any of those things, so they get to do the work that they came here to do for their client.  And because my colleagues get an opportunity to walk with me in being a part of my life, I think that it shapes them that much more.  They are already amazing people who are open and embrace folks of all different backgrounds, but I do believe that having a lesbian judge as a colleague impacts them a great deal. I hope people really get that my priority is to work hard and serve with distinction so that it continues to be true and the citizens continue to believe there is value in my being here. 
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 i Parts of the conversation have been minimally edited for readability.

ii https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=tedxturtlecreekwomen   or

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plLp7mVktsM  

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