Originally published on Advocate.com September 12 2003 11:00 PM ET
The mother of a high school football player in Minersville, Pa., who committed suicide has settled a lawsuit claiming police were responsible because they threatened to tell his family he was gay. Under the agreement, Madonna Sterling and her attorney will get $100,000 from the borough of Minersville.
The settlement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, sends a clear message to government officials to stay out of the private lives of lesbian and gay teenagers.
"No amount of money can replace what our client lost because of the actions of the police, but in paying this settlement the police department is acknowledging the role it played in Marcus Wayman's death," said David Rudovsky, who represented Sterling as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU. "And an important part of Marcus's legacy is the message that his case sends to government officials that they must respect young people's privacy about their sexual orientation."
Wayman was in a parked car with a 17-year-old male friend when police stopped to question the two, found condoms while searching the car, and arrested them for underage drinking. At the Minersville police station, officers lectured the two teens about the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality and threatened to tell Wayman's grandfather that Wayman was gay. After the 18-year-old Wayman was released from police custody, he went home and shot himself in the head. Sterling sued the town and the officers for police misconduct, discrimination, and violation of the right to privacy.
In an earlier ruling in Sterling's case, the third circuit court of appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the police had violated Wayman's constitutional rights when they threatened to tell his family that he was gay. The court rejected an argument that lesbians and gay men are not protected by the right to privacy and ruled instead that "it is difficult to imagine a more private matter than one's sexuality." The police officers had asked the federal appeals court to let them out of the case on the basis that it was not clear that the right to privacy protects lesbians and gay men. The appeals court denied that request and sent the case back to the lower court for a trial, which ultimately resulted in the settlement.
"We hope Marcus's family can take some comfort in knowing his case has already affected the lives of other gay teens," said James Esseks, litigation director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "It tells law enforcement officials as well as guidance counselors and teachers that they can't reveal someone's sexual orientation without facing serious financial consequences. We've already used the precedent set in this case to help a boy in Arkansas whose school outed him to his parents, and we won't hesitate to use it again whenever a government official violates a young person's right to keep his or her sexual orientation private."
In the Arkansas case, school officials "outed" 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin to his parents without his permission, made him read from the Bible, and disciplined him initially for discussing his sexual orientation and then later for discussing that punishment. An ACLU lawsuit relying in part on the ruling in Wayman's case brought about a cash settlement for McLaughlin and important policy changes throughout his school district.