Because my father died suddenly when I was young, and was the epitome of Catholic, I always envisioned that I would have a conversation with him, later in life, and awkwardly and uncomfortably tell him that I was gay. And I imagined him being extraordinary with the news.
When I had the very meaningful opportunity to speak with Justice Martin Jenkins — a justice of the California Court of Appeals for the First District — before his appointment today by California Governor Gavin Newsom as the first LGBTQ+ person on the California Supreme Court, he brought that imaginary conversation to life for me, and so much more.
Justice Jenkins, or Marty as many know him, is a very private person. He has never publicly discussed his sexuality until now. Before our conversation, there were questions I planned to ask him, not only about his judicial career — as a football fan, I was curious about his brief stint playing in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks — however, I’m not a legal scholar, so my questions would have fallen flat.
We did have a brief chat about football. I told Jenkins that he was the 21st-century Alan Page, a Hall of Fame football player with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, who also embarked on a legal career and became a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court after he retired from the NFL. "I'm no Alan Page," Jenkins said with a quiet laugh that reflected his innate modesty.
Thankfully, we never got to delve into legal jargon or more football talk, because there’s immensely more to Justice Jenkins than his rulings and verdicts.
Jenkins is a son of California, and to two very special parents. Jenkins's mom and dad were his role models, and growing up in the Bay Area, he helped his father work his second job cleaning office buildings and churches. Jenkins went on to have a successful legal career, as a civil rights attorney, a federal judge, and most recently helping Governor Newsom build a judiciary that reflects the diversity of California. To that end, Jenkins will also be only the third African-American man to serve on the state's highest court.
I went for the obvious question first, asking how it felt to be the first LGBTQ+ person on California’s Supreme Court? “It’s an interesting notion,” pondered Jenkins from his home in Oakland. “There were others before me who were qualified and who weren’t out or weren’t selected. So being the first, and being an African-American man too, is a big responsibility. I think I know how being in the minority feels, and so my plan is to do the job as well as I can. Hopefully, I’ll have the ability to shine a light on the possibilities for people who look like me or have the same orientation as I do. I think it’s also important to make sure you conduct yourself with honor and integrity with the way you do your work.”
Lighhearedly, I told Jenkins that after his appointment, he will be forever known as a gay role model. “I don’t know about that,” he laughed with an air of humbleness. “Hard to think about, but I will say perceptions are important, and I think I have conducted myself well, but I wouldn’t say I’m a role model. My role models were my parents. They were such amazing people, and I was one of the lucky ones who had people in their own households who inspire you and help you walk across the bridges that we cross in life.”
One of those bridges, for Jenkins, was his sexuality. For most of his life, he compartmentalized it, and pushed it down firmly in an attempt to extinguish his true self. I wondered if he ever had the opportunity to tell his role models — his parents — that he was gay? “I never told my mom. We were very close, but I did tell my father before he died, and I made it a difficult conversation.”
Jenkins explained that after his mom died, he and his dad spent a lot of time together in the house his family lived in for over 50 years. Right before his father passed, Jenkins went to see him. “I went on a Sunday, like I always did, and took him to dinner. All the while, I told myself, like I had for a number of years, that it would be hard for him to hear the truth, that he didn’t deserve to the carry this burden in the later stages of his life, that he would worry, all these things I attributed to him as to why I wouldn’t tell him, and he wouldn’t accept me.”
After dinner, Jenkins and his father went for a walk, and returned to the family home. “I was quite pensive, and my dad said to me, ‘Why are you so distracted?’ ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I said I have something to tell you,” Jenkins recalled with his voice starting to break. “I want you to know who I am, and that I am gay. And my dad looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, so I said maybe your generation might refer to it as homosexual?”
“My dad got up from the couch across from where I was sitting, walked over to me, put his hands on each of the arms on the chair I was sitting in, and said, ‘How long have you known this?’ I told him that I had these feelings since high school, and he said, ‘I wish you had told me then. It couldn’t have been easy for you. I love you. You’re my son. There’s nothing you could do or be that would make me love you less.’”
We were both in tears. Jenkins had an opportunity some of us never had — that I never had. And Jenkins knew he was lucky to have that conversation with his dad. It was only one of the heartbreaking encounters he would have on his way to crossing the bridge of coming out later in life.
“I compartmentalized in college, when I went to the NFL, through law school, through all of it, and in my mind, I wasn’t gay for a long time,” he said with some regret. “I just kept pressing it down, pressing it down until in some shape or form it just became nonexistent. Once in while it would rear its head, but it never went away. How could it?”
Did his position as a judge keep him from coming out? “That’s an interesting question. I grew up with a family that for generations believed what happens in the house stays in the house. And so, by nature I’m very private, so it’s interesting that I sought out the bench because in one way it was very public, but the ethics and the rules imply that you withdraw to keep your impartiality. And particularly on the federal bench. I think becoming a judge was comforting to me. Here I am with this vital job as a federal judge, but I still didn’t feel comfortable, or have the confidence, to come out. It just illustrates how the secret and the compartmentalization ran so deep for so long.”
I wanted to know if he remembered a time, a place or a person, that made him think constantly compartmentalizing and hiding was too much of a burden? “Yes, there was a time that another door opened for me. One of my best friends was a judge in Oakland, handsome, smart, a world-class athlete, a true renaissance man. He was the guy every guy wanted to be, and we became close after my mom died in 1992, and he helped me through that rough time.”
Jenkins explained that his close friend developed stomach cancer, and temporarily beat it, but it came back with a vengeance, and he died. “I would go see him quite often before he passed. Weeks before he died, he and his partner had a birthday party for me and gave me a beautiful painting. He was so sick, but always thinking about me. Right before he died, I went back to read poetry to him at his bedside, since he was failing fast. I was in the room with him, and with a raspy voice he said to me, ‘If there was one wish I would have for you it would be that you would begin to live your life.’ And I couldn’t stop crying. Nor could I not heed to his wishes. If he loved me that much, I had to begin to do so, to live my life.”
Jenkins let go, and began to be more open and finally at 66, he is not only becoming a state Supreme Court Justice, but is also in a loving relationship. “He’s a wonderful man,” Jenkins gushed, referring to his partner. “And when I was finally able to be authentic about who I was, he showed up like a miracle. I fell in love for the first time late in life. I denied myself for so long. And now I’m happy.”
Jenkins is Catholic, like — or maybe unlike — another Supreme Court appointee that’s been in the news lately. I told him that I had written about my close friend, the late Father Angelo, who told me, after I told him I was gay, that God loved me just the way I was. I asked Jenkins as a Catholic gay man if he thought God loved him just the way he is?
“I do now. Reconciliation of faith may be one of the most challenging aspects of my job and personally with my sexuality. But I work with that too. I’ve been a practicing Catholic all my life, and I truly believe in the God of love and that God loves me as I am now.”
Before we hung up, I pondered with Jenkins about what his legacy might be? He thought for a minute, and then said that he wants to be known as the kind of person who endeavors to treat others with respect and to help to others in any way he can.
I thought that was appropriate, because inwardly, at 66 and this late in his life, Jenkins is finally treating himself with the respect that he deserves, and outwardly, with his imminent appointment as a California Supreme Court Justice, he finally is in a position where he’ll no doubt be helping millions of others. How proud his parents must be.
John Casey is The Advocate's Editor-at-Large.