Mother Can Take Police to Court Over Son's Suicide

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Lambda applauds U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision ruling that pressuring youth to disclose sexual orientation violates rights
November 7, 2000

(NEW YORK, November 7, 2000) – A mother whose teen son committed suicide after police in Minersville, Pennsylvania, harassed him and threatened to disclose that he was gay finally can take her wrongful-death case to trial, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday.

"No mother should lose her child because of an encounter with a homophobic police officer,” said Lambda Deputy Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow, adding, “The Third Circuit has now agreed that police officers should know that threatening to reveal a teenager’s sexual orientation to his family or the community violates clearly established constitutional rights. It’s important that there be a trial, and we hope there will be some accountability for what happened to Marcus Wayman.”

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday upheld a district court decision allowing Sterling’s case to go forward against Pennsylvania’s Borough of Minersville, the local police department, and two police officers. The lower court had rejected the police officers’ attempt to win qualified immunity from suit, ruling instead that their conduct violated Wayman's clearly established right to privacy as protected by the Constitution.

Sterling’s 18-year-old son, Marcus Wayman, barely two months before he would have graduated from high school in 1997, committed suicide shortly after officers harassed him and demanded he disclose his sexual orientation to his grandfather in the rural town of less than 5,000 or they would do it for him.

Wayman and a friend had been stopped by police officers for trespassing in the parking lot of a recently burglarized store. After Wayman’s friend removed condoms from his pocket to prove he was not concealing marijuana, the officers began questioning the teenagers about their sexual orientation, subjecting them to Biblical admonitions against homosexuality. Confronted with an officer’s ultimatum that Wayman disclose his sexual orientation to his family, Wayman committed suicide.

Sterling’s lawsuit charges the officers, police chief, and city with violating Wayman’s 14th Amendment rights to privacy and equal protection of law as well as state laws. It will now go to trial for an ultimate decision on these claims.

Lambda, alarmed by a case in which the police sought to intimidate a teenager because of his sexual orientation, had filed an amicus brief supporting Sterling’s claims that police officers violated her son’s privacy rights. Lambda presented social science research on the risks associated with non-consensual disclosure of youths’ sexual orientation to potentially hostile relatives, especially in settings where information spreads quickly and sanctions can be severe.

Lambda’s amicus brief, authored by Marvin Peguese, Doni Gewirtzman and Ruth Harlow, was joined by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. Said Peguese, “This ruling is another important weapon in our arsenal to combat sexual orientation bias among law enforcement.”

Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Headquartered in New York, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

(Sterling v. Borough of Minersville, No. 99-1768)

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CONTACT: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x230, 1-888-987-1984 pager; Ruth Harlow 212-809-8585 x 210


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