Attorney Susan Silber remembers a time—likely in the 1980s—when she walked into a local courtroom to defend the parental rights of a gay father. The opposing attorney, so indignant with the idea that a gay father could have a legitimate case, could barely get the word “homosexual” out of his mouth.
Fortunately the judge interrupted from the bench to say that it was the best interest of the child—not the parent’s sexual orientation—that mattered.
“If you were gay, people assumed that you were a bad person, an unfit parent,” Susan recalls. She has been a major force in changing how the law protects LGBT rights. Her work as an attorney has emphasized legal issues centering on family, employment, and juvenile rights. Much of her work has focused on municipal law and her efforts have hadthat have had a major impact not only for families and individuals but also for equality in laws that affect every gay person in the Washington, D.C. area.
Susan came to Washington in 1977, attracted by opportunities in civil rights and international human rights law. A position at Antioch School of Law—now part of the University of the District of Columbia—meant not only directing legal clinics on employment and labor law, but also a leadership role in organizing a group for gay and lesbian faculty and students. This inspired her to found and lead LGBT groups within the National Lawyers Guild and co-chair the Gay and Lesbian Section of the D.C. Bar.
She also was part of the 1979 March on Washington. “It was an exciting time to be part of the movement pushing for civil rights for gays and lesbians,” she says.
Early on, representing clients in cases related to sexual orientation meant being creative. Little case law specific to gays existed, so she had to piece together arguments from diverse cases. Her reputation quickly grew, and today her practice concentrates on issues relating to gays and lesbians, including second parent adoptions, domestic partnership agreements and dissolutions, non-biological parent custody and visitation, and divorce. She also advises same sex couples about the legal implications of marrying in the District of Columbia and Maryland.
A major accomplishment was her leadership in the statute on domestic partnership in D.C. That statue was enhanced over time until it was replaced with marriage equality.
Susan’s practice also reflects her longstanding interests in employment law and includes representing victims of illegal workplace discrimination, including workplace sexual orientation discrimination and gender stereotyping discrimination. She also represents government employees in civil service grievances and disciplinary actions as well as in security clearance proceedings.
She has been the City Attorney for the City of Takoma Park, Maryland, since 1981. In this role, she has been a pioneer in creating the city’s domestic partnership laws, clarifying employment law and creating other structures to protect rights of the LGBT community.
Susan says she can see how much has been accomplished in the Washington area since she arrived in 1977. “It’s been amazing to live through these times when you can see so much progress. I think that we have really won over the hearts and minds of people.”