Court Rules that Tragic Police Outing of Gay Teen Violated Constitutional Rights; ACLU Sees Broad Impact

November 7, 2000 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – In a solid victory for the privacy rights of lesbian and gay Americans — and particularly for young gay people — a Federal Appeals Court ruled late yesterday that police violated a gay teen’s constitutional rights when they threatened to tell his family that he was gay. The boy committed suicide after the threat was made.

The 2-1 decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia found that the Constitution clearly protects a person’s sexual orientation from forced disclosure. The Court rejected the argument that lesbians and gay men are not protected by the right to privacy, and ruled instead that “[i]t is difficult to imagine a more private matter than one’s sexuality…”

Larry Frankel, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represents the young man’s mother in a civil lawsuit against the Minersville, Pa., police officers, hailed the decision. “The idea that only certain Americans have a right to basic privacy should have been discredited years ago,” Frankel said. “This decision is an important step in finally making it clear that fundamental rights belong to all Americans.”

Marcus Wayman, 18, was in a parked car with a 17-year-old male when police questioned the two, found condoms while searching the car, and arrested them for under-age drinking. At the police station, officers lectured the two teens about the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality and threatened to tell Wayman’s grandfather that he was gay. After Wayman, a high school football player, was released from police custody, he committed suicide in his home.

Wayman’s mother, Madonna Sterling, sued the town and the officers for police misconduct, discrimination and violation of the right to privacy. Although the case has not yet gone to trial, the police officers 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 ACLU said the decision sends a particularly clear warning to adults whose professions entrust them with highly sensitive information about young people and sexual orientation.

“In no uncertain terms, this decision tells guidance counselors, teachers, clergy and law enforcement officials that if they reveal someone’s sexual orientation, there will be serious, financial consequences,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “This tragic case is an extreme example of something that goes on far too often. But today – thanks to Mrs. Sterling’s extraordinary courage – we have an important tool to stop this sort of thing from happening again, and to educate professionals who ought to know better.”

This ruling will allow Sterling’s lawsuit against the town to go forward, the ACLU said. The case is Sterling v. Borough of Minersville, et al. Mrs. Sterling is also represented by David Rudovsky of Philadelphia.

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