Finding Family

Judge Rhonda Lanford found her true self through the love of families, both blood and chosen, and a lot of hard work

I had already pushed the photographer for Our Lives back to 6:30 p.m. because court was running long, and I had some work to finish up before I left for the day. Even so, my partner and I got home from work with just moments to spare. Our friend Kim, it turned out, was also running late. She usually beats us home to pick up her dog, Greta, who spends weekdays at our house. The upshot? When our family gathered on the couch for our family picture, Greta was right there too.

It takes a village—or at least an extended family. Greta and Ursa, our dog, are BFFs (best friends forever, for those of you who did not grow up in the ‘80s). With the dogs at one house on a workday, we can make sure both get fed and walked at lunchtime.

“Rarely do members of the same family grow up under one roof,” wrote Richard Bach.

My parents hail from the south—Alabama to be exact. My father had a sixth grade education and my mother had a fourth grade education. They were so poor they had to work in the cotton fields during the day instead of attend school. My mom lost her mom when she seven years old to pneumonia, and her father was an alcoholic. She was bounced from family member to family member after her mom died, trying to take care of her younger sister and brother, who was still a baby.

My dad was the oldest of six kids, and his mother died when he was 12. His father was absent, and my dad’s job was to take care of his two brothers and three sisters on their rundown farm.

My mom and dad had lived a lifetime already when they first met.

My dad was fishing along the Tennessee River one day when he came upon a tent where a woman—my mom—and her two little girls were living. My sister Sandy was barely two, my sister Kathy still a baby. My mom was already a widow – her husband had been killed by a relative over a dispute over fishing territory. My mom had nowhere to go, but she was a survivor.

My dad said she was pretty, and he asked her on a date. She went, and the rest, as they say, is history.

They were married, and shortly after, my dad decided that the only way to try to make a better life for my mom and my two oldest sisters was to move north to find work. He moved to Chicago, found a job, and when he had saved enough money, he sent for my mom and sisters. They lived in a one-room apartment with a healthy population of cockroaches. They had no money, and when my mom became pregnant with my sister Diane, she delivered her at a free “research hospital” in Chicago. We still joke with my sister about whether the hospital was experimenting on her until my mom took her home.

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Free cheese

My brother Ray was born in Park Falls, Wisconsin and I was born in Ashland. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Iron River, an unincorporated town about as far north as you can get. My dad worked at a factory, and my mom held various jobs, from waitressing to painting fishing poles to anything that would put food on the table. Because my parents were not educated, they never were able to find jobs that paid enough for us to live above the poverty line.

I remember standing in line with my dad when they passed out free cheese and powdered milk in the government help line at the town hall. We shopped at Goodwill. We scavenged at the local dump for clothing, furniture, and sometimes food. We had a huge garden every summer and canned everything we could not eat. Given my mother’s southern roots, I did not know that fresh vegetables could be eaten in their native state without first being dipped in batter and fried. I had quite an awakening when I got to college and was part of the freshman dorm food plan.

Our summers were spent fishing. My mom, brother, and I would dig worms for bait out of the ground by the garden with a pitchfork. The first time I ever heard someone call fishing a “sport” and a “fun activity,” I was confused since it was simply a food gathering technique in my world. Riding my bike was fun. Playing in the dirt was fun. Fishing was not fun. We did what we did to survive. I learned a lot about how to face anything and everything head on and with my head high.

DiggingWorms

As a child I always felt like an outsider—never truly accepted and never truly fitting in. My parents were never accepted in the small, close-knit community of Iron River, even after 18 years. My dad talked about the first day they arrived in my town. He walked into the corner café and asked for a “piece of coffee,” which is how it was referred to down south. He was ignored.

The town had legendary stories about my mother, including the day that she stormed into my brother’s first grade classroom after my brother came home with fingernail marks on his neck, and my brother told her the teacher did it. My mom threatened the teacher’s life if she ever touched him again. She also kicked down the door of a neighbor’s house when she found out that the neighbor boy had punched my sister Diane in the face on the school bus. If only the movement against bullying would have had my mother at the helm, things might have progressed a little more quickly.

Before the phrase “it takes a village” became popular, I was living it, starting before adolescence. Because of my parents’ work schedules and what people today would call a “dysfunctional” home, I learned at a very early age that I needed to take care of myself, and part of that was finding people to act as surrogates for the family that I did not have. I was doing my own laundry and cooking for myself by the time I was 10. I was getting myself up and getting myself to school. The first person I ever attached to outside my family was my first grade teacher, and she was the reason I threw my heart and soul into education. From day one, I was hooked, and I never looked back.

“Strange” feelings

I was also fighting a different battle without really acknowledging it. My first crush was at age five on Judy Graubart from The Electric Company. I used to imagine that we would sit on lawn chairs and hold hands in the sun. I had a crush on David Cassidy from the Partridge Family, but in my dreams, he was not my boyfriend; we were best friends who worked on cars together and wore matching shirts. I loved Lee Majors as the Six Million Dollar Man but was absolutely smitten when Lindsay Wagner as the Bionic Woman came on the scene.

Around 1982, I started acknowledging some of my “strange” feelings about girls, but I continued to fight them. It was a very different time in terms of our culture and what was accepted and what was not. There were no gay or lesbian leaders then, no role models. There were no gay movies that did not portray gays and lesbians as “freaks” or some sort of cultural anomaly. There were no television shows with gay characters, no songs about girls kissing girls, no celebrities standing up for us.

Frankly, most people did not acknowledge that gay people truly existed. My girlfriend in college had a sister who was also a lesbian, and she was a few years older than us. No one was really “out” then, and one day she decided to be brave and come out to her parents. She began the discussion by asking them, a couple of dairy farmers in northeastern Wisconsin, if they knew what a lesbian was. They frowned, thought for a minute, and her dad finally said, “Aren’t those them famous show horses?” She sighed and said, “No dad, those are lipizzans.” The conversation was over.

Gay bashing was still acceptable. It was acceptable to call someone a “faggot.” It was acceptable to bully. It was acceptable to make fun of the “queers.” It was acceptable to physically and verbally attack someone if you thought he or she was gay. I was struck recently when watching Macklemore and Madonna serenade same-sex couples getting married on national television. This was something that was not even imaginable back then. Certainly believing that a day would come when gay people could get legally married never even crossed our minds. If you were gay, you would never be legally married, period.

I did not want to be different. I had been different my whole life, and in high school I finally had a sense of belonging. I was popular. I was smart. I was funny. I had a lot of friends. I did not want to be gay. I always found it strange when people called it a “choice” because if it had been a choice at the time I would not have chosen to be gay. All of the “could nots” and “would nots” entered the picture. I could not live my life in an authentic way. I would have to hide forever. I would never have a “normal” relationship. I could never and would never get married. I would never be accepted. I would never have a “real family.” My mom, dad, sisters, and brother would never accept me.

I finally acknowledged my sexuality after I left my hometown and went to college. In hindsight, the only way I was ever going to have a life that was authentic was to leave the life I knew and build a life somewhere else. Leaving what I knew was scary—out of my comfort zone—and I was not sure what to expect.

College started with its own challenge—three weeks into my first semester, my father had a heart attack and died at age 64. After that, I just wanted to be “normal,” and I tried dating boys. My heterosexual phase did not last long.

I came out in 1986. The first friend I told was one of my dorm floor best friends, Lee Anne. We were at a bar, drunk on 40 cent tap Leinenkugel beers. She listened to my heartfelt story of my struggle and my journey, and then very profoundly said, “Duh.” The second person I told was my dorm roommate, my friend Chris who had been my friend since middle school. I hemmed and hawed and told her I had something important to tell her, and I stalled and hemmed and hawed some more. She was sitting at the edge of her bed, literally on the edge of her seat as I was trying to get the information out. When I finally did, she leaned back, breathed a sigh of relief and said, “OH THANK GOD! I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TELL ME SOMETHING SERIOUS LIKE YOU HAD CANCER!” I have always been blessed with good friends. Lee Anne, Chris, and I are still close.

investiture

Telling my sister Diane was the most terrifying part of coming out. It is probably important to step back and explain the relationship I had and have with her and the relationships with a couple of other people who made sure I survived my teenage years and who continue to support me and be part of my family today. Diane was my parent and my caregiver from the day I was born. She left home when I was 7 years old to live her own life for a while, but she came back into my life when I was 13. She became my primary caregiver. Even though she lived two towns away from me, she made sure I had clothes to wear. She called me almost every day. She would visit me weeknights when she could and pick me up every Saturday morning to spend the weekend with her while my parents worked. She counseled me and mentored me. She was the one who attended all of my high school events and was the only one who showed up to stand with me on parents’ night. With all of my important life decisions, she was my confidant, my guide, and my friend, all without judgment. She never told me what to do, but she told me the consequences of my choices—and trusted me to choose wisely.

Diane was also the one who saw that I was headed for trouble in junior high school, and she decided to intervene. I had a bad attitude and a chip on my shoulder and could have gone down a good or bad path. Diane enlisted the help of a teacher in seventh grade, Susan Bombich, who was my guide and protector by day, while Diane kept an eye on me during the weekends and evenings. Sue took it upon herself to look beyond the rough edges and mentor a kid who really, really needed her. I started to work hard every day to make her proud of me and to be the success she believed I could be. We have stayed close over the years. She has been there and stood by me through the death of both of my parents, my brother, and many of my life crises and victories. She and her husband, Bill, opened their home to me and gave me a place to feel safe and loved when I had nowhere else to go as a teenager. My family outside my family really started to grow with her.

When I got to high school, I added another family member—another teacher, Sandy Kortesma. She was not just my teacher, she was my friend, and she and her husband, Terry, opened their home and hearts to me. Sandy gave me refuge in her classroom and taught me to love literature, the French language, and history. We also have stayed close over the years, and both she and Sue spoke at my investiture when I was sworn in as a Dane County Circuit Court Judge last year. I work hard every day to make sure Diane, Sue, and Sandy are proud of me.

Against that backdrop, I was 20 years old when I decided to come out to my sister Diane. For the first time in my life, I thought she would judge me and, worse, blame herself. When I told her, she cried, she wondered why, and she accepted. And now more than 25 years later, she is still my confidant and one of my biggest fans.

After coming out, as I began my new life, I began creating my new family—the people who would sustain me as I forged unknown territory. I was still afraid the rest of my “real” family would not understand or accept me. When my sister finally told my mom after fielding multiple inquiries as to why I didn’t have a boyfriend, my mom decided I had turned to women because of a bad experience with a boyfriend. What she did not know is that women had hurt me far more than any man ever did. If her theory were correct, I would be just about the most heterosexual person you would ever meet.

I needed to surround myself with people who would just say I was okay. I was scared, but I was also determined that I was going to be my authentic self no matter what.

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Toward myself

When I graduated college, I was broke but still dreamed of going to law school someday. To stay on course, I took a job at a law firm in 1988 working as a receptionist for $5.00 an hour. After about a week on the job, I told everyone there—lawyers, secretaries, legal assistants, and the office manager—that I was gay. Everyone was pretty good about it, but a few did not embrace me.

One legal assistant was really struggling with it—she was very religious, and who I was did not compute in her reality. Like most people, I would come to work and over break or lunch I would talk about something my girlfriend and I did—whether we went to dinner at a new restaurant, or went on a trip to see our family, or had a fun evening with friends. At one point, this legal assistant said to me, “Why do you need to tell us what goes on in your bedroom?”

All of us who have been asked this question—and I assume it is most of us—know that we actually were not and still are not telling anyone what was going on in our bedrooms. We were sharing what was going on in our lives. It reminds me of a cartoon collage called “The Gay Agenda,” with outrageous captions like “They do laundry! They cook dinner at home! They go to their jobs! They spend time with friends! They raise children! We must all work hard to stomp out this menace to society!”

So I told this legal assistant, “I’ll make you a deal. When you come to work, please do not tell me what you did over the weekend with your husband and kids. I do not want to hear about whether you saw friends, went to parties, had a picnic, or went to the kids’ football games. Because that is what you’re asking me to do when you tell me you don’t want to hear about my life because I happen to have a girlfriend.” It was only then that she understood what she was asking. By the time I left the firm in 1990, when she said goodbye, she said, “Before I met you, I would not want a gay person to be a teacher for one of my kids. Now I think I would have to meet that person and get to know them first.” It was then that I knew that part of change was changing one person at a time.

I’ve come a long way since being that 18-year-old dreamer trying to find her place in the world. When I moved to Madison in 1992, I found home and I found my family. I found a place that embraced our community. I remember how excited I was the first time I walked into A Room of One’s Own and could find books and movies and see people like me. After I moved, a friend from out of town came to visit and asked if there were any “gay bars” or “gay restaurants” here. I remember telling her that every bar is a gay bar and every restaurant is a gay restaurant in Madison.

What is a true family? We all create what that means to us. My family is my partner, Judy Davidoff, who has stood by me through thick and thin for almost eight years, loves me and supports me, and always wants the best for me. Ellen Berz, my friend and mentor of 25 years who helped me realize my dream of becoming a lawyer. My sister Diane Martin, who has been there from the day I was born, quietly coaching me without judgment. My friends and my community who have lifted me up and supported me for all of these years, both personally and professionally.

When I heard the U.S. Supreme Court would effectively let stand U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, it was clear that all of our definitions of family would continue to grow and change. We can get married, we can legally adopt our children, and we can enjoy the legal protections and shoulder the responsibilities that come with this right. But we know that our community will always be more than the “traditional” definition of family. We have had to, out of necessity, forge strong bonds with our friends and surround ourselves with those we trust and who lift us up and support us. If you haven’t found those people, start looking—reach across any lines or barriers because we are all in this together.

Throughout the course of history, any group of invisible people have become visible and relevant because they support each other, lift each other up, and shout loudly that they have arrived. We are in control of our destiny now—we are responsible for the families we create, the dreams we chase, the lives we live.

True, honest, strong families, made up of the people you love and the people who lift you up are an utter blessing and a choice we all get to make. Thank you to my family and my community in Madison and Dane County. I love you all, always.

Family