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By Rich Arenschieldt
Amidst the media coverage of the mass same-sex ceremonies taking place nationally, and in Houston, it’s easy to overlook those stalwart couples who have been “married” long before it was permissible, advisable, or even possible for them to do so. Enter Houston’s “mom and mom” lesbian lawyers, Connie Moore and Debbie Hunt. For 30 years, this duo has been advocating for LGBT individuals and exploring uncharted queer legal territory while simultaneously forging a personal partnership that would be the envy of any heterosexual couple.
The two met while attending law school at the University of Houston. “Debbie was a year behind me in school,” Connie recalls. “We knew of each other and had attended various social events, periodically encountering one another at different extracurricular functions. Then, in March of 1986, we had an occasion to spend a significant amount of time together. I came to know her better and wanted her to be in my life in a substantive way. During my last semester of law school, we started dating. Soon after, I took the bar exam and began looking for a job outside of Houston.”
However, as the two became closer, Connie’s desire to relocate diminished significantly. “Eventually we decided to open up a law office,” Debbie says. “By then I had graduated and passed the bar exam, and we had offices where they are now [in Montrose], as Moore & Hunt.”
At that time, there were few legal firms catering to LGBT clients and their issues, though discrimination in housing, employment, and custody cases was rampant. “We were actively looking for LGBT clients who needed help. We started out doing estate planning, custody cases, and probate work,” Debbie says. “People eventually found us and knew that they could openly discuss things. We weren’t afraid to be ‘out’ and just do what needed to be done. We weren’t always the first to address issues, but we probably were the noisiest. We had found our niche.”
Moore & Hunt is more than just a legal firm. These two talented attorneys each have specific skills that complement each other—skills that have been honed through years of working and living together.
“We always joke that Debbie is the brains and I am the mouth of this practice,” Connie says. “I focus on the big picture—what judges and juries should take away—and Debbie focuses on the details and facts.
“I’m not patient by any means, but I’m not ‘in your face,’” Connie admits. However, as the daughter of a genteel Southern mother, Connie knows that “you catch more flies with sugar. Given the right facts and details—often provided by Debbie—I could persuade you of anything.”
Debbie concurs: “Connie doesn’t take no for an answer. If there’s something she wants to do, she does it. Most of the innovative ideas within our practice have come from her. She doesn’t just read a statute and accept it at face value. Connie always wants to test the limits of a law to see what can be accomplished ‘in and around’ it.”
In the early days of their partnership, Houston’s LGBT community was clearly defined along gender lines; men and women lived very distinct existences. “[Gays and lesbians] had established separate identities within the same community,” Debbie says. “The HIV crisis changed that and, in a way, saved us. We became unified toward a single purpose. The epidemic forced us together because the men simply couldn’t face this alone.” Many women stepped in to assist their friends—caregivers who were emotionally, financially, and physically overwhelmed.
“We saw a piece on the news about Stone Soup Food Pantry, an organization that distributed food to people with HIV,” Connie says. “Debbie and I went through the training to volunteer. Debbie did hospital visitations at the old Jeff Davis Hospital, and I got a ‘buddy’ who was in the Pride Band. I had played the saxophone years ago, and he convinced me to join the band—a small decision that changed my life and connected me to many wonderful people.
“The legal community had just started to address many LGBT issues,” Connie continues, “many of those centered on HIV and custody cases involving lesbians who were leaving heterosexual marriages and losing custody of their children.” Those cases were of specific interest. “These mothers were excellent in all respects,” she says. “The only thing that made them inappropriate as parents—in the eyes of the court—was the fact that they were lesbian. This was a common defense brought by the other parent, usually a male, who was furious that his wife was leaving him for a woman—nothing but pure revenge, without regard for the welfare of the children.
“Much of what we did revolved around educating other attorneys and judges on subjects they were unfamiliar with,” Connie says. “We showed that being gay or lesbian was no longer a cause for [legal] action—we stood up and proved otherwise.
“We also started to connect with national LGBT law associations. Early on, we met some attorneys from New York and California who gave us information and ideas on how to handle specific LGBT issues,” she says. This expertise, combined with the cases they were working on, enabled Moore & Hunt to become a local legal resource. “We published a newsletter and had to put all of the good queer stuff on the inside pages, out of plain view. We sent it to certain family-law judges, many of whom are now friends, hoping to inform them about issues.
“Historically, we seemed to get involved in a specific practice area when it was new to the profession.” Connie says. “We were very comfortable training attorneys to do this work, and, after a while, others would develop similar expertise. It was crucial to us that these cases were handled correctly and that they stand up legally over time. You have to train those who follow you. We get tired, [so we need to] let these young lawyers do this work.”
Their early work focused on custody cases and the formation of domestic partnerships—something they did, Debbie says, by “creating documents that didn’t exist.” Then they dealt with same-sex joint-adoption cases whereby “we solidified family rights within the judicial system. Now, we are handling cases dealing with surrogacy, helping LGBT couples establish families through an assisted reproductive process.
“Much of this has been possible,” Debbie says, “by Connie reading and interpreting the family code in a certain way and, more importantly, convincing judges to do the same. As a result, we have been able to do same-sex adoptions and, for the last 15 years, we have protected many families in the process.”
Many recent advances have resulted from hard-fought battles. Reflecting on the emotional aspects of her work, Connie says, “This process hasn’t always been easy. Many nights Debbie has held me when I have cried myself to sleep as the result of the outcome of a case—especially when what was truly ‘right’ didn’t, for whatever reason, happen. Sometimes it’s truly painful, but we simply get up and try again.”
Even the casual observer will notice the emotional power that exists within their relationship. “We have had our ups and downs,” Debbie says. “We understood the value of establishing some ground rules. We knew that we would receive greater rewards from this partnership by not violating those established boundaries—something that is often difficult for many couples to negotiate. Certainly we’ve had disagreements, but we never take those outside of our relationship.”
Connie is now confronting late-stage ovarian cancer, but the dynamic of the partnership is essentially unchanged. “Even in the midst of all that has taken place in recent weeks, Connie still takes care of me,” Debbie says. “Physically, she’s not the same, but emotionally she still supports me enormously.”
Reflecting on their three-decade career, Connie has seen incredible progress on many fronts. “People are increasingly intolerant when witnessing injustice. Much of that is due to recent legal victories. We have seen a huge shift when consulting with clients on their estate planning. We used to have to safeguard their assets from hostile family members; now that’s the exception. I’ve seen significant changes occur in the law and how it is interpreted.” Connie knows that the law is organic, and offers one of her favorites quotes from Thomas Jefferson: “Keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat that fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
“I am one of the luckiest lawyers I know,” Connie says. “Professionally, I have been surrounded by people who easily comprehended how detailed information should be handled.”
Personally, she looks back on life with visible appreciation and pride: “Debbie and I were two young girls with back-to-back zodiac signs [Aries and Taurus]. We have had a shared life that no one could comprehend unless they were actually part of it. To be together [while simultaneously retaining] our own identities is wondrous.
“To work and love and create a family with children and grandchildren, to have a professional life championing the rights and causes that were important to other people, to preserve and create families, and then, at the end of the day,” Connie says, “to come home to each other—it’s been the best life in the world, especially during these last weeks, to receive this outpouring of love.
“Luckily, we made a lot of ‘right’ decisions—it’s just been the two of us all of these years.” Even now, in this last chapter of her life, Connie is thankful. “How many people get to leave in this way? I’m surrounded by those I love and care about.”
“Our standard joke,” Debbie says, “was the thought that we would leave the world after taking a vacation. It’s working slightly differently, but, as you can see, Connie is still driving.”
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.