Attorney Jim Evans’ appointment is an historic LGBT milestone.
By Brandon Wolf
Jim Evans has been a typesetter, a Baptist minister, a grade-school teacher, an in-house counsel, and a family-law attorney. On January 1, 2017, he added Family Court associate judge to his résumé.
This career change, however, is different than his previous moves. As he took his place on the bench early last month, he became the first openly gay man to serve as a Texas Family Court judge. “There are openly LGBT judges in the criminal and civil courts,” Evans says. “But this is a first for Texas—and probably for the South in general.”
For the LGBT community, it’s an important step forward. Family courts deal with deeply personal issues such as adoption, divorce, custody, community-property distribution, child support, and name changes.
The 507th Judicial District Family Court
In 2015, the Texas Legislature created several new judicial districts to handle ever-increasing caseloads throughout the state. One of those new districts was Houston’s 507th Judicial District Family Court. The governor appointed attorney Alyssa Lemkuil to serve for one year beginning January 1, 2016.
But in the November elections, Lemkuil, a Republican, lost her bid for a subsequent full term to Democrat Julia Maldonado, who won 52 percent of the Harris County vote. Each incoming family-court judge must then appoint an associate judge to help with the district’s caseload. Maldonado appointed Evans to serve as her associate judge.
Evans is familiar with elective politics. In 2014, he ran for the 308th Family District Court. Winning the Democratic primary, he ran against Republican incumbent James Lombardino. Evans took 47 percent of the vote. “It was the 2014 mid-terms,” he says. “The Republicans swept that election.”
Despite the loss, the Houston Chronicle’s endorsement of Evans was a tribute to his qualifications: “A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Evans, 47, has a pastor’s compassion that comes from working as a Baptist minister, not to mention a master’s degree in religious studies. A personal experience of perceived discrimination against Evans and his husband in the family courts led Evans to run for a position on the bench. He brings his decade of legal experience to bear on his passion for more equitable courts.”
During the 2014 election, Evans answered a Chronicle questionnaire about why the election was important to him: “It will be significant to have an openly gay person on the bench. Currently, the family courts in Harris County negatively discriminate against gay and lesbian people. For example, none of the family judges, all of whom are Republican, will grant an adoption in a case where the prospective adoptive parent is an ‘out’ gay or lesbian.”
Because of the difficulties that LGBT citizens have with family-court cases, Houston attorneys often take those cases to Bexar or Dallas counties, where the judiciary has proven to be more equitable. Evans says that he thinks the situation has changed somewhat since the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) marriage-equality decision in June 2015.
But despite improving attitudes, Evans believes most attorneys with LGBT clients still prefer to take their cases elsewhere. “It’s still too big a risk,” he says.
Because cases are assigned randomly, it will only be by chance that cases with LGBT litigants end up in Evans’ courtroom. Still, he hopes that with his visibility as an openly gay family-court judge, his colleagues on the bench will begin to disregard sexual orientation when making rulings.
Born and Raised in the Houston Area
Evans was born in 1967 in Pasadena, where his father was a lab technician for a petrochemical company “along the Channel.” His mother was a homemaker, raising Evans and a younger sister. He spent his first three years of school in the La Porte ISD before transferring to private Baptist academies in the area.
Evans says his childhood memories are happy ones. While he was a good student with good grades, athletics were different. “I know what it’s like to be chosen last,” he says. Still, he enjoyed playing dodgeball with the neighborhood kids after school. And every summer, the family spent two weeks camping—something he eagerly looked forward to.
In high school, Evans played the marimba in the band. He especially gravitated toward such subjects as foreign language, history, and anthropology. Growing up amidst conservative Baptist beliefs, his social life was limited and there was no television in the home. Evans says that he still doesn’t have a good grasp on the pop culture of his youth—including the television series, movies, and popular music of the 1970s and 1980s.
Evans enrolled in Houston Baptist University, where he had a full scholarship based on his outstanding high-school grades. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1989, majoring in Spanish and history. But his real passion was education, and he dreamed of being a foreign missionary who developed Christian educational curricula.
Marriage and Ministry
After graduating from college, Evans moved on to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth to earn a master of education degree in 1992.
In 1990, Evans began a married relationship that lasted for 17 years and produced two sons. Looking back, he says marriage and children was the only option he was aware of for his life. The only gay celebrity he can remember from the times was Martina Navratilova. “Even Elton John was married to a woman in the 1980s.”
After seminary, Evans got his first position as an associate minister in a Texas church. It was a part-time job, and he also worked for the Texas Jewish Post as a typesetter. “I knew every article in the paper, because I had to type each one by hand,” he remembers.
As an associate minister, he was in charge of education, youth activities, and the music program. “I took a lot of trips to Six Flags,” he says with a smile.
Evans moved on to similar church positions in Maryland and Louisiana before leaving the ministry in 1999. As a local schoolteacher in Monroe, Louisiana, he taught Spanish to 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at four different schools.
In 2000, after taking stock of his life and realizing that neither religion nor education offered much to support a family of four, Evans moved his family back to Houston and entered the University of Houston Law School. “Being older, I could really appreciate the value of the program,” he recalls. Evans was in the top 10 percent of his class, and selected to work on the school’s Law Review. He received his law degree in 2003.
Coming Out as a Gay Man
Evans held a variety of legal positions from 2003 to 2007, working with bankruptcy law and as a corporate in-house counsel. While his new career made it easier to provide for his family, he was also finally coming to terms with his sexual orientation.
In 2007, Evans came out. “I knew I couldn’t live the next 40 years the same way I’d lived the first 40,” he says. Separated and alone, Evans began attending the Fathers First support group at Bering United Methodist Church. The group helped him sort things out, and he appreciated being able to share his feelings with other men who were in the same situation.
One of those men was William Flowers, with whom he fell in love. The men were married in 2010 in Connecticut, in a small ceremony that included just their children and a few close friends.
In 2008, Evans joined a family-law firm. Feeling confident that this was the field he truly loved, he started his own family-law practice in 2010.
With his appointment to the 507th Judicial District Family Court, Evans had to close his practice and refer clients to other attorneys. By late December, his office was filled with his outgoing boxes—and the incoming boxes of the new tenants.
Evans now offices at the Harris County Civil Courthouse at 201 Caroline. When he took the oath of office in that building’s ceremonial courtroom last month, he became the 12th openly LGBT judge in the state.
As a family-court judge, Evans seems like a natural. A man with a warm and patient manner, he knows how to make complex issues understandable. As a father of two sons, he understands family life. He also understands the emotions that arise when a family is broken up and spouses struggle to adjust to new realities.
Evans is a good listener who answers questions thoroughly. The educator side of him can recognize when a person isn’t comprehending, and he will search for another way to explain until things are clear. He has a quick sense of humor and a compassionate nature. Unaffected, Evans doesn’t find it beneath him to slip a couple of LOLs into an email.
Currently, Evans teaches Sunday school at Deer Park United Methodist Church. He feels strongly about the rights and dignity of children. “Sometimes children aren’t treated as people,” he says. “Some adults feel it’s okay to walk into a room where children are watching television and change the channel to what they want to watch. Oftentimes, the opinions of children aren’t sought or valued.”
Evans also feels strongly about the use of the word adoptive. “A child shouldn’t be singled out as ‘an adoptive son or daughter’—they should be spoken of simply as a son or daughter.”
In the Houston Chronicle 2014 election questionnaire, Evans replied with answers that provide a deeper look at both his character and his qualifications to serve as a family court judge: “I am running for this bench because I am qualified to do the work required of a judge, and because I am passionate about doing that work with integrity and with an understanding of the enormous consequences of my decisions.
“The presiding judge in this court has the ability to appoint ad litem attorneys, amicus attorneys, and receivers in hundreds of cases each year.” Noting that his opponent often appointed campaign benefactors, Evans added: “This sort of favoritism is inappropriate, and not in the best interest of the children who are the subjects of the cases before the court.
“For the last five years, I have practiced family law almost exclusively. I know the family judges in Harris County, the family attorneys in Harris County, and the statutory and common-law basis for family law decision-making in Texas. I have a necessary understanding of the complicated property issues that sometimes arise in divorces. In 2009, I obtained certification as a family-law mediator, and I understand the value and the limitations of mediation as a tool that can be used to resolve family-law disputes.”
Recalling his employment as a teacher and a minister, Evans pointed out: “These prior careers gave me an appreciation of the enormity of the pressures that people face with regard to their family lives and decision-making. This appreciation will inform my rulings on the bench as I strive for fairness and justice. I am a parent, divorced parent, step-parent, and adoptive parent.”
LGBTs and Family Law
With the SCOTUS marriage-equality decision in 2015, the landscape of family law has changed for LGBT citizens. Although basic equality has been won, the details will continue to be worked out in courtrooms for years to come.
One unresolved question that affects cases involving community-property distribution is the date when a Texas couple may consider themselves to be married. If a Texas couple went to another state to be married before the 2015 SCOTUS decision, is it the date of their out-of-state marriage or the 2015 date when marriage was legalized in Texas? And if the couple had previously held themselves out as “married,” will Texas common-law marriage rules apply?
Although Texas judges must abide by the SCOTUS marriage-equality decision, those who oppose the ruling can make life more difficult for gay or lesbian couples involved in a divorce settlement. Likewise, judges often rule against an LGBT parent when the divorce involves a heterosexual partner.
Evans doesn’t hold himself out as a savior, but he does feel that his presence on the court will help to make the local legal system more equitable for the LGBT community. Those changes will probably come slowly, but he has a strong belief that change is good—and he will do what he can to further it.
Evans also disagrees with the popular life-is-short meme that is heard so often. “Life is long,” he says thoughtfully. “Why should we limit what our lives can be? We can change, and make our lives what we want them to be.”
Jim Evans’ evolving career is living proof of that belief.
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Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.