As Harvey Milk said long ago, the most important thing you will ever do as a gay person is come out. Over the last two decades, our collective coming out has transformed society.
Coming out also transforms individuals. Of course safety and other practical considerations can put reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on how we do it. But even as an introvert, my own experiences and my observation of other LGBT folks have taught me to err on the side of outing yourself. The truth makes you free.
So it’s time to come out about three important truths, and finally explain to everyone why I disappeared a year ago.
1. I am a person living with mental illness.
Soon after I moved to Bellingham in July 2015, my body began to do strange new things. Many were wildly magnified versions of the mild anxiety symptoms I had successfully coped with for many years, such as trichotillomania, bruxism (teeth-grinding), and social anxiety. Others were completely new.
For example, trichotillomania is the compulsion to pull out your hair and eyelashes. I’ve had a mild case ever since high school. At particularly stressful times, without realizing it, I yank at the hair by my ears. This used to happen once or twice a year, and just for a few days. A barber once told me he’d seen similar pairs of small bald spots on only one other kind of neck – overwhelmed Asian grad students.
My new torment was totally different. Every day, all day, I would struggle to stop myself from ferociously rubbing my forehead and pulling out the hair on my scalp. Eventually, I serendipitously discovered I could distract myself some of the time by fiddling with oversized pipe cleaners from Michael’s craft store, although doing so still made me terribly self-conscious. Even with the progress I’ve made in the last few months, I struggle with trichotillomania and other symptoms every single day. My forehead is throbbing as I type this paragraph now.
In November 2015, when I described my symptoms to my new Bellingham physician, he promptly diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and serious codependency. He referred me to a therapist who helped us figure out the relationship between my symptoms and traumatic experiences in my Mormon youth thirty years before.
This year’s feature writing Pulitzer Prize went to a New York Times Magazine article about a Marine Corps marksman whose life was destroyed by PTSD. As I told a Bellingham friend who developed PTSD after serving as an Army Ranger medic in Afghanistan, I am sheepish about invoking the same DSM-V category as him. He told me not to be concerned, and that soldiers feel lucky they get so many folks’ respect. They worry instead about the countless children and women who are scarred by the impact of earlier domestic abuse and do not have access to the help they need. Some healthcare practitioners nevertheless limit PTSD diagnoses to situations involving grievous physical violence. Others take a broader approach, and there even is a burgeoning literature about the traumatic effects of the closet. My own physician recently told me that even if he used a slightly different label for his diagnosis, the result would be the same: events last year triggered my body’s toxic response to traumas I encountered as an overachieving but confused young gay Mormon.
2. I was fired from my dream job by incompetent and biased bureaucrats at the Attorney General’s Office.
In 2014, my former partner and his husband decided to move out of Seattle and start a new business. They ended up choosing Bellingham, where my parents happen to have lived since 1981. After eight months alone in Seattle as a fulltime single parent with three young children – still probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I was ready to cry uncle.
Then a miracle occurred. In the summer of 2015, I was offered my dream position in Bellingham with the Washington Attorney General’s Office (AGO), as chief legal advisor to Western Washington University. It was the perfect fit, in the perfect place for my family. I loved everything about my job and the prospect of working at Western until the kids graduate and I retire – except for the fact that insecure and incompetent colleagues at the AGO treated me like a noxious invader. My superiors’ actions triggered PTSD symptoms that continue today.
By the time my healthcare providers and I figured out what was going on, it was too late to alter my superiors’ opinions of me, or to persuade them to take seriously the AGO’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. After placing me on an abusive home assignment last March, the AGO fired me in May 2016 without even bothering to return my disability lawyer’s call.
Months later, I finally mediated and reached a settlement agreement with my former employers. The mediation itself and its outcome were frustrating. Nevertheless, they provided a measure of closure that improved my condition, and the money has helped my family survive what sometimes feels like a series of biblical plagues.
Everything about this experience has been excruciating. I don’t expect to practice law ever again, although I haven’t ruled out the possibility. I think of myself as a writer now, not a lawyer. Of course, I’m still looking for a day job in Bellingham. Let me know if you hear of any leads.
3. I am suing Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC for contributing to my injuries.
This week I am filing a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against another one of my tormentors, the Seattle law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC (“Seattle’s sleaziest bottom-feeding law firm®”).
Last year, while my request for a reasonable accommodation of my disability was pending, I submitted a separate sexual orientation discrimination complaint regarding an unpleasant encounter with my immediate supervisor. I contended the AGO acted on the basis of deeply rooted implicit and explicit homophobia when it took serious adverse action against me (such as giving $3,000 raises to every single Assistant Attorney General except me).
The AGO appointed an ostensibly independent outside investigator to look into my complaint: Ogden Murphy partner Patrick Pearce. He chose to become a mouthpiece for the AGO echo chamber, endorsing and accelerating a shameful rush to judgment about my character and competence.
Mr. Pearce all but ignored my actual complaint about sexual orientation discrimination. Rather, the April 29, 2016 Ogden Murphy Report focused on a second purported investigation topic – “Employee Conduct During 3/1/16 Meeting” – that I was unaware of, and would never have consented to having joined to and eclipsing my discrimination complaint. Crediting only cherry-picked AGO witnesses and self-serving documents, parroting unrebutted and unreliable hearsay, ignoring my documented disability, and contradicting Mr. Pearce’s own representations to me, the Ogden Murphy Report opines that the AGO did nothing untoward, but that I acted unprofessionally and without any justification throughout my tenure.
Immediately upon receiving the Ogden Murphy Report, the AGO fired me – without ever listening to my lawyer or doctors, and without giving me the opportunity to respond to the Report itself, or to most of the catalog of supposed offenses it regurgitated.
The Washington State Bar Association's recent presidential column about diversity and inclusion crystalized my outrage over one glaring example of the AGO’s and Ogden Murphy’s negligence and obtuseness:
"[I]in a group meeting for the Bellingham Section to discuss diversity as a hiring focus, Mr. Leishman commented that the Bellingham Section seemed to be the only Attorney General's office without any straight white males. Straight male employees were in attendance at the meeting."
The Ogden Murphy Report neglects to mention the only “straight male employees” in the entire twenty-person Bellingham office are two men of color. They would agree there is nothing wrong with talking honestly about diversity and inclusion. There is also nothing wrong about being a gay father, or about suffering from PTSD. Unless you’re the AGO and Ogden Murphy.
While preparing my lawsuit, I found a skeleton in Ogden Murphy's closet with a suspicious resemblance to myself. This is not the first time Mr. Pearce’s shoddy work has cost taxpayers. He also drafted the Office of Insurance Commissioner’s Whitewash Report on Chief Hearing Officer Patricia Petersen. Judge Petersen had filed a whistleblower complaint against a superior in the OIC after he improperly pressured her to rule for the OIC in matters pending before her. Just as in my case, the State placed Judge Peterson on administrative leave, and hired Mr. Pearce to do a third-rate hatchet job digging for imaginary dirt before firing her. She ended up getting a $450,000 settlement from her former employers. See, e.g., Talmadge Fitzpatrick’s memo and the Seattle Times’ and the Puget Sound Business Journal's reports. Mr. Pearce’s faux “independent” reports have now burdened taxpayers with at least two six-figure settlements. Perhaps the firm should consider a new slogan: “Ogden Murphy is the go-to firm for employers who want to commission an incompetent whitewash, then pay a hefty sum to their fired employees.”
Several of you have counseled me against litigation, suggesting it would be crazy to subject my family to the kind of stress and uncertainty I have observed in my clients’ experiences. Last year it was indeed more important to obtain closure with my employers than to tell my story publicly. But we’re prepared now.
And technically I am crazy, although I suspect Ogden Murphy will soon be disappointed to find I’m also a damn good lawyer. And some of my friends are among the best trial lawyers in the state. (You may place your bet on how many days it will take before Ogden Murphy admits they made a mistake refusing the very reasonable settlement offer my mom insisted I make before filing suit.) After twenty-five years of pursuing strategic impact litigation benefiting the LGBT community, I couldn’t let my own first lawsuit be just about the money (although my family certainly needs some financial relief after everything that we have been through). Instead, I hope to educate others about important topics: Mental illness, PTSD, and codependency. The enduring trauma of the closet. Chronic incompetence at the AGO. And of course Ogden Murphy’s pattern of abusing distinguished public servants.
This is only the beginning of what I expect will be an exciting new chapter of advocacy. You are reading the medium-sized version of the story – the “tall” tale, in Starbucks lingo. This is only the beginning of what I expect will be an exciting new chapter of advocacy. I have also drafted short, grande, and venti accounts of what went wrong at the Attorney General’s Office and Ogden Murphy, all of which you can find at http://www.rogerleishman.blogspot.com/. Choose your poison.
But in this Twitter Age, perhaps the teeny espresso shot version will suffice for many readers:
I am also well underway on the barrel-sized version of this and other stories, in a memoir about the trauma I endured at the hands of tormentors in my youth and at the AGO three decades later. At this point in my progress, my doctor has encouraged my book project as therapeutic. My working title started as Running With Chainsaws: Tales of Sex, Religion, and Mental Illness. Eventually the book evolved to Anyone Can Whistle: a Memoir of Showtunes, Religion, and Mental Illness. So far the story is funny, frank, informative, and brutal. One of my primary themes is to show how the tyranny of the closet harms individuals and society. Even before completing the book manuscript, I am no longer willing to duck questions from my friends.
Meanwhile I’m enjoying spring, making progress with my disability, and moving on with life. Other than my relationship with my family, the only bright spot this year has been singing with the Vancouver Men’s Chorus after my fifteen years in the Seattle Men’s Chorus. VMC shared the stage with Chanticleer last weekend, and now we’re gearing up for our June concerts. (Tickets are on sale at www.vancouvermenschorus.ca)
The kids are thriving, Bellingham is great, and Vancouver is even better. Happy spring.