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Civil-rights attorney discusses new book, career, upcoming event
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2016-11-09

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Elizabeth Schwartz has been practicing law for almost 20 years in Miami Beach, Florida, and recently wrote a book, Before I Do: A Legal Guide to Marriage, Gay and Otherwise.

Schwartz is a South Florida native and grew up in Hollywood, Florida, before heading off to college. She's the youngest of six kids in what she calls a real-life Brady Bunch blended family. Schwartz received her B.A. in communications from the University of Pennsylvania and graduated cum laude from The University of Miami School of Law.

"In undergrad, I remember marching in the Penn gay pride parade even when I had a boyfriend," said Schwartz. "I got it politically before I got it personally. Like so many, I was into all kinds of activism in college, with a particular focus on racial and reproductive justice."

Schwartz explained that she decided to become a lawyer when she began to note many people who affected social change were lawyers.

"As it turns out, I've indeed been able to participate in some landmark litigation work to provide crucial protections to the LGBT community including the fights for fair access to adoption, marriage and birth certificates," said Schwartz. "But with all the victories celebrated, what haunts me are all those for whom these legal protections weren't enough or didn't come soon enough, like the many children who have lost access to their beloved parents, maybe because those parents were non-biological mothers who didn't get to protect their rights through an adoption or simply because they were gay and deemed unfit to parent. I have so many of those awful cases in my archives and in my heart."

The book was spearheaded by Schwartz's editor, who also teaches queer studies.

"She was mortified by all the young LGBT kids who would casually announce their intentions to wed without much aforethought," said Schwartz. "She realized there needs to be a legal guide to marriage for all those who are just joining the institution. She found her way to me in part because my mantra in my talks across the country has been that folks really need to look before they leap. Of course straight folks have been just as impulsive and it seems there is plenty of ignorance to go around, hence the 'otherwise' part. This book truly is for all couples who have tied the knot or are considering it."

In the first chapter of her book, Schwartz talks about her own conflicted feelings about marriage. Schwartz and her wife, Miami Herald journalist and award-winning fiction author Lydia Martin, came to the conclusion that after 11 years together they were, as she says, in it to win it.

Martin first came to Schwartz's attention through her dad. He would cut out Martin's articles as examples of good writing and great content, and Schwartz said when they met each other she fell in love with Martin's "big brain and heart."

"Once the Windsor decision came down from the [U.S. Supreme Court], the potential advantages of marrying began to outweigh the risks," said Schwartz. "In 2013, we each had a parent who was both in failing health and for whom seeing us married conveyed a sense of safety and stability that was very meaningful to them. So while neither of us felt marriage was something we needed to evidence our commitment, we understood that it had a different meaning for those particular parents, both of whom have passed away since.

"There also were practical reasons, my wife had spent her whole life working for a newspaper whose parent company was based in California and if I wanted to get her pension at her death, we'd have needed to be married. She quit that newspaper to pursue a fiction career and had guilt about leaving that full-time job to take this leap of faith into a new creative realm. I wanted her to have the greatest sense of safety possible and so marrying her seemed like a way to convey—loud and clear—this was an investment I was committed to. So I talked to my accountant about it and then once I got her blessing, we tied the knot in a teensy ceremony in a Bennington, Vermont, synagogue with just a few family members in attendance."

The book also features cameo appearances by other individuals and an afterword by LGBT activist/famed plaintiff Jim Obergefell.

Schwartz explained that she included these varied voices because she wanted real life stories to illustrate the legal information in the book.

"Plus I know what I know and what I don't know," said Schwartz. "So it was important to include submissions from people with different expertise like elder law, tax planning, military law, clinical psychology and more."

As for how Obergefell came to write the afterword, Schwartz noted that she met him when he was honored by SAGE—Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders ( where she serves as co-chair of the national board ) at their 2015 Gala in New York City.

"I was impressed with what a gentle, smart, thoughtful and committed man he is; and how he took the great personal tragedy of losing his husband as a catalyst to fight for lasting change, subjecting himself to a grueling court process and living his life in the public eye," said Schwartz. "We thought his closing out the book with a lens on love and the future would be perfect poetry. Turns out this 'accidental activist' is a darn good writer. I'm immensely grateful for his taking the time to contribute."

Over her 20-plus years of LGBT activism, Schwartz has received numerous honors and is affiliated with many organizations. The award that stands out to her the most is the one she received from the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2012.

"I have so much respect for the Task Force's work both at a national level and in local communities like Miami where the organization's roots run deep," said Schwartz. "It's the award named in the memory of a hero and friend, Eddy McIntrye, whose legacy of community service is tremendous. Much of the work I do is under the radar and not at all glamorous, so to have a room of 900 people show appreciation was incredibly inspiring and humbling."

When not working, Schwartz squeezes in some yoga and Soul Cycle.

"I also hang out with our doggie Gracie Kenisha de la Caridad, whose demands for belly rubs are a time-consuming delight," said Schwartz.

Schwartz will be in Chicago for a book signing and Q&A on Wed., Nov. 16, at the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theater, 7-8 p.m. The event has a $5 suggested donation and will include light refreshments and drinks. The sponsors have underwritten copies of the book for the first 30 people to RSVP.

As for what Schwartz wants readers to take away from the book, it's "that there are numerous legal consequences of marrying and since the right to marry does not create an obligation to marry, get informed because no one likes unwanted surprises."

See ElizabethSchwartz.com/beforeido/ for more information.

To register for the event, visit CenterOnHalsted.org/newevents-details.cfm .


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