By Kate Kendell, Esq.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the horrific death of Diane Alexis Whipple. For those of you who may not know or remember what happened to Diane, it was an unimaginable nightmare.
On the late afternoon of January 26, 2001, Diane was mauled to death by two enormous dogs in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building as she was bringing home groceries to make dinner that evening for herself and her partner of seven years, Sharon Smith. The brutality and terror of the attack were horrifying, and reports of Diane’s terrible death gripped the entire country.
For the nation, this nightmare story was made worse by the stunning and dismissive attitude of the dog owners Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who knew their animals were extremely dangerous and uncontrollable, but took no steps to protect their neighbors or any other member of the public. Robert and Marjorie variously blamed Diane for the attack, minimized the dogs’ viciousness, and generally showed an appalling absence of empathy or regret for the horror they had wreaked. Both were later convicted on criminal charges—Robert of manslaughter and Marjorie of second-degree murder. Robert served two years, and Marjorie is still in prison after losing multiple appeals.
While many of us might have understandably curled up in a ball and retreated from life after such a traumatizing loss, Sharon became a very unlikely, and in some sense, unwilling, activist. Sharon made the decision to attempt in every way she could to vindicate Diane’s death. Early on, the National Center for Lesbian Rights joined attorney Michael Cardoza and represented Sharon in a wrongful death action against the dog owners. Up until Sharon’s case, it was virtually unheard of for a same-sex partner to be permitted to sue for wrongful death. In every prior case, the surviving partner was deemed a “legal stranger,” regardless of the length or depth of the relationship. So in the midst of full tragedy, not only were same-sex partners grieving the senseless death of their soul mate at the hands of a drunk driver, for example, but they were denied the right to hold those responsible for the death of their partner accountable.
I will never forget the first moment I met Sharon. She walked into Michael’s law office only days after Diane’s death. She had such a deep pain and sadness in her eyes. But she also possessed a sort of dignity, calm, and determination that made an indelible impression on everyone she met. We won the right to sue for wrongful death for Sharon. We made history with her. But that measure of vindication, while enormously important, could never bridge Sharon’s terrible loss.
Sharon did dozens of interviews and received cards and letters from thousands of people from all over the country and around the world. Her grace under unbearable circumstances was inspiring and put a human face on the LGBT community. The stark injustice of the law’s disregard for her relationship with Diane provided a powerful narrative for how little the law protects and acknowledges our relationships.
In 2001, there were hardly any protections for our relationships under state law. We have come so far in 10 years, and I know that Sharon’s visibility and courage was a catalyst for that progress. Sharon testified before the California State Assembly Judiciary in 2001. Her testimony about Diane’s death and the impact it had on her had a tremendous impact on the committee and led to the right to sue for wrongful death being included in California’s domestic partner protections. Four short years later, in 2005, the California legislature enacted a comprehensive domestic partnership statute. The tragedy and horror of Diane’s death could not be undone, but Sharon’s voice and activism had ignited greater awareness and commitment to long-lasting gains for LGBT Americans.
Sharon will always be a personal hero of mine. She is an amazing person and now a terrific parent to three beautiful kids. Her grit and presence, her grace and dignity under unimaginable circumstances moved hearts and opened minds. This anniversary marks the loss of a remarkable, loving, and vibrant woman and everything she could have been and done. In talking with Sharon, she said to me that her “body knows” this anniversary and the sadness is always still there. But this anniversary also marks the emergence of a strong and determined new activist who turned grief into a catalyst to make the world better for the rest of us. I don’t really pray, but today I say a prayer of thanks for Sharon, and hope for her comfort and peace on this difficult day. And for Diane Alexis Whipple, I say a prayer that somehow she knows her death made a difference.