Defending the Indefensible

April 29, 2010

The story of Harold Scull and Clay Greene has reached tens of thousands of people, and in its telling has raised many questions. Since we announced our involvement in the case a couple of weeks ago, many readers have emailed the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). We have been touched by the outpouring of support for Clay, who literally lost everything after his partner of 25 years fell on the front porch of their home. We also have been disappointed by Sonoma County’s attacks on Clay—a deflection of the true issue in this case, which is the County’s appalling and unlawful conduct toward Harold and Clay. Clay Greene is not on trial. The County of Sonoma is, and they have yet to address the actual charges raised in this case.

In attempting to defend the indefensible, Sonoma County has accused Clay of domestic violence and claimed that he and Harold—despite their 25 years together—were just “roommates.” We believe the accusations are untrue, as does Jannette Biggerstaff, a long-time friend of Harold and Clay and the executor of Harold’s estate. She is joining Clay in suing Sonoma County on Harold’s behalf. Because Harold is dead, Jannette is the only one who can speak for him. In a letter to the editor that just ran in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Jannette spoke out about the county’s allegations:

“I am outraged at Sonoma County’s false accusations that Greene abused Scull. Since he is unable to correct these claims, I feel that I must speak out about the county’s accusations.

In the decades I knew this couple, I never witnessed abuse, and I am firmly convinced that no such abuse took place. What I have witnessed is the diabolical behavior of the county, which treated this couple shamefully and robbed them of their home, lifetime of treasures, freedom and what should have been their loving last days together.I am confident that Greene will be vindicated, despite the county’s efforts to malign his reputation in the press. The full story will come out at trial.”

Both Mother Jones and The Bay Area Reporter have in-depth coverage.

The accusation of abuse arose out of the initial circumstances surrounding Harold’s fall. By the day of that fateful injury, Harold, then 88 years old, had endured open heart surgery, was on a number of medications that made him unsteady and uncomfortable, had suffered an earlier fall from which he was still bruised and recovering, and was in seriously declining physical and mental health. In 2004, my own father had been in and out of the hospital and told me that he never wanted to go back “no matter what.” My dad had, in his own words, “had a gutful.” We honored his wishes and he died at home three weeks later. Like my dad, when Harold fell on the front porch steps of their home, he did not want Clay to call an ambulance. But Clay knew that the fall was serious and that medical attention was required. He did what any of us would do—he called the paramedics. When Harold, in a fury, told the paramedics that Clay had pushed him, they reported the allegations and the County responded. We do not take issue with their initial response.

It is what happened in the weeks and months following Harold’s fall that is so disturbing and for which the County has no viable defense or response. By the time the County was done, Harold had died in a nursing home without Clay by his side, and Clay had been removed from his home and placed in a facility against his will and without legal authorization. Virtually all of the couple’s belongings, including numerous pieces of art, Hollywood memorabilia and collectibles, had been sold at auction or had disappeared. In an early visit by County employees to review the contents of the home, workers remarked on the couple’s treasures, with one noting how much his “wife would love” a piece and a second commenting how “great that would look in my house” on another. When Clay objected he was told to “shut up.”

The vulnerabilities faced by the elderly in our society know no gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. But when our relationships and lives are not fully understood, embraced and protected by the larger culture and by common experience, those universal vulnerabilities grow exponentially. The Center for American Progress just released a comprehensive report, Out of the Shadows: Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults, which outlines the unique circumstances that make successful aging more difficult for LGBT elders than for their heterosexual counterparts.

NCLR joined this case because we want to make sure that what happened to Clay doesn’t happen to others. In 1999, NCLR launched our groundbreaking Elder Law Project, which advocates for policies and legislation to protect the medical and financial rights of LGBT elders, and educates the professionals (health care providers, lawyers, case workers) who are charged with assisting them. Last summer, we released Planning with Purpose: Legal Basics for LGBT Elders, which we strongly urge every member of our community to read. What happened to Harold and Clay is a sobering reminder that we must take extra steps to protect our interests and rights.

The fact that what happened to Harold and Clay occurred in Sonoma County is perhaps the larger lesson in this cautionary tale. Sonoma County was one of a handful of counties in California to vote against Proposition 8. We do not believe that the people of Sonoma County are anti-gay. We do ask that people take a hard look at how and why Harold died alone and Clay is left without any closure or chance to say goodbye to his partner of 25 years, and why Clay has also lost his lifetime of belongings, his beloved cats, and the home he shared with Harold.

Many people have been moved by Harold and Clay’s tragedy and the outpouring of support has been incredible to witness. I’ve received emails and messages from residents of Sonoma County who are dismayed that this happened where they live. But I have also seen calls to boycott Sonoma tourism and businesses. I strongly urge against any boycott of Sonoma.

I spent this past weekend in Sonoma County with family and friends, celebrating my 50th birthday. I rode my bike, we went wine tasting, ate in great restaurants, shopped in wonderful shops and markets and brought back some of the fruits of our adventures to enjoy later. I did all this in the midst of the drama and intensity of the terrible saga involving Harold and Clay. What happened to this couple was an injustice. They were mistreated by a number of officials in a County system that must be held accountable. But the people and businesses of Sonoma County are not the wrongdoers here. Those who made decisions regarding the disposal and sale of Harold and Clay’s lifetime of possessions and who placed Clay, against his will, in an assisted care facility must be called to account. That is why they are defendants in a lawsuit brought by Clay and the executor of Harold’s estate, and why we at NCLR are assisting local counsel in bringing attention to this nightmare.

Lastly, many of you have asked how you can make a direct donation to Clay. A trust has been set up in his name and checks can be made out to “The Clay Greene Trust Fund” and sent to the following address:

The Clay Greene Trust Fund
Exchange Bank
720 Gravenstein Hwy. North
Sebastopol, CA 95472

Also, you can visit any of the Exchange Bank offices and make a deposit. The trust is researching options for those interested in making online gifts.

Thank you for your support and questions. This is a case that has touched many hearts. While we can never give Harold and Clay the peace they yearned for in their final days, we will continue to work for justice—not just for Harold and Clay, but for all LGBT elders.

In Solidarity,

Plot Thickens in Sonoma Discrimination Case

April 28, 2010

by Mac McClelland | Mother Jones

I appear to be having my own personal little pride week over here. In part three of my recent gay-rights rampage, let’s talk about the case of Harold Scull and Clay Greene.

Last week the story of Sonoma County’s treatment of this elderly gay California couple came out: When Scull was hospitalized in 2008, county workers kept Greene from seeing him, despite the couple’s legal medical directives, put Scull in a nursing home without consulting Greene, detained Greene against his will in a different nursing home, and seized and sold all of both men’s belongings to pay for the care of Scull, who died a few months later. Greene, naturally, is suing. Sonoma County is saying it did what it did because it was afraid Scull was being abused.

I’ve made clear before that I have trouble being sympathetic toward spouse-abusers, but discrimination is discrimination, and discrimination is never right. Or as one of Greene’s lawyers, Shannon Minter, more articulately put it, “The county was certainly right to take initial measures to investigate and determine whether there was abuse, which is a serious issue…But they did not treat this case as they would have for a heterosexual couple.”

That last sentence is key, and it needs a little unpacking. What’s the difference, I asked Minter, in the way the county would’ve handled the case were this a heterosexual couple dealing with allegations of abuse?

Ordinarily, they would have sought conservatorship of Harold’s person. They did not. They sought conservativeship of Harold’s estate only. That is peculiar right out of the box. Then what they did subsequently was just try to get rid of Clay [Greene], get Clay out of the picture, without any recognition that these two people had been together for so long.

Then they did something you see in nightmares and scary movies:

They had Clay put into a secure nursing facility and claimed that he had dementia when he did not. And they did not follow the legal procedure for putting someone in a secure nursing faciliity. You cannot do that without having the person evaluated by a doctor to determine whether they’re capable of making their own decisions. He tried to leave. He tried to walk away, to climb over the fence, but they would physically prevent him from leaving.

Then the county sold all Greene’s possessions, along with Scull’s. Greene’s pickup truck, his mementos from when he worked in the movie industry. When the county originally requested conservatorship of Scull’s estate, a judge denied it. It’s not clear whether it got legal control of his property eventually, but it certainly never had legal control of Greene’s. So even if Greene had been abusive, it seems the county was alarmingly out of line. “If this had been a married heterosexual couple,” Minter says, “they couldn’t have done these things. And wouldn’t have done these things.”

In a recent twist, it’s looking more than ever like Greene wasn’t abusive, anyway. The DA had already come to the conclusion that there wasn’t enough evidence of abuse to prosecute. It’s not clear if the county investigated further before deciding to force Greene into a home and sell all his stuff, but if it did, it must not have consulted the allegedly-abused’s best friend and executor of estate: Yesterday, she published an op-ed in the local Press Democrat saying that the allegations are totally unfounded. She’s become a plaintiff in the case against Sonoma.

Meet Harold and Clay

April 20, 2010

The response to the horrific story of Clay Greene and Harold Scull has been very gratifying and inspiring. Clearly, their story struck a chord in all of us. To some degree we can’t help imagining ourselves in exactly this situation. Forty-eight hours ago, few people knew their names, and now a Facebook page in their honor has more than 5,000 fans. Quite simply, this case demonstrates how our relationships as LGBT people are so fragile, especially when we reach our later years. Just one small incident, in this case a fall down some steps, sends the world crashing down.

Harold and Clay were in a committed relationship for twenty-five years, and they lived together for twenty years. Both Harold and Clay had worked in Hollywood and were passionate collectors of film memorabilia. Harold had worked for MGM studios in the 1950s and was a favorite of Louis B. Mayer in the studio’s heyday. At the same time, Clay worked in television with many popular stars of that period. In addition to his film industry career, Harold was an accomplished artist and avid collector, especially of Mexican and Central American Santos religious art and artifacts. Art, heirlooms, and memorabilia graced the walls of their leased home, in which they planned to live together until their deaths.

Several folks have commented about the legal status of Clay and Harold’s relationship. These tragic events began in April 2008, one month before the California Supreme Court’s historic marriage ruling. By the time the California Supreme Court ruled and marriages began for that brief six months, Harold was already hospitalized and Clay imprisoned in a nursing home. The two men had not registered as Domestic Partners, and they may not have even known that option existed.  But they had filled out all the paperwork that attorneys advise same-sex couples to create, including wills and powers of attorney for health care.

In every case our clients are human beings, and they are not perfect, which is why we all identify so fiercely with those we represent. At the time of Harold’s fall he had already been experiencing some degree of mental impairment, and had been drinking. He fell down the stairs and became angry when Clay wanted to call an ambulance because he was afraid of what the result might be. (And as it turned out, he had good reason to be.)   The paramedics who arrived on the scene suspected the possibility of abuse. But that suspicion was false. What happened over the next two months is when the nightmare truly began. Once Harold was released from the hospital to a nursing home, the county refused to tell Clay where Harold had been placed, forced Clay into a nursing home where he did not need to be, auctioned all of his possessions, including treasured and valuable works of art and family memorabilia, and took away his two beloved cats. The level of inhumanity is staggering.

After 25 years of a rich and shared life of devoted commitment, a couple at least deserves being able to be at each other’s bedside at the last moments of life. Not only was Harold denied that comfort, and Clay denied the ability to be there to say goodbye to his life partner, but Clay was stripped of everything that mattered and gave him stability in his life.

We can’t change what happened to Harold and Clay, but we can do what we try to do every day: to create a world where what happened to Harold and Clay never happens again.


For Clay and Harold, and the Promise of Equality

April 19, 2010

By now you probably have heard about NCLR’s latest case, a heartbreaking story about Clay Greene and Harold Scull, an elderly gay couple in Sonoma County, CA, who were kept apart when Harold was hospitalized in 2008. During the last weeks of Harold’s life, the county terminated Harold and Clay’s lease, removed Clay from his home, and confined him to a nursing home against his will. The county also auctioned off all of their belongings. Clay grieved alone, away from his home, and stripped of all his possessions.

Clay is now represented by dedicated attorneys, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who are committed to seeking justice for Clay.

Join us and our friends at GetEqual in sending a letter to President Obama, asking him to fulfill the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.” The time has passed for us to be expected to watch our community endure such ongoing inhumanity.

Last Thursday, President Obama issued a directive to the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a rule that would prevent hospitals from denying visitation privileges to same-sex partners. This was a step toward fairness and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans, but it falls short of his promises to fight for equality in marriage, the military, and employment.

As we push this week for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which bans openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military, and for the passage of ENDA, which would protect LGBT people in the workplace, Harold and Clay’s story reminds us that there are no fractions of equality. President Obama’s memorandum last week is simply not enough. We expect and deserve to see real and sustained leadership on behalf of the full dignity and humanity of every member of our community.

Ask the President to call on Congress to act NOW to repeal DOMA and DADT and to pass ENDA, and ask your friends and family to do the same.

In Solidarity,

Kate Kendell, Esq.,
Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights

Robin McGehee, Kip Williams, and the GetEQUAL crew