|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2009|
Beth Allen Finds Legal Career, Pursuit of Gay Rights Make for Perfect Match
By Melody Finnemore
When she was fixing motorcycles during high school and working as a journalist for the U.S. Army in her 20s, Beth Allen wasn’t sure what kind of career she wanted. In fact, it wasn’t until she was well into her 30s that the Portland attorney, now one of Oregon’s most prominent gay rights champions, knew for certain what she was meant to do.
Allen comes from a family of motorcycle enthusiasts. The New Jersey home where she spent her first 12 years had a motorcycle track behind it. When her family moved to Myrtle Creek, her father, a longtime lineman, opened a Harley Davidson shop where Beth Allen worked on motorcycles throughout high school.
“In my family, you were allowed to start riding a motorcycle once you could prove you could ride a two-wheel bicycle,” says Allen, who has four brothers and two sisters.
Allen graduated from South Umpqua High School a year early, but wasn’t sure what direction to take. No one in her family had gone to college, so she was uncertain about that route. After working in other motorcycle shops for a couple of years, she enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained to be an air defense artillery specialist. However, she discovered a talent for taking photos and writing and went to work for the Post newspaper, The Panorama.
“I was looking for a way to get out of what felt like a dead end,” she says. “The Army was great for me. It taught me that I could write and I could do what I set my mind to do, and it really gave me a confidence that I’d never had before. I had a blast — it was kind of like college for me and one of the first times I had a lot of fun.”
As a lesbian, Allen admits it’s difficult for her to give such a glowing account of her experience with an organization that doesn’t exactly welcome gay people. “When I enlisted my mom’s response was, ‘What is a lesbian feminist doing joining the military?’” she says. “I knew at that point what I was going to face because I was used to that kind of discrimination, but I was actually fairly out in the military. I was unusually fortunate in that respect. My editor, a civilian, didn’t think it was relevant to my job.”
When she completed her service, Allen enrolled in journalism courses at Mt. Hood Community College. Scholarships helped pay for her tuition and books, and she worked part time delivering newspapers and loading UPS trucks. She later went to work full time in the communications office at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but quickly learned it wasn’t what she wanted to do for a career.
Allen, who recently celebrated her 50th birthday, earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communications from Portland State University when she was in her late 30s. In 1992, the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance proposed Measure 9, an attempt to prohibit public schools from “encouraging, promoting, or sanctioning homosexual/ bisexual behaviors,” and ignited Portland’s gay rights movement. It also inspired Allen to become an attorney.
“I really felt like the politics were important, but it seemed that lawyers were so involved in everything and I wanted to be able to actually make change happen,” she says. “There was this little part of me that always wanted to be a lawyer, but that was something girls didn’t do, especially in this little town I was from.”
Allen enrolled at Willamette University’s law school and helped found WILLOW, an organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered law students. She wrote an article published in the Willamette Law Review about same-sex marriage. And she received several scholarships related to gay rights advocacy, including one named for Bill and Ann Shepherd, founders of PFLAG, Oregon’s first support group for parents with gay and lesbian children.
“As Susie Shepherd (daughter of Bill and Ann and chair of the Shepherd Scholarship) put it, Beth Allen has paid that money back a thousand times,” according to the Oregon Gay and Lesbian Law Association (OGALLA), which recently honored Allen with its Award of Merit for her work on behalf of gay rights.
Allen, who said her favorite aspect of being a lawyer is helping people solve their problems, worked at the Oregon Court of Appeals before serving as a litigator and specializing in employment law for two large firms. All the while, she did gay rights work as a pro bono endeavor in her spare time.
In late-1998, Allen and other attorneys began meeting to discuss and strategize the best ways to advance the rights of sexual orientation minorities through legislation, networking and politics, and lawsuits. This informal club of attorneys eventually invited Basic Rights Oregon to become involved with their efforts and to utilize them for legal advice and assistance, and the group evolved into what is known today as the BRO Legal Group. The group has helped fight every anti-gay ballot measure since Measure 9, and they convinced Multnomah County to permit same-sex couples to marry in 2004, according to OGALLA.
Allen and other founding members of BRO Legal were honored in 2004 with the Basic Rights Superhero Award. Allen just concluded her service as the OGALLA liaison to the Oregon State Bar’s Diversity Section. She teaches a class on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at Lewis & Clark College’s law school and travels around the Northwest giving presentations on legal issues affecting the gay community. In addition, she is a member of Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS), the Portland Area Business Association and works with Big Brothers/Big Sisters to help them encourage more gay men and lesbians to become “Bigs.”
In 2006, Allen founded Allen2 Law with her sister, Sara Allen. Since Beth is 14 years older than Sara, the two didn’t live under the same roof for long. However, Sara says Beth played a huge role in her decision to become a lawyer.
“When Beth was going to law school, she took me to school with her and introduced me to professors and taught me all about it. I followed in her footsteps,” Sara Allen says. “During my first two years of law school, I would stop at Beth’s office and go over what I had learned in class that day and ask questions. She was a definite mentor and a very big help in getting through law school.”
When Beth Allen opened her own firm, she was able to make the pursuit of gay rights a formal part of her practice and says a significant portion of her clients are gay. While employment law continues to be a part of her practice, Allen also specializes in adoptions, donor and surrogacy agreements, custody disputes and divorces, and estate planning.
Allen has a 3-year-old son named Beau with her longtime partner, Christine Cress. Allen had to adopt her son to ensure her relationship was legally recognized. She says she is pleased at the progress made on behalf of gay rights since the OCA first proposed Measure 9. However, she notes, she is constantly amazed at how much work still needs to be done.
“The marriage issue is huge, but it’s more than just having the right to get married. It’s all the ways that not being equal impacts so many areas of our life. We just can’t take for granted as we move through our lives and move from state to state and from employer to employer that our relationships and families will be recognized and our jobs protected from discrimination. I don’t know if people understand how emotionally difficult that can be,” she says.
“I have people come into my office and they are struggling to figure out how to lead the kind of life that heterosexuals take for granted,” Allen adds. “Civil rights is about dignity, and I believe that’s part of the legal process as well. So many people are just asking to be treated with a little bit of dignity.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Melody Finnemore