Delaware’s First Civil Union Couple: Drewry Fennell and Lisa Goodman

Being Civil: Two prominent players in the fight for equal rights are the state’s first couple to hold a civil union ceremony.

On Jan.1 of this year— an unseasonably warm, sunny day—Drewry Fennell and Lisa Goodman became the first couple in Delaware to be joined in a civil union.

To the more than 430 people who attended the ceremony at Wilmington’s Trinity Episcopal Church, it seemed utterly fitting that the two women should be the first to have their life partnership recognized under Delaware’s civil union law, which went into effect that day.

Goodman and Fennell, both lawyers, have been prominent in the fight for gender equality for some time. A partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, Goodman is president of Equality Delaware Inc., the organization that advocated for the civil union law. Fennell heads the state Criminal Justice Council and formerly led the ACLU’s Delaware chapter.

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Joining their celebration that day were many of Delaware’s movers and shakers: U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, whose sermon earned sustained applause; Lt. Gov. Matt Denn; Congressman John Carney, and New Castle County Executive Paul Clark. Numerous other elected officials and members of the judiciary also attended.

It was a moving, uplifting event, many agreed. Some called it “perfect,” “joyous,” “a love fest.”

Then, the next day, The News Journal reported on the ceremony, and hatred intruded on this celebration of love.

A new policy at the Wilmington daily requires readers to submit comments through Facebook, thus eliminating anonymous postings. This has drastically reduced most of the hate-filled diatribes that had dominated the comments on some stories. The policy undoubtedly limited much of the vitriol that previously might have greeted news of the Fennell-Goodman union, and most of those who posted echoed the positive vibe of the previous day; but several reactions were reminders that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is still anathema to some Delawareans.

Goodman and Fennell say they didn’t read the comments. “I figured it was our day to celebrate and I wasn’t going to spoil it,” says Goodman.

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The two women traveled significantly different paths to the Trinity Episcopal altar. Goodman, who is 48, grew up on a horse-breeding farm across from the Dilworthtown Inn, in nearby Pennsylvania. At an early age, she says, “I knew I was different, but back in the ’70s, in this area, I had no role models. I’m not even sure I was out to myself. It wasn’t until I went to college that I think I figured out there was a language [for being gay].”

In her early teens, she avoided coming to grips with her sexuality, choosing “to be busy with other things”—mostly learning to breed and train horses. But in eighth grade her “differentness” prompted a transfer from Tower Hill School—“a young lesbian woman did not fit back then”—to Unionville High School, where she melted mostly unnoticed into the large student body. Still, she admits high school “was difficult, because everyone wants to feel that they fit—somewhere if not everywhere.”

Goodman went to West Chester University, then UD for a master’s degree in literature. She was determined to be a college professor, but it was the ’80s, and jobs were scarce. So she fell back on what she knew and began training and showing horses and managing a large breeding farm and riding lesson program. 

That lasted five years—until, she says, “My bones were starting to break and not bend.” So she gave up horses and enrolled at Widener Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1994.

Meanwhile, Fennell, who is 51, was being brought up in what she calls “a liberal family” in Norfolk, Va. She was a junior at the University of Virginia when her father died suddenly at the age of 42. His death, she says, “took me off track,” and she dropped out of college. In 1983 she married Edward Godden, an Episcopal priest. When his calling brought the couple to Wilmington, Fennell finished her degree in English at UD.

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The Goddens had three children, Mary Nash, Witt and Caroline, before divorcing in 1993. The next year, Fennell enrolled in Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., and graduated with honors in 1997. She then clerked for a year in the Delaware Court of Chancery.

While in that job, she attended a conference for women lawyers in Rehoboth Beach, where she met Goodman, who had joined Young Conaway. Fennell was soon hired by the firm and their relationship developed. By then both were completely out—Goodman had been since joining Young Conaway. They held a commitment ceremony in 2000, followed by a party attended by friends in the law firm. In 2001 the couple bought a large fixer-upper house in Mill Creek.

Fennell’s children, who were 9, 10 and 13 when the women became a couple, readily accepted Goodman as their second mother. Fennell and her ex-husband shared custody, and the children usually stayed with their father during the week and with their mothers on weekends, when Godden’s clerical duties took most of his time. In 1999, Goodman’s biological son, David Goodman, was born. He will be a seventh-grader at Tower Hill this fall. (Lisa Goodman says the attitude at Tower Hill has totally changed since her days there 30-odd years ago.) Fennell adopted David, and thanks to the civil union, Mary Nash, Witt and Caroline are Goodman’s stepchildren.

“We are a very 21st century family,” says Goodman.

That they have two mothers has had little effect on the children. “Most people find it interesting,” says Caroline, a senior at Syracuse. “I’m in a sorority and another of my sisters has two moms. It’s becoming more common. If people do have a problem with it, they usually avoid the subject.”

Witt, 23, a Tower Hill and Berklee College of Music alum, lives in Las Vegas with his male fiancé. He says any homophobia he encountered was always targeted at him, never his mothers. “Fortunately,” he says, “I was raised understanding that different doesn’t mean wrong, so by the time I came out, I was able to turn to anyone who commented and ask, ‘And your point is?’”

David says some people who learn about his two mothers are surprised or confused at first. “But after I explain it to them,” he says, “they don’t care.”

The children and Fennell and Goodman agree that Edward Godden has been totally supportive of the relationship.

Both women have been prominent in the fight for equal rights for the lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Delaware. While they’re quick to point out that choosing what some call “an alternative lifestyle” has been relatively easy for them, they have been exposed to anti-gay ugliness because of their activism. This is particularly true for Fennell. As director of the American Civil Liberties Union for a decade, she led the fight for anti-discrimination legislation in the state. But both women have war stories.

Ten days after their civil union, in a Young Conaway conference room, Goodman and Fennell spoke of their efforts. “It took 12 years to pass the anti-discrimination bill [House Bill 99] here,” said Goodman. “That made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in four areas: employment, housing, insurance, public accommodation. Drew organized the people who worked on it. To say it was not easy is an understatement. They [demonstrators] spat at her, she was pushed…”

Smiling, Fennell interrupted. “They spat in my path, they didn’t spit at me.”

That occurred in 2000, while HB 99 was being discussed in the legislature, and opponents of the legislation bused protesters into Dover.  

“People would get pretty angry and the rhetoric got ugly,” says Fennell. “There was a line outside the building and I had to walk by to get in. I heard ‘I’ll pray for you,’ but not in a tone of voice that indicates a blessing.”

Goodman says that during discussion of the bill, “One speaker explicitly blamed Sept. 11 on this country’s tolerance of the gay community. Another talked about how his brother had died of AIDS and how his family couldn’t minister to him because he wouldn’t repent.”

Despite the nastiness, Goodman was able to smile at some of the memories. “The opposition in large part was led by religious objections,” she said, “and I counted 11 times one day that I was told I was going to hell.”

The hostility convinced at least one legislator—Sen. Dave Sokola of Newark—to get behind the legislation. Former Rep. William Oberle, originator of the bill, had sent an email to colleagues, asking for co-sponsors. Says Sokola: “I told Bill I could probably support it but I didn’t want to deal with all the hate mail that goes with it. Well, I got hate mail and hate phone calls anyway, so I decided, you know what, if it’s that bad out there, I told him to add my name to the sponsors.”

Sokola was surprised at the level of bigotry he encountered. “I’ve run into gay people and a lot of what you’re told when you’re a little kid you find out is ridiculous. Some of these people [opponents] were my age or older, and I had to wonder what they were exposed to in their lives that made them feel that way and why they hadn’t been exposed to real gay and lesbian people. I’m really embarrassed today that I didn’t just say yes to Bill the first time I got an email from him, because it was the lazy thing to do—it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Sen. Colin Bonini, Dover South, voted against both the anti-discrimination bill and the Civil Union Bill—passed in May of last year. Bonini objects to such legislation, he says, “Because civil unions lead to gay marriage, and I’m against gay marriages based on faith and also the significant financial cost to the state. The civil union bill will cost taxpayers several million dollars because we’re covering a group of people that were not covered before. We added a significant population to our benefit package at a time when we need to be going the other way. I think it’s poor public policy, mandating that taxpayers pay benefits for homosexual couples when they are morally opposed to homosexual couples.”

At the same time, Bonini, who has a gay sister, says he is “very fond of both Drew and Lisa, and I consider them friends.”

Perhaps the leading opponent of civil union legislation is the Delaware Family Policy Council. Nicole Theis, president of the council, declined to be interviewed for this story, submitting instead a 246-word statement she said had to be used in its entirety or not at all.

Goodman and Fennell, meanwhile, know there is still much work ahead. “Not everybody has been as fortunate as we have,” says Goodman. She says Equality Delaware is working to develop legislation covering the transgender community, which is not protected by hate crime legislation or anti-discrimination statutes.

And much remains to be done on the federal level. “We’re good as far as Delaware goes,” she says, “but we can’t collect Social Security survivor benefits, file a joint tax return, move freely from state to state and have our union recognized.” In fact, she says, “There are 1,831 instances under federal law where marital status is implicated.”

But allowing civil unions in Delaware was a major victory, and in the first month of its implementation, the state had issued 138 licenses for such unions.

Perhaps the best perspective on the issue was offered by Sally Oberle, wife of Bill Oberle, as she was leaving Trinity Episcopal on Jan. 1. “People are going to look back at this in a hundred years,” she said, “and wonder what was the big deal.”

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