“Throughout our Nation’s history, American women have led movements for social and economic justice, made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, enriched our culture with stunning works of art and literature, and charted bold directions in our foreign policy. They have served our country with valor, from the battlefields of the Revolutionary War to the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. During Women’s History Month, we recognize the victories, struggles, and stories of the women who have made our country what it is today.” President Barack Obama, Presidential Proclamation – Women’s History Month 2014
In 1987, The United States Congress proclaimed March as Women’s History Month — a time when we call attention to the work and achievements of women throughout history and in modern society. To celebrate, Living Out spoke with two Long Island natives, Judge Chris Ann Kelley and Brenda Shanks, about their careers and the advocacy work they are dedicated to on behalf of the Long Island GLBT community.
Judge Chris Ann Kelley
As Acting County Court Judge, the Honorable Chris Ann Kelley has devoted nearly 30 years of her life to serving the residents of Suffolk County. Born and raised in Riverhead, Kelly’s career in law began in 1981 after she graduated from SUNY Stony Brook with a Bachelor’s degree in English and went on to pursue and earn a Juris Doctorate from Western New England College where she graduated Cum Laude in 1984.
According to Kelly, there were a number of factors that inspired her to pursue a legal career. Her paternal grandfather was an attorney; a path her father had longed to follow but had never had the opportunity. Both her parents were involved in politics and advocacy initiatives. Her mother was a humanitarian and an active member of PFLAG. With such a politically charged period to grow up in, it’s no wonder Kelley chose the path she did.
“All of those factors, I think, along with growing up in the sixties and seventies — a time where there was a lot of activism — inspired me to choose a career where I felt I could, in some way, make a difference.”
Realizing in her teenage years that she was a lesbian, and understanding how marginalized the gay and lesbian community was, deeply affected her world view. She described that time as feeling very isolated and made her empathetic towards other oppressed groups. “I could identify with groups of people who were on the outside; who were vulnerable and did not have a voice. When I chose a career in law, I began representing the underprivileged in criminal and family court and children in family proceedings and taking on cases involving women who were victims of domestic violence.”
Following law school, Kelley went to work for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. In 1990 she opened a private practice where she handled criminal and civil litigation as well as representing children in family court cases. By 2002, Kelley became a court attorney referee serving in the Suffolk County Supreme Court Integrated Domestic Violence part. She would later serve in the same role in the Suffolk County Family Court in Central Islip. In 2007 Kelley decided to run for a judgeship — and won.
Interestingly, Kelley did not have an interest in sitting on the bench earlier in her career because she did not want to have the burden of making the ultimate decisions. After several years of practice, her thoughts on the matter began to change. “At some point in my evolution as a lawyer things shifted,” she explained. “I guess I matured and evolved into a place where I felt I had something important enough to contribute that it made sense for that position.”
Kelley was re-elected in 2013, in a tight race, to the 6th District Court bench in Brookhaven where she has been serving as the Acting County Court Judge. Her advice to women considering running for public office is to go into the process realizing that they need to build a support system. “You need to reach out to different groups and get your own support system in place. And speak your truth,” she stresses. Kelley emphasizes the need to be authentic and a self-starter. In her experience she found that “women identify with other women regardless of party affiliation.” She also discovered that talking about her past work with domestic violence survivors and children struck a cord with voters.
Judge Kelley currently resides in Port Jefferson with her partner and their two daughters.
Brenda Shanks is the Linkage to Care Coordinator with the Suffolk Project for AIDS Resource Center (SPARC), an organization she has worked with for the past 18 years. She was drawn into the HIV/AIDS field after her sister was diagnosed with the disease in 1987.
“When my sister told us she was HIV positive, nobody knew what it meant,” explains Shanks. In her efforts to find out more about the illness, she realized that there was more she could do to help. She started out by volunteering for GMHC, one of the leading providers of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy, in its Buddy Program.
For the past 17 years, Shanks has sat on the Women and AIDS Coalition. “It’s basically women from different agencies and also consumers who are HIV positive whose needs we try to address.
As if all of this isn’t enough, Shanks is also actively involved with the Harm Reduction Coalition which is currently working to address the heroin epidemic among Long Island’s youth. The organization was the first to get a needle exchange program running on Long Island, something Shanks is extremely proud of. Right now the organization is working on educating the community about overdoses.
“We’re trying to figure out how we get this to the schools,” she says. “We want to start with the PTA first.” The coalition also wants to make parents and siblings aware of what to do in the event of an overdose. According to Shanks, “we need to get parents involved. They need to have training because no one wants to admit that their children could be on drugs. But what are you going to do if you have a child who is OD’ing in your home? And, hat if you do not have the proper training? You don’t know what to do. By the time you figure out what is going on, it could be too late. So we’re trying to get parents, siblings, and school officials involved.”
In addition to her work with HIV and AIDS, Shanks has initiated outreach efforts with Long Island’s homeless. Since 1997 she has run a coat drive at work; for the past ten years she has been on a mission to feed as many homeless people as she can throughout the year.
“That comes out of my own pocket,” she says. “I wish I had volunteers who would be able to help, at least once or twice a week, because there’s a lot involved with delivering the food. Mostly it’s going to undocumented people who live in the woods.”
Her dream is to have a state-of-the-art soup kitchen with social workers and doctors also involved in her efforts. Aside from it being a place to get a hot meal, the facility would be open to people who could stay and live there for a while. Ideally, it would be able to house around 20 people at a time. “They could stay for a year; get back on their feet,” she says.
More than nine years ago Shanks met her partner, also named Brenda, while volunteering at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY). “She has the biggest heart of anyone I ever met,” she says. “She is the most generous person. She gives of herself without expecting anything in return.”
In addition to Shanks’ 33-year-old son from a previous relationship, the couples took in a baby girl in 2009 whose young mother had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement, but after five years, they now have legal custody.