Law scholarship to honor marriage-equality advocate

A little more than a year after her death and days after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for same-sex marriage in California, members of the Orange County Lavender Bar Assn. will honor the memory of Chapman University law professor Mary "Katherine" Baird Darmer with a scholarship for a local law student.

Darmer, who lived with her husband and two children in Newport Beach, was remembered as a fierce legal ally in support of same-sex marriage. She committed suicide in February 2012 at age 47, according to an Orange County coroner's office report.

At the association's third anniversary party next week, incoming UC Irvine School of Law student Jordan Aiken will be presented the first M. Katherine Baird Darmer Equality Scholarship.

"I'm excited about this honor," Aiken, now living in Pasadena, said Tuesday. "I never got to meet [Darmer], but I've heard a lot about her and that she was quite an amazing activist."

Aiken, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009 and spent time working at a women's shelter in New Orleans' Ninth Ward through a Jewish service corps, was chosen for the $5,000 scholarship based on her background in LGBT advocacy.

Francine Lipman — an Orange County Equality Coalition member and University of Nevada Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law professor who worked with Darmer at Chapman — said the scholarship program aims not only to give students a financial boost, but to help them make new connections.

"My goal is to ensure that [Aiken has] a safety net, a support group, go-to people, whatever she needs," she said. "Many of the folks who are in OCEC and the OC Lavender Bar Assn. didn't have that. They had to fight battles on their own, in the closet.

"To be able to provide that to someone — imagine what they can accomplish with that," she added.

Darmer, Lipman said, "would be thrilled, inspired and very motivated to continue to ensure that the rest of the country achieves marriage equality," in light of the Supreme Court's decision.

Although the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California, making Darmer's "backyard" a "more comfortable place for allies and LGBTQ communities to live," she said, "I think it does shine a light on other states and the inequity."

Aiken said frustration with inequality in the treatment of transgender women at the shelter where she worked in New Orleans inspired her to pursue a law degree.

She said what she saw contrasted sharply with the experiences of her partner in Berkeley, who came out as transgender partway through their relationship.

"It was interesting to see his journey," she said. "It was Berkeley, so he had tons of resources in the community and support."

But in Louisiana, Aiken said, the legal systems in place for transgendered people were "just a mess."

"I just kept seeing these blockers of how much I could do as an activist," she said.

At UCI, she said she hopes to be able to channel the relatively new law school's "energy and momentum" to continue advocating for LGBT rights.

Lipman said Darmer was a firm believer in the effectiveness of community advocacy — particularly through the law.

Following the past week's court victories for same-sex marriage advocates, Lipman said, "I can see the smile on her face, but I can also see the determination and the affirmation that yes, advocacy works."

Applicants for the scholarship must be law students who have "demonstrated commitment to advancing equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Orange County," Lipman said. The scholarship fund is sponsored by the association, along with the Orange County Equality Coalition and the Liberty Hill Foundation.

Next year's recipient will likely be chosen along a similar timeline, with applications due in April and with winners notified near the beginning of June, Lipman said.

She said about 10 students applied this year.

At the party, Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal David Thompson will receive the OCLBA's 2013 Community Leadership Award. The Family Equality Council and the law firm Bryan Cave LLP will jointly receive this year's M. Katherine B. Darmer Outstanding Community Service Award, a news release said.

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