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Remembering Suzanne J. Thomas

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Suzanne J. Thomas (r) — Photo courtesy of Dave Horn
Suzanne J. Thomas (r) — Photo courtesy of Dave Horn

Beloved civil rights activist, attorney, and pillar of the LGBTQ community Suzanne J. Thomas died September 18 after a brief stay in a Seattle hospital. She was 59, and her unexpected death shocked and saddened many in the community.

Born in 1962 and raised in the Shorewood neighborhood of South King County, Thomas graduated from Evergreen High School, the University of Washington, and the highly respected University of Michigan Law School before embarking upon her legal career in 1987. As a young associate at Graham & Dunn, an old corporate law firm in downtown Seattle, Thomas volunteered to be a cooperating attorney for the ACLU.

It was not long before she began making history. In 1992, Bellingham high school student Dallas Malloy wanted to train for the Olympics but was told she could not participate in Golden Gloves boxing because she was a girl. Thomas wrote a letter to the governing organization objecting to its discrimination against Malloy. In an interview years later, Thomas said the organization wrote back suggesting that Thomas, being a female attorney, might not understand the rules of boxing. "Game on," Thomas declared. She went to the media, appearing on national television alongside Malloy.

Malloy sued, and Thomas persuaded a federal judge in Seattle to order Golden Gloves to let Malloy box. On October 31, 1993, Malloy became the first female amateur boxer in the United States. Before Malloy's first match, Thomas herself entered the ring and proudly introduced Malloy and her opponent to the crowd.

That same year, Lon Mabon, infamous for his anti-Gay ballot measures in Oregon, filed an initiative in Washington that would have barred Gay and Lesbian people from teaching in the public schools. Thomas was part of a team of attorneys who successfully fought the measure in court on behalf of newly formed Hands Off Washington. Thomas said later that a number of the attorneys on Hands Off's team, including her, were either outed or forced to come out during the litigation.

Hands Off Washington was led by future Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, the late Jan Bianchi, Charlie Brydon, and SGN publisher George Bakan, among others. With Thomas's help, Hands Off ran its own statewide initiative in 1997 to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. After a spirited campaign, the initiative was defeated by voters.

In 1995, a King County Bar Association task force recommended rule changes to make it unethical for a lawyer in Washington to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Thomas volunteered to help draft the proposed rules and was instrumental in persuading state bar leaders to support them. The rules were eventually adopted by the state supreme court in 2000.

Meanwhile, Thomas was elected president of Washington Women Lawyers, reportedly the first out Lesbian to hold that position. Not long after, in 1999, Thomas joined the board of directors of Lambda Legal, the largest and oldest national organization litigating against LGBTQ discrimination, serving until 2001.

By then, Thomas had worked for two corporate law firms and opened her own solo law office. She practiced alone until 2006, then joined Preston Gates & Ellis, later known as K&L Gates, where now-Senator Jamie Pedersen was a partner.

In 2007, Thomas took on the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, which was holding the national Gay softball championships in Seattle. The NAGAAA claimed to allow non-LGBTQ players, but rules limited their play in tournaments. When opposing players complained that one of the top two teams sported too many non-gay players, Thomas stepped in. She alleged that NAGAAA officials had interrogated players about their sex lives, then disqualified the team for having too many bisexuals. Thomas sued to enforce Washington's brand new Anderson-Murray civil rights law against NAGAAA. Her lawsuit brought national attention to discrimination against bisexuals and resulted in a favorable settlement. The disqualified team received its trophy and medals.

Thomas continued to support the community through her work and through regular, generous donations to organizations such as Lambda Legal.

In 2019, Thomas landed a position as vice president and global employment counsel for F5 Networks.

During her career, Thomas lived in West Seattle, Wallingford, and Queen Anne. After months of working remotely because of COVID, however, Thomas moved to her dream home outside of Langley on Whidbey Island, where she hoped to retire. She would enjoy her new home for only a few months.

Thomas's family and close friends were devastated by her passing. As news of Thomas's unexpected death trickled out, those who knew her expressed shock, admiration, and love on social media and in private calls and messages.

Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, called Thomas "a big personality" who was "full of life and love for her community."

Sen. Pedersen, who worked closely with Thomas for years, said she was "a fierce and zealous advocate for her clients and for the whole LGBTQ community." Pedersen praised Thomas's "vast experience," her "great heart," and her "sense of purpose and determination."

Friends, acquaintances, and people who barely knew Thomas told stories of her acts of unexpected kindness. Close friend Rob Roche, a fellow attorney, admired Thomas's legal skill and determination but knew her better as a "loving, supportive and funny friend" who had "an infectious laugh." "If she thought you needed a hug, she'd give you a hug," said Roche.

Friend JJ McKay recalled Thomas bringing food to the new neighbors next door. Another woman remembered that when her spouse died, Thomas, who barely knew her, was the one who stepped in, explained to her the legal process that would ensue, and guided her through the ordeal.

Friends said Thomas remained devoted to her 87-year-old mother, often visiting and taking her shopping and on other outings. Thomas also bragged endlessly about her nephews. She threw lively parties, joined her close circle of friends for fun-filled dinners, and greeted old friends with unwavering gusto.

The words "force of nature" have been frequently used to describe her. When President Bill Clinton unexpectedly appeared at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner in Seattle in 2000, Thomas leapt from her seat, rushed to the front of the room, and, grabbing the president's hand and pumping it, exclaimed, "How are you doing, Mr. President!" She greeted everyone that way.

Suzanne J. Thomas is survived by her mother, Carol Thomas of Seattle; sisters Mary Bannister (Dave) of Normandy Park, Margo Lindberg (Alan) of Issaquah, ; brothers C.J. Thomas of Clinton, Rich Thomas of Renton; and two nieces, two nephews, and one grand nephew. Thomas was preceded in death by her father, Carnot H. Thomas, Jr. of Seattle.

County officials confirmed that Thomas died of natural causes at Virginia Mason Medical Center, but relatives have not yet been informed of the precise cause.

The family expects to hold a memorial service in the coming months.