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From Robe to Robe

Retired Judge Martha Bellinger '72 recalls lifetime of breaking down gender barriers, rallying for LGBT rights

Aug 2, 2018 — Article by: Rob Enslin

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Syracuse students protest the Vietnam War in May 1970. (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

March 12, 1968. Another stark afternoon in Central New York, as Martha Bellinger ’72 and her parents wrap up a campus tour of Syracuse. The visit is mostly a formality for the future journalism major, thanks to her high school English teacher, who knows the dean of the Newhouse School. In an ironic twist of fate, the Watertown native decides to switch, at the last minute, to political science.

No sooner does the family retire to the warmth of the historic Administration Building than the lights cut out. Startled, Bellinger exchanges glances with her parents and peers out the tall first-floor window. A mob of students is gathering outside, hurling stones and insults against the coarse red brick and terra cotta facade. Bellinger is frightened—and strangely excited.

As the din swells, it becomes apparent they are protesting The War—specifically, the growing presence of recruiters from Dow Chemical. Dow is not the only federal contractor on campus these days, but its production of napalm for use by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam makes it a clear target of opposition. The protestors are unrelenting. “Let them meet and recruit in a hotel suite—not at our university,” they chant.

As if on cue, a phalanx of students storms the building. They bar the front door with a chain and form a human barricade around the other entrances. A quick-thinking admissions officer ushers the Bellingers down a hallway and out the back door to safety.

Forty-five administrators remain under lock and key for the next four and a half hours, as University leadership negotiates with the protestors. When someone from the University Senate agrees to form a subcommittee to address the students’ concerns, cooler heads prevail—for now. It is the second war-related protest at Syracuse in less than a month and certainly not the last.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have pressed Martha so much to go to Syracuse,” Bellinger’s father whispers into his wife’s ear, on the drive home.

“I’m glad you did,” Martha hums to herself in the backseat. “That was exciting.”

 

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Martha Bellinger '72

Fifty years later, Bellinger reflects on the events of that fateful day with pride and amusement. The retired judge has come a long way from her corn-fed roots in Upstate New York, where she considered going into the Peace Corps out of high school.

“I was pretty naïve then, and didn’t know they needed college graduates with certain skill-sets,” says Bellinger, speaking by phone from her home in Claremont, east of Los Angeles. “I began the college application process kind of late. I got into Buffalo State and Stony Brook, but really wanted to go to Syracuse, where I had taken a journalism class the summer before. It was close to home.”

Bellinger arrived on the Hill in the fall of ’68, a social and political flashpoint in U.S. history. As if the war in Vietnam was not enough, students found themselves divided over everything from race and economic mobility to what has been dubbed the “increasingly impatient” civil rights movement. Against the milieu of riots and protests were the back-to-back assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy—tragedies that have shaped the national narrative to this day.

Until then, Bellinger’s worldview had been small and narrow. “When I came to Syracuse, all I knew were Caucasians and Republicans,” she says, admitting, almost apologetically, to a brief stint as vice president of the College Republicans. “I eventually got to mix with people from all over the world, and was particularly proud of my Jewish and African American friends from New York City. The University had a big impact on me.”

It did not take long for Bellinger’s world to come crashing down. Sgt. Robert Henry Sinclair Jr. was her sister’s classmate at Watertown High and a member of the only black family at Martha’s hometown Methodist church. As the calendar flipped to 1969, Bellinger learned that the 22-year-old Army radioman had been killed by the Viet Cong.

The news irrevocably changed Bellinger, who, by then, was questioning issues of sex and gender, power and politics. “I started thinking about how unjust everything was, and how a disproportionate number of African Americans, such as Robert, were being drafted. It was hard not to be bitter,” she says.

 

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Bellinger's senior class portrait (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Bellinger’s ideological transformation continued. When Ohio National Guardsmen mowed down four students at Kent State on May 4, 1970, Syracuse responded with a memorial service in Hendricks Chapel, spilling onto the Quad. The Rev. John McComb, dean of Hendricks Chapel, tapped Bellinger to deliver a prayer on the chapel steps, before a crowd of more than 3,000. “I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I remember the tragedy we felt and the obligation to not let the four victims die in vain,” Bellinger says. The vigil was part of a series of war-related events at Syracuse, culminating with a 32-hour sit-in at the Administration Building. “It was empowering to come together in the name of peace and justice,” she adds.

Bellinger threw herself further into the political fray, joining the University Senate and becoming the first woman to run (albeit unsuccessfully) for president of the Student Association. She also led an economic boycott of companies profiting from the war.

“I never believed in destroying property or causing physical harm to anyone, but I was pretty good at confrontational politics,” says Bellinger, recalling the night she led a hundred other female students in their robes to the Chancellor’s Residence to protest “inoperable bathroom facilities.” Two hours later, everyone was flush with satisfaction.

 

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Bellinger (second from left) as a 1972 Senior Class Marshal (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Bellinger’s flair for political and social activism, undergirded by a liberal arts sensibility, landed her a spot as a Senior Class Marshal. Such qualities also sparked an interest in the cloth. At McComb’s urging, she enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. It was there Bellinger discovered not only “theology and the fine art of preaching, but also [her] sexual awakening.” In her bestselling memoir, “From Robe to Robe: A Lesbian’s Spiritual Journey” (Trafford Publishing, 2010), Bellinger recounts that, after a fling with a male seminarian, she met an ardent feminist who “stole [her] heart” for the next 10 years.

The relationship followed Bellinger to New England, where she transferred to Boston University School of Theology, earning a master’s degree in theological studies, and into the parish ministry in the United Methodist Church. The first female pastor in her district, Bellinger began preaching in 1975 in the guarded foothills of the Adirondacks—not exactly the time nor place for a closeted woman to don a clerical collar.

Complicating matters was the ongoing debate over the status and role of homosexuals in the life of the Methodist Church. (Since 1968, the General Conference had excluded gay and lesbian people from Church participation.) “There was no way I was going to come out of the closet in Upstate New York,” says Bellinger, whose partner presided over a parish an hour away, limiting their meetings to once a week. “I felt like a hypocrite, being clergy of a church that probably would not have accepted me.”

In 1979, Bellinger made the difficult decision to uproot to Southern California and come out to her friends and family. Harboring an interest in civil law, she wasted no time earning a J.D. from Whittier College, while serving as editor-in-chief of its law review and holding down various legal jobs.

Bellinger quickly scaled Los Angeles County’s legal ladder—first, as a deputy district attorney, and then as a family law and juvenile court commissioner, working alongside Lance Ito, who later presided over the infamous O.J. Simpson murder case.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Bellinger to fill a long-standing vacancy on the Los Angeles Superior Court. The move was historic, as he was the state’s first Republican governor to place an openly lesbian, Democratic woman on the bench. Until then, Republican governors had all but frozen LGBT people out of the California judiciary.

“My appointment broke that ice,” beams Bellinger, crediting Democrat Jerry Brown for sowing the seeds of reform in the late 1970s, when, during his initial stint as California’s governor, he appointed the nation’s first openly LGBT judges—a move that was almost unthinkable at the time.

As judge, Bellinger campaigned aggressively for LGBT rights. She also rewrote history by literally writing some 300 decisions on matters of delinquency, dependency and family law. That she received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences on the eve of her retirement in 2011 suggested she had come full circle.

 

 

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Today, 68-year-old Bellinger is well into the third act of her career. Inspired by newfound literary success, she is working on a trilogy of novels about a fictional lesbian couple in Upstate New York. The first installment, “The Two Ruths” (Archway Publishing, 2018), was released in March to critical and popular acclaim. She currently is wrapping up the much-anticipated sequel, “She Who Doesn’t Sin.”

“The books are semi-autobiographical, and have a lot to say about religion. They also expose the trials and challenges of LGBT relationships—the usual hypocrisy and lack of societal support,” says Bellinger, who has been married for 34 years. “I want to show that faith in God, regardless of one’s sexuality, is the key to a lasting relationship.”

Bellinger speaks from experience. After a long absence from the pulpit, she is a member of Claremont United Methodist Church (CUMC), one of the country’s most liberal denominations. Bellinger laments the fact that the general counsel has yet to resolve the issue of ordaining and appointing LGBT people. “All I can say is that the church is losing out by fighting acceptance and inclusion,” says Bellinger, who co-leads CUMC’s acclaimed, 25-year-old reconciliation ministry. “Our congregation is doing everything we can to change the denomination's stance on the LGBT community.”

One of Bellinger’s confidantes is the Rev. Mark Wiley, CUMC’s lead pastor. He describes her as a “caregiver and grace-giver in the best sense of the words,” as well as a voice of compassion and justice. “Martha’s strong faith in God has sustained her, even when God’s church failed her,” he says. “She swore she would never be part of the Methodist Church again, yet here she is, part of our church family—proof of God’s sense of humor. Martha’s integrity and laughter, along with her love and justice, run deep.”

Perhaps it is Bellinger’s sense of justice that keeps her going. Witness her involvement with IVAMS, one of the nation’s top alternative dispute resolution firm, located in Southern California. From 2011 to 2015, she was part of IVAMS' cadre of former judges who offered mediation and arbitration services to attorneys, the courts and private enterprise. Most of her cases involved family law, with emphasis on LGBT affairs.

“The better your people skills are—the more sincere and authentic you are in hearing what people have to say, the more they trust you,” explains Bellinger, also a longtime adjunct law professor at nearby University of La Verne. “You have to show people you’re really listening to them and caring for them.”

The notion of teamwork is something Bellinger first encountered at Syracuse—a liberal education hallmark that, she insists, produces better citizens and societies. Bellinger illustrates this point by channeling the late Michael O. Sawyer, a beloved professor who taught constitutional law in the Maxwell School.

“He used to say that democracy is fine, as long as reasonable people are allowed to differ,” she recalls, pointing out the aforementioned alumni award at the edge of her desk. “Now, more than ever, I know what he was talking about.”

 

Contact Information

Rob Enslin
rmenslin@syr.edu
315.443.3403