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D.C. Bar CEO Bob Spagnoletti Talks About the Importance of ‘Celebrating Our Unique Natures’

June 10, 2024

By John Murph

D.C. Bar CEO Bob Spagnoletti standing in front of the Washington Monument.

As CEO of the D.C. Bar and executive vice president of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, Robert J. Spagnoletti champions diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization as well as in the greater Washington, D.C., legal community.

“Obviously, we have plenty of policies in place [at the D.C. Bar] to ensure that there will be no discrimination here,” said Spagnoletti, a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community who openly talks about his husband, Bernard, with whom he has two kids. “But ensuring that other members of the LGBTQ+ community and everyone else in general feel welcomed, seen, and safe at the D.C. Bar comes from the top. Having Bernard and my son Anthony come to [Bar] events and demonstrating that openness and comfortableness with my own life in a work environment help.”

Spagnoletti became CEO of the Bar in 2017 after 10 years litigating criminal and civil matters as partner at Schertler & Onorato, LLP. He is a former attorney general of the District of Columbia and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District. He served as president of the D.C. Bar from 2008 to 2009.

As the D.C. Bar celebrates Pride Month, we sat down with Spagnoletti to talk about his career, bearing witness to some of the most significant gains in gay rights in the past few decades, and why he considers fatherhood as his greatest honor.

You regularly speak so lovingly about your family. How have they anchored you in life?

I was recently interviewed, and somebody asked me to describe myself in three words. The first word that came out was “dad” because I really do think that is how I identify myself first and foremost. I have two sons. My older one is 30. My younger one is 16. [Bernard and I] had other foster children in the middle of all that. I really identify myself as a dad more than anything else.

Bernard and I have been together for 24 years. We see eye to eye on everything except the kids. Not that it is awful, [but] like every other couple, we have different views about what it is to be a parent. But everything is centered around family. I never predicted having this family when I was much younger because back in the dark ages, [I] did not grow up thinking, “Hey, I am going to marry a guy and we are going to wind up having kids.” In fact, I was well into my 20s before the idea ever occurred.

As you noted, I talk about them all the time in staff meetings. When I was the president of the Bar, most of [my president’s] columns shared lessons from my kids. That is the center of my world.

D.C. Bar CEO Bob Spagnoletti speaking into microphone.Twenty years ago, as D.C. attorney general, you were asked by the mayor to write a memorandum on whether the District should recognize marriage of same-sex couples from jurisdictions that legalized gay marriage. Describe that experience.

In 2004 the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recognized that under the Massachusetts Constitution, they had to permit same-sex marriage. Once that happened … the [D.C.] government was going to get questions about recognizing those marriages. There was a case back in 1995 holding that D.C. law at the time did not permit same-sex marriage and that it was constitutionally permitted to not allow same-sex marriage. Remember, we do not have a constitution here in D.C. It is the federal Constitution that governs us. It was a D.C. Court of Appeals case.

We knew that until the law changed, we could not actually perform a same-sex marriage in D.C. By 2004, we had domestic partnership. The [issue was], say you got married in Massachusetts and you came here, and you wanted to get benefits. Or your spouse was in a hospital or died and you needed to probate all that stuff here in D.C. Would D.C. treat you as a spouse if there were other benefits that you were entitled to as a spouse? Could you own property in the same way that a surviving spouse would naturally hold property? There were a lot of questions that came along with it.

I had a conversation with the mayor. He asked me to write a memorandum explaining to the city agencies how they should treat this and whether they should recognize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. I wrote the memo, gave it to the mayor, and discussed it with him and his senior staff. He immediately stuck it in a drawer and left it there.

He was the client. I was working for the mayor. I could not release it without the mayor’s choosing to do so. Now, it is all ancient history because of all the things that have happened since.

At the time, the fear was that if he were to release [the memo], Congress would jump in and do something to the District that would make it impossible for D.C. to recognize or even have same-sex marriage. He determined that the better course was to let it just play out without any formal guidance and let the agencies deal with it question by question, issue by issue, as opposed to a formal memorandum and an order from the mayor. To this day, [that memorandum] still stays locked away. It has never been released.

Before the overturning of Bowers v. Hardwick, which found that states could outlaw consensual sex between same-sex couples, there was a real fear that some queer lawyers could lose their livelihoods and housing if they came out. What changes in the legal profession have you seen?

I was not out when I was in law school [at Georgetown University Law Center]. When I came back [to Washington, D.C.], I was.

I started at the Offices of the United States Attorneys. [I was] working with police, FBI agents, and Secret Service, who were not at the time known for their willingness to accept others for who they were. Everybody had a very clearly defined view of what it meant to be a prosecutor [and] what it meant to be a police officer. There were very few folks who were out at the time.

This was 1992. I was in a relationship. I remember being with a bunch of police officers; we were doing an investigation. We were [talking] in my office, and … somehow, they got into what they had done over the weekend. I mentioned that I had done something — maybe gone to Shenandoah [National Park] — and that I was just dating somebody. One of the officers said something along the lines of, “Did you go with your girlfriend?” I was like, “Actually, no. I am seeing a guy.” I couldn’t see him, but I did see the other officer in the room. He had a visceral reaction — almost a look of disgust on his face.

When the whole thing was over, I had a conversation with the other police officer. I said, “I just noticed his reaction when I said that. Is this going to be a problem?” He was like, “No, no. He is okay. It is not a problem.” The guy came back to me the next time and apologized and said, “I did not mean to react that way. Everything is cool. Totally fine.” Little by little, I felt more empowered to talk about my life as a gay man. Not that I was getting on a soapbox — I was just talking about my life.

[My sexual orientation] never interfered with my job. I never felt like I was not getting cooperation from law enforcement. I never felt like over at the courthouse I was being treated differently or disrespectfully. If anything, I accelerated over time through the ranks. It became easier to work in what was historically a nonaccepting environment, especially by the time I left the attorney general’s office. There were other openly gay prosecutors. We knew who they were. Nobody tried to cover it up.

What do you love most about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community?

I will answer this in two ways. One is it allows me to be me and not have to be trying to figure out a made-up identity. For years I dated women as I was trying to figure out who I was. I remember the first time that I went out with a guy. I thought, “Oh my God, this is where I belong. This is who I am.” To be part of a community where you can just be you is a great thing.

Number two is it is such an inherently diverse community. Obviously, women are very diverse in the group of women. When they come together to celebrate Women’s History Month, they are all identifying as women. If it is Black History Month, all the members of that community identify as Black. You cannot put together the queer community and say, “We are all [this] thing” because we are not.

We have gays and lesbians [who] in some ways are about as far away from each other as you could possibly get. We have the trans community. You name it and it is in there, to the point where we … pretty much [have] the entire alphabet in our community. I love that. I love the fact that our community is just so incredibly different, diverse, and accepting. Even though we are celebrating gay Pride, we are celebrating our unique natures. We are not all the same in this community.