Donald Floyd Baker: The Perfect Plaintiff

Don Baker
Don Baker

by Maggie Baker Watt

When my brother, Don Baker, told me he was going to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Texas Penal Code Section 21.06, my immediate reaction was a rush of excitement: “This could be great! It could mean the beginning of the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians in our state. Hopefully, it will clear the way for sweeping change for the rest of our Nation.” In that instant I was caught up in Don’s enthusiasm.

After the rush, however, I was stricken with fear for Don and his safety. I thought the whole idea was great but I preferred the plaintiff be someone else’s brother. While I knew he would be an ideal candidate, the climate at that time was extremely hostile toward homosexuality, both within religious institutions and society as a whole. But Don was unwavering in his decision. He felt committed to pursue this endeavor, and felt strongly that he was the one to see it through. Anything else would have been wholly uncharacteristic.

To help tell this story, I’d like to talk about when Don first came out to me. For a period of time during the early 1970’s, Don had begun to include in his letters to me articles regarding some views of homosexuality from theologians and mental health professionals. The views expressed in those articles differed significantly from what either of us had been taught. I was sensing what Don was trying to tell me but essentially read them and provided very little response.

Shortly after the first of the year in 1975, during a visit back home to Dallas, Don came over one evening for a visit. After the children had gone to bed, we had “the talk.” He confided to me his certainty of his sexuality ... that he was gay. He also shared with me the emotional struggles he had had over the years, trying to reconcile the views of his religious upbringing with what he began to realize was his sexual orientation. Those conflicting feelings had at times been overwhelming. He said he had spoken with ministers and counselors. He had stood in prayer lines, hoping to be healed from what he perceived at that time as an affliction. Over a period of time, through much soul searching, prayer, reading of scriptures and speaking with enlightened professionals, he finally came to full realization and acceptance of who he was. Peace finally came to him, and he loved himself as he believe God had created him.

Don then shared a passage of scripture with me. We read it from the Bible together. Found in the book of Romans it reads, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger or the sword? Yet in all of this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. For neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, now powers, neither height nor depth no any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

I think this scripture, in particular, was Don’s creed, one that sustained him over the course of the remainder of his life. I also think Don believed that no matter your religious beliefs, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, we are all children of a mighty Universe, and that as such we have value, and purpose, and a special, meaningful place on this earth, a place we are all intended to be.

For as long as I could remember, I had always admired and looked up to Don; he was my big brother. Once he came out to be that day, I realized I had much more to learn about Don, who he was , and where his newly found path would lead him, but I still admired and looked up to him. He was still my big brother.

He soon came out to other family members. Their responses were varied. Both our parents affirmed their continued love and devotion to Don. In due time, my younger sister, Judith, also came out. That was great timing because Don and Judith’s coming out essentially paved the way for me to tell my parents that I was going to marry a Jewish guy and convert to Judaism. My wonderful and supportive husband, Howie, is here with us tonight. A lot of changes were taking place in the Baker family.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Don was the second oldest of five children from a working, middle class family. Our father was a union sheet metal worker and a devoted family man. Our mother was a stay-at-home Mom, who lovingly took care of our daily needs. From an early age Don was exposed to fundamentalist Christian views and teachings, beginning with his grandfather, an Assembly of God minister. Both of our parents taught Sunday School at various times. We attended church services a minimum of 3 times a week, more if there was a revival. We were raised in the church. As my Mother often says, ”Church was our life”.

Don, by all accounts, was a good kid. He was fun loving and often at the helm of any exciting activities in our neighborhood. Never in trouble, but quite often not without blame. I remember a couple of instances during his high school years he participated in, probably organized a few times , the papering of a fellow classmate’s home. During that era it was considered a status symbol, it meant you were popular if your home was papered. Neighborhood kids would secretly hope they would awaken in the morning to find their homes covered in Scott tissue. The parents weren’t keen on it, but the kids relished in it. There was also the time when Don suddenly and unexpectedly drew open the living room curtains as our mother was trying to peer ever so discretely through them as our sister and her boyfriend were kissing goodbye on the front porch. He saw this prime moment of opportunity, Mom, in the darkened living room, hunched forward, barely parting the curtains and peeking out, and seized upon it. I’m sure our Mother’s horrified expression was matched only by the look on my sister’s face at this sudden and unexpected intrusion on her private moment with her boyfriend. I don’t recall they ever dated again.

Don was an average student academically, but was well liked and popular. He was a Boy Scout throughout much of his school years, reaching the rank of Explorer scout. During High School he was in track, marching band, select choir and a cheerleader his senior year. He earned his spending money by throwing a Dallas Morning News paper route. Rising at 4:00 each morning, he first rode his bicycle to deliver papers, then later, once he was of age, drove our parent’s car. I remember even from those early times a certain energy that propelled him. He was so successful at selling newspaper subscriptions he won trips to Colorado and New Orleans. In those days the news carrier solicited new customers and payments by going door to door. I remember with envy all the cool gifts he received during the holidays from all his efforts of being a paperboy - money, huge boxes of life-savers, chewing gum - all kinds of small tokens and gifts.

After high school he attended East Texas State University from 1965-1967. Then attended the University of Texas at Austin. During this time he spoke to a counselor about the possibility of his being gay. She told him he should go into the military; that would help him “sort through things.” So, following her advice, in 1968 he took a break from college and entered the Navy. He was stationed primarily in Europe and Guam. I have many letters he wrote to me over the years after he left home to see the big world. Wherever he went, he wrote of involvement with local church groups, often singing and touring with the choirs. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1972 and returned to the States to resume his studies in college. He received a Bachelor’s degree from the State of New York University in Cortland, graduating Cum Laude. He then returned to Dallas and eventually got his Master’s Degree from Southern Methodist University in 1980 . During his last year of life, in 2000, he did further graduate work at Harvard Divinity School.

In 1987 Don met Michael Hartwig who became his life partner. They met in Dallas but eventually moved to New England where they relished there new surroundings and enjoyed sharing them with friends and family. They were in a loving and committed relationship for 13 years. I will always be grateful to Michael for the degree of dedication and comfort he brought not just to my brother but to our entire family during Don’s seven year battle with cancer. Michael remains a cherished member of our family.

By most standards, Don’s life was a very normal and very happy existence. Thus far, I have spoken about Don’s coming out, his childhood, his academic and military years. That brings us to the question: What made Don Baker the “Perfect Plaintiff” for the landmark case of Baker v. Wade ? I will share my thoughts on that with you now.

Don brought to our family and to all who knew him a contagious zeal for life. He was so positive. He exuded a certain graciousness that always made us feel special. He was a kind and gentle spirit who listened intently when you spoke with him - you knew he really cared. Every celebration was enhanced by Don’s presence because he loved being with his family and he loved to celebrate. If it was the birth of one of his nieces or nephews, a high school graduation, a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding or any important occasion, Don was there with us and for us. Typically, for many of our family celebrations, Don might orchestrate a day of songs, games and selected poems for his nieces and nephews to read. The menu would also be well planned, some of which he would prepare himself. I felt he was motivated to a great extent by not only giving more joy and significance to that particular holiday or family gathering, but also because he couldn’t help himself! It seemed innate in him to enhance any event and bring people closer together. The real treat, however, was when you were the honored guest of Don and Mike. Being their guest meant being treated like royalty. On a trip my family took to Boston, Don met us at the airport with gifts in hand, a stuffed toy lobster for Sarah, a Boston T-shirt for Jacob and a bouquet of Texas yellow roses for me. The rest of the trip only got better. With an itinerary designed by Don, we were treated to the highlights of the magnificent and historic city of Boston. We went on tours, tasted New England cuisine and sailed on the Charles River. He made sure our children received their history lessons from most everything we did. He quizzed them on the historical highlights of the trip then asked them to write about something they had done that day. Our children were his eager students. We were treated to a week we will never forget. Don made his mark on our trip as he did on everything he pursued.

I recently poured over some of Don’s letters to me from over the years. His genuine love of people is evident throughout the lines he had written. One such letter he wrote to me in 1975 reflects this love which is heavily influenced by his personal beliefs. While on winter break from student

teaching in New York, he had toured with the college choir. The tour included staying in the homes of host families – “What a beautiful way to meet people,” he exclaimed, “The experience never seems to grow old. People continue to fascinate me and it is no wonder that God continues to love us. I know that may sound a little egotistic and snobbish. It’s not that people deserve God’s love, it’s just that they do have good qualities and with determination and self-fulfillment they can be beautiful creatures. Sometimes I think evangelicals emphasize the degradation and utter worthlessness of man in an attempt to explain God’s love, to an extent that man accepts his mistakes and unproductiveness as normal. I don’t believe that is God’s intention. I believe man has much more worth and value than he gives himself credit for. I think too much pessimism can cause humans to get in a non- productive rut that only breeds more unproductiveness and defeat. With a determination and strong self will ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,’ Philippians 4:13.”

In that same letter, Don said that he had been in contact with the national director of Christ’s Ambassadors, an Assembly of God youth organization, concerning “more thoughts” on the gay issue. Don stated that they had had several recent “serious” discussions: “Unfortunately, Mr. ‘G’ and I are still miles apart on our opinions. But I am still trusting God that soon our ideas will be drawn closer together.” Don, using his conciliatory manner, was attempting to foster understanding and change within his denomination. His faith and beliefs always remained central to his life.

From his love of learning, and of people, to his infectious, warm spirit, it is no surprise that Don was a natural teacher. As an elementary school teacher in Dallas, he was truly in his element. As a Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, he created a learning environment in his classroom that would be the envy of any teacher. His classroom had flower boxes built by our father in which the children planted and cared for geraniums and other flowers. There was a designated seating area with comfortable chairs to entice the children to read many of the materials he brought back with him from his extensive travels while in the military. He also had a hamster and aquarium the children would help care for. He was the kind of teacher parents hoped their child would have.

During his tenure as a teacher, Don was becoming more politically active in the Dallas scene. He was becoming more visible and it was only a matter of time before he would be “outed” to the general public. Dallas School Superintendent, Nolan Estes, had declared there were no gay teachers in the Dallas school district ... but that if there were, they would be fired immediately.

Former Dallas School Board Trustee and State Representative, the Honorable Dr. Harryette Ehrhardt, witnessed these decisive moments for Don firsthand. She reminisced about such moments in her eulogy of Don in 2000. She said, “The superintendent’s intention was to immediately rid the district of a group of teachers based on what the students or parents might report was a nontraditional lifestyle - one not acceptable to some of the community. Don in a silhouetted TV interview with an electronically distorted voice to protect his identity, pointed out the significance of such an ill conceived idea. We met personally the next evening – he a teacher, in one room, and I, a member of the DISD Board, in another, talking through a door. Very shortly, Don burst through the door and said, ‘I am not going to do this—I am not going to hide anymore’.” She went on to say, “I understand and have seen what it is to ‘come out’.”

Don talked with the the group concerned about the Superintendent’s directive and mapped a course that initiated, was the starting point of, making DISD what it is today—the most non- discriminating school district in Texas — the only one barring discrimination against its students or its staff. Don started that in Texas ... and Dr. Ehrhardt played a significant and crucial role, herself, in all the positive changes that transpired during that time. Don always had the utmost respect and admiration for her.

Don was surrounded by many supportive and loyal individuals throughout his days in Dallas. Many remained dear friends with Don until his last days. Some I recognize here this evening. I would like to recount to you more comments from Dr. Ehrhardt’s and other’s eulogies from Don’s funeral that I feel articulate so well how I and others felt about Don.

Dr. Ehrhardt said: “Many we meet change us, most ever so slightly, but, in the course of one’s life, only a few have such a significant influence that they turn around our whole existence -- few change the entire direction of our future.”

In his eulogy of Don, long time and close friend, Gary Springer stated: “I have often said that Don Baker was the only person I ever knew who had delusions of grandeur and then made those delusions come true. He created in many of us a sense of excitement and hope for the future. Don also had a vision of how the Church could be enriched by becoming inclusive to gays and lesbians. In 1977 he convinced two local mainline churches to sponsor a conference on ‘Homosexuality and the Church’. He recruited a well known theologian, Dr. Norman Pittinger, as the keynote speaker and created thought- provoking educational sessions throughout the conference. This was 1977, and it was a revolutionary event. It was also the beginning for these two sponsoring churches. Midway Hills Christian Church and Northhaven Methodist Church are today open and affirming, welcoming congregations to gay and lesbian persons.”

My husband Howie and I had the privilege of attending the recent marriage ceremony of Gary and husband, Sonny, in one of those very congregations, Midway Hills Christian Church. Gary and Sonny tied the legal knot after over 40 years in a committed relationship. It was a thrilling and unforgettable moment when everyone in the sanctuary rose in unison, each of our hearts reaching out, embracing them as they proceeded down the aisle to recite their vows to each other. I could sense Don’s presence, right then and there, reveling in that awesome moment .

Another close friend, Dr. Louise Young, characterized Don as a “visionary.” In her eulogy she said, “The 18th century German poet/philosopher, Johann von Goethe, offers us advice that, to me, describes Don’s approach as an activist to dealing with people – particularly those who do not agree with us. Goethe said: ‘If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is. But, if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and what he could be.’”

I have shared with you some of my personal memories of Don. I hope I have shed light on some of the factors and events that came together and eventually led to his becoming the Plaintiff in Baker v. Wade. However, this story cannot be complete without mentioning another very significant individual. If my brother was the Perfect Plaintiff, Judge Jerry Buchmeyer was the Perfect Judge. A trailblazer and a true visionary himself, he had the courage and insight to influence major change. He saw where there were inequities and injustices in our society and, using powers vested in him through the courts, delivered rulings that were far reaching. When his path converged with Don’s, something phenomenal occurred. His ruling in Baker v. Wade laid the groundwork for future rulings and victories regarding gay liberties.

In closing, Don’s personality, upbringing, courage and dedication to pursue justice coupled with Judge Jerry Buchmeyer’s determination, idealism and progressive thinking and insight will continue to influence and to be a lesson from which present and future generations can learn. 

Maggie Watt is the sister of Don Baker, the plaintiff in the historic federal court litigation of Baker vs. Wade. She has worked for years as a vocational nurse with her most recent experience being in-home healthcare. Now retired, she spends her time with her husband, Howard Watt, a Denton attorney, her four children, four grandchildren and one great grandchild. She has been involved in various volunteer positions within her com-munity, at her children's schools and at the University of North Texas in Denton. She served as the board chair of the Denton Community Food Center and the advisory board for the Study of Sexualities at UNT. The SOS program was established to honor Maggie's brother, Don Baker. Additionally, Maggie helped establish the Jewish studies program at UNT. They were recipients of the Green Glory Award presented in 2007 by UNT. Maggie is very honored speak about her brother, Don, and is touched by the continued support of the Dallas GLBT community in recognizing and continuing Don's legacy.