The Accidental Activist
A personal tragedy prompted Janice Langbehn to find her voice
Published in 2022 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on July 14, 2022
In the spring of 2007, Janice Langbehn, her wife, Lisa Pond, and three of their four children were in Miami, getting ready to set sail on a cruise for gay and lesbian families hosted by Rosie O’Donnell. Then a social worker for Child Protective Services, Langbehn had met Pond in 1988 when they were undergraduates at the University of Puget Sound. By 1991, they had solidified their commitment with a ceremony at Tacoma’s Metropolitan Community Church. Over the next six years, they fostered 25 special-needs children and adopted four others. Michael, now 32, was 6 years old when Pond and Langbehn adopted him. Then they adopted his half-sister, Danielle, followed by another set of half-siblings, David and Katie.
Shortly before the ship was to set sail, Pond suffered a brain aneurysm. She was rushed to nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Langbehn says she was not allowed to visit Pond in part because they were a lesbian couple. Her children were also refused, she says, with the hospital saying they were too young. Langbehn produced the children’s birth certificates, which the couple carried whenever they traveled. Langbehn says she told the hospital staff, “Ignore me all you want, but at least let the kids say goodbye to their dying mother.” She says the hospital wouldn’t allow the visit and Pond died the next day.
Later that summer, O’Donnell treated Langbehn and her children to another cruise. Standing in line with her kids for temporary tattoos, Langbehn struck up a conversation with another parent, who was an attorney for civil rights organization Lambda Legal. The conversation eventually turned to the family’s recent tragedy. “The attorney said, ‘You need to think about standing up to this,’” recalls Langbehn. “And that’s when it dawned on me that I should.”
Though Langbehn hadn’t considered herself an activist, she felt she had to speak up.
Lambda Legal represented Langbehn in a suit against the hospital, and though it was dismissed in 2009, her activism continued to grow. In 2011, she told her story at three GLAAD-hosted galas around the country. By this time, Langbehn had taken a disability separation from her job after a fall at work exacerbated her multiple sclerosis, which had been diagnosed in 1999.
“Every month I was doing a different gala, giving my speech,” says Langbehn. Unbeknownst to her, someone in President Obama’s administration heard it and nominated her for the Presidential Citizens Medal, which she received at a White House ceremony in October 2011. “It was a surreal experience,” says Langbehn, who was cheered on by her siblings and representatives from Lambda Legal and GLAAD. The year before, President Obama had issued a memorandum requiring any hospital receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to respect advance directives, which Langbehn and Pond had, essentially ensuring visitation without documentation such as a marriage license.
As Langbehn’s kids grew older and more independent, she began to think about going back to school. “When I worked at CPS and filed dependency petitions, I wanted to be the attorney arguing in court for the state,” says Langbehn. In the summer of 2015, a week after Katie graduated from high school, Langbehn enrolled in her first semester at Seattle University School of Law.
In President Obama’s brief remarks about Langbehn in 2011, he called her an “accidental activist.” She agrees. “If you asked me 20 years ago, I’d say I was an activist for my kids,” she says. “But Lisa’s death was just so wrong on so many levels, and we had done everything right. We were soulmates and had raised kids together, and yet we were nothing to the state of Florida. I felt like I had no choice. It just lit something in me.”
American Bark Association
Not only can Janice Langbehn’s service dog, Lexi, perform 40 tasks, including tugging on a rope to move a laundry basket, she also boasts “J.D.” (juris dog-tor) on her resumé.
In 1999, Langbehn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and as the illness progressed she requested a service dog. After a two-year wait, Canine Companions matched Langbehn in 2017 with Lexi. She was in her final year at Seattle University School of Law, and Lexi attended with her, becoming a beloved member of the law school community. At graduation alongside Langbehn, Lexi received her own cap, gown, hood and diploma, “signed” with a paw print by Ruth Bader “Ginsbark.”
Lexi’s presence has also offered unexpected benefits for Langbehn’s family law practice.
“People come in for consults,” Langbehn says. “Someone’s just taken their kids away or they’re facing a domestic violence protection order, and Lexi goes and sits next to them. Sometimes that’s all it takes to relax people.”