The Last Page is dedicated to individuals who are making a positive impact on the LGBTQ community in Central Florida and Tampa Bay.
This issue, we check in with owner of Thomas Law Firm, PLLC, Jessica Thomas from Central Florida. Keep an eye on this space to learn more about the movers and shakers of your community.
Hometown: Born and raised in Panama City, Florida
Identifies As: Heterosexual female, ally
Profession: Attorney at Law
Professional role model: My father is my professional role model. He started working in rural Vidalia, Georgia as soon as he was old enough to walk and talk. Over 60 years he still works full time, owned and operated a successful tree removal service company and was a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force for over 20 years and served in the Reserves thereafter. He would always say not to “try” just “do.”
Autobiography Title: “This Too Shall Pass,” It is my mantra.
Hobbies: Often working mothers don’t have time to dedicate to themselves or to something unrelated to career or family. Back in the day I loved to sing and act for fun along with reading. Now, those are still my hobbies; I just sing the Disney songs of every movie with my kids, I act silly to get them to laugh and I read bedtimes stories.
What do you do professionally?
I am an adoption and family law litigator. This means that I spend a considerable amount of time in court. I am not just at a desk reading and drafting all day, I am holding my client’s hand during a domestic violence trial; I am hugging my client after the judge rules that they will have majority timesharing with their children; I am wiping my client’s tears when the ruling comes in for them being awarded their marital home; and I am crying at my adoption hearings when I am able to formalize what the heart formulated.
How do you champion for the local LGBTQ community?
I speak up. As an African American, plus size woman, I face my share of adversity. Therefore, I am aware of what is needed of me to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I must speak up when I see something wrong. I confront my loved ones or strangers when I encounter bigotry or hatred. I personally try to use my legal expertise to provide a voice for those who are often silenced; especially in the area of same-sex domestic violence. I have presented Certified Legal Education (CLE) courses on Interpersonal Violence with a focus on how the legal community can recognize the disparities faced by the LGBTQ+ community in speaking out or garnering justice. By joining The Pride Chamber years ago, I wanted my colleagues and clients to know that this was an important issue to me, and I wished to have an official capacity show my support.
Just feeling that a certain community faces injustice is not enough. You must actively seek out ways to make real change, fight the tough battles and speak up when that group otherwise doesn’t have a seat at the table.
What is your favorite thing to read in Watermark?
Watermark Wedding Bells. In another life I would have been a wedding planner. I adore the happiness of weddings, the way that each couple makes them unique and love stories behind each photo. These are especially tear jerking for the ones that Watermark shows because often there is historical significance in each couple. Their entry into formal legal union hits me as a litigator because I can easily recall cases where parties weren’t able to receive full protection under the law — the law I had sworn to uphold — simply because of who they loved. Now in every wedding photo their love is recognized as it should be.
What is your favorite local LGBTQ event?
Come Out with Pride Orlando. The way that EVERYONE, and I do mean EVERYONE — from our local politicians, business owners, families, you name it — comes out to support the LGBTQ+ community is very inspiring. Knowing that for 15 plus years they have shown a light on what has been accomplished and what needs to be changed is encouraging to say the least.
What is your favorite thing about the local LGBTQ community?
The support. Often there are negative stereotypes that afflict any marginalized group; however, Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community knocks any stereotypes out of the water. There isn’t just a superficial glaze of interconnectivity between members of the community, instead there is genuine care and concern for each person’s personal needs; whether that be supporting the latest event or offering safe and secure resources for those in need.
What would you like to see improved in the local LGBTQ community?
Nothing comes to mind other than I hope there can continue to be awareness of how we as allies can support the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
What would you like our readers to know about you?
That “I’m Here.” Yes, that is the tagline of my firm but it’s also who I am. I am here for my one-year-old daughter and three-year-old son every single day. Being a mother has made me fiercely protective of those in need overall. I am here for my husband who I support implicitly in his dreams. Being a wife has shown me how to truly be a team and how to support each other when times are tough. I am here for my friends/colleagues who make my network breadth large and significant as I often connect them with each other for resources and success. I am here for my law firm clients that sometimes email me 10 times in one day because they are truly scared going through the legal process and need someone with experience to provide ongoing comfort. I pride myself of being there for others because if you have an ability to help, then you should. If you have a skill, though it may be how you make a living, you should donate some of that expertise back to the community. My true purpose in life is to be there for others and the act of doing so inspires me to show up to what I need to do every day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
You are worth it. Often as a young girl in a small town you don’t always have a world of confidence. Don’t misunderstand, my mother is the most confident person I know and she constantly showed her four daughters that we were “set apart” from the rest of the world. However, being a chubby, nerdy kid made me often seek out more common forms of acceptance with the popular kids. This would sometimes result in allowing myself to be the butt of the joke just to be part of the crowd. If I could look at little Jess the Best, I’d tell her, “You are worth it” and encourage her to demand more for herself from others.
What led you to want to enter the legal profession?
My family. As I mentioned, I am from Panama City, Florida. Unless you have been there, you don’t know how rural it is. There are more pickup trucks than you can imagine with confederate flags on them and my middle school picnic benches had swastikas drawn on them, so there was some racial tension to say the least. I often worried about my family, specifically my dad, and what would happen to him in a “wrong place, wrong color of skin” situation. I thought of politics to make changes and started out as the fourth grade vice president at my elementary school. In fact, politics is still my ultimate goal, but I knew that I needed to be part of the day-to-day protection first — enter teen court. This was where I fell in love with the law. My hard work could yield results to help make changes for those in the teen court program. I was changing my counterparts’ lives for the better. From there I knew I had to be an attorney in court, arguing for others and changing lives.
What are a couple of legal services that it would be beneficial for LGBTQ people to know about that you can help with?
Although families are families, marriage is marriage and adoption is adoption; you have to be mindful and sensitive to what each client will need but more importantly you need the seasoned experience of hearing what is paramount to them because of their position in life. You must be well versed on the nuances of the laws that are lacking for this particular community and the workarounds to ensure that you achieve long lasting results. I can represent you in a domestic violence, stalking or harassment case and know how to address the implicit bias of these proceedings. I can represent you to draft prenuptial agreements and draft settlement agreements where everything is amicable. I am a harsh litigator when you need me to fight for your children or property in a dissolution action. Above all I am transparent and consistent in my communication to ensure that you know how we will make your family whole in an adoption.
I am honored to serve the LGBTQ+ community as they continue to navigate these newly charted legal waters in adoption and family law. While the journey can be daunting, my clients know no matter what happens, “I’m Here.”