His 1989 case is a footnote - literally - to a historic decision

Clemente Pascarella, of Phoenixville, who divorced in 1985 after coming out, then lost his visitation fight. The case was cited in the recent marriage-equality decision. Of the ruling, he says: "I feel relief for the younger generation. ... It's about time."
Clemente Pascarella, of Phoenixville, who divorced in 1985 after coming out, then lost his visitation fight. The case was cited in the recent marriage-equality decision. Of the ruling, he says: "I feel relief for the younger generation. ... It's about time." (MICHAEL MATZA / Staff)
Posted: June 02, 2014

In 1984, after five years of marriage and the birth of two daughters, Clemente Pascarella came out, moved in with a man in Northeast Philadelphia, and sought visitation with his girls, ages 2 and 5.

AIDS was becoming rampant, many homosexuals were closeted, and Pascarella's estranged wife was concerned for the physical and emotional well-being of the children. She opposed unrestricted visitation.

Pascarella lost his court battle, but in so doing unknowingly planted a beacon in the public record that would flash decades later.

On May 20, when a federal judge in Harrisburg struck down Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage, Pascarella v. Pascarella was a footnote - literally - to the historic decision and cited in the fine print as evidence of how dramatically society's mores about sexual orientation have changed.

"We pause to note . . . Pennsylvania's treatment of homosexuals . . . evidences long-term discrimination," U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III wrote, citing the Pascarella case as one example.

In an interview last week, Pascarella acknowledged that he didn't know his case was cited until a reporter told him. He said all he ever wanted was for his children to grow up in a world where they could know him as he is, and know his friends.

Divorcing spouses may always find something to fight about, "but if I were straight," Pascarella, now 54, said at his home in Phoenixville, sexuality "would never have been an issue."

In July 1989, after a series of interim orders, Family Court Judge Vito F. Canuso sided definitively with Pascarella's ex-wife, saying "homosexual relationships [have] received minimal social acceptance and no legal recognition."

An earlier appeal to a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania was equally dismissive. The daughters are "innocent and impressionable," those jurists said. "It is inconceivable that they could . . . be exposed to [the homosexual relationship of their father] and not suffer some emotional disturbance, perhaps severe."

What a difference three decades make.

Capping his 39-page ruling, which marriage-equality advocates hailed as a watershed, Jones wrote: "We are better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them on the ash heap of history."

With that, Pennsylvania became the 19th state to recognize same-sex marriage. Gov. Corbett said he would not appeal.

Pascarella no longer lives with the man for whom he left his wife. He lives with another man. They have been a committed couple for about two years, he said, but have no immediate plans to marry.

Seated on a wicker love seat on the porch of the 1879 Italianate Victorian twin house they are renovating, Pascarella said legal recognition that people in Pennsylvania should be able to marry the person they choose was a long time coming.

Jones' ruling "is a great day for the gay community," he said. And "especially nice if it means society finally embraces everyone equally. I feel relief for the younger generation. . . . It's about time."

Raised Roman Catholic, Pascarella graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia, worked in shipping and receiving at Strawbridge & Clothier in Center City, and married a woman from South Philadelphia.

After he came out, "she didn't want me around the kids," he said. "I fought it, and a judge awarded me two hours [of supervised visitation] every other Sunday" in the basement nursery behind the Family Court at 18th and Vine Streets, where dozens of parents met with their kids.

"There was no bonding time," said Pascarella. "Let's say it was like visiting day at the prison."

His ex-wife, who is remarried and living in Northeast Philadelphia, did not respond to requests for comment.

Pascarella's decision to come out exploded his marriage and caused a rift with his father, an Italian immigrant who was born near Naples. Father and son didn't speak for about 18 months, he said.

Then one night when the movie Funny Girl was showing on TV, the father said something lighthearted - Pascarella can't remember what - and "it broke the ice," he said. Thereafter, both father and mother were very supportive, he said.

The court later modified its order to permit Pascarella to visit with his daughters at his parents' house on specified weekends, but not if another homosexual was present.

It was not immediately clear whether Jones' ruling has advanced custody and visitation rights for gay and lesbian people in Pennsylvania or has simply affirmed changes that had been afoot.

The ruling "might clarify and expand the rights of same-sex couples who are having children together," said lawyer Tiffany Palmer, of Jerner & Palmer, a Germantown firm. She is cochair of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Committee on the Legal Rights of Contemporary Families.

"In the Pascarella-type cases," involving biological parents coming out of marriages, she said, the ruling is likely to be a nonissue.

"It's a whole new ball game now," said Harold Shotel, 80, one of the lawyers who represented Clemente Pascarella. "I don't think he would have the same problem today that he had back in the '80s."

Pascarella said he has maintained a good relationship with his daughters, who are 30 and 33 and married now.

The elder, Nicole Hartman, has a son and two daughters younger than 3, and a 9-year-old stepdaughter. She lives near Doylestown and works as a paralegal.

"It is overwhelming to know that our case was in the forefront, so to speak, of where we are today," she said when told about the footnote. "My dad cracked the door open."

When he is not working as a hotel caterer, Pascarella babysits for Hartman's children about twice a week.

"For the times, I believe in a way they thought [that restricted visitation] was in our best interest," said Hartman. "Do I believe personally that it was? No. I believe it did affect the kind of relationship I could have had with my dad if it wasn't supervised all the time."

Hartman said her youngest children just think of Pascarella and his partner as "Grampy and his friend."

Her 9-year-old, who is precocious, senses a little something more.

"She doesn't understand the whole idea of it," said Hartman, "but she knows he's not going to marry a woman anytime soon."


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

@MichaelMatza1

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