To Kill A Mockingbird with Jean M. Gustafson

Hello!

Today we meet Jean M. Gustafson and we’re talking about the book that saved her life: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Jean M. Gustafson is a seasoned attorney who specializes in various branches of law, including employment law, elder law, criminal and family law. She is licensed in the states of Minnesota, South Dakota, Utah and Federal Court of the District of Minnesota. She has also received training in Basic Mediation. Jean is a firm believer in mediation and she has seen it obtain better results for her clients than adversarial court battles. She is currently highly involved in the Minnesota bar association serving as a diverse attorney in two affinity bars, Elder Law Education committee member and former chair of the Elder Law Institute Planning Committee.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father–a crusading local lawyer–risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.

Connect with Jean

website: guslaw.net
email: jean@guslaw.net

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Credits

Host/Founder: J.P. Der Boghossian
Executive Producer: Jim Pounds
Associate Producers: Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Jonathan Fried, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olila, Joe Perazzo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith
Patreon Subscribers: Stephen D., Stephen Flamm, Ida Göteburg, Thomas Michna, and Gary Nygaard.
Creative and Accounting support provided by: Gordy Erickson
Music and SFX credits: visit thiqueerbook.com/music

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Transcript

[theme music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
Hey everyone. I’m J.P. Der Boghossian. I’m an essayist and Lambda Literary fellow and your host and you’re listening to the podcast where LGBTQ guests share the queer books that saved their lives. And today we’re going to be talking about a real classic not only of American literature but a classic for so many queer women across the United States. We’re talking about To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee which is listed on Publishing Triangles list of the 100 best Lesbian and Gay Novels.

My guest is Jean Gustafson and we’re talking about queer representation, finding inner strength, and what we can learn from this novel about the law today.

Welcome to This Queer Book Saved My Life – a 2024 GLAAD Media Award nominee Outstanding Podcast!

[theme music ends]

[light hearted music]

Jean Gustafson
My name is Jean Gustafson. I’m a lawyer in Greater Minnesota and real estate entrepreneur.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Jean’s legal practice focuses on elder law and family law. She has a real passion for mental health, interweaving it into her legal work. She told me that there isn’t a specific mental health legal practice within the field, but if there would she would be practicing it.

And I want to tell you the story of how the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association awarded her their annual Greater Minnesota Fellowship. Because this story will set the stage for my conversation with Jean and give some perspective about how the book that saved her life impacted her.

[curious investigation music]

It starts when a Human Resources group she was involved in recruited to speak at a private event. Specifically it was a gentleman who identified as gay, and worked in HR with a company that we won’t name here. The theme for the day? Hot topics in the law.

Jean Gustafson
That year, the hot topics were number one, medical marijuana, and number two, the bathroom bill.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Now, the bathroom law was a ridiculous anti-transgender bill in the Minnesota legislature. This was in 2016 with a Republican legislature. Today, Minnesota is a trans-refuge state with many more protections for queer and trans folks. But in 2016, this bathroom bill caused a wildfire of conversations.

Jean Gustafson
This is Brainerd, Minnesota, and we don’t talk about things like bathroom, going to the bathroom that you are comfortable in, rather than one that is assigned to you at birth. So, during that session, there was kind of what I’d say, a plant, and it was a member of the staff, and he started actively disputing me. And I thought, I’m not gonna have you take my time. And so I said, well, you do cater to same sex weddings. What if you get a person who is transgender and they ask you what bathroom may I use? Don’t you want to be prepared?

J.P. Der Boghossian
Well, after the event, the HR gentleman who invited her to speak immediately called Jean.

Jean Gustafson
He was told by his company that they will never have that topic of gender bathroom questions at their facility. And they never wanted me ever to be their attorney. And I said, good. I don’t want to be your attorney if that’s going to be your attitude. Instead of fighting the discriminatory behavior, the HR man chose to leave his job.

J.P. Der Boghossian
And this event fueled Jean leading up to her fellowship with the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association

Jean Gustafson
And I used that because I was able to really dive into like giving education about the trans community to the Brainerd area and just general education about gay people. And so I highlighted those experiences and I was chosen. I’m the second fellowship recipient. And I feel because of, I guess, my life experience if someone’s gonna give me something like that award, I want them to get their money’s worth. So I continued to give a lot of education, particularly in greater Minnesota, they need to have some, we need to have some sort of education.

J.P. Der Boghossian
And now, my conversation with Jean.

[music ends]

J.P. Der Boghossian
Well, I am curious then to the topic of our conversation today, Jean, what is the book that saved your life?

Jean Gustafson
The book that saved my life was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. When I think about what this book has meant to me, I realize that’s been with me almost my entire life. I can’t identify when I first read it, but I know it was somewhere, maybe in junior high or high school.

And despite not knowing when I read this book, it stuck with me. Now, why had it stuck with me? What I think is that the words to describe the characters, Scout, the main character that I identified with, it identified words that had not been spoken yet, nor any representations of gay women that I’d ever seen.

And I know there’s been a lot of talk about whether Harper Lee was gay, and I did a little research before the podcast, and she claimed that she wasn’t, and it’s really none of any of our business, but I think it’s important to show that many gay women identify with her, as I did. Identified with the fact that Scout was a tomboy, which I was, and I would define tomboy as an acceptable state of being until a certain age.

And at that time, when I was younger, I wanted to be a boy. And I wasn’t sure why I had those feelings, but it was very strong. Now, it could have been that it was prompted by the representations of heroic and valiant male figures I looked up to after we moved, our family moved very radically from Woodbury to Twig, Minnesota.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Twig?!

Jean Gustafson
Yeah, you know, I always catch people on that who think they know their geography. They’re like, yeah, I’ve heard of Twig, you know, if the reason Twig was chosen is my mother’s younger, younger brother lived there and she didn’t have a lot of options. And so it was very dramatic move in the middle of the night to Twig.

Now Twig is in St. Louis County, but it’s 20 miles north of downtown Duluth, and it’s on Highway 53, which is a junction off of 35.

And so some of these men would go out after storm on their makeshift snowmobile patrol, fishing stranded motorists off Highway 53. Because in the old days, we didn’t have any cell phones. If you got, you know, stranded in a snow bank, it was certain death. You know, nobody would come and get you.

So I don’t know whether it was that or what, but I know that I have always followed this book. To Kill a Mockingbird has been a part of my life, my identity. I even recall at a job interview talking about it and it was written down that I love this book.

[plaintive music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
I want to take a moment here to give you a synopsis of To Kill A Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was based on author Harper Lee’s own observations of an event that happened in her youth and her family and neighbors reactions to it. The novel is told from Scout’s point of view. Scout is six-years old, a tomboy, and the daughter of Atticus Finch, who is a lawyer. The main plot that drives the novel and animates all the characters choices focuses on a young white woman and her father who falsely accuse Tom Robinson of rape.

Atticus agrees to serve as Tom’s court-appointed lawyer, in spite of the neighbor’s and community’s outrage that Atticus would defend him as Tom is Black. The novel then follows the trial, the verdict, and the violence that takes place afterwards. All told from Scout’s view point and her attempts to understand what’s going on.

Many consider Scout to be a character who is a “lesbian prototype” if you will and that her friend whom she vigorously protects, Dill, is gay. Scout rejects femininity, but is attracted to femme presenting girls. She fights. She wants and strives to get the same freedoms her older brother, Jem, has.

[music ends]

At the same time that Mockingbird awakened my sense of who I was and maybe that I wanted to be a boy and that I definitely identified with Scout’s, you know, ability to climb trees and just kind of like, you know, be her authentic self, it also awakened my sense of racial justice. Now I became a lawyer, uh, I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a lawyer psychologist, social worker, and I think I became that all.

But I feel like not only did it save my life as a gay woman in that that was the first time anyone identified characteristics of a gay character that I could really, you know, grab hold of. Looking up to Scout following her footsteps.

It also saved my life as my views on racial justice were radically different from my family’s views. And one of the reasons I believe that is so is that I was born to my parents later on in life. My mother was 33 and I think my father was 37. My father was a veteran of World War II. He served in the United States Navy.

But my father also suffered two traumatic brain injuries. One when he was a youth and he was hit by a streetcar in Duluth. Then the second one when he we moved, you know, to Twig and my dad.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Gosh.

Jean Gustafson
He became an iron worker, he was a laborer, and I think because of the lack of supervision for inspectors, because they were very prominent in the Twin Cities area, and my dad was working up on the iron range, he was concerned about this unsafe job site. And even at like 11 or something, I remembered his concerns.

So on my birthday, we had gotten a call that he had fallen 10 feet from a scaffolding. And we went on his head. We went up to the, um, hospital and I’m not sure if it was in Virginia or Hibbing and he was just like this giant of a man. We’re trying to keep him in his bed. And he was saying, the lawyers came up here and they made me sign something. So I know it seems like something out of a book, but it really happened. So lawyers from the construction company…

J.P. Der Boghossian
Oh no.

Jean Gustafson
…beat us to the punch and got him to sign some waiver saying that it was his fault that he fell. Now, and to prefer the prefaces, my mother and father had a wonderful marriage and she took care of all the finances and all the legal matters and real estate matters. He just worked and gave his check to her. So he had no frame of reference to begin with what the hell he was signing.

So I, you know, I’m a strong Christian woman. I believe I have to, you know, honor my father. And I, and that’s why I want to preface that, because every night, it was after his fall, he really started changing. He didn’t break a bone in his body, he looked perfect. But mentally he changed. So every single night at the dinner table, he talked about black people and using the most offensive word. And this was in Duluth. At that time, there were virtually no black people and he ranted and raved about them. And I fought him, you know, as best I could.

Within the confines of being what I felt was a Christian daughter and honoring him and to the point of my parents accepting that they thought that I was going to be marrying a black man when I grew up. And Mockingbird really helped me. It really saved my life because Atticus, he could have. He was court appointed. It doesn’t really talk about that well, but he was appointed by the court. So he could have taken the attitude or the tact that, well, I’m just gonna see this out. I’m gonna make sure that I’m there, but I’m not gonna put up much of a fight. No, he gave a zealous advocacy and he fought his community. And yet he also said to his family, remember at the end of the day, we’ll be meeting these same people in the grocery store and in public we can’t let that, my sales advocacy interfere with ongoing relationships.

[introspective music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
Did you have a sense of yourself, you had a sense of yourself as being a tomboy, it sounds like when you read it, was it, did you have a sense of yourself as being gay at that time, or did that come later?

Jean Gustafson
I had a sense of myself being gay when I was 13.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Okay, so young.

Jean Gustafson
So it was right around, probably right around that time. And I knew I, and I was starting to dress more masculine, and we attended my uncle’s funeral. Before that night, I wore a very masculine looking outfit. My mom said, you change your clothes. So I wore a blue dress. I look great. But it wasn’t what I wanted to wear.

J.P. Der Boghossian
(laughs)

J.P. Der Boghossian
So you had mentioned that you had written or included this novel in a job application. Tell me more about that.

Jean Gustafson
I did.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Tell me more about that.

Jean Gustafson
My first job was in Park Rapids. It was a combined job, Park Rapids and Wadena, and I applied to Aiken County. And, you know, it’s, one of my gifts is kind of the ability to kind of foretell or portend the future. Not, I mean, I don’t, you know, it doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes it does.

and I pulled up to the curb and I just got a dark feeling. And I mean, I should have left then, but I wound up being interviewed and just did smashingly in the interview. And the reason I know about that is because I requested those records. Long story short, I was pregnant at the time. I lost my baby. Her name’s Elizabeth. She’s buried in Aiken.

And I was told that the judge did not like me. He liked this other clerk, his clerk, and he wanted her to be hired. It was devastating because I was married to my husband at the time. She was single. And the reason that I know that is because two investigators from the Board of Judicial, you know, standards came up to Crosby to interview me. And that judge voluntarily left us for another thing I’m not gonna get into, but it just shows that I’ve got a really raw deal.

And so I asked for the interview notes and that’s right there. So it’s painful because when I see that, I also see about seeing that on paper. And it brings the whole thing of Elizabeth. And it brings, you know, when you’re a gay woman that comes out as older, and I think if I had been given the opportunity to come out earlier and have the strength, I probably would not have gotten married and would have children. And I’m so grateful for my children. But when you have a child, I personally feel mothers gain a sense of guilt.

You know, you feel guilty for, you know, I feel guilty for taking that job while I was pregnant. And the stresses of that job may have contributed to Elizabeth’s death.

So, and my wife, and she asked that I not use her name on the podcast, you know, she understands that I sometimes go to dark places, and I mean, it really can be a good thing to go to dark places, because it allows you to heal, but that, you know, to put the blame where it belongs.

And I mean, I really wish I could write a book like Harper Lee did. It really did save my life. You know, even reading that book, seeing that on those interview notes, it’s like, yeah, I could make it. I can make it through this death of my firstborn child.

Yeah, I don’t talk about these things very, very often. But that book gave me such strength. And I mean, I think there was so much more in Harper Lee and we all wanted to have her write more, but she really encapsulated what it’s like to have, to have traumatic experiences, to live through them, to see them.

To see this Tom, he didn’t do anything wrong, except he was nice to, I think it was Mayella was the girl. And Mayella, I believe had a crush on him. So the father couldn’t stand that and he beat her and made her say that, you know, Tom raped her. And that wasn’t the truth at all.

[reflective music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
I guess then the obvious question is, do you feel like To Kill a Mockingbird led to you taking up the law as your professional career?

Jean Gustafson
It was part of it because I grew up, when we were living in Woodbury, we had this wonderful three-bedroom suburban home and we had a fireplace in the basement and we’d watch Perry Mason. Now keep in mind, I really got you to ask me that because I actually had a crush on Della, Perry Mason’s paralegal.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Ah! Ha ha!

Jean Gustafson
I did, and I didn’t even know how to identify that, but I wanted to be like Perry Mason. And so I think that it kind of stoke the fires of, you know, and then having to fight racial injustice at home. I acted like Atticus. I could have easily gone along and just, you know, nodded my head or not said anything. I certainly didn’t have to fight my father but I felt that I had a need to fight him. And you know, say that’s absolutely not true. Those things are horrible. You can’t say those things. So I do feel that, I mean, I really also, I want to say I identified with Atticus, I didn’t. Because while I didn’t read Nancy Drew that much, her father was an attorney.

And I love this idea of having a father who was an attorney. And so Atticus was an attorney. It’s kind of sad because at one point he was like, well, Jim could be an attorney and there was no mention of Scout being an attorney. And I was recruited to move from Crosby, move my practice to Brainerd by a woman whose father worked on the railroads and he did not want her to go to law school.

She’s about 10 years older than I am. He was vehemently opposed to it. And that always followed her. So it’s, and now when I graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law, there was about 50, 50, women and men. I still think that there’s a lot we, yeah.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Was it? Oh, that’s interesting to me. I was going to ask about the dynamic of the law school, like the representation that was there. So about 50-50, that’s great.

Jean Gustafson
That’s wonderful. It’s kind of sad though in the last year, I had overheard someone say, well, employers are only looking for young, young men. And obviously that meant young white men, you know. Um, we had at, at UND, we had the first Indian law program, the nation.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Really?

Jean Gustafson
That is a very unknown fact. And they joked that it started in a, you know, a closet. But it kind of did.

J.P. Der Boghossian
Wow. That’s where the gays should have started theirs.

Jean Gustafson
(laughs)

J.P. Der Boghossian
What can we, from a legal perspective, today learn from To Kill a Mockingbird?

Jean Gustafson
Well, many. I’m really glad you asked me that. Many lessons. One is the ability to act professionally.

When we have a dramatic case like that, it’s often that we become emotional. And as a lawyer, you have to try and rein that in and use your words and use the depth of your words to evoke your feeling and respect the court, respect the other counsel.

And that’s especially true because like in greater Minnesota, if you’re fighting injustice and the court doesn’t want to hear it, which, you know, I mean, there’s still some outlying counties that I’m not really happy about, not crowing. We’ve got great judges here, but you have to act professionally. And then also, you have to see the big picture, which means that Atticus said, at the end of the day, we’re still going to see these people, you know, the jury, and we have to understand that we have, you know, fight as hard as you can. But at the end of the day, we all live in this small town.

And of course they don’t talk about the stress as a legal practice, you know, Atticus just had no stress in the whole book. I mean, it was like, it was like, great. It was like, wow, you know, this must be fun.

J.P. Der Boghossian
There are folks that I’ve read in prepping for this interview that kind of speculate what happens to Scout after, you know, the novel and as she grows up, what do you think happens to Scout after the, since we didn’t really get a sequel per se to the novel. I know there was, you know, Go Set A Watchman, but, you know, if you had to venture a guess or what you prefer would happen to Scout, what happened to her after the novel? What would you be or wish for her?

Jean Gustafson
I love that question. No one’s ever asked me that, never heard that. So thank you for that. I believe she, and I’m going to identify her as she, would have faced an absolute, a betrayal of her body. Um, she’s about, I don’t know, eight, nine. And when she would hit puberty, she wouldn’t be able to play with the other boys, do any of the other things that the boys did.

Especially in the South, she would have been, you know, on the path to become a fine Southern lady. It would have been absolutely devastating for her. What I think would have happened, and then now keep in mind, the other thing I thought about is, you know, a lot of these books like Nancy Drew, The Mother is Dead. Now in this case, in this case Mockingbird, the Mother died. So Scout was given that, because the you know, I hate to say it, but like sit like a lady, you know, like my mother said. And I really liked that my mother taught me how to walk, but you know, I mean, so many of these feminine characteristics that actually trans people really struggle with because trans women want to appear feminine and they have to, you know, work at it.

And it’s, it’s a, it’s an absolute struggle. So, she didn’t have a mother. So she was given that freedom to express herself. But at some point being that her father was an attorney, some woman would have come around or somebody would have said, you know, you gotta, you know, you can’t, you gotta help scout and help her become a lady.

So I think she would have been forced to become like a fine Southern lady and learning all the rules of etiquette and behaving very like, you know, femininely, if that’s not even a word, but what I would prefer, I prefer if she came out as butch lesbian and went to law school, found a partner in law school or in the law and worked in, it was like Monroeville was the city in I think Alabama. So if she could have been, you know.

I don’t know where she would have worked, but as a lawyer, and she had come out as a lesbian.

That’s what I would have liked.

[uplifting music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
I want to thank Jean for being on the show today.

This past summer Jean spoke at conference for legal assistants and stay tuned for more speaking engagements.

On a personal note, it would be special on multiple levels if Jean became a judge, so I want to put that out into the universe.

Jean and her wife have also attended certified training as a mediators and they strive to establish their meditation practice in their bright future together.

If you live in Northern Minnesota and would like to retain Jean’s legal services in Elder Care or family law, visit her website at gus law dot net. You can also email her at jean j e a n at gus law dot net.

[theme music]

J.P. Der Boghossian
That’s our show for today! Our podcast is executive produced by Jim Pounds, accounting and creative support provided by Gordy Erickson. Our associate producers are Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Jonathan Fried, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olilla, Joe Perrazo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith. Our Patreon subscribers are Steven D, Steven Flam, Ida Gotëberg, Thomas Mckna, and Gary Nygaard.

A reminder to listen to The Gaily Show where I interview queer writers, theater makers, song writers, and more from Minnesota and beyond. We just finished a two-part series on LGBTQ book bans. You can listen live every Saturday at 2pm on AM950 in Minneapolis or through the TuneIn radio app, or find The Gaily Show everywhere you stream your podcasts. Plus, we record it in video so search for The Gaily Show on YouTube. Links are in the show notes and on our website.

Our soundtrack and sound effects are provided through royalty free licenses. Please visit thisqueerbook.com slash music for track names and artists. We are on social media. You can find us on Facebook, Blue Sky, or on Instagram. As always, you can connect with us through our website, thisqueerbook.com, and if you want to be on the show, fill out the form on the home page. And until our next episode, see you queers and allies in the bookstores.

[theme music ends]