Lawyer Lise Iwon has a wall in her office dedicated to photographs of children she has helped become adopted. It reminds her of the reasons she has been a lawyer for more than 30 years.
In 1985, Iwon and her wife, Margaret “Peg” Laurence, opened Laurence & Iwon in Wakefield, a general law firm specializing in family law, civil rights, sexual preference and gender and health discrimination. Before her death in 2012, Laurence also frequently represented clients in front of local planning and zoning boards.
For Iwon, a Matunuck resident, the time has come to retire and focus on traveling and community service – two things important to both her and her late wife. Iwon, like the hundreds of community members who attended Laurence’s funeral, was hard-hit by the death of her partner.
The couple met in law school in 1980, and Iwon said it was love at first sight. Iwon grew up in Wisconsin and was a teacher for a short time before entering law school in New Hampshire. Iwon and Laurence later moved to Wakefield.
“We both were community and civic minded,” Iwon said. “Both of us sat on many boards over the years.”
Iwon has worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children. She still keeps in touch with many of those children, attending their weddings and other life events.
“Those were kids who were abandoned, orphaned, abused, neglected or dependent,” Iwon explained. “As an advocate, you have to do what’s in the best interest of the child. It might not be what the kid wants, it might not be what the parents want, but you have to investigate what’s in the child’s best interest.”
Beyond her work, Iwon keeps busy volunteering with Rhode Island Bar Foundation, Rhode Island Bar Association, Courthouse Center for the Arts in Kingston and Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County. She is a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, handling cases in both state and federal courts regarding free speech, student rights, child custody, discrimination and constitutional law.
“I’ve been working for a long time for civil rights for gay and lesbian couples, and for marriage equality,” she said. “I’ve testified for year after year at the Statehouse for marriage equality and for basic human civil rights. It was very difficult, because the legislature would table votes. They did the same thing with marriage equality for years and years. Basically, things have changed a lot.”
Some things have changed because of Iwon’s influence.
“After Peg died, I was shocked when I learned that the Rhode Island Division of Taxation wasn’t going to let me claim the marital deduction, and I was going to have to pay lots and lots of money to inherit her portion of what we earned. I didn’t think that was right,” Iwon said.
After a series of meetings with multiple lawyers and state legislators, Iwon was able to change state law in about six months.
“The Division of Taxation said I could write the declaratory ruling,” Iwon said. “At this time, there wasn’t marriage equality, we had civil unions. I wrote the ruling to include marriage and civil unions. [My lawyer] said, ‘They’re not going to sign that.’”
“I said, ‘I don’t care,’” said Iwon. “I knew the Supreme Court judges could not look me in my eyes and say my marriage was any different than their marriage. They knew me, and they knew Peg, and they knew the good work we’ve done.”
Laurence and Iwon married after 27 years together, on Valentine’s Day.
“Peg and I were out in the community, doing good things, and never denying that we’re lesbians,” Laurence said. “I think that’s another reason why gay rights has changed. People look at us and say, ‘My friend, my neighbor. They’re just people. They’re out there doing all this good work. They’re just like me.’ I think [Peg and I] made a huge difference in helping people realize that we’re just regular people.”