by Michelle Willard | photos courtesy of Rachel Bell
Davidson County Judge Rachel Bell learned early to be courageous in her life.
At 13 years old, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. She had to learn to cope with and manage her disease to reach her dream of playing college basketball at Auburn University and University of Memphis.
At 34 years old, she had to be courageous to run for Davidson County General Sessions judge.
At 38 years old, she had to be courageous when facing negative press coverage over how she runs her courtroom.
At 39 years old, she is being courageous in exposing her private life for public view.
After marrying her wife on February 24, Bell has made her relationship public, a tricky proposition for an elected official in Tennessee even in decidedly blue Davidson County.
“I want to do something to make it better for future generations,” she said “I want to show whoever your partner is, it doesn’t matter. It’s not fair. Someone needs to step out and talk about it.”
Throughout her career, she has worked to lessen the burden on defendants in her courtroom and make a positive impact on the African American community in Nashville. She has now set her sights on impacting the LGBT+ community.
“I’ve never been in the closet,” she said. But then she’s never been open about her sexuality either.
“I never waved the flag,” Bell said, adding that Nashville’s gay community knew, but her sexuality wasn’t something she wanted to be identified by. “God made me gay and I own it.”
Her outlook changed when she married Dr. Dorsha James, an emergency room physician in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
The couple met in 2015 at the Iroquois Steeplechase, Bell said. They were introduced and had a great conversation and exchanged numbers. But the stars weren’t aligned yet. It wasn’t until more than a year later that they finally met for dinner.
“We kind of just clicked,” Bell said, her happiness evident in her voice. Within a few months, they were in a serious relationship and, after only eight months, they married.
After their February wedding ceremony, the couple took a few months “to love on each other,” she said. They set June as the month to celebrate their union with friends and family with a “Love Fest.” On the first weekend in June, the couple threw a party in Nashville and took those closest to them on a Jamaican holiday before setting out on their private honeymoon.
They also set June as the time to come out to the entire Davidson County community.
“We are so excited about finding love and want the focus not to be on sexuality but intellectuality. We have never liked being labeled different. We are children of God and look forward to having more conversations and dialogue about love,” they said in a joint statement.
Bell, a graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil Humphreys School of Law, has been a judge since 2012 when she became one of the Nashville’s 11 General Sessions judges. Over the years, she has presided over misdemeanor criminal, minor civil cases and mental health court.
When she ran for the office in 2012 and for re-election in 2014, no one questioned her sexuality and she didn’t make it an issue. But she is now.
“I’m very prophetic in my own life,” she said, explaining her calling. “Everything that God put inside me I saw manifest. God wanted me to work with the gay community.”
In particular, Bell said God wants her to work in the African American community to help increase acceptance of homosexuality.
Bell said she’s never been comfortable with public displays of affection at galas and other parties in Nashville’s African American community. But now she is a married woman who wants to hold hands with her wife and even dance with her in public.
So she decided to let everyone know how happy she is to be married to James.
Coming out during Pride month isn’t the first time Bell has courted controversy.
Shortly after taking the bench, Bell said she changed how she ran her court. “To make things easier for people who are about to be shackled up like a dog in a cage, I decided I was going to run my court a little different.”
She set up a Saturday community court for the indigent docket and expungement clinics. She had her clerk read the morning docket at 8:30 a.m., then set aside time for defendants to discuss their cases with their attorneys. At 10 a.m., Bell hears settlements, pleas and cases. She said all cases are heard the day they are on the docket.
“I made changes within the rules,” she said, explaining she checked with human resources about making accommodations for her health issues and the Tennessee Board of the Judiciary about how the docket is read.
Bell’s changes weren’t brought without scrutiny and launched investigations by local media and a complaint to the Board of the Judiciary.
According to The Tennessean, a defendant filed a complaint in June 2016 against Bell claiming his case was delayed because she showed up late to work. In May, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct dismissed the complaint.
When asked if she thinks her sexuality played a role in the complaints, she said “to be honest everything you could imagine has come up in my mind.” She listed everything about her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes as a possible cause. But in the end, she stands by her decisions.
“The people who know me know I have not done one thing wrong,” she said.
WRITTEN IN THE STARS
After their February wedding ceremony, the couple decided to wait until June to celebrate with friends and family.
“It took us a while to determine when we would share our story,” James said in a Facebook post. “I’m so happy to have had the support of my closest friends and family.”
On the first weekend in June, the couple began their Love Fest with A Night Written in the Stars. On Friday June 2nd and Saturday 3rd, they brought families together at their north Nashville home and created a new constellation with those who love them.
“We want to show community that we can all get along,” she said “Nobody felt gay. Nobody felt straight. Nobody was looking at you. It was epic.”
The response has been epic too. Elected officials and community leaders from across Davidson County, like Howard Gentry and Brenda Wynn, attended the couple’s wedding in February and Love Fest.
Nashville Mayor Megan Berry even presented them with a proclamation congratulating the couple on their marriage.
“On the blessed occasion of their marriage I want to present them with this proclamation that honors them and celebrates them and wishes them many, many, many happy years,” Berry said in a video for the couple.
Bell’s parents Dwayne and Beverly Walker Bell also expressed their support.
“Our daughters are courageous, smart, hard-working women and we are happy they found love in each other. God is love and love is God. We are proud of their journey and the peace they find in each other,” they said in a joint statement.
Their February ceremony was performed by Dr. Judy Cummings, senior pastor at the inclusive New Covenant Christian Church in north Nashville. Cummings also participated in the Love Fest.
“I’ve known Rachel since she was a little girl and I have enjoyed watching her mature, grow and find her life partner in Dr. Dorsha. They are an amazing couple,” Cummings said.
The response has reaffirmed Bell’s decision was the right one, she said.
Bell said all her decisions, from changing how her court is run to coming out publicly, is to fulfill her assignment from God.
“If my life can’t help somebody else, it’s in vain. What good is it?” she said.
Bell said she knows she will be scrutinized but she is courageous and it’s worth it if she can make a difference.