OUTstanding Virginians 2019

Jay Timmons

CEO, Advocate, Father

Jay Timmons

Jay Timmons sees a lot of America. When he sat down for our interview, he had just returned to Northern Virginia from a two-week, eight-state tour as CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Encountering so many people in so many places gives him many opportunities to think deeply about what makes the nation exceptional.

For Jay, America’s character and promise rests on four pillars: free enterprise, competitiveness, individual liberty, and equal opportunity.  Jay is hopeful a leader will emerge who will embrace all four pillars. “Then we can productively keep our differences focused on policy issues,” Jay says, and policy is the area where Jay has chosen to make his mark on the world. As head of NAM, he is a leading advocate for the more than 12 million men and women who make things in America, educating the public and policymakers on issues that affect this critical sector of the U.S. economy.

Jay saw first-hand how American industry raised the standard of living in his hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, where his grandfather worked at a Mead paper plant. However politics, not business, proved to be his inspiration. He left Ohio State in 1983 to join the Reagan revolution and soon found himself in Washington working as a congressional press secretary. From 1991 to 2002, he served as chief of staff to George Allen during Allen’s terms as congressman, governor of Virginia, and senator. Jay led the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2004 election cycle before joining NAM as policy director.

For most of his time in politics, Jay was living openly in a committed relationship with Rick Olson, a corporate lobbyist, now his husband. They kept their relationship private until 2004, when Jay was outed against his will. In this act, Jay saw an opportunity “to show how it’s possible to live authentically as a gay man and a conservative republican.” As Jay puts it, “We’ve been married in our eyes for 28 years and in the eyes of the law for 10 and a half,” since getting married in California in 2008.

Soon after they married, Jay and Rick decided that they wanted to start a family. Adoption would have been the logical path, but adoption by same-sex couples was nearly impossible in Virginia. So they took the alternative route of surrogacy. Through a California surrogate, Jay and Rick welcomed two daughters into their family.

In 2013, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. A couple in Virginia, who was unable to conceive, asked Jay and Rick to accept an extra viable embryo of theirs that had been frozen for 13 years.  So, they researched various state laws and then found a surrogate in Wisconsin to carry for them. A judge gave them interim parental rights. “Everything came right together,” Jay says.

And then everything fell apart.  A second judge suspended those rights shortly before baby Jacob was born in 2015.  Everyone involved in this uncontested case wanted Jay and Rick to be Jacob’s parents, but this new judge appointed a guardian to determine the child’s “best interests”.

A ten-month court battle ensued. Although the judge did not take Jacob away physically, the family endured nearly a year with no legal status. “Every night, one of us would wake up in a panic, scared to death that the next morning someone would come knocking on the door to take Jacob from us and his sisters,” Jay recalls.

The unthinkable occurred in 2016 when the judge finally took away Jay and Rick’s parental rights and deliberately left Jacob an orphan and a ward of the state.  In his ruling, he declared surrogacy to be human trafficking. “We were branded as human traffickers,” Jay says.

And then the nightmare ended as suddenly as it began. The judge abruptly resigned his office, and his replacement restored Jay and Rick’s parental rights, annulling Jacob’s status as a legal orphan.  The worst times were over.

That could be the end of the story but it isn’t. Mindful of what can happen in the absence of clear policy, Jay and Rick pushed for legislation ensuring the right of same-sex couples in Virginia to become legally recognized parents through surrogacy. Sponsored by Delegate Rip Sullivan (D), the bill, known as Jacob’s Law, passed in the General Assembly this session with strong bipartisan support. Governor Northam signed it into law on March 14.

And here the interview comes full circle. For Jay, the fact that democrats and republicans saw different things to like about the bill confirms the possibility of finding common ground. “It would have been easy for republicans to dismiss Jacob’s Law as an ‘LGBT bill’ and for democrats to dismiss it as a ‘pro-life bill,’” he says, “but by talking about the heartache, expense, and discrimination we experienced and how all that could have been avoided, we showed this bill would make Virginia a better place to live.” Jay believes the American people can come together politically when leaders propose “real solutions for real problems.”

For Jay’s daughters (C.J., age 9, and Ellie, 7) the issues are less abstract. During their dads’ campaign to pass Jacob’s Law, they heard the details of what happened nearly four years ago. After some emotion and a lot of questions, Jay reports, they thought about what the new law means. “They’re happy to have had a role in keeping families like their own together,” he says.