A historic civil-rights moment is on the horizon, as the US supreme court prepares to hear arguments on same-sex marriage – but full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans is not just around the corner. Steven Thrasher meets three very historic couples – still facing discrimination in three very different places – to reflect on a watershed experiment
Eleven years and 37 states ago, then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed some of the first same-sex marriages in the United States to become legal because he thought, simply enough, that it was unconstitutional to discriminate against gay people.
He got the idea from George W Bush.
It was the height of the Iraq war, and Newsom, seated in the back rows of the US Capitol for Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, found it “curious” when the newly re-elected president chose to focus instead on his own culture wars: sexual abstinence and drug testing in schools, steroids in baseball and faith in God, and then, surprisingly, “moral tradition” and the gays.
“He ended with a call for the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act,” Newsom, now the lieutenant governor of California, told the Guardian, referring to the national edict, signed by Bill Clinton and since partially discredited by the US supreme court, that ruled the legal definition of marriage is only between one man and one woman. “He ended with this crescendo that we needed a constitutional amendment to protect the country from same-sex marriage.”
Newsom’s politically and civilly disobedient nuptials led to the issuing of 4,036 same-sex marriage licenses the next month in San Francisco, as couples flocked from 43 states and six countries. But it also resulted in a five-year legal battle in California, where in 2008, on the same night voters sent Barack Obama to the White House, one state’s voters redefined marriage as between one man and one woman.
Now, as the US supreme court prepares to hear arguments about the confusion over marriage equality on Tuesday, the crescendo is just as complex: an estimated 180,000 same-sex couples got married legally in America last year – they are recognized in all but 13 states, after a rapid advance since the justices last took up marriage equality in 2013 – and many expect the justices to lean toward a national constitutional right for all to wed. But full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans is not just around the corner.
Indeed, a secret culture war happened on the way to the history books, state by combative state. Just as a major civil-rights movement was sweeping the US, mostly from the west and the northeast, three contradictory political processes were aiming to make sure that discriminating against LGBT people stays constitutional, mostly across the southern Bible belt:
Since 1993, 20 state legislatures have enacted a series of so-called “religious freedom” restoration acts, or RFRA bills, which have recently led to national outrage but have effectively been allowing open discrimination against gay people – in public and at the workplace – during the same years that chapels have been challenged to open their doors. At the same time, acceptance arrived in the strangest of places: a different kind of RFRA, combined with laws that do protect LGBT people, has brought together an unholy alliances of religious followers and civil libertarians.
Racial justice has been misconstrued to be at odds with LGBT rights. Black Americans were blamed for homophobia, just as a widespread backlash was unleashed upon most non-male, non-white, non-straight and non-gender conforming people. “It didn’t make any sense,” former NAACP executive director Benjamin Jealous told the Guardian, to scapegoat the black community for California’s Proposition 8 when it passed “by a margin greater than 100% of black voters” – and when black queer people remain among the most marginalised.
The rise of marriage equality sucked money and energy from other LGBT causessuch as the resurging healthcare crises of HIV/Aids and ageing, the epidemic of homeless teens, the history of children being taken from queer parents, and the legal continuation of so-called “conversion therapy” for young people in 48 states.
These three struggles are, ironically, being felt by the very first same-sex couples to get married in the disparate civil rights landscapes of Alabama, Utah and New York. A detailed look by the Guardian at their lives, in the years since and especially in the months leading to another landmark ruling from the supreme court, reveals unique challenges – of jobs and Jesus, blackness and homelessness, cancer and kids.
Threaded together with continuing legal challenges across the country, however, their stories – and their bravery – tell an irrefutable truth about the American experiment: progress moves forward and back at the same time.
‘In the south, which one’s worse: being outed at your job – or at church?’
When Shanté Wolf-Sisson, 21, and Tori Wolfe-Sisson, 24, got married on 9 February, they knew it was both historic and risky: Here was the first lesbian couple to wed in Alabama, breaking through in a state where marriage is still not fully legal, in the middle of a weeks-long saga: an outspoken state judge was trying to stop same-sex marriages, even after the US supreme court had allowed them to proceed.
The couple arrived early at a probate office in Montgomery, hoping to beat the rush.
But nobody else showed up, Shanté said in an interview with her wife from their home the next month, and “nobody was coming behind us to camp out”. The most famous newlyweds in Alabama history had a rather low-key wedding day, despite being all over the news.
The simple reason they were alone and in love, she said, is that being out in the south can come with serious consequences – if not at the courthouse, then certainly at the workplace.
While newly enacted “religious freedom” discrimination laws in Indiana and Arkansas led to even more pronounced national outrage, Alabama voters put a RFRA on the books in 1997. But as Alabama native and Apple chief executive Tim Cook wrote of such legislation, which allows people to refuse to serve or employ other people based on their personal beliefs, discrimination “moves in the shadows”.
At a job interview in February after she got married, Shanté says a prospective employer told her the company was “desperate” to hire and that she could potentially start immediately. Then they got to talking – “You just look familiar to me,” she remembers the hiring manager saying – and by the time the woman had come back from fetching some paperwork with another employee, Shanté says things changed.
“I believe what happened was the employee said, ‘Well, that’s the one who got married in Alabama,’” Shanté remembers. “So when she came back, our interaction was totally different. She was just like: ‘Well, we’ll pull applications in a month or so. We’ll give you a call.’”
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2013 – as Congress was taking up an employee protection act, since scrubbed after a supreme court ruling that entered more religious protections nationwide – found 21% of adult LGBT respondents reporting direct workplace discrimination.
But even after Obama forbade federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees in 2014, only 19 US states have legal civil-rights protections for them – mostly in the west, upper midwest and northeast. Despite a longtime push from activists to update the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the words “sexual orientation and gender identity” do not appear in it. Today, in 29 states, it is not against the law for a person to lose her job for being gay.
The only 22 states where you can’t get fired for being gay
Twenty-two US states and the District of Columbia have LGBT non-discrimination laws on the books – though New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin do not extend protections to transgender residents. Meanwhile, twenty-eight states, including Alabama, don’t offer statewide civil-rights protections against discrimination whatsoever.
Discrimination ban covers:
Sexual orientation and gender identity
Sexual orientation only
No discrimination protections
“It doesn’t stop with fear,” Shanté explained. “You can be fired if you’re out publicly and your boss didn’t like it. You can be evicted. You can be outed at your church. And, you know, in the South, I mean, really, which one’s worse: being outed at your job or being outed at church?”
So in the American south, with an unprotected LGBT population of more than 100,000 in Alabama alone facing discrimination both overt and covert, “gay couples don’t really show affection,” Tori said. “Someone could walk by and throw a Bible at us, or shoot us … It’s perfectly legal for a restaurant to kick us out.”
It’s also the region with the highest rate of LGBT discrimination laws – and where black voters are most likely to be disenfranchised. Like many black families, as research has shown, the Wolf-Sissons live in black communities, not in a white “gayborhood”.
They recently participated in the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, disavowing a common trope that people are black or gay – or that full equality in places like Alabama requires anything less than justice regardless of race, gender, gender identity or sexuality.
“Despite all that,” Shanté said in her living room, “I love the south.”
‘Bringing up the very worst from a person’s life’
In late March, J Seth Anderson and Michael Adam Ferguson walked through Temple Square – the epicentre of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City,Utah – and held hands. Mormons glared. Some shuttered and looked away. A security guard asked the Guardian’s film crew to leave.
But mostly, the mood among the blossoming spring gardens was indifference to the gay couple. A fellow ex-Mormon even recognized them from Facebook and reached out to offer support – as well as to knit a sweater for their pet rat, Amber.
As it turns out, Utah – home of the Mormons, who pumped millions into California’s outlawing of same-sex marriage, who wrote a “friend of the court”briefing to the supreme court last week “declaring that the traditional institution of marriage is indispensable” – is relatively accepting of certain LGBT rights.
Improbably, as “religious freedom” discrimination laws were mushrooming elsewhere in the country, Utah – with the religious endorsement of the Mormon church – passed a non-discrimination bill of its own in mid-March.
The legislation contains a host of exemptions that leave legal inequality on the books, critics argue, but its passage was celebrated by an unusual coalition of LGBT advocates, Mormons, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the business community, as well as Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
University of Utah law professor Clifford Rosky said existing federal law “has the same exemption for small employers” regarding racial civil rights (and none for LGBT rights), while Utah’s new law could give LGBT workers access to “over a million” jobs.
“Utah is nothing but queer, from its very beginning,” said Anderson, 33, who can rent an apartment with his husband without fear of being kicked out, but can still be denied a hotel room or a restaurant table. He attributed the unlikely hub of equality to Mormons’ history of embracing “a non-monogamous marital system” – a tradition that research suggests lives on within contemporary gay male American culture.
Salt Lake City has the seventh highest per capita rate of LGBT people for a metro area in the US, according to the census bureau, far surpassing the queer percentages of New York and Los Angeles. But it joins other seemingly unlikely gay-friendly urban centers like Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky, where acceptance is blossoming, yet outright and even quasi-medical rejection is allowed.
“I went through years of conversion therapy,” said Ferguson, 33, recalling weekend retreats when a “therapist” gathered groups of men struggling with their sexuality, recreated moments of strain with their fathers or memories of sexual abuse they’d experienced, and tried to make them straight.
“Really, all that you’re doing is just bringing up the very worst from a person’s life,” Ferguson said. He is involved in a lawsuit to further shut down legalized conversion in New Jersey; it is one of only two states – plus the District of Columbia – where the practice is illegal for use on minors.
Despite stalled attempts to curtail such “therapy” in 18 other states, longstanding suspicions from the American Psychological Association and the White House’s forceful call this month to ban the tactics, so-called conversion therapy remains legal for adults in all 50 states. The supreme court refused to rule on it last year.
Anderson and Ferguson do not see their marriage as an end of the rainbow. They are deeply invested in the fight for equal rights in Utah and beyond, with a commitment to homeless LGBT youth and an attempt to engage other Mormon and ex-Mormon people struggling with their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Love is a process,” Anderson said.
‘Now our grandkids don’t have to question who they are’
Kitty Lambert-Rudd underwent 13 electric convulsion treatments in her twenties to “cure” her lesbianism. Now 58 years old and re-married in Buffalo, this time to a person of the gender she’s always known she was meant to love, she’s just trying to make sure she can get to the hospital on time – and that her 15 grandchildren can, too.
Her wife Cheryle, 57, also knew she was gay before she married a man and had children as a young woman. Cheryle “escaped” shock treatments when she came out at 40, but she lost contact with her 13-year-old son. She hasn’t seen him in the 17 years since.
The Lambert-Rudds have not stopped fighting for full equality in liberal New York since they became the first couple legally married in the state in 2011. But there are some things they no longer have to fear, as federal guidelines have kept up with public support for same-sex families: a poll released on Thursday found 61 percent of American in support of gay marriage, as even more than that thought LGBT couples “can be as good parents as straight people”.
They have been separated at moments through a heart attack and two rounds of cancer, but they can now visit one another in the hospital, as can any married same-sex couple at hospitals that receive federal funds. They are eligible to inherit from each other, file joint taxes and share health insurance plans, which LGBT couples in 13 states still cannot.
But marriage does not heal the wounds of losing a child in a custody dispute, Cheryle said. The kind of discrimination she faced while going through a divorce and custody trial all those years still exists. The rules governing adoption by same-sex couples varies state-by-state.
Raising children who need homes, as a same-sex married couple, remains precarious: This week, Arizona allowed gay couples to become foster parents – and Florida considered letting private agencies deny same-sex couples the ability to adopt.
Of the 15 grandchildren Kitty and Cheryle share, some are biological and others “we collected along the way,” Kitty said. Among them are those who have been homeless, “kids who come in and out of the house and we’ve adopted them and refer to them as our grandkids”.
Homelessness for LGBT young people is particularly a problem in New York state, as those rejected from families across the country find their way to New York City. The Centers for Disease Control considers homeless queer youth at high risk for becoming infected with HIV.
For grandparents who have seen the arc of justice bend closer toward equality, anxieties remain.
“The supreme court decision that’s coming down, it weighs so heavy in the hearts of all of us,” Cheryle said. “Has it been worth it?
“Oh, yes,” Kitty interrupted. “It’s been pretty tiring times, but it’s been worth it. We’re being treated more like human beings.
“We’re normal. We are really normal.”
Back in 2004, after Bush’s speech, Gavin Newsom said he immediately called his San Francisco aides.
“We need to do something to for gay rights,” he said.
The Democratic mayor expected pushback from conservatives, but he wasn’t expecting “the level of hostility from members of my own party” nor “from some members of the LGBT community,” who asked the straight Newsom: who are you to be doing this?
Now, with a record level of Americans supporting marriage equality, it’s liberals and even the odd Republican pushing the final holdouts in the states, even as discrimination keeps getting put on the books: Who are you to be holding back gay rights?
Legal experts expect the supreme court’s hand to be forced in turning Tuesday’s cases – on challenges in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee – into full marriage equality by the end of its term in June. The first couples of Alabama, Utah and New York are still trying to ensure a job for all, a quiet table at the diner for all, and a safe home for queer kids on the street.
For them, the process of love will always wind its way through the curious American way of dealing with justice. Then again, as minorities, they know that American love and justice have always been hard-won.
“I thought maybe it would happen in my lifetime,” Newsom said he once thought of same-sex marriage, “and I was planning to live a long life.”