The Good Fight
The Heroic Lesbian Couple of Oklahoma Who Fought for Equal Marriage—and Won
When Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin began the fight for marriage equality in Oklahoma, even gay rights groups wouldn’t support them. On Monday they savored sweet, hard-fought-for victory.
In 2004, against the advice of all the major LGBT rights organizations, Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin of Oklahoma took on the Defense of Marriage Act and President George W. Bush, whose call for a Constitutional amendment in his State of the Union address spurred the couple to action.
The conversations with their lawyer through the spring and summer of 2004 took on more urgency as the situation in their home state became even more dire—that fall, State Question 711 was put on the ballot asking Oklahomans if they wanted to ban marriage equality in their state. Polls indicated a resounding “Yes.” The couple told their lawyer: if this thing passes, we want to file the next day. “We knew that if we filed the next day that there was going to be hope for a lot of people, that this wasn’t just about us.”
On Monday, Mary and Sharon’s fight reached victorious fruition after gay marriage was finally legalized in Oklahoma, when the Supreme Court declined to hear legal appeals against it from five states (the others were Indiana, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin). Gay couples in six other states bound by the same rulings (Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming) should be able to get married shortly.
Mary and Sharon’s determination to fight for their rights began, however, years earlier, when they were told by a Tulsa bar owner that women of their kind weren’t welcome. “We gathered our lesbian friends and protested in front of the bar for a number of nights until the owner decided that maybe we were the ladies that she wanted after all.” Mary, a soft-spoken editor at the Tulsa World, often speaks first when the pair are together while Sharon, for many years an editor at the same paper, pipes up to support their joint narrative. Side by side, they tell their story in one voice.
“Almost immediately after we filed the lawsuit the major gay rights groups across the country contacted our attorney and said ‘you’ve got to drop this DOMA challenge,’” they tell me. “We all had a meeting, people flew in from HRC and Lambda Legal and some other groups. They told us ‘you won’t win, and you’re gonna set a Supreme Court ruling against us that will set us back 20 years, and if by some miracle you do win you’re just going to encourage Congress to pass that national marriage amendment.’”
The women were “astounded” by this response but didn’t believe its validity. “The national groups had this idea that the way we were going to get marriage equality in the United States was to go state by state, through state legislatures and through ballot measures before voters,” the women told me. “They said courts aren’t the way to go because if the courts do it it will just piss off the people and we’ll have riots. That hasn’t proven to be true—so far, the majority of the progress that we’ve made has been through the courts. Left up to the legislature, when do you think the Oklahoma legislature is going to legislate in favor of marriage equality?”
Mary and Sharon, both lifelong Okies, understood exactly what they were up against: even at age 18, when Mary came out, her parents set a 5.30pm curfew to prevent her from seeing her girlfriend, prompting her to move out from her parents’ home.
When they filed their lawsuit, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris hired the Alliance Defending Freedom to help defend SQ711; ADF describes itself on its Facebook page as “a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel” and, according to Sharon, “Harris has said recently on television that same-sex marriage is not ordained by God and thus he cannot support it as D.A.”
In Oklahoma, many people support and regularly vote for politicians like Harris: challenging state law is often seen as a challenge to God; to some residents of the state, law is seen first and foremost as founded specifically on the Bible.
As editors at the Tulsa World, Mary and Sharon were able to watch firsthand the online comments regarding news pieces about their suit. “Initially,” according to Sharon, “there were a lot of hateful comments. As the years went on, you see many more positive comments on stories about us than negative ones. So we could see that the tide of public opinion was turning.”
Although they filed in the fall of 2004, proceedings went slowly and it wasn’t until 2009 that they had any definitive word, when the 10th circuit court dismissed the State of Oklahoma from the case for lack of standing. The remaining defendants on the case, the U.S. and the Tulsa County Clerk, filed a motion to dismiss and then, in 2011, the U.S. under the Obama administration notified the court that it would no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA.
Then, out of the blue, a ruling came this past January when Justice Terence C. Kern, both born in Clinton, Oklahoma, and appointed in 1994 to the bench by President Clinton, decided in favor of Bishop and Baldwin, saying: “Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed. It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights. The Bishop couple has been in a loving, committed relationship for many years. They own property together, wish to retire together, wish to make medical decisions for one another, and wish to be recognized as a married couple with all its attendant rights and responsibilities.” The decision was stayed however, pending Supreme Court review.
Just last Friday, speaking in Oklahoma City about their case, the couple were confident that their case would be taken up by the Supreme Court and that they would ultimately prevail. Even then, in spite of remaining opposition from many LGBT rights groups, Bishop said that “We’re idealists and we have a goal and we want to see this thing through.”
Then, Monday morning, everything changed: the Supreme Court decided not to take their case, meaning Justice Kern’s decision in favor of marriage equality was now law in Oklahoma. Undeterred, Governor Mary Fallin stalled for time Monday morning and refused to grant same-sex marriage licenses until she’d heard directly from the 10th Circuit, saying “the will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one.”
For LGBT couples ahead of the curve, the half steps toward full and equal standing under the law have been to have a commitment ceremony, or a legal marriage out of state, or a legal marriage at your local courthouse.
Standing on the courthouse in Tulsa yesterday, I talked to a lesbian and gay couple standing nearby whose stories shared Mary and Sharon’s arc. Julie Tucker-Trainum was a Methodist minister but eventually left the church when she came out. The couple had a holy union ceremony in 2007, were married legally in Iowa in 2009, and plan to marry next week in Tulsa. Her wife, Tess, said that “the first time we were married, my daughter wasn’t on board, and didn’t attend, but this time she wants to be here, so we’re waiting until next week when she can come down to Tulsa to attend the service.”
Jeff Ream and Tim Smith were married legally in Massachusetts in 2009 but don’t plan on applying for an Oklahoma marriage license. “If we’re married in Massachusetts, that license is now legal in Oklahoma too, right? I mean, we’ll consult with our lawyer, but we’re sure that’s the case.” The couple does plan to revisit the extra $300 it cost to get Tim’s name on the title of Jeff’s truck, a fee legally married couples in Oklahoma don’t face.
I had a lot of conversations with happy Oklahoma couples on Monday, but the one that sticks out most was with a fierce, proud, smiling lady whose attendance hadn’t always been assured. Kneeling down to hold her hand and talk to her, I saw in her the hands and the upright shoulders of my grandmother, wife of Oral Roberts, who most likely would not have attended my own wedding to my husband Keaton had she been alive.
Holding the hand of Fern Bishop, Mary’s mother, and attempting to interview her, I broke down and lost my voice for a minute, overcome. Fern hadn’t attended Mary and Sharon’s commitment ceremony in 2000, nor had she been there when the couple was married legally a few years later.
But, even back in 2000, she had given her daughter Mary the string of pearls she’d worn at her own wedding in 1951, and updated the family tree in the family Bible. In her face on Monday was nothing but joy and pride. If all works out, a majority of Oklahomans will eventually follow Fern’s lead.