Arkansas same-sex couples gear up for the freedom to marry at the state Supreme Court

This fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court is set to hear briefing and, eventually, arguments in Wright v. Smith, a legal challenge to a constitutional amendment in Arkansas that bars same-sex couples from sharing in the freedom to marry. On May 9, Judge Chris Piazza ruled in favor of same-sex couples and their families, striking down the marriage ban and clearing the way for same-sex couples to marry in the state for several days.

"These couples only want to exercise the exact same privileges that everybody else in Arkansas has," attorney Cheryl Maples said during the memorable hearing this April, gesturing to the dozens of people who say behind her, representatives of the diverse group of more than 40 plaintiffs in the case, a mix of unmarried same-sex couples, families seeking respect for their out-of-state marriages, and children of gay and lesbian Arkansans.

The team behind this case have been celebrating the victory all summer, and now they are gearing up for the Arkansas Supreme Court, which will have the chance to stand on the right side of history and allow same-sex couples to share in the freedom to marry in Arkansas once and for all. 

This year, Freedom to Marry has profiled many of the families who saw their dreams come true this May – and who are now hoping that their dreams remain a reality this fall. Check out their stories, including five plaintiff couples from Wright v. Smith, the named plaintiffs in Jernigan v. Crane, a separate case filed in federal court, and others.

Kendall and Julie • El Paso

Last year, Kendall and Julie Wright were determined to make a change in Arkansas law for couples like themselves who wanted to jointly adopt their children: In their state, second-parent adoptions are not permitted for same-sex couples, and so Kendall and Julie wanted to set a precedent for families like theirs to live securely and without question.

The women knew that in Arkansas, two people must be married in order for a stepparent to legally adopt children - and so they traveled to Iowa in March of 2013 to receive a marriage license. As they began to mount their case to strike down anti-gay second-parent adoption laws, they learned of an attorney, Cheryl Maples, looking to challenge laws that denied same-sex couples the freedom to marry in the state. Friends approached them about joining the lawsuit - and they agreed. They wanted to challenge the anti-gay laws in Arkansas, the state they love, so that their family can have a safe, comfortable future there.

Kendall and Julie have been together since 2007, ever since a mutual friend set the two up. They had a commitment ceremony on March 8, 2008 at Open Door Community Church, officiated by a family friend and pastor in Sherwood, AR. Since then, they have been raising their family together in Beebe.

"We had already started a family by 2007," Kendall explained. "And Pastor Randy said he would bless our union when we said we wanted to be brought together under the eyes of God. That was the most important thing to us - we wanted to make our family a family unit in God's eyes."

Five years after that first commitment ceremony - in which they said "I do" in front of 170 people - they made it official in Iowa - and now, as the named plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas, they're fighting for the legal respect for their marriage and the freedom to marry.

"I hope that other couples are able to marry in their home state instead of having to drive for 14 hours with a carload of children to Iowa like we had to," Kendall said. "It was great when we finally got there - but really, with four kids, my mother, and my wife, and 14 hours in the car (28 on the way back), it was the worst, most unnecessary road trip ever."

Kendall explained that she and Julie are a part of the lawsuit because of their children.

"I want all people to be raised with open minds," Kendall said. "My 11-year-old and 13-year-old look at me and say, 'Why do people care what happens at our house?' They know that all people should be able to have their bliss - and that's what we're fighting for here."

Brandy Johann and Mariana Calderon • Jonesboro

“From the moment we met, we knew that we were meant to be together heart and soul,” said Brandy Johann, reflecting on her four years of commitment with her partner Mariana Calderon. They had both recently ended other relationships, and they found a true connection with each other. “We were both really tired of living our lives for other people and not being who we truly were meant to be,” Brandy said.

Brandy was born in Illinois, and Mariana was born in Peru, but they now live in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where they are raising a daughter.

“Marriage is important to us because it would mean stability for our daughter and maybe the chance of my legally adopting her and giving her the feeling of a ‘real family,’” Brandy explained.

Brandy and Mariana are hopeful that soon, the Arkansas Supreme Court stands on the right side of history by affirming the freedom to marry for all Arkansans.

“Marriage to us is not just a word or a piece of paper; it is security in knowing that we are entitled to the same things as everybody else,” Brandy explained. “We stand by our decision that we are just like everyone else and deserve to be treated that way.”

Kelly and Alyssa Ross-Journey • Little Rock

This February, just a few days before Valentine's Day 2014, Kelly Ross and Alyssa Journey nervously sat in an airport in Dallas, Texas, anxiously watching to see if their flight to New York City would take off: A wicked snowstorm had torn through the east coast, and flights were being canceled left and right. Kelly and Alyssa were nervous that their special plans for the week - to fly to New York, get legally married one year to the day that Kelly proposed to Alyssa at the top of the Empire State building, and enjoy a weekend honeymoon in the nation's largest city - would be spoiled.

Their flight to New York was canceled, and with no clear alternative in the near future, they took a leap of faith by rerouting their destination to San Francisco, California. They canceled their New York plans and decided to figure everything out once they arrived in the Golden State, where same-sex couples have the freedom to marry.

"We arrived, and it was as if someone had planned everything for us without telling us," Kelly explained, marveling as she recounted stumbling across a free Valentine's Day event that allowed any couple - same-sex or different-sex - to marry or renew their wedding vows in Berkeley.

They went to the celebration - and not only did they get married, but they also won a special honeymoon package for later that weekend, complete with extravagant dinners, spa packages, and live theater. What could have been a disappointing weekend turned into an amazing, special celebration of their love for each other. 

"It was an awesome weekend - an example of how things can work out amazingly if you're positive," Kelly said. But she acknowledged that there's a reason she and Alyssa had to fly to California (and, initially, New York) to get married: It's because in Arkansas, same-sex couples do not have the freedom to marry. "It shouldn't be this hard to get married to the person you love in the state were you love," she explained.

Just last month, on April 5, Kelly and Alyssa celebrated their love and commitment back at home in Little Rock, along with 200 friends and family members. Kelly's father walked her down the aisle, while three of the most important men in Alyssa's life - her father, stepfather, and grandfather - took turns walking her down the aisle, too. 

"We have a fairy tale life together - and we had a fairy tale wedding story," Kelly explained. "We really have been very, very fortunate. Now, we need to have the rights that come with marriage here in Arkansas. We want all families to have that same chance at a fairy tale right here at home."

Gregory Bruce and William Smith, Jr. • Little Rock

Gregory Bruce and William Smith, Jr. heard that Judge Piazza had struck down the Arkansas law denying the freedom to marry to same-sex couples first from their neighbor.

“We were celebrating Mother’s Day early and our neighbor called us and said ‘CONGRATULATIONS!,’ Gregory remembered. “We were like, ‘OK, for what?’”

When they learned that they had won the case, in which they are plaintiffs, they were in shock: “It was meant to be,” Gregory said. “God’s will is being fulfilled. We feel blessed everyday by the love and support of family, friends, and neighbors.”

Gregory and William have been together for 12 years. They live in Little Rock, Arkansas and are expecting their first child in January of 2015. “We felt completely comfortable with each other, and our relationship blossomed from there,” Gregory said. “We own our own business together, built our home together and are now building a family together.”

They felt it was important to sign on as plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas so that they could stand up for the respect they deserve. “We were tired of standing on the sidelines and wanted to be a part of history. Most people claim they want freedoms but are too afraid to stand up for their beliefs and convictions. We didn't want to be those people anymore.”

Pam and Rita Jernigan • Little Rock

In addition to the Wright v. Arkansas lawsuit in state court, in which a ruling is expected this week, an additional legal challenge, Jernigan v. Crane, is pending before a federal court in Arkansas seeking the freedom to marry and respect for marriages legally performed in other states. The named plaintiffs in this case are Pam and Rita Jernigan, who have been in a committed relationship for more than six years.

"We believe in love and equality for all. Our hopes are that marriage will be legal for same-sex couples nationwide."

The women met six years ago at church and quickly fell in love and began building a family together. At the time, Pam was raising her daughter Cory, but very soon after Pam met Rita, Rita became another member of the family.

"Rita has enjoyed becoming Cory's other mom," Pam said.

In December 2013, after attending Cory's college graduation from Mizzou, Pam and Rita crossed into Iowa in order to legally marry. Now, through their lawsuit, they're seeking legal respect for their commitment.

"Our main concern is to leave this world a better place for our daughter, who is also gay," Pam explained. "We believe in love and equality for all. Our hopes are that marriage will be legal for same-sex couples nationwide and that the LGBT community will soon have the same rights and responsibilities as our heterosexual counterparts."

Arlis Young & Jamon Baker • Fayetteville

Arlis Young and Jamon Baker both can pinpoint the moment that they knew they loved each other: It was December 6, 2012, the first anniversary since the untimely passing of Arlis' younger sister, and Jamon was determined to ensure that Arlis had an easy, comforting day.

The men had become close in the last year, building a friendship in their city of Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

"I love the people in this area. People aren't disposable, and neither are homes - just because I don't like the way the laws are structured in my state doesn't mean I can't have faith that things will change."

"He came over for dinner that night, and looking back at it, that's the point where we really made things concrete," Jamon said. "That was such an emotionally challenging day for him to deal with, and I think that was when he saw that I would be there to comfort him, to stand beside him and make things a little easier for him."

Over the next few months, Jamon and Arlis grew closer than ever, falling in love and truly becoming members of each others' families. Jamon was introduced to Arlis' nephew Tanner (now two years old) and bonded with Arlis' sister and niece. They moved into their home together in May 2013. And in November, Arlis proposed. 

Earlier this year, Arlis and Jamón traveled to Iowa to receive a legal marriage license - and they plan to host a reception by their home to celebrate with friends and family.

Arlis and Jamon like living in Arkansas - it is their home, and they know that if they continue speaking out about their love, commitment, and marriage, the things they don't like about Arkansas - namely, the laws that preclude same-sex couples from marrying and adopting - can change.

"I have roots here," Jamon said. "Even though I was born in Oklahoma, I call Arkansas my home. I've been here for 18 years. I love this area. I love the people in this area. People aren't disposable, and neither are homes - so I can't just give them up."

"Just because I don't like the way the laws are structured in my state doesn't mean I can't have faith that things will change," he continued. "I just don't give up easily. We have a great community here, and I look forward to having my rights as a same-sex couple. I look forward to change. I have such great hopes that things will continue to change for the better." (Read Arlis and Jamon's full profile by Freedom to Marry here)

Katlyn Samuelson and Britney Carter • Fort Smith

“I always thought she was beautiful, but we both were in relationships,” Katlyn Samuelson remembered, reflecting on the years that she had been acquainted with Britney Carter, the woman she has now built a family with in Fort Smith. Luckily for Britney and Katlyn, they met again 5 years later. “I knew from the first night together that she was what I wanted,” Katelyn said. “She allowed me to be me.”

Now, the two have a 5-year-old son and are working on buying a business together. Although Arkansas legally respected their freedom to marry for a few weeks in May, they wanted to wait to tie the knot, although they currently have a domestic partnership. “We are not going to run off and get married just because we have the right to, but rather because the moment will be right, and we will have all of our supporting, loving family behind us,” Katlyn said.

They are looking forward to the day they can legally pledge their lives to each other. “I already know that we will be together for the rest of our lives,” said Katelyn. “We are the definition of family.”

Linda Meyers and Angie Shelby • Vilonia

For Linda Meyers, being able to marry - and have that marriage respected in her home state of Arkansas - is about making a legal, official commitment to the person she loves.

"I can do that without a ceremony and legal papers - but having the freedom to marry is the best way to make everything 'official' with my partner and to the rest of the world," she explained. "It would be something I could proudly claim instead of being faced with the uncomfortable feelings that inevitably come when someone asks if I'm married or I have to choose which box on the form is the most true or least untrue."

Linda and her partner, Angie Shelby, are raising their family in the small Arkansas town of Vilonia, where they live the life of a happy family. They attend services every Sunday at the Vilonia United Methodist Church. They encourage their kids - 17-year-old Justin and 13-year-old Alli - to follow their dreams, like Justin's aspirations to play in a band after high school graduation. And they have built their lives in Arkansas, where they someday soon hope to marry. Although they have a domestic partnership from Eureka Springs, they know that they need the freedom to marry in Arkansas to grant them the same rights and responsibilities as all other families in the state - and, more importantly, the respect that comes with that.

That's why Linda and Angie are plaintiffs in the landmark state marriage lawsuit Wright v. Arkansas, which could see a ruling as soon as this week. And that's why they're speaking out about why marriage matters in "the Natural State."

"Our love and commitment is not something to be ashamed of or kept hidden," Angie explained. "I don't think I should have to run away to some other state to marry - and I shouldn't have to keep explaining my 'situation' to people when it came to legal matters, being in the hospital, taxes, the home we share, insurance, and other things."

"Part of why I want to be involved with this lawsuit is that I want to do my part to make this state a better place for all LGBT people," Angie continued. "For too many years of my life, I've been silent about who I am and who I love. For us to speak up and let people know our stories will help educate others." (Read Linda and Angie's full profile by Aljazeera America here)

Stephen & Eddie Inman-Crawley • Hot Springs

October 15 signals a significant landmark for Stephen and Eddie Inman-Crawley: They’ll be celebrating the first birthday of their adorable daughter, Rhetta Joane Inman-Crawley.

It’s been an exciting year for the family; after welcoming Rhetta into their lives last year, they have watched as momentum for the freedom to marry moved more quickly than ever, and in May of this year, they were one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Little Rock following the landmark marriage ruling. It was an amazing moment – truly an unbelievable experience, one that crystallized the many years they have shared together.

But even though they have a marriage license from Arkansas - even though they are legally married – they are continually disrespected in their home state, which has said it will not honor the marriage licenses as the case, Wright v. Smith, works its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Because of this, Stephen and Eddie are concerned about their family being respected in Arkansas; only Eddie is listed on Rhetta’s birth certificate, although both fathers have raised her for her entire life. Earlier this summer, they attempted to modify her birth certificate so that Stephen could be added as a parent, but the marriage ruling had already been placed on hold, and Stephen and Eddie were turned away.

Despite the challenges of living in a state that within one month granted them respect and then sharply revoked it, the men are optimistic, and they are thankful that the Wright v. Smith plaintiffs, many of whom are their friends, took the case to court.

To read their full story, click here.

Charlie Guilette and Angela Spears-Guilette • Cabot

When Charlie Guilette and Angela Spears-Guilette met, they immediately became friends. They didn’t expect to have a relationship that was anything more than friendship at first, but that changed. “When I finally realized I was completely in love with her, it was that Aha moment!”

In August 2010, Charlie and Angela celebrated getting their domestic partnership license with a commitment ceremony at their home in Cabot, Arkansas. Angela changed her last name two years later.

On May 10, Charlie and Angela got married in Eureka Springs after Judge Piazza ruled in favor of the freedom to marry. As one of the plaintiff couples in Wright v Arkansas, they were delighted to be able to marry in their home state, as it was not financially feasible for them to travel out of state to marry.

Charlie and Angela have two teenage daughters, Becca and Morgan, who were thrilled that their moms go to be married. “This lawsuit is a step forward and an eye-opener for the people of Arkansas,” 18-year-old Becca said.

Thirteen-year-old Morgan added, "If you love someone, you should be able to marry them.” On continuing to work toward the respect for marriage, she said, “We are trying to help not only us, but everyone else, too."

Charlie and Angela hope that the Supreme Court of Arkansas will respect marriage for couples like them “because it’s something that needs to happen, everyone deserves equality, as much for us as for our kids and those who follow,” Charlie said. “My hopes are that we are no longer a separate class of people.”

Angelia Buford & Katherine Henson • Benton

When Angelia and Katherine saw the news about Cheryl Maples' filing of a lawsuit seeking the freedom to marry in Arkansas, they jumped at the chance to get involved.

"If we aren't willing to stand up and fight for our rights and the social injustices affecting our lives, then we don't feel that we can honestly look our clients in the face."

"As social workers, we fight on a daily basis against injustice and wrongs being done in society," Angelia said, explaining how she and Katherine got involved as plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas, the case where a judge is expected to rule on or before May 9. "If we aren't willing to stand up and fight for our rights and the social injustices affecting our lives, then we don't feel that we can honestly look our clients in the face and tell them to do the very things we aren't doing for ourselves." 

Angelia and Katherine have been friends for nearly 20 years. They met back in 1999 while Angelia was studying at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Over the years, they developed a strong friendship, even as they moved away from Arkansas - Texas for Katherine and Missouri fro Angelia. 

Eventually, they reconnected, and by 2009, their friendship had blossomed into something more: They declared their love for each other, and in 2011, Angelia proposed. Now, as one of the plaintiff couples in Wright v. Arkansas, they're working toward a future where they can finally make good on their engagement and marry in Arkansas.

"Marriage matters to us because we are a couple that have made a commitment to one another," Angelia said. "We love each other and want to grow old together and be able to protect and provide for one another throughout the rest of our lives."

Robert Loyd & John Schenck • Conway

If you drive down Robinson Avenue in Conway, Arkansas, it'd be hard not to notice the home of Robert Loyd and John Schenck. The bright pink paint on the walls, the rainbow-colored fence behind the house, and the large banner that welcomes guests by reminding them to "Teach Tolerance," is a local landmark. It's where activists and salon owners John and Robert have lived together for over a decade. It's a signal to gay and lesbian people across the community that being out, proud, and honest is a path toward bridging connections between people. And it's the launch pad each year for the annual Conway Pride festival.

"I have been waiting for over six decades for good things to happen. And now, finally, we're starting to see some light."

Every year since 2004, John and Robert have organized the Conway Pride parade, a celebration of the spirit and community of LGBT people in the city. The men have watched as their community has stepped forward, bit by bit, in the ten years since they've been organizing the parade. At the first parade in February 2004, the 35th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, marchers were greeted with more than 1,000 protestors, some of whom vandalized Robert and John's property as a message of disapproval. Last year, 1,100 people marched in the nearly protester-less celebration, and the couple said at least a third of the Pride marchers were straight allies.

Robert and John joined together in domestic partnership in 1999 in Los Angeles, and in 2004, they held their own ceremony declaring their commitment to each other on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol building. "I was never that political," Robert said about the ceremony. "I never stood up for decades." But with their action on the steps of the Capitol, they brought visibility to same-sex couples in their community - making the political personal and demanding respect from their state. Shortly after, they married legally in Canada.

Now, Robert and John are continuing to raise their voices in support of the freedom to marry and explain to their neighbors in Conway and beyond why marriage matters. That's part of why they've signed on as plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas, which seeks the freedom to marry and respect for out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples in Arkansas.

"I've been fighting this for decades," John said. "I have been waiting for over six decades for good things to happen. And now, finally, we're starting to see some light." (Read Robert and John's full profile by Freedom to Marry here)

Sarah and Courtney • Heber Springs

Sarah Sargent had sworn off relationships for good. Then she met Courtney. “I knew I was in trouble,” Sarah remembered, thinking back to the day they met each other. “I could not get my mind off of her, no matter what I tried to do.”

They spent every minute they could together until Courtney found a temporary job in Ohio. As Sarah sadly drove Courtney to the airport from her home in Arkansas, “it hit me that I was in love with the girl,” Sarah recalled. When she told Courtney that, Courtney slipped her class ring onto Sarah’s finger and told her, “This is just a temporary substitute for the real thing.” When Courtney returned to Arkansas, she brought with her a real promise ring, and they moved in together.

They were already planning their wedding when Judge Piazza struck down the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. “We decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a part in history,” Sarah said. “We literally scrounged up just enough money to make it to Little Rock and on May 13, 2014, I became Mrs. Sarah Sargent.”

Now, Courtney and Sarah are continuing to urge the Arkansas Supreme Court to affirm the freedom to marry. “But until then, we are focusing on finally being able to celebrate our love for one another,” Sarah said. “We could not be more thrilled to be seen as equals with every other married couple in the state.”