Same-sex couples share hopes for the future of the freedom to marry in Arkansas

(Updated May 9, 2014 • 6:00pm)

On a Thursday afternoon three weeks ago, attorney Cheryl Maples stood before circuit judge Chris Piazza in a packed court room in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

"These couples only want to exercise the exact same privileges that everybody else in Arkansas has," Maples said, gesturing to the dozens of people who say behind her, representatives of the diverse group of more than 40 plaintiffs in Wright v Arkansas, a mix of unmarried same-sex couples, families seeking respect for their out-of-state marriages, and children of gay and lesbian Arkansans. The plaintiffs challenged Arkansas' Amendment 83, a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to different-sex couples.

On Friday, May 9, Judge Piazza announced his ruling declaring the state's anti-marriage constitutional amendment unconstitutional. He did not stay the ruling, meaning that effective Monday, same-sex couples have the freedom to marry in Arkansas. The state has said that they will appeal a favorable ruling. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling in Windsor v. United States striking down the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, state and federal judges have ruled in favor of the freedom to marry 15 times now, even in historically red states like Texas, Kentucky, Utah and now Arkansas. The plaintiffs - and attorney Cheryl Maples, who has led a moving, trailblazing case for marriage in her home state - are celebratory in their win, and hopeful that if the victory is appealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court sees the momentum for marriage nationwide and rules on the right side of history. 

Earlier this week, Freedom to Marry caught up with families across Arkansas, including four plaintiff couples from Wright v. Arkansas, the named plaintiffs in a separate case filed in federal court, and others.

If you are an Arkansas couple who wants to share your story with Freedom to Marry, click here.

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."

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."

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)

Linda Meyers and Angie Shelby • Vilonia, AR 

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

It's been a busy year for Stephen and Eddie Inman-Crawley: Since October, they've been working hard to raise their daughter, Rhetta Joane Inman-Crawley, born on October 15.

The proud fathers have more than 20 years of friendship behind them - even spending several years together as roommates in the early 1990s. But it wasn't until they reconnected in 2011 that they realized their feelings went deeper and that their love was more romantic than platonic.

In May 2012, in front of more than 300 family members and friends, Stephen and Eddie declared their commitment to each other at the Athony Chapel on the grounds of the Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, AR in a ceremony that Stephen called "magical."

Now, they're cheering on the plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas as they fight for the freedom to marry in their home state.

"We applaud all of the plaintiffs and the legal team for their heroic efforts," Stephen said. "What an inspiration and testament to love and devotion! Love truly does conquer all."

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)

If you are an Arkansas couple who wants to share your story with Freedom to Marry, click here.