UPDATED May 2014: Since Robert & John shared their story with Freedom to Marry, a circuit judge in Arkansas ruled in favor of the freedom to marry. Hundreds of couples tied the knot in the first week of marriages, but the ruling is now on hold pending appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
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.
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 are no amateurs when it comes to speaking up for equality: nearly 45 years ago, John was working as a bar back at the Stonewall Inn during the historic riots often seen as the launch pad for the LGBT rights movement.
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 on February 29, 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. This 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.
John and Robert may have organized the first Pride in Arkansas, but now, ten years later, they say the success has spread to five or six other cities that host annual festivals. And they couldn't be happier to have originated the celebration.
* * *
John and Robert's story began in Florida. Robert had recently returned from serving in the U.S. Army, and one night, a friend introduced him to John, who was visiting Florida for a few days. They connected instantly, and ten days later, Robert traveled back to Bayville,N.Y. with John, who owned a hair salon in the Oyster Bay just a few miles from where he grew up, as a 13th generation native of Long Island.
"We did it on a six-month agreement," John explained. "We said that we would stay together for six months, and if we wanted to stay together for longer after that, that would be great."
Six months became one year, and one year became four years, and then in 1978, Robert's father passed away in the family's home state of Arkansas.
Robert knew he had to return to Arkansas to take care of his mother after his father's death - and without hesitation, John packed up his things, sold his shop, and followed the love of his life home to Damascus, AR. It was a tiny town: Just over 300 people lived at the time.
"He gave up his life, his family, his business - everything," Robert said. "He came back with me to Arkansas."
The couple was confronted with the challenges of living in a southern state where views about gay people were overwhelmingly intolerant. "They didn't know much about gay people, "John said about his community, understating the anti-gay vitriol he and Robert often encountered and the struggles they faced while searching for employment.
After being turned away from many jobs, Robert and John decided to open their own salon, renting progressively larger places until they had three salons of their own in Arkansas. They soon found their way to Conway, a far more conservative (and larger) town, and immediately faced even greater struggles as a same-sex couple. They faced problems with police officers and with people affiliated with the Church of Christ andCentral Baptist College just down the street from their home.
Their response? Paint their house pink, festoon it with messages of tolerance and acceptance, and start up an annual Pride parade dedicated to reaching members of the LGBT community and beginning a conversation about why their families had just as much of a place in Arkansas as all other families.
Their love for each other is perhaps the most clear when they talk about their favorite things about each other. Robert explained his love for John by saying, "He has the biggest heart of any person you'll ever meet. He's smart, he's a right thinker, he's warm, he's kind, he's caring." Robert added on, as if an afterthought, "It's nice that he's gorgeous, too. But that's just a side benefit."
* * *
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.
For many years, they fostered children together in Arkansas, taking in several kids over the years who were struggling with family acceptance of their sexuality. Even now, John is the legal guardian to three kids. They take pride in having their house, their parade, and their family known in the state as the "Rhinestone Buckle of the Bible Belt."
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.
"For us, marriage will really legitimize our marriage," John said. "But we fight so hard really for the kids. I don't want our next generation of kids to grow up being treated like second-class citizens. The Constitution says that all men are created equal - not just the straight ones."
They've signed on as plaintiffs in Wright v. Arkansas, a lawsuit filed in August 2013 seeking the freedom to marry in Arkansas.
"I've been fighting this for decades," John said, explaining that he and John are not going to stop. "I have been waiting for over six decades for good things to happen. And now, finally, we're starting to see some light."