UPDATE: On October 6, the United States Supreme Court denied review in five marriage cases including a case from Virginia. The decision set a binding precedent throughtout the 4th Circuit, and on allowed the lower court ruling to stand, bringing the freedom to marry to North Carolina on October 10.
When you and your wife are responsible for taking care of a four-year-old daughter, 38 chickens, a dog, three cats, a garden of small fruits and an apiary full of honey bees on a 6-acre farm, it's natural for your relationship to grow and deepen as you work together to maintain the property and ensure that all of your cohabitants - your pets, your farm animals, and your young daughter - are properly cared for. That's what Laura Blackley and Cindy Jordan have been learning over the past six years. In 2006, they bought a fixer-upper farm in Candler, NC, just west of Asheville, and in that time, they've learned a new range of skills and a deeper understanding of how much they love each other.
"That environment is a good laboratory for knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and your partner's strengths and weaknesses and putting them to good use," Laura said.
Laura and Cindy have been together for over 11 years. When they met at a Christmas party in 2001, Laura was a traveling songwriter and musician, and as the women grew closer and became more serious, Cindy would sometimes accompany Laura on her business trips. "One of my favorite things to do was call Cindy up and say, 'Hey, I just got a string of gigs in Florida - wouldn't it be awesome to take a week of paid vacation with me down in Florida?' And then when we got there, she'd spend eight hours of the day watching while I rehearsed and played," Laura laughed. "She realized pretty quickly that going on work trips with me wasn't that fun."
But the women clearly enjoyed each other's company, and they were soon taking vacations together that didn't involve long hours of music rehearsal. One of their first trips was to the Grand Canyon - which is where Laura said she had a realization that her feelings for CIndy were very strong. "She's somebody I can trust and somebody I can count on," Laura said. "I saw that we help each other be the best person we can be - and at the end of the day, as long as we're doing that, everything else falls into place."
In 2006, they bought the farm, and after a year or so, when things calmed down on the initial farming tasks, they decided to begin expanding their family by having a child.
In August of 2008, with Cindy seven months pregnant, they flew to California to exchange wedding vows and see their love and commitment legally recognized. Just two months prior, the CA Supreme Court had approved the freedom to marry - a freedom that would be stripped away just months later, in November 2008, by Proposition 8. Because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from respecting marriages between same-sex couples, and because of North Carolina's anti-gay, anti-marriage laws, the women knew that once they returned to their home state, they would be legal strangers. "It's preposterous to me that my heterosexual friends who have marriage licenses in California can move to North Carolina and receive all of the protections from that license," Laura said. "Whereas Cindy and I went away and came back and nothing really changed."
Shortly after returning to North Carolina, they welcomed their daughter, Mavis, into the world. It was a wonderful day - but because of the state's anti-gay laws, Laura was not allowed to include her name on Mavis' birth certificate.
Over the years, Laura and Cindy have taken action to speak out in favor of equality and the freedom to marry in their home community. In May of 2011, they got involved with the Campaign for Southern Equality by requesting a marriage license in their local court house in Buncombe County. They were denied, and so they participated in a sit-in and were subsequently arrested. Months later, they received "not guilty" verdicts from a judge. "Participating in the Campaign for Southern Equality action flew in the face of everything I've been taught, and I had some anxiety about it," Laura said. "But it also felt like a necessary part of what we need to do - not just for ourselves but for people younger than us who are watching."
Laura and Cindy felt the peaceful protest was a necessary part of standing up for what they believe in. "People are tired of being yelled at," Laura said. "There are opportunities for people to make rational, well-informed decisions if everyone can turn the volume down and take a minute to share people's stories. I think if we do that, we can effect real change." (Photo by Bill Sanders)
The next year, in May 2012, anti-gay forces in North Carolina pushed through the passage of Amendment One, a constitutional amendment that blocked the freedom to marry and any other form of legal family status for same-sex couples. "It felt like a personal slap, and I felt so angry," Laura said. "It was sad - it was such a push back for gay people's increasing visibility in the South."
Despite the hardship that Amendment 1 imposes on them, Laura and Cindy know that the past year has seen momentous growth in national support for the freedom to marry. "This is a really exciting time to be alive," Laura said. "Gay people are being brought into this conversation more than ever, and there are already cracks in the armor of DOMA." A huge crack in the armor came on June 26, when the Supreme Court struck down the central part of DOMA. Now, Laura and Cindy can access some of the federal protections of marriage.
Despite this, Laura and Cindy are still viewed as single people by the state of North Carolina. They are treated as unmarried. Laura said that people often ask why she and Cindy continue living in North Carolina, even after the struggles they've faced with their daughter and even though their marriage is not respected. "Leaving here does nothing to solve the problem," she explains to people. "I don't want to leave here. I have a job here. I have a community here. You want me to pack up and move my entire family? My farming operation that I built from the ground up? Why should I do that? Why should I disappear just so that I don't upset this equilibrium - this thing that needs to be upset?"
"All voices need to be heard, and that's not going to happen if people like me leave," Laura said. And so, she and Cindy and Mavis stay in their home in North Carolina. They continue speaking out against the state's anti-gay laws and against federal marriage discrimination. As they work toward a time when North Carolina treats them as married, they envision a day in the future when they can stand as a married couple in their home state, with the full respect of their community and country. "Who knows," Laura said. "Maybe one of these days, we'll just be one of those old married lady couples with a museum about how old farms used to be."