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At long last: Marriage for all comes to Arkansas 

The U.S. Supreme Court delivers a historic win for LGBT equality.

FINALLY WED: Earnie Matheson (left) and Tony Chiaro. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • FINALLY WED: Earnie Matheson (left) and Tony Chiaro.

It took Earnie Matheson and Tony Chiaro 26 years to get to the courthouse. By the time they got there, they had grown old waiting.

They were the first couple to show up at the Pulaski County Courthouse on Friday morning after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling upholding marriage as a fundamental right for all. Though LGBT people and their allies across the country had worried that the court might rule against same-sex marriage, or issue a half-measure that could take days or weeks to parse into something the states could act on, neither came to pass. In all but the hardest of hardline states, the clear language of Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion forced the tired old hobby horse of "gay marriage" to evaporate like summer dew, until only marriage was left.

The press had been waiting for the first couple to appear for a while when Chiaro and Matheson walked into the tiled hallway in not-quite-matching blue plaid shirts, ready to face the clerk who would present them with their marriage license. Last year, on the first Monday after the May 9 ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, there had been a crush of joyful bodies. Over 500 same-sex couples would eventually be married statewide. On Friday morning, though, there were just Tony and Earnie. Matheson is 65, Chiaro 73. They've been together going on three decades. The big TV cameras scooped up the image of their hands jotting down vitals. Reporters on laptops click-clacked word of their arrival onto the Internet, which barely even existed when the two became a couple.

"We'd talked about it and dreamed about it," Matheson said. "We would always say, 'Someday, some way, somewhere, we'll have an opportunity to completely be married in the full sense.' We could have went off to several places. But it meant so much to be married here."

License in hand and headed upstairs to try and find someone to marry them, Matheson said that when he was growing up in Oklahoma over 50 years ago, he never believed that someday America might recognize the rights of gay people like him. "Never did that ever occur to me," he said. "But as a little kid at 8 years old, somehow in my mind, I kept thinking: There's got to be some way for us. You know? We just had to go from there. And wait a long, long time."

Standing nearby at the same counter, largely unnoticed by the news crews, was Sarah Scanlon. An Arkansas native who has spent over 20 years now in the dogfight for LGBT equality all over the country, Scanlon never expected to settle in her home state, but two days after dropping into Arkansas on a lobbying mission some years back, she met the woman she calls the love of her life and stayed. She has married her wife, Barbara L'Eplattenier, twice now, once in California and once in Arkansas in May 2014, during the window between Piazza's ruling and the stay. They have a 4-year-old daughter together.

"Waking up and being able to have my daughter on my lap when I was reading SCOTUS Blog, and have that all come down and be really clear and no question whatsoever, my initial thought was two things," she said. "One: just total joy. And then: This is going to give Sen. Jason Rapert something to talk about."

Scanlon was at the courthouse to retrieve birth certificates, so she could get added to L'Eplattenier's benefits with the University of Arkansas System, just one of dozens of rights that hadn't been afforded to them until the ruling came down. Scanlon was also there to finalize her minister's credentials. She couldn't stop smiling.

Growing up gay in the South, Scanlon said, a lot of LGBT people of her generation came to believe that there were just certain things they'd never be able to do. "We could never have children. We could never get married. We could never be a family," she said. "That's all gone now. All those barriers are gone. We can get married. We have children. We do have families. There's nothing that separates us from anybody else in society."

We talked over the bad old days: The Defense of Marriage Act, Don't Ask Don't Tell, the years when the Republican Party used monster shouting about gay marriage to drive the evangelical base to the polls. Scanlon believes the Supreme Court ruling is a big step toward putting those days behind us.

"It's still going to be a wedge issue," Scanlon said. "But fewer and fewer people are going to be offended by it and fewer and fewer people are going to be scared by it."

Upstairs, Matheson and Chiaro had found someone to marry them: Judge Piazza, whose ruling in May 2014 had set off four days of frenzied nuptials before the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay. Piazza, who normally does weddings only for friends and family, said that he decided to marry Matheson and Chiaro when they came to his chambers and he saw the look on their faces.

It was a simple affair, held in Piazza's small courtroom, the press looking on. The only difference between the Chiaro-Matheson wedding and any other was that when Piazza got to the part where an officiant might say "wife" or "husband," he said "partner." The Victorian turrets of the old stone courthouse did not collapse. No cracks appeared in the plaster. The rings, purchased long before in the hopes that the Supreme Court would make marriage for all the law of the land, were exchanged. Papers were signed, ready to be filed downstairs, and then it was all but done: the dream of years.

Afterward, Piazza agreed to answer a few questions. To tell you how seriously he takes his job, he said it was the first time in his long career on the bench that he'd ever been interviewed while wearing his black judicial robe. He believes that, over time, the country will come to accept LGBT marriage.

"America is a wonderful place," Piazza said. "The Constitution of the United States was drafted by some brilliant people and if you go back and read it, some of their decisions and how they went about it and what they intended for the future, you'll understand that this was an evolving document."

Piazza said he'd lived with his decision to overturn the state ban on same-sex marriage for over a year. He spoke of the barbs that have been leveled at him for that decision, including by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "There's been a lot of criticism," he said. "There has been some editorial writing against me. People running for president of the United States have been particularly hostile toward this concept. But the truth of the matter is, I know in my church we have a loving community. We believe that love is the answer to society's problems. I don't feel it's exceptional what I did in this case."

In reaching his original decision, he said he had the opportunity to go back and study the case law on equality, including the infamous Dred Scott decision from 1856. Though the Supreme Court majority opinion in that case furthered the cause of slavery, Piazza said he'd been moved by a dissent in Dred Scott, in which Justice John McLean wrote: "A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man; and he is destined to an endless existence."

"What I realized," Piazza said, "is that there had been voices in our country, from its inception, who have spoken up against injustice. And sometimes it takes a little bit of courage to make that pronouncement."

God is love

A few hours later found another couple being married in the rotunda of the Pulaski County Courthouse, one of a handful who showed up on Friday. Presiding over the wedding was Pastor Randy Eddy-McCain of Open Door Community Church in Sherwood. Last year, during the four-day window when same-sex marriage was legal in Arkansas, Eddy-McCain performed over 100 weddings. He's said he's got the ceremony pretty much down pat. Practice makes perfect.

Eddy-McCain, who married his husband, Gary, in New York in 2012, said he was at home Friday morning when the word came. "I screamed, 'Gary! We won!' " Eddy-McCain said. "He ran in and hugged me and we couldn't talk. We were crying. I didn't know how I would feel once it was definitely decided. But all I can say is that I thank God, because I believe heaven is on the side of justice. I believe the bells of heaven are ringing today. ... Now, my marriage, mine and Gary's marriage, is recognized in the state of Arkansas that I love so much."

Asked what he makes of voices from the right using Biblical scripture to decry the marriage equality ruling, Eddy-McCain said Christians like Huckabee and Rapert are ignoring the central message of their own faith: that God is love.

"That's what we're told in the scriptures, and I believe that," he said. "It says that those who love are in God, and God is in them. I know, from personal experience with my husband, that we love each other. We have improved each other's lives. We're there for each other. We're there when the other is sick. We pay our bills together. We have a home together. We have a son together and grandchildren, and we have love. I sense God in our marriage so strongly. So I don't know what God they're talking about, but the God I serve and the God I know stands for love. And Gary and I love each other."

Looking on from a nearby wheelchair as Eddy-McCain married a young lesbian couple was Cheryl Maples. On July 1, 2013, less than a month after the Supreme Court's landmark United States v. Windsor decision struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, Maples filed suit against the state of Arkansas on behalf of a group of LGBT plaintiffs challenging the state ban on same-sex marriage. She would later say that she filed the suit in honor of her lesbian daughter.

Though there were times during the process when the ailing Maples was too weak to stand and address the court, it was her lawsuit that led Piazza to his decision to strike down the state ban on same-sex marriage. Maples and her clients were still waiting for a decision on the appeal of Piazza's ruling from an almost comically foot-dragging Arkansas Supreme Court when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling came down last week.

Maples looked frail as she sat there in her chair, but also luminously happy. She's had a long career as an attorney, but the fight for same-sex marriage is the work she'll be most remembered for, and she knows it. She said Kennedy's opinion had moved her to tears.

Maples said that she was disappointed but not surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court managed to rule before the Arkansas Supreme Court. She said that while the Arkansas Supreme Court claimed the case is resolved, there are still issues to be addressed, such as whether or not the wildly successful 2004 referendum to make gay marriage illegal did, in fact, alter the due process and equal protection clauses of the state's bill of rights, as has been claimed.

"The due process and equal protection clauses are supposed to be inalienable," she said. "That should never be able to happen again. Those inalienable rights include the right to bear arms, freedom of religion, things that people are really concerned about. So this is a dangerous precedent and really needs to be addressed by the Arkansas Supreme Court."

Maples said she believed it was fear that caused the state's elected Supreme Court justices to avoid a ruling in the case; specifically, the fear that a ruling in support of same-sex marriage would lead to punishment by the voters on Election Day. It's stands as proof that the state needs another system for selecting the judiciary, Maples said.

Maples said the next fight would be against LGBT discrimination. Like several people I talked with, she noted that in Arkansas, LGBT people can still be summarily fired from their jobs or kicked out of rental housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. She believes the great strides that have been made in only a few years show that full equality can happen.

"In just a very few years, there has been this huge change in attitude," she said. "The majority of Americans now are in favor of rights for the LGBT community. Just a very short time ago, it was not that way. The next generation that's coming up cannot see why it should be a problem. So there's major change that's taking place. Unless you instill that hatred and that fear in children, it doesn't matter. Maybe this generation is so into computers that they haven't been listening to Mom and Dad, but they missed the hatred chapter. So things are rapidly changing."

Maples cried as she talked about her happiness over the Supreme Court ruling. She admitted she'd been crying off and on all day. It's been really something, she said. It's all wrapped up.

"This is the civil rights issue of our time," she said. "Not my time, because my time is probably in the 1960s. But their time. The young peoples' time. I'm so proud to have been a part of this. So proud. I can't tell you how proud."

'WE FEEL EQUAL': Sandy Bidwell-Smith (left) and Lisa Smith. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'WE FEEL EQUAL': Sandy Bidwell-Smith (left) and Lisa Smith.

Back corner no more

There were parties in the evening of the day marriage equality came to Arkansas, awash in happiness and rainbows, where every beer and shot was served with a chaser of glee. At a party thrown by several LGBT groups at Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack in the River Market district, longtime Conway activist John Schenck was almost the first through the door. He'd heard the news about the Supreme Court ruling at 9:02 a.m., he said, and he and his partner, Robert Loyd, were at the Faulkner County Courthouse by 9:05. They were likely the first same-sex couple married in Arkansas after the decision.

Angela Shelby and Linda Myers, plaintiffs in the state lawsuit to strike down the ban, were both circulating at Stickyz, too, decked out in matching "Married, Y'all" T-shirts and bearing permanent, unshakable grins. They said they were already starting to see the impact of the SCOTUS ruling. "When we were parked in the parking lot," Myers said, "we were looking out our front window and a couple came by, two women, and they held hands and they kissed. They did that in the middle of public. That was when it hit me, I guess."

"We haven't seen that before here in Little Rock," Shelby said.

"Such a quick change," Myers said. "It gave me chills to see that."

At a nearby table were Sandy Bidwell-Smith and Lisa Smith. Now in their 60s, the two women met while serving in the armed forces, both stationed at North Little Rock's Camp Robinson. They've been together for 13 years, and were married in Bidwell-Smith's home state of New York in August 2013.

"We got a little tired of waiting," Bidwell-Smith said. "[Lisa is] a very pessimistic person and figured it would never happen here in our lifetimes. So I said, 'Let's go home.' ''

A native of Little Rock, Lisa Smith said that when she was growing up, she never believed she'd see same-sex marriage legalized in the state. "Not in Arkansas," she said. "I guess it's because I've always been in the back corner, my whole life. Hush-hush. Being in the military, you had to keep it under the table or you get kicked out ... I had a few incidents where they'd come right out and ask me if I was a lesbian. I had to tell them no, because if I said yes, I was gone. During Desert Storm, there were a couple of them who wanted to press the issue and, thank goodness, my commander said, 'Leave her alone.' "

Sandy Bidwell-Smith said that she hopes the Supreme Court ruling will be "the opening of a grand, brand-new world." Asked if she felt different now that her marriage was legal in Arkansas, she said not one damn bit.

"We've been together 13 years," she said. "The only thing it's going to change is we can file our taxes together, we can do our burial plans together, everything we were denied, we now have. So, do we feel different? No, we feel equal."

"When I go to the hospital and they say, 'Who are you?' " Lisa Smith said, "now I can say, 'This is my wife.' "

Also at the party was Jack Melvin, who works in human resources in Little Rock. Growing up in Blytheville, Melvin said that when he was in his teens and 20s, being gay was "the unspoken." The only person he even suspected was gay was a woman who owned a local liquor store. Melvin said that the acceptance of LGBT people will take time, even though the country is further along now in that regard than he ever thought it would be. While older Americans have a reputation for being resistant to change, he said many of them deserve credit for their willingness to bend.

"My parents knew [I was gay] from the time I was 28, and they were OK with it," he said. "They never questioned it. It was just a part of me. And because of that, since that day, I've always thought, 'If it's OK with my parents, who mean the most to me of anybody in the world, then it's got to be OK. If my parents can accept me, you can accept me or get out of my life ....' It's a generational thing, but even within each generation there's understanding."

A half-mile away at Lost Forty, the Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas was hosting its own celebration, tables festooned with "Just Married" balloons. Stonewall president Tippi McCullough was there with her spouse, Barbara Mariani. McCullough — who was fired from the Catholic Mount St. Mary Academy in October 2013, less than 30 minutes after marrying Mariani in New Mexico — knows better than almost anybody that employment and housing protections for LGBT people have to be the next step.

Even so, McCullough said, losing her job over getting married didn't discourage her from the fight for marriage equality. "As a matter of fact, it just sealed our bond even more and made us understand what it meant even more," she said. "Today, once again, I'm feeling all those same feelings. While it's the same, it's a lot different. Every time, it just becomes more meaningful. Barbara and I would feel this way about each other anyway, but when you're recognized along with everybody else in Arkansas and the United States, it's important."

As a storm rolled in over the city skyline, turning umbrellas inside out and leaving everybody coming in looking drowned, Angelia Frazier-Henson walked up. Along with her wife, Kathy Henson, Frazier-Henson was a plaintiff in both the state case and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit over the validity of the "window marriages" performed between Piazza's ruling and the stay. Frazier-Henson has another interesting distinction: As a girl, she was a member of a Baptist Church in Pine Bluff pastored by a young preacher named Mike Huckabee.

"I knew a different man," Frazier-Henson said. "Politics changes people, especially money. ... The Christ I was taught to believe in by Mike Huckabee and my church family is a loving God that loved everyone and didn't use the Bible as a weapon, or use certain parts of it to target people."

Frazier-Henson came out of the closet at 19, around the time of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. She said that her biggest fear when she came out was violence, and that she wouldn't be able to realize the dream of marriage and a family.

"That was the reality that I was facing in Southeast Arkansas," she said. "It was a very intolerant place. It was scary. Within my own immediate family, it wasn't a very safe place to be. I felt like all those hopes and dreams were non-existent. But as I got older, I thought, 'No. Why aren't we fighting for this?' "

When she heard Cheryl Maples was filing a lawsuit, Frazier-Henson and her partner called Maples to offer her support and were later added as plaintiffs. As a social worker who often talks to young adults, she said she believes America will soon come to grips with LGBT rights.

"We're becoming more tolerant, even if it doesn't always seem so," she said. "I see it every day. The next generation is a lot more tolerant. It's good to see that the kids are able to figure it out for themselves. Even if they grew up in a very bigoted, small-minded community, they're able to see the bigger picture."

During the party, Frazier-Henson was using her phone to keep up with friends getting married all over, including a couple being married in San Antonio. She said she had always known that the day would come when LGBT people could legally marry all over the U.S., though she didn't expect it to come so soon. There's surely still work to be done in the future. But for one Friday night in America, Angelia Frazier-Henson was content to exhale and just let the present wash over her.

"Today, I'm a little bit closer to being a full citizen," she said. "That's a relief. I'm not all the way there yet, because if I change jobs, I have to worry about it, and until I'm a homeowner I have to worry about it. But I'm closer. And every step we take is monumental."

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