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Only Arkansas law makes same-sex couples different 

As of last Friday, 25 couples from all over Arkansas had joined two lawsuits to challenge Arkansas's Amendment 83, which makes it illegal for persons of the same gender to enter into a marriage contract.

Some of them are already legally married in other states; one couple was married in Canada. Some have had commitment ceremonies in Arkansas. All want to be married in the state they live in, to enjoy at home the same rights that the marriage contract conveys to heterosexual couples. Some have been eager to challenge the law before now, but were encouraged to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court passed judgment on the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

On June 26, the wait was over. The court, ruling in United States v. Windsor, held that a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted during the Clinton administration, was unconstitutional because it deprived same-sex couples of equal protection and due process.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the "principal purpose" of the federal law, which even former President Clinton now believes was misguided and unjust, was "to impose inequality."

The law "places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage," Kennedy wrote, which "demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects." He also wrote that the law "humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples."

The court also declined to take up an appeal of a lower court ruling that held California's ban on same sex marriage, Proposition 8, unconstitutional. There were celebrations across the country, and shortly thereafter, the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission stood with gay rights advocates at the State Capitol and said the time had come for Arkansas to legalize gay marriage as a business-friendly move.

Kennedy's words stirred the Arkansas couples to action. The overturning of DOMA and Proposition 8 also ignited referenda attempts by two groups, Arkansans for Equality and Arkansas Initiative for Marriage Equality. AFE seeks to put a repeal of Amendment 83 on the 2014 ballot. AIME seeks a vote in 2016 — a presidential election year — on an amendment to guarantee that the state could not abridge the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation or sex. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has rejected ballot titles for both, and both organizations were to have resubmitted new drafts this week.

Six of the Arkansas plaintiffs have filed in federal district court. Should there be an appeal, the case would go to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not been friendly to same-sex marriage. The 8th circuit court ruled Nebraska's DOMA-styled law restricting marriage to heterosexuals constitutional in 2006. But Jack Wagoner, who announced on his Facebook page the day the DOMA ruling came down that he would represent anyone seeking to challenge Arkansas's ban, believes the June ruling should give new guidance to the federal court. The case was assigned to Judge Kristine Baker after Judge Leon Holmes recused, citing his personal and professional ties to those who drafted Amendment 83.

Cheryl Maples of Searcy has filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on behalf of 19 couples, expecting state court to be friendlier than federal court.

The high court's DOMA ruling came in a case in which a woman legally married to another woman in New York was denied the federal marital tax exemption that extends to survivors who inherit when a spouse dies.

That is just one way DOMA made same-sex marriages unequal to heterosexual marriages under federal law.

The Arkansas plaintiffs are suing on behalf of their children — to keep their family together should a birth mother die, for example. They want their partners to share in their benefits, their insurance, their rights under bankruptcy, family medical leave and any of the thousand-plus rights that the Human Rights Campaign has identified that heterosexual couples alone now enjoy and many of which are enumerated in Justice Kennedy's ruling in Windsor.

The state's ban on marriage between people of the same gender is based on the belief that these are deviant members of society unworthy of state recognition and unable to properly raise children. The former is based on particular religious tenets not shared by all and the latter has no basis in fact. It discriminates against a broad spectrum of people that includes our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. Teachers and students. Nurses, policemen, bankers. Social workers. Secretaries. Farmers. Veterans. Pastors. Neighbors.

The plaintiffs are not outside the norm. They work, they go to church, they raise children, they pay bills. They love each other. They don't identify first as gay and secondly as people. Their lives — with the exception of the rights they are denied — are even humdrum, one woman told this reporter. "We're sorry we're so boring," she said after their interview.

Plaintiffs in the federal case are Rita and Pam Jernigan, Becca and Tara Austin and Randy and Gary Eddy-McCain. Plaintiffs in the circuit court case are Kendall and Julia Wright; Rhonda Eddy and Treba Leath; Carol Owens and Ranee Harp; Natalie and Tommie Wartick; Kimberly Kidwell and Kathryn Short; James Boone and Wesley Givens; Kimberly and Felicity Robinson; Linda Meyers and Angela Shelby; Gregory Bruce and William D. Smith; Monica Loyd and Jennifer Lochridge; Jonathan Gober and Mark Norwine; Andra Alsbury and Amber Gardner-Alsbury; Angela Spears-Gullette and Livicie Gullette; Shannon Havens and Rachel Whittenburg; Cody Renegar and Thomas Staed; Katherine Henson and Angelia Buford; Christopher Horton and Michael Potts, and John Schenck and Robert Loyd. They are being represented by Cheryl Maples of Searcy.

Many of the plaintiffs have the same last name. They have done the one thing legally available to them as heterosexual couples: They may share their surnames.

The Times talked to several of the couples about why they want Arkansas to recognize their unions as legal.

Rita and Pam Jernigan

Pam Jernigan is a vivacious, outgoing sort, so when she saw Wagoner's Facebook post, she sent him "fun facts" about herself and her partner of five and a half years, Rita, by way of introduction.

For example: They volunteer weekly at Our House in the Adult Learning Center. They are Senior Olympic athletes (Pam a swimmer and cyclist, Rita a basketball player). They were president and treasurer of the Cedar Hill Terrace Neighborhood Association 2009-2010. Pam, a breast cancer survivor, founded "Paddle for the Cure," a non-sanctioned kayak event held in conjunction with the "Race for the Cure." They are avid tennis players. They have their own small business, Hillcrest Pet Sitting. They are regulars at The Rep and the Arkansas Symphony. They refer to each other as wife.

"Until 2006, I had all my rights," Pam, 53, said in an interview at the restaurant 42, where she and Rita were lunching after their request for a marriage license was turned down at the Pulaski County Courthouse. In 2006, Pam was divorced from her husband of 20 years. They have a daughter, a college student, who is also gay.

But Rita, 60, a "gold star," Pam explained, a lesbian who has never dated a man, had to lie about her sexuality to get and keep her first job out of college, as a basketball coach at Trumann. The superintendent at Trumann had asked her advisor at Arkansas State University if there was "anything wrong" with her before hiring her (such discrimination is legal in Arkansas).

Naturally reticent, Rita said she was a "nervous wreck" when Pam took her hand in a public place for the first time — at an Arkansas Travelers baseball game. "I was so outside of my comfort zone." But it was also "freeing," she said — a mixture of joy and terror all at once. Pam kept telling her, Rita, people are smiling at us. "I'm not going in to a closet," Pam told her.

Pam and Rita were among the protestors at Pleasant Plains after a school board member there posted a barely literate status on his Facebook page condemning "fags" and saying he "enjoyed" the fact that they "often give each other aids and die." They also were part of a silent protest at Chick-fil-A, and in telling about that Pam began to cry. She'd run into a couple she knew there, people she considered friends and who she believed had come to support her. But after hellos were exchanged, the couple announced they were going into the restaurant to signify their support for Chick-fil-A's announced opposition to same-sex marriage and told Pam they'd pray for her.

Among their many reasons for wanting to be legally married in Arkansas is that Rita would like Pam to be able to benefit from Rita's teacher retirement if Pam survives her. Rita has listed Pam as a beneficiary, which would provide a lump sum. But as a survivor, she would continue to receive a percentage of Pam's retirement.

Becca and Tara Austin

Becca Austin, 32, a nurse practitioner, and Tara Austin, 37, an executive assistant, are the mothers of 4-year-old twins, one girl and one boy. They met in 2004 and exchanged marriage vows in 2005. Perhaps because the young couple grew up in a slightly different world, they have not experienced the kind of roadblocks that Rita Jernigan faced in beginning her career. They have found acceptance among family — described as "awesome" by Becca — and friends. "I feel like there's this bubble around us ... . Everyone has been so great." But she got a jolt of reality, she said, when she discovered that the Family Medical Leave Act didn't apply to her after the birth of the couple's twins.

"I feel like I'm married," Becca said. "But that doesn't give me the right to put my name on the [twins'] birth certificate, or put Tara on my insurance. Or make medical decisions" for her family.

A number of their friends have gotten married out of state. But, Tara said, "It would be nice to get married where we're from. ... Our family's here."

Tara said they are a quiet couple, "not big activists."

"We're just normal people and [people] need to see that." They've explained to their twins that sometimes women marry women and men marry men. Their daughter's response: "I want to marry a boy." Who says folks aren't born with their sexual proclivities hard-wired?

The lawsuit, the Austins said, is "not just about the conclusion but maybe changes" in the way people feel. "Maybe," Tara said, "we'll play a little, small part" in that change.

Randy and Gary Eddy-McCain

Randy McCain and Gary Eddy, both raised in fundamentalist Christian homes, met in 1974 at the Assemblies of God-sponsored college Evangel in Missouri. Both are followers of Jesus. Both suffered from guilt and tried to become heterosexual. No dice.

Randy was from Walnut Ridge, Gary from Rapid City, S.D. After Randy left Evangel, he got a letter from Gary. "He told me he was in love with me," Randy said. Part of Randy was affronted, part of him was interested. He had not "accepted" that he was gay, he said. But six years later, he came out, and wrote Gary a letter at his mother's address in South Dakota, and then a second. No response. The letters didn't reach him.

Meanwhile, Gary had married a woman to try to shed his homosexuality. The marriage failed. He moved to his mother's home during the divorce. A third letter came, and this time he got it. He decided to visit Randy in Arkansas. That was 1985.

But the upshot of the visit was that Randy decided to "do the 'ex-gay' thing," a Christian "therapy" movement to help men reject homosexuality. No luck.

Gary visited Arkansas again in 1991 and within five months had moved in with Randy. They now live in a large home in the Overbrook neighborhood of North Little Rock, where they tend a vast garden in their back yard. Their neighbors, Randy said, welcomed them with open arms and they party together once or twice a year.

The men were married last August in Central Park and took the name Eddy-McCain. The officiant was Jay Bakker, the son of the late televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who some time ago had been invited to the church Randy leads, Open Door Community Church in Sherwood. There, Randy said, the scales fell from Bakker's eyes and he decided he would no longer preach against homosexuality. Bakker affiliated with a progressive church in Atlanta and then New York, and has endorsed gay marriage.

Randy was a plaintiff in Picado v. Jegley, the 2001 suit that overturned Arkansas's sodomy law that made sex between homosexuals a crime. When he and Gary heard the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA, "we were ecstatic. We celebrated all day long." With the language that Justice Kennedy used, he reasoned, how could Arkansas's ban on same-sex marriage stand?

"I love this state," Randy said. "A lot of my friends want to move." He doesn't think they should have to.

Cody Renegar and Thomas Staed

When Cody Renegar was 17, he left the orphanage he lived in and at 18 he joined the Army Reserves, working as a mechanic in South Carolina and Maryland. At 20 he and his wife, a young woman he'd lived with in the orphanage, had their son, Levi.

The marriage didn't last. Renegar is gay. Last summer, Renegar, 36, and Thomas Staed, 30, held a marriage ceremony on their farm in Elkins, where they raise rabbits and pheasants and fainting goats (a "heavy petting zoo," Renegar laughed.) They moved to their three acres on a river after the son — now 17 — rode his motorcycle through the living room of their house on the square in Fayetteville. "He needed to spread his wings," Renegar said. Renegar and his ex-wife are close friends and son Levi moves back and forth between their homes.

Renegar is an artist — a painter of horses — and part-time hair stylist. Staed is a loan analyst at Arvest Bank. Renegar said he captured Staed's attention when the math-minded man saw Renegar trying to help Levi with his math homework. That was four years ago.

In 2011, the two decided to marry, though it would not be a legal ceremony. When they asked the Northwest Arkansas Times to run an engagement notice, the newspaper turned them down. That news — that they couldn't announce their engagement in their hometown paper — was on Yahoo News within days. Groups that fight for equality took up the cause, and Renegar said "we're changing over 50 different newspapers across the U.S."

The Yahoo story was the second on Renegar. The first was about an interview Renegar gave in the documentary "Hollywood to Dollywood," in which he tearfully tells the story of how he told his son that he was gay.

Though Levi took some guff when he started school in Elkins, a change in personnel and the fact that he's "extremely good looking and dating the popular girls," his dad said, has taken care of any friction he had.

Despite the fact that they had held a marriage ceremony, the couple looked forward to the DOMA ruling so they could make their wedding official. Renegar said they felt a "responsibility to continue on the path we started" toward marriage equality. A friend sent them Cheryl Maples' contact information. "We were looking for some sort of avenue of getting this going in Arkansas." Staed, Renegar said, "is extremely passionate" about getting Arkansas's same-sex marriage ban overturned. "We're doing this for everyone else. We want to represent them."

Renegar said opposition to gay marriage "blows my mind. What does your religion have to do with my rights? ... It's really no one's business."

Andra Alsbury and Amber Gardner-Alsbury

Andra Alsbury, whose father was retired from the Army, was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Reserves at her father's gravesite. He had wanted her to join, but died before she could. Her mother pinned her at the ceremony. "That's how close I am to my family," she said.

Her mother still believes that it's wrong that her daughter married another woman, Amber Gardner. "My mother loves my wife," she said. "But ... I know and she'll tell me, 'you know I don't think this is right.' ... but she absolutely loves Amber." Out of respect for Andra's mother and Amber's father, the couple stay in separate rooms when they visit. "You pick your battles," she said.

Like many persons attracted only to their own gender but raised in a conservative religious denomination, Andra "jumped back into the church scene" after coming out, and causing hurt, to her family. "I was trying to tell myself I'm wrong. ... I tried doing that for a little over a year and I got to the point where it was time for me to be happy. I had prayed and asked God to change me." But eventually, she came to realize "this is who I am."

Andra, a registered nurse in the cardiovascular OR at Washington Regional Hospital, and Amber, who works at the University of Arkansas in the Counseling and Psychology Center and is a singer/songwriter, were married last October on the beach in Provincetown, Mass., accompanied by a music group from Fayetteville. A friend took a photograph of the couple on the beach, Amber in a lovely white wedding dress, Andra in a tailored tan suit, with their friends lifting signs that said "Get" and "over" and "it."

The Gardner-Alsburys did not stay in Massachusetts, though they would be recognized in that state as married, and would have to endure none of the problems that they will encounter here — such as parentage status for their future children.

"We have family" in Northwest Arkansas, Andra said. "We have established jobs, friendships. ... We are willing to stay here and fight for the right that other states have been able to [provide]." It wouldn't be right, she said, to leave.

"I'm always hoping that in the next few months it would be great if [Arkansas law] was overturned and we could be legally recognized, but I really believe in the state of Arkansas ... we're in for the long haul. I believe it will take a while." But however long it takes, she said, she and her wife will stick with the battle for marriage equality in Arkansas.

Kendall and Julia Wright

The Wrights live in El Paso with their four children, two from Kendall Wright's first marriage. Kendall and Julia were married by Randy Eddy-McCain at the Open Door church in Sherwood. "I was three months pregnant and barefoot and I did that on purpose," Kendall said. They were legally married in Iowa in 2012 (where Kendall again took off her shoes, telling the judge, "Don't ask.").

Julia is an assistant manager at a Kroger store in Cabot. "Kroger is really good." Kendall said. "The foodworkers union [the UFCW], they recognize me as her wife, call me Mrs. Wright."

Kendall was afraid her father would "hang me from a tree" when she told him she was gay. But he told her he already knew. She was also afraid to tell her 96-year-old grandmother that she was marrying a woman. "Do you love her?" her grandmother asked. Yes, Kendall told her. "By God you better marry her then," her grandmother advised.

Kendall is the birth mother of the couple's two shared children, "and we want Julie on the birth certificate, too. She would take any spot. Write it on the bottom, she doesn't care."

Kendall is a full-time student and money is tight. The children are on Medicaid. If the couple's marriage was recognized in Arkansas, Kendall said, they could be covered by private health insurance.

"What if someone happened to me?" Kendall asked. "The state could take my kids. Or [Julia]? I'd need help."

John Schenck and Robert Loyd

Schenck and Loyd are perhaps the most famous gay couple in Arkansas thanks in part to their organization of the Gay Pride parade in Conway in 2004. The thousand protesters outnumbered marchers 10 to one the first year, though the 100-strong parade grew to 250 by the time it reached its destination in Simon Park. Protesters dumped manure in the couple's yard and across the parade route.

This year, the 10th parade, more than 1,100 people, a third of them straight allies, marched. Conway's Lantern Theater screened "The Laramie Project," about the Wyoming college student tortured and beaten to death for being gay, over the parade weekend. Proceeds from the film went to Lucie's House, a shelter for gay kids.

Schenck and Loyd have also been featured in three documentaries, including one still in production by a Chicago filmmaker. They were shown on the cover of the Arkansas Times in 2004 dressed in the matching tuxedos they wore during the celebration on the steps of the State Capitol of their then-29-year relationship.

Their salon in Conway is painted bright pink and has a sign that says "Teach Tolerance" over the door. The couple have given talks at colleges, including the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas, about human sexuality.

You can't be more out than that. But Schenck and Loyd's bravery has its precedent in earlier struggles: Schenck worked the bar during the "four hellacious days" of the Stonewall riots, the police raid on a gay bar that is seen as a trigger of the gay rights movement. Loyd is a veteran of Vietnam. They've suffered death threats in Conway.

The couple fostered children from 1978 until 2008, when Arkansas voters passed Act One prohibiting homosexual couples from fostering. That law was overturned in 2010. Schenck has legal guardianship still of three.

Schenck and Loyd were legally married in Canada nine years ago. But they don't live in Canada. The couple want to be married here, for the sake of their kids and to honor a union that began in 1975.

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