POPLARVILLE, Miss. — The exchange lasted all of 15 minutes. But it seemed an eternity for the young couple who had walked up the courthouse steps, hands tightly joined, to request a marriage license in this rural southern town.
“Male applicant would be?” asked the clerk with the highlighted bouffant as she peered over her reading glasses at the pair standing on the other side of the counter.
Kristen Welch lifted her chin and declared the obvious: “Neither of us.”
The couple knew their application would be rejected, even before the clerk wrote “denied” in rounded cursive atop the one-page form.
“We’re not very different from straight couples you would see,” Welch told the clerk.
The clerk nodded politely. “I understand.”
Then she proceeded to collect $21 for their application fee. The women stood in awkward silence as the clerk printed out a receipt.
Welch, a 28-year-old pharmacy technician, and her partner of four years, Jenna Lockwood, a 26-year-old Air Force reservist, are one of a dozen Mississippi couples seeking licenses to marry, a tactic intended to highlight the discrimination they say they face because of the state’s 2004 constitutional ban against gay marriage.
Encouraged as they were by last month’s Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage on the federal level, gay couples in the heart of Dixie say their joy at the country’s progress is bittersweet.
Across the South — in states where gay marriage is uniformly banned — gay men and women say they still live as second-class citizens, trapped behind a web of state laws and hostile political and religious dogma.
But instead of being written off as a lost cause, Mississippi and other southern states remain the focus of grass-roots gay rights campaigns. Among them is one organized by a Harvard-trained minister and heavily funded by a Jamaica Plain church.
“There’s a tremendous urgency to push hard in the South with our federal government now recognizing our fundamental equality,” said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Asheville, N.C.-based Campaign for Southern Equality. “But the status quo that exists here really has a lot of power, with the understanding that you’ll be safe as long as you don’t express who you are.’’
Among least likely states
Mississippi ranks among states least likely to support gay marriage. Just a third of adult residents are in favor of such unions compared with more than half of the country as a whole, according to an April study by the Williams Institute, an independent think tank focused on sexual orientation and public policy at the UCLA School of Law.
Not only are gay couples in Mississippi not allowed to marry, they cannot legally adopt — even though a quarter of same-sex couples here are raising children together, the highest percentage of any state, according to the Williams Institute.
Nor are gays and lesbians in Mississippi protected from being fired or otherwise discriminated against by employers for their sexual orientation. (A federal employment protection bill is pending in Congress.) Some employers have barred gay workers from participating in the marriage-license campaign, saying it would be “bad for business.”
Yet, couples like Welch and Lockwood refuse to move to a more liberal environment. This is home. They know the battle for equality in the South is unlikely to be won politically — at the ballot box or through state lawmakers — or through state courts. All they can do is share their personal stories in hopes that, on some level, their families, co-workers, neighbors, even the clerk at the courthouse will come to understand.
Fighting for freedom, justice
Welch and Lockwood met over Christmas three years ago while working at Best Buy. Welch was drawn to Lockwood’s bright smile and dimples, and Lockwood to Welch’s wit. They recently moved into their first home together, a white cottage framed by 300-year-old oak trees on 50 acres of hayfield in Picayune, about 25 miles south from the Pearl River County seat of Poplarville.
They say it’s the daily reminders of their inferior legal status, both large and small, that hurt most. Welch cannot get a spouse pass to visit Lockwood at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. Nor could she get on Lockwood’s military health insurance when she needed back surgery and lacked her own coverage during graduate school.
One set of grandparents has quit speaking to her. In advance of her 10-year high school reunion, some former classmates, after learning she was in a relationship with a woman, have posted Bible verses on her Facebook page.
“We haven’t been openly harassed as a couple but if looks could kill, we’d be dead,” Welch said about holding hands with Lockwood in public, which they’re mindful not to do too much.
Lockwood spent her first four years in the Air Force as a closeted lesbian. She said she had joined to fight for freedom and justice “even though I wasn’t always granted them.” She felt her first taste of freedom when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the law barring openly gay men and women from serving in the military, was repealed in 2011. Now the senior airwoman says she is adamant about fighting for marriage equality.
Plus, fighting is in her blood. Her grandmother was Margaret “Wootsie” Tate, former state senator, who famously chained herself to a tree, shotgun in hand, to keep it from getting chopped down; battled plans for a landfill when she was ill with cancer; and used the men’s restroom off the Senate floor, telling her male colleagues to “tuck and cover,” until the state built a facility for women.
Until last week, the gay marriage ban had never been questioned in Poplarville, a 2,900-person town known as the state’s blueberry capital.
The heat was already stifling at 9 a.m. when Beach-Ferrara, her clerical collar peeking out beneath her khaki suit, led a procession of about a dozen supporters from the library where they had gathered through the heart of downtown to the court house two blocks away — where the Ku Klux Klan rallied as recently as 2007.
The group wore rainbow armbands and carried a sign: “We Do: Full Equality Under The Law.” Members walked in silence as they rounded the corner on Main Street, passing a jewelry store, a tanning salon, the office of the tax collector, when a man in his 60s popped out and shouted, “They can’t just walk down our streets like that!”
On the other side of the counter, the circuit clerk sized up the couple before her. Welch was dressed in an oxford button-down, her cheeks flushed from the heat and her wild ruby curls held back from her face by sunglasses. Lockwood, wearing a red polo shirt, looked like a teenager with her pixie haircut and long side-swept bangs.
Vickie Hariel had prepared for the women, having been informed in advance that they would be coming.
Facing the couple, Hariel flipped open one volume of Mississippi state laws and read from Statute 93-1-1. “Any marriage between persons of the same gender is prohibited and null and void from the beginning.” She apologized, even as she informed them that she could not issue them a license.
In her 36 years at the court house, it was the first time she had denied a couple a marriage license. The only other legal reason for denial is if the applicants are drunk or insane.
Hariel smiled. She was doing her job. And no, it was not difficult, she said in an interview later. In addition to taking a vow to follow the law as an elected official, she said she also had the moral obligation to uphold her faith. After all, she said, the Bible says God formed man and woman to be united.
“Naturally, marriage from 1890 when the records started in our county up to 2013 has been between a man and a woman,” Hariel said after the couple left.
She pointed to the shelves of bound records, with the earlier ones separated into “colored” and “white” tomes. “I would never have conceived that I’d be put in a situation where a couple of the same gender would come in and ask to be married.”
Support from up North
Beach-Ferrara, a tall, soft-spoken North Carolinian, conceived of the marriage license campaign as her thesis at the Harvard Divinity School, drawing on the legacy of Civil Rights organizing.
Gay rights activists say that progress in the South has come in the wake of federal laws — addressing school desegregation, black civil rights, interracial marriage. Beach-Ferrara hopes her marriage-rights campaign will help prepare the southern social fabric for change.
Prior to the moment when couples walk hand in hand into the courthouse, the campaign’s small team conducts months of preparatory leg work, piling into a minivan and driving through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Mississippi, reaching out to circuit clerks and law enforcement officials to explain what they are doing, “knowing that any of these folks could become an ally at some point.”
Much of the support for the campaign — spiritually and financially — comes from Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Bostonians, through Hope Central Church and Democratic organizers in Jamaica Plain, have donated upwards of $30,000 to the campaign. Church members have traveled south to volunteer as support staff and peace keepers during the marriage license actions, which occur every six months.
“Until people in the South are free, we are not free up here,” said Rev. Laura Ruth Jarrett, the senior pastor at Hope Central, a Georgia native who lives in Jamaica Plain with her wife. “Our Scripture says we are one spiritual body.”
Sara and Lynn Bell’s wedding in Kent, Conn., was picture-perfect. Sara wore an ivory lace dress and carried a matching parasol. Lynn wore a brown tuxedo and cowboy boots. Their hair and makeup were professionally done, as were the floral arrangements.
But there were no guests.
Sara Bell, 31, who grew up in Purvis, Miss., and now lives in Petal, has not spoken to her family in three years. Raised by Southern Baptists — her father was the music minister at their church — Bell was shamed so much for being gay that silence, guilt, and anxiety cloaked much of her relationships with women. “You can only be told you’re an abomination so much before you start to believe it,” she said.
She hoped that joining the marriage license campaign would “open people’s eyes and show that they’re not fighting against the rights of monsters.” She was sure that if only people had the opportunity to get to know her and see the pain that discriminatory laws inflict on real people’s lives, they would come around.
Some have. The board of directors at the health clinic where the Bells worked voted to allow domestic partner health benefits after learning they were married. The couple discuss having children someday. But if Sara Bell gives birth, her wife would not legally be allowed to adopt the child. And if something were to happen to her, she worries her parents may take the child away.
So Bell continues on her mission, marching beneath the sweltering morning sun through the streets of Poplarville last week in her designer heels and seemingly sweat-proof makeup in support of Welch and Lockwood.
She surveyed the landscape that had been her childhood playground and thought of her elderly grandmother, sitting alone in her house nearby. They are no longer in contact.
She thought of the Blueberry Jubilee her grandparents used to take her to every summer, the pecan trees where she hunted for Easter eggs, the market where she shopped with her “Pawpaw” for milk, and the biscuits they would devour for breakfast afterwards. Her eyes welled with tears when she looked across the street at the Baptist church where her aunt had gotten married.
A town so familiar to her now feels so distant — all because she fell in love.
The South as next frontier
Despite the seemingly intransigent attitudes, change will come in the South, gay marriage advocates believe.
A Mississippi poll released Friday by the Human Rights Campaign shows that 58 percent of residents under the age of 30 support gay marriage, compared with just a third of Mississippians overall.
The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights advocacy group, also is targeting the South as the next frontier, with its president visiting four Southern states, including Mississippi, over the last week to meet with local gay rights activists, newspaper editorial boards, and politicians.
“We now have two Americas. Equality by and large has come to the coasts, but the middle of the country and the southern states specifically are being left behind,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Emboldened by the Supreme Court decision, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania last week against that state’s gay marriage ban, and plans to bring similar challenges in North Carolina and Virginia.
Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis at the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based in Mississippi that is one of the country’s most active gay marriage opponents, said the advocates should not bother wasting their energy in this state.
“I do not see Mississippi changing its collective mind in the foreseeable future,” Fischer said, adding that a resounding majority — 86 percent — of voters in 2004 voted to ban same-sex marriage. “The understanding of the institution of natural marriage is deeply embedded here. These people should accept the Democratic process and accept the will of the people.”
An irony gone unnoticed
On Wednesday afternoon, a young man and woman sidled up to the clerk’s office in Gulfport. They seemed giddy in their love, their hands straying repeatedly to each other. They wanted a marriage license. Minutes later, the clerk congratulated them, handing over the document. She informed them that they could get married that day, in the Justice Court right behind the Circuit Clerk’s office.
Gone is the requisite three-day waiting period, along with the premarital blood test for syphilis. The Legislature did away with all that last year, the clerk said, to “make it a lot easier for people to get married now.” She did not see the irony in her statement. Moments earlier she had denied a license to a lesbian couple, Candy Dalton and Sabrina Tiedt, as their four children — ages 9, 10, 14, and 20 — looked on.
“I want my kids to know to stand up for something that you know is right regardless of what the law says,” said Dalton, a 43-year-old Walmart optician. They plan on marrying anyway in February — in California.
Their presence in the courthouse drew stares and questions. Side conservations ensued, among court security, clerk office staff, people inquiring about pending trials.
While some scoffed at the spectacle, one security guard told another, “You love who you love.”
“Let them get married,” she said. “They do it in other states.’’