“There were some arm hairs standing straight up,” joked Baldwin, who lives with Bishop in Broken Arrow, a suburb of Tulsa.
April 17 is only the second time they will be present for a hearing in their 10-year case for marriage equality. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will hear oral arguments in the case Bishop v. Smith, a suit filed in 2009 against Tulsa County court clerk Sally Howe Smith, who issues marriage licenses in Oklahoma.
Bishop and Baldwin are currently receiving national attention for this case. But their story began more than 17 years ago, when the couple started dating. As fellow editors at The Tulsa World, Baldwin said their relationship grew out of a shared love of grammar.
“That sounds so nerdy,” Baldwin said.
“But I could tell she was a really good editor, really meticulous and conscientious about her work. And she could tell the same thing about me. And you deal with that mutual respect right off the bat, and then you find out you like each other.”
“We rarely disagree. We’re really compatible. It’s amazing. Everything from home decor to the style of the house we’d like to build someday to what we like to do in our free time,” Bishop added.
Along with working at The Tulsa World, they’re also avid wildlife rehabilitators, caring for squirrels, raccoons and whatever animal needs their help.
The couple’s families have had mixed views on the relationship. Baldwin’s father thinks of Bishop as “another daughter,” and her sister is “thrilled to have her in the family.” For Bishop, it has been a long, difficult road for her family to begin accepting the relationship.
“I come from a deeply religious family, and this is very hard for them, which also made it hard for me,” Bishop said.
Faith vs. sexuality
Her mother didn’t attend their commitment ceremony in 2000. However, Bishop still finds hope in the little things.
“She gave me the pearls she had worn when she married my father. In the family tree in the Bible, she put our commitment ceremony in there. She really has made some strides,” she said.
In the last year, Bishop’s mother confessed she knows now that being gay isn’t a choice. She also visits the couple in their home to enjoy meals and time together.
“It’s a joy to have her here, and it’s so nice she’s becoming more comfortable with who we are,” Baldwin said.
Coming from a religious family, Bishop doesn’t believe faith interferes with her sexuality.
“From the first time I fell in love with a woman when I was 18, I knew this is right for me,” Bishop said. “It was not wrong. It wasn’t sinful because it’s who I was. I was always able to still have my beliefs religiously and still be gay.”
While some Oklahoma faith leaders believe marriage should only be defined as between a man and woman, others from multiple backgrounds, including Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish and more, are openly supporting same-sex marriage. Several Oklahoma ministers signed an amicus brief in early March to provide their support for the couple’s case.
“It’s amazing and overwhelming to see that many clergy leaders and religious institutions signed that brief,” Bishop said. “It’s a real step of faith for them to do that. They could lose their jobs.”
Others believe Oklahoma should have a vote on whether to enact same-sex marriage in the state. But for Bishop, even though she thinks a vote today would go in their favor, she believes “the rights of a minority should never be left to the majority” because “it’s not the American way.” She cited civil rights among races as a key example.
While Bishop and Baldwin believe state and federal law should make samesex marriage legal, they also say no church leader should be forced to marry anyone.
“It’s about the government recognizing our marriage as equal citizens. It’s about having access to courts and benefits and rights,” Baldwin said.
Leading the way
Even 14 years ago, when gay marriage support wasn’t as strong as it is today, the couple said they were welcomed with open arms by the florist, baker and others in the rural Florida community who helped with their commitment ceremony.
“They treated us as good as they would treat anybody,” Baldwin said.
Bishop and Baldwin celebrated their anniversary on March 26.
While Bishop and Baldwin’s co-plaintiffs in the decade-long case, fellow Oklahomans Gay Phillips and Sue Barton, have a legal marriage outside the state, Bishop and Baldwin are waiting for the right to marry in Oklahoma.
During the first few years of the case, the couple admits it wasn’t progressing much. They were told they didn’t have the right to sue based on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because they didn’t have a legal marriage in any state, which left this portion of the suit in the hands of co-plaintiffs Barton and Phillips. But they did have the right to sue for marriage equality in Oklahoma, which later led to the revised case against the Tulsa County clerk. Their original lawyer stepped down from the case as well.
“We thought it was completely falling apart, but we didn’t want to abandon it,” Bishop said.
By early 2009, a new lawyer, Don Holladay from Oklahoma City, contacted them directly, saying he was interested in handling the case. It gave the couple new momentum, as they had been having a hard time finding another lawyer.
When the Supreme Court overturned DOMA last summer, saying marriage defined as between one man and one woman is unconstitutional, Bishop and Baldwin believed Oklahoma-based Judge Terence Kern of the U.S. District Court would make a ruling any day. But it took him until January to find that Oklahoma’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.
Working in a newsroom, the couple always thought they’d receive notice before the ruling happened. But it all came as an in-the-moment surprise shortly after they arrived at The Tulsa World that evening. They read the news for the first time alongside fellow editors and reporters.
“We started hugging and crying, and there was some applause,” Baldwin said.
Because of their dedication to this case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma presented the couple, as well as Barton and Phillips, with the Angie Debo Award March 29 at a ceremony in Norman. The award is given to those who have “provided exceptional defense to the Bill of Rights,” according to the ACLU Oklahoma website. Debo was an acclaimed Oklahoma historian.
After the ceremony, the four women met with the Oklahoma City LGBT community during a meet-and-greet at Chi Gallery. They will all act as OKC Pride Parade grand marshals in June.
“With all four plaintiffs being on this side of the state (eastern Oklahoma), a lot of (Oklahoma City) people don’t know us,” Baldwin said. “They are certainly supportive, but we need them to buy into this (the case), too.”
When Bishop first realized she was gay in 1980, she knew at that time that the country wasn’t ready for samesex marriage. The first step, she says, was when the American Psychiatric Association voted in the 1970s that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness. The next major step, in her view, was the Supreme Court ruling sodomy laws in the United States unconstitutional in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case.
“We’re not mentally ill, we’re not criminals. And people have come out of the closet in greater numbers,” Bishop said. “People had to see that in order to accept us. Things had to fall into place before we could have marriage equality under the law.”
“We feel in our gut they’re going to rule pretty quickly,” Baldwin said, looking ahead to the April 17 court
date, along with a similar case from Utah also heard before the U.S. 10th Circuit on April 10.
the cases are decided, they will likely go before the U.S. Supreme
Court, and Baldwin predicts the national decision could be made by June
Four things to know about Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage case
1. Voters approve ban, lawsuit filed: When Oklahoma voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 with 75 percent of the vote, a lesbian couple in Tulsa, Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop, responded to the vote with a lawsuit claiming the ban to be unconstitutional.
2. Judge strikes down ban: In January, a federal judge in Oklahoma declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. However, same-sex marriage was not made legal immediately, as the judge allowed for an appeal to be filed.
3. Appeal filed: The Tulsa County Court Clerk’s office, which was the defendant in Baldwin and Bishop’s lawsuit, responded with an appeal that will be heard by the Denverbased U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on April 17.
4. Next step Supreme Court?: Whatever the circuit court’s decision, many expect a case like Oklahoma’s to eventual make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years. Oklahoma’s case is just one of dozens that challenge state bans on same-sex marriage. — Ben Felder