The Fight for Equal Rights in the South

DeeDee Kane sits at the small round table in her office and sips coffee out of a mug with the word GLOBES inscribed inside of a colorful spiral. Her black fleece zip up displays the University of Georgia Terry College of Business logo. Under it, she wears a burgundy collard shirt. An orange yoga mat is propped up in the corner of the room for her occasional lunchtime Pilates break from her full time position as the director of admissions for the MBA program. Her short wavy hair is streaked with gray but her face is youthful and warm.

"I remember 2004 better than I remember last year."

On a spring day 12 years ago she sat in her tiny cubicle at MIT on the sixth floor of the Sloan building listening intently to the news.

Oh my God it might not happen. What if it really doesn't happen? Feelings of doubt swarmed her thoughts.

She sat in disbelief as the courts announced their ruling. She read over the thoughtfully written words of Justice Margaret Marshall. "The very nature and purpose of civil mariiage, the court concluded, renders unconstitutional any attempt to ban same-sex couples, as same sex-couples, from entering into civil marriage."

"It was very emotional sitting by myself at my desk crying," she laughs softly as she recalls the day the courts ruled that Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Over a decade later marriage equality became the law of the land in every state, but the long road to equal rights was a grueling journey.

Fourteen years of long commutes and hours spent shoveling snowy driveways, DeeDee decided it was time for a change. But relocating from her home state of Massachusetts would come at a cost. The benefits and rights that she once lived with would be stripped away as soon as she crossed the state line.

In 2011, she traded civil rights for quality of life. She packed her bags and journeyed to the South, along with her support system: her mother.

In her 20's DeeDee was an activist, but marriage for her represented the establishment of a nuclear family as a construct. She attended Boston Pride celebrations scoffing at marriage supporters for their wasted political efforts thinking that there were better things to be focused on within the gay community other than marriage. After going through phases of anti-patriarchy and lesbian separatism she realized that although her views differed from marriage supporters, marriage is an important signal of humanity. "For me the more important thing is the civil recognition and the rights that it affords to protect your partner or your spouse and your children."

She knew moving to the south would be very different and felt that she had been privileged to live in Massachusetts. It was strange to her to not have the rights she once had which she lived in the north. "Moving here was more like 'I can't believe we have to do this again. I can't believe we still have to have these conversations. Like does anyone in this state look outside of the state to see what's happeneing?'" Her voice is full of passion and determination. "We need to catch up, we need to move forward and there are a lot of people trying to hold us back."

No longer having to deal with snow or long bus rides, she had a plan. With more time in her days she promised to get involved with her community.

"I knew what it was like to live with those [rights] and I wanted to be part of trying to bring some of that to the south in some small way. I felt I had an obligation to do that."

She quickly became involved in Athens Pride and took a position as the Vice President working toward equality.

The second time she received equal rights, it did not impact her as much personally but she saw the impact it had on her community. On June 30th, four days after the marriage equality ruling, she was invited to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church. She came across couples that had been together for 20 years living their whole lives gay and in the south, something she could not fathom. She found herself ecstatic that they could finally be recognized as a married couple in their home state. For DeeDee this decision was long overdue.

The obstacles facing same-sex couples are numerous. Although support has grown over the years, the battle for equal rights is nowhere near over. In 2009, 37% of people supported same-sex marriage. Those numbers have since risen to 57% in May of 2015, just a month before the ruling.

To DeeDee, the next issue that needs to be tackled is employment non-discrimination. "That would be nice, so you can't get married and fired on the same day!" she laughs but this is no joking matter. In the state of Georgia, there is the potential for people who are married to their same-sex partner to be married and fired from their jobs on the same day.

Hopeful for the generations to come DeeDee says that change is inevitable. "It does help change hearts and minds when people can realize that love is love and relationships are relationships and making family is making family."

Georgia is home to over 21,000 same-sex couples and about 20% of them are raising children. However, the legalities of having a child can be a long and frustrating process for same-sex couples even if they have built a lasting relationship.

Jack looks up with dark eyes, his blonde bangs are swept to the side and he beats on the table with his fists. He wears a blue onsie with small robots and repeatedly throws his pacifier on the floor, looking concerned when it is no longer in his possession. He is well behaved and his hobbies include singing along with the church choir and gnawing on his fingers. He is 11 months old, has eight teeth and two parents. In his mind his life is completely normal.

His mother Amber Kugle scoops him up and swings him from side to side. Squealing with excitement he smiles up at her. Using doner sperm from a sperm bank she conceived Jack. She is soft spoken and shy and she looks at her son with loving eyes.

Amber grew up in a small town in Mississippi where sexuality was not a topic of discussion even though she grew up in a household with same-sex parents.

She was a freshman at the University of Mississippi for Women when she met Sarah Sumners. She had pledged a sorority and Sarah happened to be the sponsor at the time. Amber began receiving emails from Sarah asking questions about the chapter. One day while sitting in the cafeteria selling Valentine bracelets, Amber began telling her friend Jen about their endless string of emails. "You idiot she's interested ask her out! We'll all go to dinner."

"On our first non group date she took me bird watching. I know that's kind of lame," Amber laughs as Sarah chimes in.

"I enjoyed it! There's not much else to do in Mississippi."

Moving to Athens was an easy decision. Once Sarah was offered a job as the Assistant Professor of Creativity in the College of Education at the University of Georgia they were excited to be moving to a more progressive southern city. So they left the familiarity of Mississippi for a chance to feel safe and secure in a new town.

"When we moved here we quickly realized that our lives were about to change dramatically, and they did."

The transition from Mississippi to Georgia was like a breath of fresh air. Sarah quickly felt a sense of safety and acceptance. "I feel like there was a black cloud that followed us everywhere in Mississippi."

When they decided they wanted to have a baby, same-sex marriage was not legal but after being together for nearly ten years they were ready to start a family. Jack was born on May 28, 2015, but the couple was quickly frustrated with the legalities of the adoption process.

"We thought that when she had Jack that we would be able to dictate what his last name would be but in Georgia the law says that the baby has to take the mothers name and if she chooses to have the fathers last name, that person must be present and sign paper work."

Since Amber and Jack share genetics, legally she is his parent. Sarah however must adopt Jack in order to have any legal standing in his life, but this was not a possibility at the time.

On June 26, 2015, two options presented themselves: a second parent adoption or a stepparent adoption. A second parent adoption allows same-sex couples to have equal custody of their children so that both partners are legal parents. This is a long and expensive process, which often calls for same-sex couples to prove their relationship to the courts. Sarah and Amber were told that being legally married for a year might help their case.

A month after the ruling Sarah said to Amber, "Let's go get married."

They decided to venture from their home in Barrow County, about 30 minutes west of Athens, and get married in a more progressive town.

They arrived at the courthouse in downtown Athens and began to fill out paperwork. After a run in with a less than thrilled clerk, a judge welcomed them with open arms. "I want to go find a ceremony that fits you two well." The judge and couple along with one-month-old baby Jack found a beautiful spot outside the courthouse to have the ceremony.

The couple chose not to marry on the day of the ruling because they do not consider themselves activists. Sarah equates it to being a product of their upbringings in Mississippi and learning that it's not okay to be outspoken. They are still getting used to being able to call each other wives and being open in their workplaces but find safety and security in being legally married. This has also given Sarah the strength to become more of an activist.

While dicussing the ruling with a former friend Sarah was asked to name three things that the decision would change in her life and why it would be good for her. "Where do you want me to start? I can name like ten things!" she said, furious that she was being asked such a condescending question.

After rattling off a list of benefits, the dumbfounded friend replied, "Oh, I had never thought about that."

"Yeah because you have been married and you have had this privilege that we have not been able to have."

Having their marriage legally recognized has made Sarah and Amber's lives much easier. "We didn't have to do two tax returns this year, we just had to do one," Amber says. Along with tax rights they now enjoy over 1,000 other legal protections and benefits that same-sex couples have never had to grapple with.

"To say I wake up every day and feel like a normal person is how I feel. We don't see ourselves any differently than others."

Being a same-sex couple in the south can be incredibly challenging. Being a same-sex interracial couple in the south, well that's another story.

"What's wrong with you? Are you okay?" Kadesha Clark's heart was pounding. She nervously held her hand up to her partner. A silver ring with a dark band running through the middle sat in her palm. "Are you going to ask me something?" Meg questioned.

"Will you marry me?"

Meg Evans and her partner, Kadesha were ecstatic to be engaged, but in the next few days, their lives would change drastically.

Meg and Kadesha met when they played football for the Pittsburgh Passion, a women's professional football team. Meg was the offensive line left guard while Kadesha was the fullback.

"I blocked the big people so she could run through, which is maybe a metaphor for our relationship."

"It was truly a match made in heaven," Kadesha giggles.

The two became close after spending hours driving to football games all across the east coast. One year after they had been dating, Meg decided she was going to propose. For six months the ring sat in an underwear drawer while Meg waited for the right opportunity. Unbeknownst to Meg, Kadesha was also waiting for the perfect moment to pop the question.

On a trip to Canada to see the women's soccer world cup game, Meg set up a special day for Kadesha. One of their favorite pastimes is geocaching where they use a GPS app in their phones to discover different small weatherproof boxes containing logbooks and trading items.

Meg hid a replica of Kadesha's favorite geocache she had ever found, a log-like container resembling a section of a tree. Confused, Kadesha picked up the log and examined it. Their football numbers, 70 and 65, were engraved in the top with a heart. She opened it slowly to find a small slip of paper where Meg had written important events and dates that were special to the couple. At the bottom were the words,

"Will you marry me?"

A huge grin spread across Kadesha's face.

"Of course silly!"

That same night, Kadesha proposed to Meg.

In the days after they got engaged, Meg flew to Athens, Georgia for an interview. Three days later she was offered a job as the Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center at the University of Georgia. Moving to the south meant relinquishing their right to marry and Meg began to question whether or not they should even bother.

"I had always said I would never get married in a place where it wasn't legal because it felt pointless to me."

When they got engaged just a few days earlier, the thought of not being able to marry never crossed their minds. They began to weigh the pros and cons of relocating. Fear of the unknown was ever present. Leaving her family and the state she knew behind and surrendering her rights was daunting for Kadesha, but she never doubted her relationship with Meg. "While marriage is important, that's not the solid foundation for a relationship. I would still be with her and be perfectly happy even if we couldn't get married. I mean it would suck but I would still be happy being with her."

Immediately after interviewing for the job in Athens, Meg boarded yet another plane, this time to to Albany, New York to give a presentation at an LGBT conference.

Kadesha stayed behind in Pittsburgh working as a nurse at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. On the morning of June 26, Kadesha was in a room seeing a patient. Tears began to roll down her cheeks when she heard the news. "Everything hit me all at once, it was kind of overwhelming." Family members who were not originally supportive of her relationship with Meg reached out to congratulate her.

Meg and Kadesha were both overjoyed but saddened that they were not together to celebrate this landmark decision. "I was feeling immense joy that it had happened for all the people who needed and wanted it and just some sense of equity under the law but then sadness because I wasn't with my partner," Meg said.

After several intense days, Meg and Kadesha were finally reunited in Pittsburgh. "Even though there is a lot of work to be done, in that moment I feel like that was a huge battle, that was a huge step."

The fight for equality is nowhere near over. There are still issues that the LGBTQ community faces even though it has been almost a year since the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. Workplace and housing discrimination, adoption, inclusive healthcare, and homelessness are just a few things on the long list of rights that will be fought for in the future. The only question is what will be conquered next?

Today Chicago sports paraphernalia litters Meg's office. To say she is a fan would be an understatement. There is a crocheted pillow that sits on a chair in front of her desk along with a blanket neatly thrown over an inviting couch both displaying the Chicago Cubs logo. A Chicago Bears banner hangs down next to her desk. A red C inscribed in a blue circle is artfully tattooed on her arm and peeks out from a rolled sleeve of her button down. Her love for her home of Chicago is clear. A pink and blue tie is situated tightly on her neck.

Although the Supreme Court ruling made the move to Georgia seem less intimidating the couple has still had to deal with southern stereotypes.

"Being an interracial queer couple there are some implications in the South that we didn't have in the north. If we're holding hands we get a lot of double back looks and people kind of saying things under their breath and not that we never got that in Pittsburgh, we did, we got it less frequently depending on where we were."

Kadesha sits on the couch getting ready for an interview she has with St. Mary's hospital for a nurse manager position. She powders her nose in a small compact; the ring on her left hand glitters. The Cubs and Pirates baseball teams are being projected on a drop down screen. Meg and Kadesha playfully banter as they cheer on their home teams.

A large frame sits on the floor in the corner of Meg's office. The powerful words from Justice Anthony Kennedy are typed above a rainbow flag.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of the civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. It is so ordered."

Meg's job has allowed her to connect with many LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people who give her hope for the future. "I love doing this job because I feel really hopeful in all the students who come through this door that they want to engage in this conversation, they want to talk, they want to be unapologetically them and that's so cool."

*This story was reported over the course two months in the Spring of 2016. It involved interviews with each of the people in the story as well as additional families who gave insight into issues surrounding adoption. Facts and statistics were gathered from, The AJC, and The Massachusetts Court System.