In the company of almost 100 onlookers, John Schenck and Robert Loyd publicly celebrated their 29-year relationship on the steps of the state Capitol on Feb. 29. The grooms wore matching black tuxedos with tails, pink tuxedo shirts and rhinestone brooches pinned to their collars, instead of traditional ties. Jerry King, a former Dallas Metropolitan Community Church pastor, officiated.
The marriage (which isn't legal in Arkansas) was performed in protest to comments about gay marriage made by Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"He said that if 'those people' tried to come to Arkansas, there'd be trouble," said Loyd. "Well brace yourself, your governorship - we're already here."
Indeed, Arkansas is no different than the rest of the United States. Gay and lesbian people have always lived here. For more and more of them, their sexuality is less of a secret. Nor is acting on it a crime any longer, thanks to court rulings striking down laws prohibiting sex between people of the same gender.
Living as an openly declared gay or lesbian still isn't easy in Arkansas, however. You don't have to look farther than the letters column of many newspapers or read the comments of some lawmakers to know that in some quarters, homosexuality equated with bestiality and worse.
Now comes the national debate about legalizing same-sex marriages. Is it time for the debate? Indeed is it, say some Arkansas couples. Marriage is not in the cards for many gay couples - any more than it is for many heterosexual couples sharing the same household. But others are ready to solemnize their commitment and challenge laws that make it illegal.
Schenck said he and Loyd plan to marry in Portland, Ore., where officials decided last week that state law allows same-sex marriages. Once married, the couple will return and challenge in court Arkansas's law banning gay marriage on the ground that it violates the equal rights provision of the state Constitution. Opponents fearful of such a challenge have already filed a proposal to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. (See sidebar).
"No one else would have the chutzpah to do it," said Loyd. "We've got to stop them from dehumanizing us." The couple isn't worried only about the limitations of state law. If a federal Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is passed, Loyd said, gays would be permanently relegated to second-class citizen status.
The right to marry and receive the same legal protections as heterosexual married couples isn't a special right, Loyd said.
"I fought in Vietnam during the Tet offensive for those rights, and I'll be damned if I let anyone take them away." Some of those rights include Social Security survivor benefits, inheritance rights, the ability to make medical decisions for a partner, or file joint income taxes.
In June 1969, while Loyd was serving in Vietnam, Schenck participated in the Stonewall Riots in New York city. The riots, sparked by a police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar, are considered the beginning of the gay rights movement. The next year, Schenck co-founded the Gay Activists Alliance of Long Island.
Schenck and Loyd met in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1975. In 1978, Loyd returned to his hometown of Damascus to care for his ailing mother. "John gave up everything to come with me," Loyd said.
After Loyd's mother died in 1987, the couple moved to Conway and opened a hair salon. Their partnership has endured, but Schenck said they've had trouble ever since.
"People went crazy when we painted our porch a pale lavender," said Schenck. In response, the pair painted the whole building a shocking pink. A sign that says, "Teach Tolerance" hangs from the porch.
When not campaigning for gay rights and taking up local issues (the pair successfully fought a proposal to expand the Faulkner County jail), the couple talks to college students about the discrimination gays face in society. Schenck and Loyd break the ice by assuring students they're not recruiting anyone.
After an article in the Feb. 11 issue of the Conway Log Cabin Democrat about the couple's speaking engagements, there was "quite a backlash," including what Schenck called hate mail. The Log Cabin Democrat received so many letters on the subject that an editorial Feb. 29 announced no more letters on the subject would be printed unless they introduced another viewpoint.
The newspaper sent a reporter to cover Schenck and Loyd's wedding, but decided not to publish a story.
Since the wedding, the pair has received one handwritten, anonymous letter that quotes several Old Testament Bible verses, including one that warns homosexuals "will surely be put to death."
Negative responses don't deter them. Schenck and Loyd have invited other gay and lesbian couples to participate in a mass commitment ceremony at the end of the month. There were no protesters at their earlier ceremony, but it's doubtful the next event will escape notice.
"We've been complacent for the last 20 to 25 years," said Loyd. "But Huckabee threw down the gauntlet."
Ted Holder, 50, and Joe van den Heuvel, 47, have been together 13 years. They share a restored, two-story historic home downtown, and are renovating a house down the street. Outside, a multi-colored gay pride flag hangs from the front porch. Inside, the living room is decorated with an eclectic collection of art, including a painting of the Madonna and child. Pairs of wooden shoes sit on the fireplace hearth, a nod to van den Heuvel's Dutch heritage.
Holder, an attorney for the state Securities Department, said he spent most of his life not wanting to be gay. "I fought with it and drank a lot," he said. But his 30th birthday was a turning point, and he decided to accept who he was. That Oct. 11, on National Coming Out Day, he came out to his boss, then-Attorney General Steve Clark, who took the news well, Holder said.
When he left the attorney general's office for his present job, everyone there already knew he was gay. "I tried coming out to my boss on the next coming out day, but my co-workers said, 'Why don't you tell him something he doesn't know,'" he said.
Holder said being out in Little Rock is easier than most gays think it is, at least for professionals. "When we're open and ourselves, prejudices fall away," he said.
The key, he said, is holding tightly to the truth that "we're like anybody else."
Holder was on the board of the Arkansas AIDS Foundation in 1990 when he met van den Heuvel, who was a volunteer. They chatted during a birthday dinner for Holder at the old Spaghetti Warehouse and connected.
Their first date was a few days later, when van den Heuvel had Holder over for dinner and made an Indonesian dish. "We've been together ever since," said van den Heuvel. "And we still make that dish."
Van den Heuvel grew up in the Chicago area, but went to Hendrix College. Holder also attended Hendrix at the same time, but they didn't know each other. When they met van den Heuvel was still getting used to being out, but being with Holder helped the transition. "Ted's really politically active, so I had no choice," he said.
The couple is active in their church and belongs to a group called Integrity, which educates Episcopalians about gay issues. (The education is needed. The church is rocked by controversy over ordination of a gay bishop in New England.) For them, marriage means legal rights, but also affirmation of their relationship.
Holder said the revulsion about homosexuals expressed by some conservatives is hurtful.
"They say we're somehow immoral, unnatural - the epitome of bad. I believed that for a lot of my life and it's not good," he said.
Van den Heuvel said that when he thinks about how politicians want to discriminate against the gay community by banning same-sex marriage, it causes a "deep ache."
"Our relationship is every bit as life-affirming as a heterosexual relationship," he said. "I don't know of anything better in my life."
Amber Hudson, 29, and Dana Whitney, 33, are outwardly very different. Head shaved, tall and athletically built, Hudson is more outgoing and outspoken. Her voice rises in volume in direct proportion to her passion on a subject. Whitney is smaller in stature and her demeanor is calm in contrast to Hudson's boisterous presence.
Although they've known each other for almost a decade, they've been together romantically for two years.
They met through work - both of them were in other relationships at the time - and became fast friends.
"I used to drive Dana crazy - I used to be lazy and wild," Hudson said.
After moving on to other jobs, Hudson and Whitney would run into each other socially. The two were both "single and loving it" when Whitney decided to play matchmaker for a friend.
"I was trying to set up a guy I worked with and a friend of hers," said Whitney, general manager of a downtown restaurant. "[Hudson and I] were hanging out as friends and it just kind of developed into more."
"She's the only one I tell everything to, even when we first met," said Hudson, who attends UALR and has just started a job with the grassroots organization Acorn.
The couple is in the process of buying their first house, which will also be home to their three dogs and three cats. Whitney said they're looking forward to gardening and completing home projects together.
They said their sexual orientation hasn't been an issue when dealing with real estate agents or mortgage brokers. "I'm a pretty private person, so it's not first and foremost in my head when I talk to someone," said Whitney. "But [Hudson] will just say it in the middle of a conversation - she'll get pulled over and tell the officer that it's her girlfriend's car."
The only harassment she's experienced, Hudson said, was when she worked at a West Little Rock restaurant where management demanded she grow out her hair. She said she grew out her hair for a couple of months because she needed the job, but then got to thinking about it. "It's not right - who cares how long my hair is?" she asked. She said she found a job at another, more upscale West Little Rock restaurant that had no problem about her appearance.
Hudson and Whitney say they're privileged - being out hasn't been as difficult for them, something they credit in part to their supportive families.
"My parents used to joke that they knew I was 'different' when I asked for a basketball and a soccer ball when I was three," said Hudson. Hudson and her brother were adopted when she was two. Their adoptive father is a Methodist minister, and Hudson describes him as the most open-minded person she's ever met.
While Hudson knew she was gay from an early age, Whitney dated men until her mid-20's, when she found herself interested in a female friend.
"I've always been raised to look at the whole person," she said. "And it happens that everything I'm looking for is in a woman." Whitney said that when she came out to her mother, her mother's concerns centered on how other people treated homosexuals.
Among their group of friends - who include gay and straight, liberal and conservative people - a person's sexual orientation is not an issue.
"I think with our generation and the people below us, it's not that big of a deal," said Hudson. "I just hope we can continue to make a difference as we get older, and not become like our parents, who were so open in the 1960s and then became so closed-minded."
When asked about marriage, Whitney said their only interest is in the legal protections it offers.
"There's nothing in marriage that we haven't said to each other already," said Whitney. "But we pool our money and live in the same house, and legally we're the same as two people who don't even know each other."
Hudson said there's too much focus on the issue of sexuality. "Our country has so many problems that we shouldn't be spending time on this," she said. "When we look back on this 50 years from now, and it'll be like segregation is now."
Dr. Karmen Hopkins, 46, knew from an early age that she was different, but being gay wasn't something that was talked about. "I knew in junior high school that I would become a doctor or get a Ph.D. so I wouldn't have to be a 'Miss,'" she said, sitting in her Hillcrest home, her feet tucked beneath her. "I just knew somehow that I was never going to get married."
A longhaired gray cat lounges on the glass-topped coffee table. Underneath the table are stacks of medical journals and newsmagazines. A second cat, a calico, curls up on the couch next to Hopkins.
In college, she and a female friend fell in love, although they couldn't admit it to themselves, she said. "We were so naïve. We thought we couldn't possibly be lesbians because we didn't want to be men or dress like men or live on either coast," she said.
Hopkins was able to come to terms with her sexual orientation through therapy, she said. She came finally came out to friends and family in the mid-1980s. "Some people basically shut me out," she said. "But I was lucky - I've had friends who've lost their families."
Hopkins said she hasn't been harassed or discriminated against, but she declined to name the hospital at which se works, "just in case someone decides to start a campaign" to protest.
It's sometimes uncomfortable to see how much publicity the gay marriage debate is getting in the news media, she said. "They see us as a stereotype, not as individual people," she said.
With all the scrutiny, she said it's sometimes tempting to hide who she is, especially since it's easy to blend in with the crowd. "You have to be careful and try very hard not to censor yourself," she said.
Currently single, Hopkins said she's happy with her life. While she doesn't discount the possibility of a long-term relationship, she's not actively looking. She said she doesn't have much free time because of the long hours she works, but she enjoys reading and going out with friends. "How I love in my life is who I am, but it's just one part of me," she said.
Gay Arkansans are not just couples, by the way. They are also parents, part of the so-called "gayby boom." In Arkansas, single-person adoptions of children are legal, no matter what the adoptive parent's sexual orientation. For same-sex partners to adopt together or for a gay person to adopt the biological child of their partner, the couples must go to a state that allows those adoptions, said family law attorney Gary Sullivan. The issue of whether Arkansas will recognize these adoptions has not been tested. Sullivan's first child, carried through a surrogate mother, is due in August. He and his partner have been together for three years.
Attorney David Ivers and his partner have been together for over six years, and are fathers of three-year old twins, a boy and a girl. The children were carried by a surrogate mother; Ivers is their biological father.
The children call Ivers "Daddy" and his partner is "Poppy."
The kids at preschool don't have a problem with their friends having a Poppy. In fact, Poppy is kind of a celebrity, Ivers said. When the children sing songs about mothers and fathers, their daughter makes sure everyone sings a round for Poppy.
Like all fathers, he is concerned about their future, and how discrimination against gay people will affect them, whether they are gay or straight.
"My children are still too young to understand what's going on," he said. "I'm glad they don't have to see and hear their parents vilified like that."
The consolation is that as the children of gay parents and their friends grow up, they will be less likely to share the intolerance of the past generation, he said. "To most young people, homosexuality isn't even an issue," he said. "Future generations will look back on this time and history will look harshly upon those who want to discriminate against us."