Wedding Bells in Little Rock: Arkansas Becomes First Southern State to Legalize Gay Marriage

LGBT couples rush to say their vows while gay marriage is legal in Arkansas—but the fight for equality isn’t over.

(Illustration by Lauren Wade)

May 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Brittani Curtis and Kaitlyn Robbins have dated for two years.

They live in a small southern Arkansas town and often talked about marriage but knew as a same-sex couple that the possibility was unreal. That is, until now.

Late on Friday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza declared Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, making the state the first in the South to de facto legalize gay marriage.

Since Piazza did not stay his ruling, it opened the door for same-sex couples to marry in all 75 counties in the state.

On Monday morning, Curtis, 22, and Robbins, 19, were one of the first couples to obtain a marriage license at the Pulaski County Courthouse in downtown Little Rock. They married on the spot.

“This is great for us,” Robbins said. “You feel like a real person. You feel like you can be who you want to be and finally feel free.”

Arkansas is the latest state to recognize gay marriage. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now do so. But how long will it remain legal in Arkansas?

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel filed a motion Monday with the state Supreme Court to stay Piazza’s ruling. If approved, the stay would temporarily halt clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. It’s unclear, however, when the court will make a decision.

“The key stop will be with the state Supreme Court, which, interestingly, has a large number of members who have voted in a pro–gay rights direction on other cases and who cannot run for reelection because of their age or the fact that they are appointed,” said Jay Barth, a professor of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

Arkansas LGBT activists plan to fight for their right to marry if the Supreme Court honors McDaniel’s request. Prior to Friday’s ruling, there was already a grassroots effort in the state in favor of a marriage equality initiative on the 2016 ballot. Organizers say those efforts will continue if the state Supreme Court strikes down Piazza’s ruling.

Similar political and legal battles are occurring in other states, such as Kentucky and Virginia, which has one of the country’s strictest bans on same-sex marriage.

On Tuesday, a three-person panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit will review a decision by a lower-court judge who ruled against same-sex marriages in Virginia. North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia are also part of the 4th Circuit, and their laws against same-sex marriages could be affected by the decision.

In February, a district judge struck down Kentucky’s law and constitutional amendment banning the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. But Kentucky Republican Gov. Steve Beshear hired a team of lawyers to fight the ruling after the state’s attorney general declined to appeal the ruling. They argue the ban must be maintained because the state has an interest in “man-woman” couples procreating to keep the species alive.

An Oregon judge could also rule soon on the legality of that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. This week, the judge will hold oral arguments on the request by an anti–gay marriage group to intervene in the case.

Suzanna Walters, author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality, cautions that while gay marriage successes are making headlines, gay rights still have a long way to go in this country.

“While we all celebrate another state added to the justice column, we should never forget that gay marriage is not the same as gay rights writ large: We still can’t pass ENDA, gay youth are still disproportionately homeless and at risk, queer and transgender folks are still the target of violence and cruelty, and homophobia is a remnant of a past we have to overcome,” Walters said.

“We set the bar too low when we equate full civic inclusion with one simple right. As long as we frame gay rights around ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ instead of celebrating queer difference, these small victories will never amount to serious social transformation.”

For now, in Arkansas, couples who have long dreamed of marrying are basking in their newfound right to obtain a marriage license and say their vows.

Shane Frazier and Curtis Chatham, along with their four-year-old son, Corey, celebrated Monday in the courthouse with friends. Frazier and Chatham have been a couple for nearly 13 years and like many Arkansans never thought same-sex marriage would become legal in the state during their lifetime.

“We are on our third home, we have five dogs, we have a child and two businesses together, and now we are finally married in Arkansas,” Frazier said.