BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — For a few short weeks, the marriage of Ellen Dossett and Ann Wade was recognized by the state of Alabama. Then, suddenly, they weren’t so sure.
A ruling Tuesday night by the state Supreme Court halting same-sex marriages has plunged the couple — who have been together nearly 30 years and have a daughter in college — and many other Alabama families into chaos. It’s unclear what impact Tuesday’s ruling has on the couples who have already married, but Dossett and Wade fear the worst.
“This is the way we do things in Alabama,” sighed Wade. “As soon as you get any kind of rights, they take them away from you.”
Now, they and thousands of others are awaiting a Supreme Court ruling this summer, or another federal court decision before then offering clarity to probate judges who are currently torn between competing federal and state rulings: one ordering clerks to issue marriage licenses, the other forbidding it.
Same-sex couples who spoke to ThinkProgress described, on the one hand, an incredible evolution over the last several decades. An openly gay lawmaker sits in the Alabama House of Representatives. Individual companies and schools have approved non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT employees and students. Some progressive churches and synagogues have welcomed congregants of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
But they spoke, on the other hand, to a state decades behind others on both social and legal inclusion for its LGBT citizens — problems that will persist regardless of the outcome of the marriage equality fight.
“When I moved back here from Seattle in the 90s, my friends compared it to going behind the Iron Curtain,” said Dossett.
According to Birmingham attorney Shane Smith, though he feels safe to be out at work, little has changed since then. “With the political climate right now, it feels like we are so unwelcome,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking that this is the state where I was born, where I’ve grown up, where I’ve chosen to make a career, where my tax dollars go to keeping the city up, yet I’m denied equal rights and treated like I’m unwanted.”
About 10 years ago, Smith says he applied for an apartment in one of the city’s gayest neighborhoods, Highland Park, and was told by the landlord, “We’re not comfortable renting to your kind of people.” When he asked what that meant, the landlord replied, “I think you know what I mean.”
Alabama is home to more than 6,000 same-sex couples, many of whom are raising children. But because the state and most of its cities have no legal protections in housing or employment for LGBT residents, many live in fear of being fired or evicted. Efforts to pass such protections on a federal level have been repeatedly blocked by Republican lawmakers, while campaigns in Alabama have almost no support in the Republican-controlled statehouse. A new bill named after Apple’s openly gay CEO Tim Cook, an Alabama native, makes the argument that the protections would help the state attract big companies with diverse workforces. But thus far the protections have gone nowhere.
Alabama native Emily — who now lives with her wife in Georgia — could not give ThinkProgress her last name out of fear of being fired from her job as a teacher in a rural school district. There, as in Alabama, people can be legally fired or evicted just for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The lack of protections has forced her and her wife of three years to constantly take precautions.
When they were married in a Unitarian church in Birmingham in 2011, they were legally barred from calling it a wedding. “It couldn’t be printed on any of the programs, or anything,” she said. “The pastor of the church was even worried about getting in trouble with the state. They made us call it a union or commitment ceremony.” They later had a legal marriage in New York, but nearly every aspect of their lives is still impacted by their legal vulnerability.
“This sounds extreme, but you know how you have to submit a voided check at work in order to get direct deposit?” she said. “We had special checks made that say ‘Emily and CJ’ instead of ‘Emily and Caitlin,’ just so people wouldn’t question who she was. They think I have this mystery husband. These are things we have to go through.”
Emily’s paranoia is justified. A survey of LGBT Alabamians done last year by the Human Rights Campaign found that 24 percent have experienced employment discrimination, while 38 percent have experienced harassment at work.
Though the couple is out to their friends and family, having to keep one foot in the closet takes a mental and emotional toll. “Playing that role for the days I’m working is one thing, but the city where I live is where a lot of people from the school go shopping, so when run into people, even on our personal time, we have to play friends or even pretend like we don’t know each other,” she said.
Emily said that whether Alabama will recognize their marriage, protect their rights in the workplace, and allow them to jointly adopt a child will determine whether or not she and her wife move back to their home state in the future.
“Unfortunately I think it will be several years before that happens,” she said.
Alabama is emblematic of an increasingly common divide in states that have become somewhat more accepting of LGBT people while withholding other rights. It is still legal to fire or deny services to people based on sexual orientation in 29 states, even as many of those states approve marriage equality.
Even in Birmingham, one of the most progressive cities in the state, Ellen Dossett said she couldn’t be out at work until she was in her late 40s, when she got a job doing psychology research and clinic at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. There, she helped lead an eight-year campaign to get the university to add protections for LGBT faculty, and her part included interviewing her colleagues about how they’d been treated. Most people she approached wouldn’t talk to her, even anonymously. Those that did told stories she called “devastating.”
“There were so many accomplished people, with tenure, running multimillion dollar projects, but who were deep in the closet, leading double lives,” she said. “It literally kills you to deny who you really are and have to put on another face every day.”
Dossett knows this personally as well as professionally. Growing up in a strict Baptist community in Mobile, she didn’t know a single person who was openly gay. In her late 20s, “deeply depressed” and feeling there was no one she could turn to, she contemplated suicide.
“I felt that if anybody knew, I would be so shamed and my family would be so shamed and that would be the end of my life,” she said. “I tried to figure out a way to kill myself that would look like an accident, so that the suicide wouldn’t also bring shame on my family.”
With the help of supportive therapists and friends, she got past that dark place, but the legal confusion in the state continues to hurt her and her family. With Tax Day just a few weeks away, she and her wife don’t know if they can file jointly. When their daughter was still a minor, they were afraid Dossett’s right as a parent could be contested if Wade, who gave birth to their daughter, passed away.
“To be compartmentalized like this and have someone say, ‘You’re not equal to everybody else,’ it’s terribly demoralizing,” said Dossett.
Smith and his boyfriend, art teacher Trent Thomas, told ThinkProgress the state is in somewhat of a Catch 22: many remain afraid to come out because they lack legal protections, but those laws won’t change until more people come out.
“First of all, people would be shocked at just how many of us there are,” said Thomas. “And second, it’s a lot harder to promote hatred when it’s against someone you know or love.”
“I know older lawyers who are gay who are still closeted, who are afraid of the backlash,” added Smith. “But I think my generation just doesn’t care anymore. We’re tired of hiding. I think the attitude has become more, ‘Bring it on.’”