It’s been exactly one year since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with Obergefell v. Hodges.
Since then, more than 200 same-sex couples have legally wed on the Coast.
Also, HB 1523 passed in Mississippi, HB 2 passed in North Carolina and there was a mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Fla.
For members of the LGBT community who have seen ups and downs on the Coast, the ruling was a victory. But it also wasn’t the end of the fight.
“We’re still not protected. We can get an eviction notice, lose a job, not get hired for a job. And now this religious freedom act,” said Lynn Koval, a longtime LGBT advocate and the owner of Just Us, a gay bar in Biloxi. “But gay marriage, we’ll take that with pride.”
A year of weddings
A year ago, leaders of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center were watching the Supreme Court closely. They had pastors and preachers on stand-by, said Molly Kester, the center’s president.
“It was kind of like the first real win we’ve had,” Kester said. “Sort of a changing of the tide regarding Supreme Court decisions.”
Koval had a slightly different thought: “How was Mississippi going to answer?” she said.
There was still this stigma for me and my wife, we didn't want our license to say Mississippi. Subconsciously we thought it wouldn't last.
Couples and supporters rushed to the courthouse on June 26, 2015, a Friday, only to find out Mississippi was not complying with the federal decision. The following Monday, state Attorney General Jim Hood reversed his position and said circuit clerks could issue marriage licenses.
Celeste Swaim and Bobbi Gray were the first couple to wed in Harrison County.
“We want to be able to look out after each other when the time comes,” Swaim said at the time. “I want to be able to say, ‘This is my wife,’ not, ‘this is my friend,’ when that’s just not true.”
Gray added, “It’s nice to go out in public and say, ‘this is my wife,’ and not be ashamed. This took decades.”
Since then, more than 160 same-sex couples have wed in Harrison County and more than 40 in Jackson County. Numbers for Hancock County were not immediately available. Nationwide, 123,000 same-sex couples have tied the knot in the past year, according to a report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
164Same-sex marriage licenses issued in Harrison County
Those marriages generated about $1.58 billion in spending, including $1.35 billion in direct wedding spending and $228 million in spending by out-of-state guests, the report found. An estimated $102 million has been added to state and local coffers in the 46 states that collect state and local sales taxes.
That’s enough spending to support almost 19,000 jobs for a full year.
Koval was one of the people who got legally married.
She and her now wife had a commitment ceremony at Just Us more than 12 years ago. They raised three children, now all grown.
But Koval wasn’t entitled to any of the benefits or tax breaks usually afforded to those with children. And when she took her wife to the hospital, she had to hope, with no guarantee, that she would be allowed to see her.
When they got legally married in October 2015, they did so in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“There was still this stigma for me and my wife. We didn’t want our license to say ‘Mississippi,’ ” Koval said. “Subconsciously, we thought it wouldn’t last.”
A year of push back
If you look far enough back, things may have regressed for LGBT individuals on the Coast, Koval said. There was a time when there were eight gay bars and things were open and more free, she said.
The late 1970s through the 1990s, though, brought “25 years of hell down here,” she said, attributing the change to the arrival of HIV.
White supremacists targeted the gay bars. Violence was not uncommon.
“The acceptance and idea of us became a threat,” she said. The last 15 years allowed the community to exhale but, “we’re just fighting to get back.”
Comparing today to 10 years ago on the Coast, though, is “like night and day,” Kester said. “Gay bars were important as the only place to hang out. Now, most people feel free to come out. They feel not as likely to be discriminated against.
“Even though they can be in this state.”
Kester, who is transgender, said even though she’s heard slurs, she’s never had any major issues on the Coast.
Nor has she, as the head of the Rainbow Center, heard of anyone being denied jobs or housing based on sexual orientation.
Koval’s concern a year ago, though, proved true.
The Mississippi legislature passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523, the “religious freedom bill” which, among other things, allows private citizens, businesses and public officials to deny services based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Hood has argued that extends to circuit clerks responsible for issuing marriage licenses.
Supporters see it as a crucial defense of religious freedom designed to prevent anyone from being forced to do anything their religion forbids.
Some thought we won. But gay marriage is step one. Getting legal protections is the goal.
Many in the LGBT community see it as a direct response to Obergefell.
“A door has been opened,” Koval said. “And the only victims out of it will be us.”
Looking on to next year
Getting gay marriage was important, most in the LGBT community agree.
It was a way of showing the entire country how seriously gays and lesbians value committed relationships, many said. One only needs to look at the number of commitment ceremonies performed before legalization, or at the couples who arrived at the courthouse that first day to get married, many of whom had been together years or decades.
But many are looking forward as well.
Kester said she hoped for federal non-discrimination policies for LGBT individuals. Gays and lesbians can still be discriminated against in many states in housing, employment and other areas.
Transgender individuals face even more backlash.
One area the Rainbow Center has been focusing on is working with schools and trans students to find bathroom accommodations.
And HB 1523 still looms large.
“Some thought we won. But gay marriage is step one,” Kester said. “Getting legal protections is the goal.”