Native American tribes challenge Oklahoma gay marriage ban

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes marry two men within Native American tradition of respect for LGBT-individuals

Jason Pickel, left, and Darran Black Bear.
Courtesy Jason Pickel

Two gay men are getting married under Native American tribal law in Oklahoma, apparently circumventing a state law that does not allow same-sex unions.

Activists said the marriage advances the cause of gay rights in a state that has blocked federal benefits for same-sex military couples in the past.

Jason Pickel, 36, and Darren Black Bear, 45, who have been together for more than eight years, were planning a trip to Iowa to get married. But they changed their minds when the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes allowed them to pick up a marriage license on Friday in the tribes' courthouse after the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down, Pickel told Al Jazeera.

"I proposed to Darren several years ago, and we were planning an elaborate wedding," he said. "Now," he added, "we decided the time was right. I'm so happy; it's just amazing."

Lisa Liebl, the tribes' public relations officer, told Al Jazeera in an email, "This is the 3rd same-sex couple to be issued a marriage license by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes."

According to their legal code, the candidates should be married on sovereign land and one should be a member of the tribes, but a marriage license should not specify a couple's gender. The code reflects the respect enshrined in some Native American communities for gay individuals, who are often believed to be endowed with special spiritual gifts.

The two men are planning a wedding ceremony on Halloween in the presence of family and friends, and they invited Oklahoma's Gov. Mary Fallin — a fierce opponent of gay marriage. She politely declined, Pickel said.

In September, Fallin ordered the Oklahoma National Guard to stop handling same-sex marriage benefits for military spouses. Activists condemned her decision, and said they would pressure the U.S. Defense Department to comply with the new federal directive after DOMA was struck down.

Pickel and Black Bear's marriage certificate
Courtesy Jason Pickel

In 2004, Oklahoma voted to amend the state constitution to define marriage as "the union between one man and one woman," in an explicit sign of its objection to same-sex marriages becoming legal in the state.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Al Jazeera that Pickel's marriage will likely not be recognized by the state.

"I think this marriage under tribal law will likely not be recognized," he said. "But I think the federal government will recognize this marriage, and fully anticipate that they will."

The attorney general's office of Oklahoma told Al Jazeera in an email it "does not have any comment" on the legality of the marriage.

The ACLU's Kiesel said he believes the marriage will help raise awareness about the issue in a state that he said is perceived as one of the last ones that would allow same-sex marriage.

"The more concrete examples that people have of same-sex marriages in practice, the harder it will be to enforce discriminatory policies," he said. It's happening within our borders," he added. "And the sky is not falling."

Pickel said he was overwhelmed by the level of support he has received. A friend told him Tuesday he needed to add gifts to his wedding registry at stores such as Target and Walmart, because people had already bought everything the couple had listed.

"About six years ago we were denied entrance to a hotel because we were gay," Pickel said. His marriage, he added "makes it a lot better."

With wire services


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