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VILONIA, Ark. — This is an American family: Angie, Linda, Justin and Alli.
To be more specific, Angie Shelby and Linda Meyers, both 47, are a same-sex couple who have been dating for three years. Their kids are Justin, a 17-year-old high school senior who wants to tour with his band after he graduates, and Alli, who, like many a 13-year-old girl, is perpetually glued to her phone.
For the more expansive view, there’s three dogs, Pudgy, Sassy and the elderly Calvin, prone to peeing on the hardwood floors of their home at the slightest provocation; a lizard, Saphira; a fish; and eight chickens that live in the backyard — Cupcake, Chocolate, Red, Happy, Chirp, Y, Dot and Fluffy.
“We have a zoo around here, but we like it,” Shelby said as she carried Cupcake into the living room, prompting Alli to let out an ear-splitting shriek. Alli does not care for the chickens.
On a recent cold winter evening, the Meyers-Shelby clan was a picture of happy, if chaotic, domesticity — a scene becoming ever more unexceptional across the country as LGBT relationships and families become widely accepted by the public.
But this wasn’t San Francisco or Washington, D.C., or Manhattan. It was Vilonia, a tiny town of 3,000 people, in Arkansas, the state that registers the absolute lowest support for gay marriage in the country. According to a 2012 survey done by the Williams Institute, a think tank housed within the UCLA law school, just 31 percent of the population here approves of same-sex unions, compared with 52 percent of people nationwide.
In 2004, an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman — including a prohibition on civil unions — was enshrined in the state constitution, with the support of 75 percent of Arkansas voters.
Shelby and Meyer’s life in Arkansas is a reminder that although the LGBT community has made once-unthinkable strides in the past two decades, progress is unfolding unevenly, even haltingly, in parts of the country.
National marriage equality advocates said they never expected to gain uniform acceptance all at once.
“The strategy has never been to win all 50 states — that’s not how any social justice campaign has succeeded,” said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry, the nation’s preeminent same-sex marriage advocacy group. “Pretty much all the states in the South have a long way to go.”
Shelby chuckled and grimaced at the same time when reminded about the dismal statistics in the state she was born and raised in — the same one that refuses to recognize her relationship.
“It depresses me,” she said. “We would like to be married.”
Can I call you Mom now?
Their romance began the old-fashioned way: over the Internet, on the dating site “Plenty of Fish.”
Meyers, who now works at a nonprofit in Little Rock, had spent a few years going through what she calls “an evolution” about her own sexuality, after ending her 15-year marriage with Justin and Alli’s father. When her brother had come out as gay a few years earlier, she had fallen back on the axiom “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
“I was a Catholic, and I wanted to do the right thing,” Meyers said. “Then I met some people online that I ended up being good friends with who were gay, and being exposed to that and getting to know them helped me know that it wasn’t bad or wrong.”
Shelby and Meyers exchanged telephone calls and messages before meeting for the first time at a campsite, where Meyers insisted on bringing her sister to allay that perennial online dating mood-killer — what if my date is an ax murderer?
Luckily, Shelby was who she said she was: a warm, funny registered nurse from Fort Smith, three hours away. Sparks flew, and soon Shelby was making the drive to see Meyers almost every weekend.
Shelby told a much abbreviated version of the story: “She saw me online and couldn’t resist.”
But there was still the small matter of telling Meyers’ children that their mom was in a serious relationship for the first time after her divorce, and with a woman, no less. One night, the couple was video chatting when Meyers decided there was no time like the present.
“She said, ‘I think I’m going to tell the kids.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’” Shelby remembered. “And then the next thing I know, she’s gone.”
Justin had only one question for Shelby, and a tongue-in-cheek one at that: Can I call you Mom now?
Far from the disaster that may have been expected, both of the kids’ reactions were little more than a shrug, perhaps befitting a generation whose views are even more tolerant than those of their parents.
“I was surprised, but I really didn’t have trouble adjusting,” Alli said. “I was OK with it.”
In 2011, the day after Easter, when a deadly tornado ripped the roof off Meyers’ house at the time, Shelby came down to help with the cleanup and never left.
The next year, the couple decided they wanted to make their relationship as official as they possibly could, trekking three hours north to Eureka Springs, a kind of hippie enclave in Arkansas, to get a domestic partnership.
Registering with the only city in Arkansas that recognizes same-sex couples as domestic partners does little more than signify their commitment to one another, and confers no specific legal benefits.
It was a start, but for Meyers and Shelby it still doesn't feel real enough.
“What I’ve realized is that being married gives it a kind of affirmation and a legitimacy — that the state and everybody else recognizes your marriage,” Shelby says. “That would feel good.”
Taking it personally
Despite the perception of deep-rooted social and cultural conservatism in the state, Meyers and Shelby are content in Arkansas. They are out to their friends and most of their co-workers. They have a community of other LGBT couples they socialize with in Little Rock. They attend services at a Methodist church every Sunday in Vilonia, where they feel welcome and accepted, and neither woman can recall an instance in which they’ve been the target of anything particularly hateful.
Moreover, they have the kind of family life and home environment they have both always longed for.
“We get along, we show love, we’re happier,” Meyers said. “Things are just more stable, and happier than they were.”
That doesn’t mean there’s not a lingering uneasiness about who they are in the context of where they are. The women both admit to doing quick internal calculations about what to share and with whom. They don’t hold hands or show other signs of affection in public. Meyers has an “equality” T-shirt that she never wears when out and about in Vilonia, and both are far more careful when traveling in rural parts of the state.
“I don’t like conflict, and I’m not going to go looking for it,” Meyers said.
There are other bumps in the road, too, tied to their lack of legal status in the state.
When Meyers lost her previous job at a museum, Shelby, with no discernible legal relationship to the children, could not put them on her health insurance. Eventually, Meyers moved to enroll them in Medicaid, prompting another round of frustrating conversations about the specifics of her relationship status and living situation.
“(A state employee) asked on the phone, ‘Well, who do you live with? And how do the bills get paid?’” Meyers said. “And I started explaining it and she said, ‘Never mind, don’t tell me about the other person living with you. Pretend like they don’t exist.’”
The slights sting doubly when they don’t originate from a faceless bureaucracy but from family members and acquaintances. Shelby contended with those hurts for decades, as she struggled to deny her attractions and stay in the closet in her native Fort Smith, in the rural northwest of the state.
“After 10 to 13 years of being alone and I didn’t change, I thought, you know, God’s OK with me and I’m OK,” she said.
The church that Shelby was attending at the time did not feel the same way. When she told members about her decision to come out, they promptly asked her to step down from her leadership role, after 10 years of being part of the congregation.
“I take it all very personally,” Shelby said. “All my life, I’ve taken it very personally when people talk bad about gays … I’m done hearing those things.”
Justin and Alli, too, have gotten remarkably good at letting the occasional snide remark about their two moms slide off them.
When two of Alli’s classmates were tasked with giving argumentative speeches for and against gay marriage, the student assigned to the opposing side made sure to apologize to Alli.
“She asked me if it was OK that she did it, and I said, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want, I don’t care,’” Alli said. Still, she asked her teacher if she could leave the room “if it got too weird.”
Justin shows a certain bravado about being more enlightened than some of his classmates.
“They’ll overhear me to someone about my mom being gay, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s gross.’ They just say harsh things,” he said. “I don’t care, what they say doesn’t matter to me.”
For him, the strongest armor is his deep certitude that he and his family are in the right.
“I’m pretty sure in five years, it’s going to be legal in every state,” he said. “People are doing what mom and Angie are doing — they’re rising up.”
Waiting for Arkansas
Last summer, when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, compelling the federal government to confer the same benefits to same-sex married couples as it does to straight ones, no matter where they live, Meyers and Shelby started giving more consideration to hopping to one of the 17 states that have legalized marriage to have a ceremony performed.
“Now it would make sense,” Meyers said. “But we’re thinking we should wait.”
Wait for Arkansas, that is — although they acknowledge it may be a while yet.
Shelby and Meyers, like many LGBT couples in Arkansas, have put down roots and would prefer to get married in the community where they have made their home. Oddly enough, the state ranks in the top five for the proportion of same-sex couples who have children.
To that end, they are part of an ongoing lawsuit with nine other couples in Arkansas, arguing that the 2004 ban is unconstitutional. Another effort is also underway to put a repeal measure on the ballot in 2014 or 2016.
For now, it remains difficult to envision a world in which being completely open and honest about their relationship is possible. When Meyers, an amateur videographer, records church services from the back of the room, she notices couples with their arms around each other.
“I don’t even know what that would be like,” Shelby said. “All my life I’ve had to be a little quiet and be somewhat in the closet. So that’d be pretty cool — to not even have to worry about or think about it when you’re out — gosh, I want to hold her hand, but who’s around?”