April 10 was not your usual Thursday at Fulton County Probate Court. Because at one point during the day, Midtown couple Shane Thomas and Michael Bishop strolled in and applied for a marriage license.
“Everyone there was friendly, but they still said no,” Bishop tells GA Voice.
In 2004, Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as well as recognizing same-sex unions from other states. But since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year striking down a major portion of the Defense of Marriage Act in the renowned Windsor case, judge after judge after judge in states across the country are ruling that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
With that marriage license denial to Bishop and Thomas this month, in coordination with the actions of two other same-sex couples and one widowed lesbian, a chain reaction started which led to the April 22 filing of a massive class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Georgia. The plaintiffs enter this fight with the backing of Lambda Legal and the law firms of Bryan Cave and White & Case.
If successful, the suit will bring a right to LGBT Georgians that seemed unthinkable just a short time ago—the right to legally marry, with access to the exact same state and federal benefits that straight couples have had since such benefits began.
Lambda Legal held a press conference April 22 to officially announce the lawsuit to the public and introduce all of the plaintiffs. GA Voice was granted exclusive access to Shane Thomas and Michael Bishop’s story ahead of the filing of the lawsuit.
‘I WANT TO GET OUT OF HERE’
Thomas, 44, and Bishop, 50, were both born and raised in the south—Thomas in a small town in Alabama and Bishop in Jacksonville, Fla. Thomas endured relentless bullying growing up but Bishop was able to avoid that abuse. They treaded their own paths to figuring out their sexualities, with Thomas briefly being engaged before calling it off and Bishop marrying for a time before realizing his identity as well and divorcing.
Thomas came out in his early 20s and Bishop in his early 30s, who by then had moved to Atlanta. Thomas was still back in Birmingham though.
Both were raised southern Baptist, and appropriately enough, two men of the cloth unwittingly helped bring the two together.
It was 2004 and Rev. Gene Robinson was at the center of a national controversy because he was about to become the first openly gay bishop in a major Christian denomination. To address the controversy, the minister at Thomas’ church wrote a letter to the congregation equating gay people to alcoholics, trying to make the point that they should be accepted despite their flaws.
“That was one of the points where I thought, you know, I don’t want to just stay in this town, I don’t want to be tolerated—I want to get out of here. That’s why I started coming to Atlanta,” he says.
Soon after, he met Bishop at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They hit it off immediately and went on their first date a couple of weeks later—Aug. 5, 2006 to be exact. “Like a lot of gay people we count that as our anniversary,” since they are unmarried, Bishop says.
By date number four, they were already talking about whether the other wanted children. “That was something that we both wanted to do,” Thomas says. “It was important to me to have that conversation.”
Jump to eight years later and they remain together, ready to embark on a whole new journey together as two of the faces at the center of the biggest case in LGBT Georgia history. But it’s two smaller faces that are leading Thomas and Bishop to step out in such a public way.
AND A FAMILY EMERGES
Thomas, 4, and his little sister Mariella, 3, commandeer the playroom, as Dori urges Nemo to “just keep swimming” on the TV above them. The two are pint-sized infusers of joy, inducing smiles and laughter from all who come into their orbit.
It makes one wonder how their lives were forever altered when Thomas (aka “Daddy” to the kids) and Bishop (aka “Big Daddy”) came into their lives.
People told the couple that adoption was a rough process and not to get their hopes up, and while they admit it took a long time to happen, they had a better go of it than was first advertised. It helped that both birth mothers wanted gay men to have their babies.
The two were born in Texas, and Thomas and Bishop were there for both of the kids’ births, which Bishop calls “an amazing blessing and a life-changing event.”
While the two talked about getting married in another state where same-sex marriage is legal, they ultimately decided against doing so.
“We have the utmost respect for people that do that,” Bishop says, “But at the same time, this is where we live, this is our state, this is our home, this is where our family is. It’s important to us to have the integrity of having our marriage recognized where we live.”
‘PEOPLE MAKE JUSTICE’
While marriage in another state was a non-starter for the couple, that didn’t stop them from considering a much bolder step.
Over the last year or so, young Thomas and Mariella reached “a more stable stage” as Bishop puts it, and he and Thomas started focusing on what else they could do to strengthen their relationship and protect the family.
“As our children go to school and they both realize that other kids’ parents can be married, but their parents can’t, they’re going to start asking questions about that,” Thomas says.
There were also practical aspects to consider. When the family travels, they have to bring the adoption papers with them.
“They don’t exactly look like us so if you’re driving through south Georgia and you get pulled over by somebody who doesn’t like the way you look, there’s no telling how they might interpret that,” Thomas says. “So we have to be cautious about where we stop or get gas. We think about all of that stuff.”
“It led us to the conclusion that it was time to start doing something and stepping out on the issue,” Bishop adds.
But it’s a long way from wanting marriage rights in Georgia to agreeing to let the world into your life in order to obtain those rights. They are private people. They have no history of LGBT activism and are not regulars on Atlanta’s gay benefit circuit.
But as always, it came back to Thomas and Mariella.
“When you hold that baby in your arms and you realize you’re a parent and that you have to protect that child, it really comes down to what we feel like are equal rights for us as parents,” Thomas says. “And we should have those rights as parents.”
Bishop cites a famous Dr. Martin Luther King quote to explain: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
“Well, people make justice, and people make change,” he says. “And we’re in a position as two people who have a vital interest in this cause to make a change. So we saw an opportunity to step forward and be a part of that and it’s something that we’re proud to do.”
‘IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY’
In five separate decisions in federal courts on gay marriage since a major portion of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down last June, the judges have handed down five victories for marriage equality.
This eases Shane and Michael’s minds rather than adds pressure to continue the streak, but they acknowledge that anything can happen in the south.
“I don’t think anybody knows what will happen here,” Thomas says.
But they marvel at the change in attitudes on LGBT issues that they’ve witnessed since they were younger.
“I think we have a duty to be optimistic and to act on our optimism,” Bishop says. “We’re confident.”
Optimism is a common trait in the Thomas-Bishop household.
“Every day when our kids wake up, one of the first things we say to them without fail is, ‘It’s a beautiful day,’” Bishop says.
Thomas carries the memories of his early days on the playground back in Alabama with him to this day, but in a constructive way.
“We don’t want to ever see our children be bullied,” he says. “To put a stamp of legitimacy on our relationship and our family will help make that go away.”
“We want them to wake up every day and say, “‘It’s a beautiful day.’”
And with that, Georgia’s LGBT community is one step closer to a very beautiful day in the near future.
Besides Michael Bishop and Shane Thomas of Atlanta, the other plaintiffs are:
• Christopher Inniss and Shelton Stroman of Snellville, together for 13 years and owners of Snellville Pet Resort. They adopted a child who is now in third grade. Because the fathers have different last names, there is often confusion with teachers as well as physicians. When Stroman tried to legally change his last name, he was “berated” in court by the judge for wanting to share the last name of another man, the lawsuit states.
• Lesbian couple Rayshawn Chandler and Avery Chandler of Jonesboro, both of whom are officers with the Atlanta Police Department. Avery is a member of the U.S. Army reserve. The two legally married in Connecticut on June 26, 2013, and they are planning to have children, according to the suit.
• Jennifer Sisson, 34, whose wife, Pamela Drenner, 49, died after a long battle with ovarian cancer on March 1. The couple legally married in New York on Feb. 14, 2013. When Sisson and her 18-year-old son went to make funeral arrangements in Georgia, they were told, under Georgia law, Sisson could only choose Drenner’s marital status as “never married,” “widowed,” or “divorced.” The death certificate eventually read “never married,” causing tremendous pain to Sissons, according the lawsuit.
• Deborah Aderhold, State Registrar and Director of Vital Records. She is being sued for denying an amendment be made to Drenner’s death certificate recognizing her as legally married in another state.
• Brook Davidson, Clerk of Gwinnett County Probate Court.
• Judge Pinkie Toomer, judge of Fulton County Probate Court. Toomer was asked by Jane Morrison in 2013 to swear her in as Fulton County State Court Judge. Morrison was the first openly gay person elected as a Fulton County State Court Judge.
• Davidson and Toomer are sued in their capacity for denying marriage licenses to the gay plaintiffs seeking them, therefore denying them their constitutional rights, the suit states.
• “The history of the United States has been defined by the ability of each succeeding generation to recognize that social, economic,political, religious, and historical norms do not define our unalienable rights. As adopted in 1789, the Constitution of the United States permitted slavery, and allowed states to deny the majority of our adult citizens the right to vote, to criminalize inter-racial marriage, and to criminalize private consensual intimacy. But in time, the American ideal of equality and liberty demanded that our government move past cultural and majority oppressions, however long-standing, in order to secure and fulfill the individual rights of all citizens.”
• “Marriage plays a unique role in our society as the celebration and hallmark of a couple’s commitment to build family life together. It confers dignity, status, rights, and responsibilities. Plaintiffs have formed or want to form enduring bonds worthy of the respect that the State affords to different-sex couples through marriage. Yet the State has deprived lesbian and gay Georgians of the right to marry their chosen partners and declines to recognize lawful marriages entered in other jurisdictions based on sexual orientation and sex.'”
• “Same-sex couples seek to marry for the same emotional and romantic reasons and the same reasons of dignity asdifferent-sex spouses. They desire to declare their love and commitment before their families, friends, and community, and to obtain the status, security, protections, and responsibilities of marriage.”
• “History teaches us that the vitality of marriage does not depend on maintaining discriminatory laws – and that eliminating unconstitutional restrictions on marriage has enhanced the institution.”
• “The marriage bans send a purposeful message that the State views lesbians and gay men and their children as second-class members of society who do not deserve the same legal sanction, legal protection, respect, support, responsibilities, and obligations as different-sex spouses and their families.”
• “The inequities imposed on committed same-sex couples include harms specific to their children, who are equally deserving of the stability, permanence, and legitimacy enjoyed by children of different-sex spouses.”
• “The government is a powerful teacher of discrimination. By decreeing that same-sex relationships should be ignored in Georgia and enforcing that decree, the State and Defendants instruct all persons who interact with same-sex couples, including those couples’ own children, that their relationships are less worthy than others. Bearing the imprimatur of the government, the State’s marriage bans and Defendants’ enforcement of them communicate a view that same-sex couples and their children are unfit for the dignity, respect, and stature afforded to different-sex couples and their children. This encourages others in workplaces, schools, businesses, and other arenas of life to follow the government’s example in discriminating against same-sex couples – and, in turn, lesbians and gay men.”
• “Neither history nor tradition can justify the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Marriage has remained vital and enduring because of its resilience in response to a dynamic society, as society and the courts have cast off restrictions on, for example, interracial marriage and coverture.”
• “There is no valid basis for the State to assert a preference for parenting by different-sex couples over same-sex couples. Based on more than 30 years of research, the scientific community has reached a consensus that children raised by same-sex couples are as well-adjusted as children raised by different-sex couples. This consensus has been recognized by every major professional organization dedicated to children’s health and welfare, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Child Welfare League of America.”
• “Denying same-sex couples the dignity and status of marriage humiliates the children raised by those couples, and makes it more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own families and its concord with other families in their community.”
• “The proposed Plaintiff Class consists of:
a. All Georgia residents who are unmarried same-sex couples; and
b. All Georgia residents who have lawfully married a same-sex spouse in another jurisdiction.”
• “Sexual orientation is a core, defining trait that is so fundamental to one’s identity and conscience that a person may not legitimately be required to abandon it (even if that were possible) as a condition of equal treatment.”
“Upon information and belief, there are thousands of Georgia residents in same-sex couples who would marry if Georgia law permitted them to do so or who lawfully married same-sex spouses in other jurisdictions or would do so if Georgia recognized those marriages. The State’s marriage bans, and Defendants’ enforcement of them, prevent those couples from marrying or having their lawful marriage in another jurisdiction recognized by the State,” the suit states.
The suit also questions whether Georgia’s marriage bans “violate federal substantive due process guarantees, including the fundamental right to marry, and liberty interests.”