Rayshawn and Avery Chandler. (photo courtesy Lambda Legal)

Meet the lesbian Atlanta Police officers suing for the right to legally marry in Georgia

One Tuesday morning late last month, Rayshawn Chandler and her wife Avery Chandler pulled into the parking lot at the 730 Midtown building and began walking towards the entrance.

“Baby, you see the news trucks?” Rayshawn asked Avery.

Avery looked over, then back to Rayshawn. “Why would you say that?!” she asked, laughing, since Rayshawn was well aware that Avery was nervous.

They continued on into the building and the reason for Avery’s nerves—they were heading for the Southern Regional office of Lambda Legal, and about to step out of the shadows and in front of a horde of local and national press to be introduced to the world alongside their five fellow plaintiffs in Inniss v. Aderhold, the federal class-action lawsuit attempting to strike down Georgia’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban.

Avery recalls talking “a million miles a second” on the way to the press conference. “I was freaking out,” she says.

However, her wife balanced her out.

“I used that time to just think about the success of what’s going to happen,” Rayshawn says. “I’m really positive that things are going to come around for us.”

Rayshawn (left) and Avery (right) Chandler on their wedding day last year in Connecticut. (photo courtesy Lambda Legal)
Rayshawn (left) and Avery Chandler on their wedding day last year in Connecticut. (photo courtesy Lambda Legal)

Rayshawn, 29 and a Miami native, and Avery, 30 and an Atlanta native, are both officers with the Atlanta Police Department. Avery is also in the Army Reserves.

They met at the police academy in 2010 and occasionally worked out or went on runs together. It was strictly a colleague relationship until the following March, when they worked a few extra jobs together and began to talk and learn more about each other. And it was clear who was chasing whom.

“I thought I was going to have to go get a rope and tie her down,” Rayshawn says laughing. “Oh my God, she was running.”

Avery thought Rayshawn was straight and told her she “didn’t need another straight friend.”

“My gaydar was broken,” Avery says.

She finally picked up on Rayshawn’s intentions and ended up accepting an invitation to Rayshawn’s June graduation from the police academy.

“She surprised me and came and I just thought that it was the sweetest thing,” Rayshawn says. “She went out to dinner with my family and I after graduation and it was wonderful.”

They consider that graduation day, June 26, their anniversary and have been dating ever since. They moved in together the following October, then were married the following June in West Hartford, Connecticut, on their two-year anniversary.

The ceremony occurred in a rose garden in Elizabeth Park.

“It seemed like it blossomed just for us because we were told that prior to our wedding day, it had rained the entire week,” Rayshawn says. “The sky just opened up on our wedding day.”

Like many of the other plaintiffs involved in Inniss v. Aderhold, neither Rayshawn nor Avery, who call themselves “Team Chandler,” have any background in LGBT activism. They live a quiet life together in Jonesboro, getting together with friends and family for the occasional barbecue or bowling night. So how did they get from there to walking through Lambda Legal’s doors on April 22 and telling their story to the world?

The decision to join the suit didn’t come without concerns, with Rayshawn mentioning having their “life on a platter for everyone to look at and pick at and make their assumptions and put their opinions on,” and Avery was worried about “being vulnerable and exposed for everybody to look at.”

But the Chandlers want kids, and they were more concerned about moving forward with that plan without the legal protections afforded to straight families throughout Georgia than they were concerned about the intrusion a lawsuit would bring on their private lives.

“We want a family dynamic that’s fair and that receives the same respect that others get,” Rayshawn says. “That’s a pet peeve of mine. We don’t want to be tagged as ‘that lesbian couple.’ We’re just a couple. We just want to be normal.”

The perils of their jobs also factored into the decision, since their choice to protect the city of Atlanta (and in Avery’s case, the nation) increases the risk to their personal safety. Avery says that they want to ensure that “if anything were to happen to Ray or to me, we wouldn’t have to worry about having to fight anyone for our child,” she explains. “Or fight for the right to see my wife in the hospital.”

They’re in the planning phase of becoming parents and hope to take that step in the next year or so.

“This is a really important issue and it’s near and dear to my heart,” Avery continues. “And if it’s near and dear to your heart then you want to fight for it and make things right.”

The press conference ended up being an emotional scene, with several plaintiffs and even an attorney or two wiping away tears as each of the plaintiffs’ stories were told.

“To finally know the background of everybody and that we’re all fighting for the same mission, it meant so much,” Rayshawn says. “All of us have our own individual reasons for why [we’re joining the suit], so it was kind of like an ‘ah-ha’ moment. They all make sense. Look at that. They’re all valid reasons why this thing should be recognized.”

Following the press conference, and especially after segments on the lawsuit ran on the 12 o’clock news that day, came what Rayshawn called “shock and awe”—a barrage of phone calls, text messages and Facebook messages and friend requests from people far and wide trying to make a connection with this suddenly public couple.

Although well prepared for the attention the lawsuit would bring, the size of the initial onslaught still surprised them.

“The support was amazing,” Rayshawn says. “When we went into it, we didn’t look at how big it would be and how it would impact so many people. We were in a bubble. In our eyes we were just looking at our situation.”

Things have quieted down since then and gotten back to normal as Lambda Legal and the rest of the legal team await a response from the defendants in the lawsuit. The couple posts the occasional video to their YouTube channel, OurNormalLifeAtlanta, giving an update on their lives and fielding questions from viewers. They’ve also bonded with the other plaintiffs, meeting up for the occasional bite to eat and they’re planning a group outing soon.

“It’s like a little family,” Avery says.

If the lawsuit goes as they hope it to, Rayshawn, Avery and the rest of Georgia’s LGBT community will be able to rest easier knowing each of their little families will have the same rights and protections, no matter whom they love.

Visit Rayshawn and Avery Chandler’s YouTube channel OurNormalLifeAtlanta at www.youtube.com/channel/UCWKT-wBeguIu-qrGk2-c1GA

psaunders@thegavoice.com | @patricksaunders