In late January, a federal judge struck down Alabama’s ban on gay marriage, making the southern state the 37th in the nation to recognize same-sex unions. Yet studies indicate that just a third of Alabamians favor the idea and state authorities have defied the ruling at every turn, refusing to perform marriages in dozens of counties. Fusion traveled to Alabama to document the stories of three gay families who have been left in limbo.
Jacob Callahan and Shaun Gibbs
Matthew, 4, is running circles around the kitchen, dodging dad Shaun, who’s making chili for dinner. It’s unseasonably cold in Birmingham and the towheaded half-pint has been cooped up at preschool all day.
The scene is ordinary. But Matthew and his parents have been thrust into the center of a debate in Alabama about what it means to be a family.
That’s because Matthew’s parents—Shaun Gibbs and Jacob Callahan—are gay.
A federal judge recently ended the state’s ban on gay marriage, but opponents aren’t going down without a fight. The state’s Supreme Court has defied the order and probate judges in courthouses around Alabama have refused to perform gay marriages.
Yet Jacob, who goes by Jake, and Shaun have been together longer and weathered more than many straight couples.
Shaun, now 35 and working in property management, and Jake, now 26 and a makeup artist, have been together nine years. Seven years into the relationship in late July 2013, Jake’s sister and Matthew’s mother, Kim, passed away, upending their world.
Matthew came to live with them and weeks that had been full of dinners out morphed into preschool runs.
“I could be in the worst mood ever and he could look at me and he’ll squeal…I just love it,” Jake said.
Jake, left, and Shaun, with Matthew. Courtesy of Jacob Callahan
The fact that he has two dads doesn’t phase Matthew, whose mother remains a frequent topic of discussion.
“I think for the most part he understands,” Jake said, “and I don’t think he thinks any different about [it]. And I think that’s what’s so amazing about children is they’re just like, ‘Oh, okay.’ That’s it. There’s no judgment, there’s no second thought to it.”
The pair plan on marrying but aren’t in a rush to be among the first couples down the aisle.
While they say they haven’t faced much discrimination in Birmingham, getting married would allow them to officially adopt Matthew, and, as Shaun put it, “be recognized as a family.”
Of gay couples like them marrying, Jake said, “I think people will realize it has no effect on them…and so I think people in a few years will think, ‘Why did we make such a big deal?'”
Courtney Cannon and Morgan Plunkett
Eighty-five miles south of Jake and Shaun’s upscale neighborhood sits Prattville, the seat of Autauga County.
In a modest house off a country road, Courtney Cannon, 22, and Morgan Plunkett, 19, are struggling. Morgan lost her job at Walmart and they’ve moved in with Courtney’s dad. Yet they are basking in their own kind of newlywed bliss.
Just days after gay couples gained the right to marry in Alabama, the two tied the knot in Montgomery, 15 miles to the southeast. The probate judge in Autauga County “blew up,” Courtney said, at the idea of their marriage.
“If I want to hold her hand, I’ll hold her hand. If I want to give her a kiss, I’ll give her a kiss,” Courtney said. “People, they stare, they whisper, we turn heads a lot. So around here, they’re not very wild about it.”
“Somebody told me that I was too pretty to be gay,” Morgan added.
The couple have been together three and a half years and their relationship has cost them most of their high school friends and some family members.
Growing up, Courtney dated guys because it’s what she thought she was supposed to do. A month after high school graduation, she got pregnant and gave birth to Brooklyn, who will turn four in March.
“Nothing was there,” she said. “So I knew something wasn’t right, and then as soon as I met [Morgan], everything was there. So that’s when I figured it out.”
Morgan, left, with Courtney. Fusion/Geneva Sands
Courtney supports the family as an aide at a facility for the elderly, whose residents spurned her when they found out she had married another woman.
“I think moving out of state or something like that would be easier,” Courtney said, “but I don’t think I should have to. I think I should be in the state I was born and raised and still be myself. And that’s what I plan to do.”
The couple left Brooklyn home on their wedding day because they didn’t want to expose her to potential protests. After the ceremony, they took her to dinner.
“We told her that me and Morgan got married,” Courtney recalled. “And I asked her if she knew what being married was, and she said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘It’s when two people love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together.’ She said, ‘Well, I’m married, too.’ We said, ‘Who’re you married to?’ She said, ‘You.’ So I thought it was very sweet…Then she said she was married to Morgan, too. I told her we’re just all married together.”
Tori Wolfe-Sisson and Shanté Wolfe-Sisson
Shanté Wolfe was not ready to become vegetarian. But she’d promised her partner, Tori Sisson, that when gay marriage was legal in Alabama, she’d stop eating meat.
“I didn’t expect it to be this soon,” Shanté said, as the pair cooked an apple tart for breakfast recently at their apartment in Tuskegee.
The women recently became the first gay couple to marry in Montgomery, but their path to matrimony has not been easy. Shanté, 21, and Tori, 24, grew up in deeply religious families that have largely shunned them.
Shanté came out to her mom on Christmas Eve at 14.
“She took me out to the garage,” Shanté recalled, “and she made me say I wasn’t gay anymore and with Jesus. I did it, but I didn’t know what was supposed to happen, or if I was supposed to be struck by lightning or what.”
Tori’s mother was terminally ill and fading fast. As the two watched a movie on television at her mother’s nursing home one day, she blurted out, “Mom, I like girls.”
It seemed to go well, but then the phone calls started to roll in from relatives.
“Your mom said that one of your uncles raped you and now you’re a lesbian,” a cousin said.
Tori, who says she has never been sexually assaulted, was shocked.
Tori, front, with Shanté. Courtesy of Tori Sisson
Now the two, who began dating a couple of years ago after a round-about introduction by Shanté’s sister, are “a little island,” Tori said.
They’ve settled in Tuskegee, a rundown dot of a town east of Montgomery. Its jewel and Tori’s alma mater—Tuskegee University—was a mecca during the 1960s for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., but its halls are quieter these days.
Tori, the field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign in Alabama, and Shanté, a comic book artist, want to help revitalize the area, which they say is plagued by poverty, corruption, and divisions between the university and lifelong residents.
As far as gay marriage, “there’s a lot to be done in the black community,” Tori said. “I think if people knew, that regardless of your religion, if I’m gay or not, and you think it’s a sin—I can still get fired and that’s not okay. I can go to the hospital and not get treated and that’s not okay. Regardless of your religious beliefs—I’m still human and it’s not fair.”
Tori lost a job, she said, for refusing to agree with her boss’ belief that gay men were the reason HIV/AIDS exists in the black community. A hospital stopped Shanté’s treatment following a car accident, the couple said, when she told them she was with a woman.
The fact that they are African-American lesbians has added a layer of discrimination, although both women agree that both racism and homophobia are more nuanced than they used to be.
And yet they are hopeful for the future. The couple, who currently live in a modest apartment with their cat Whammy, plan to buy a house with a yard. Shanté has promised Tori a cow for her 30th birthday.
“To watch her as my wife and also watch her as a fellow activist,” Shanté said, “I guess it’s one of the luckiest things to do in the world.”
Kevin Joyce contributed to this report. Mitchell Williams produced for AMERICA with Jorge Ramos.