Oklahomans of the Year

1086

Sharon and Mary Bishop-Baldwin

Sharon Bishop-Baldwin says it was a shared love of grammar that united her and her wife, Mary Bishop-Baldwin. The two met as employees in the Tulsa World newsroom in 1995.

“It was one of those crazy things,” recalls Sharon. “Mary started in June [1995], and I was on vacation. Everybody kept telling, her ‘You’re going to love Sharon.’ It didn’t even occur to me that she was a lesbian, but as our friendship developed and grew, there was more than friendship there.”

By 1999, the couple was living together and beginning to think about the future.

“We intended it [the relationship] to be permanent,” says Mary. “Three-and-a-half years into it, we knew it was going to last, so we wanted to mark that with a commitment ceremony.”

The ceremony was also their way of declaring that permanency, Sharon adds.

“It was all that was available to us at the time,” she says.

Photo by Dan Morgan.
Photo by Dan Morgan.

In 2003, they were approached about becoming plaintiffs in a case that would challenge the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states. Around the time they joined the class-action suit to have DOMA struck down, Sharon recalls, President George W. Bush called for a federal ban on same-sex marriage to be written into the constitution.

“It was a direct fire on the LGBT community,” says Sharon.

Massachusetts’ referendum allowing same-sex marriage passed in May 2004. But when Oklahoma lawmakers put same-sex marriage to a vote of the people on Nov. 2, 2004, 76 percent of voting Oklahomans approved a ban.

“We knew it was going to pass, so we told the lawyers, ‘Let’s get this lawsuit ready to go the day after the election,” says Sharon.

The couple was eventually tossed out of the class-action suit after a federal judge ruled they were not harmed by DOMA because they did not have a marriage. In Sharon’s words: “Basically, we were suing the wrong people.”

When Norman attorney Don Holladay came onto the case in 2009, he filed an amended complaint on behalf of Mary and Sharon and two co-plaintiffs, this time against the Tulsa County court clerk for refusing to allow the couple to file for a marriage license. On Jan. 14, 2014, U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern ruled that Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. After nearly a decade, Sharon and Mary had their ruling.

That summer, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Kern’s ruling, and in October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal. The stay put in place by Kern was lifted, and on Oct. 6, Sharon and Mary finally were married on the steps of the Tulsa County Courthouse.

“It’s taken forever, but it happened all at once,” Sharon says of the ruling.

The couple has received much gratitude from people in Oklahoma, both gay and straight, but Sharon and Mary did not receive the one thing they expected – a ton of hate mail.

“In 10 years, we’ve had two pieces of hate mail,” Sharon says. “No phone calls. No threats. Oklahoma is not this horrible, depressing, stuck-in-the-1950s place that it is often made out to be. We’re not experiencing backlash. If people are against us, they’re not telling us. Oklahomans are nicer than that. We know there are people who don’t agree with this decision, that [believe] the courts are overstepping their authority. I can respect that discourse as long as it is civil, and it has been.”

Since winning the suit, the couple has received a personal letter from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They also attended a holiday party at the home of Vice President Joe Biden.

“Those are awesome, but we are the figureheads of this case,” says Sharon. “It’s been important to us to say, ‘We know we couldn’t have done it without the love and support of the thousands of people that have our backs, that congratulate us and support us.’ These people are our best friends, and some we don’t know at all, but we couldn’t do it without them.”

By Jami Mattox