Oklahoma Women Become Brave for Marriage Equality - A Q&A with Sharon Bishop-Baldwin, author of Becoming Brave

March 2017 | Sharon Bishop-Baldwin

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“I like to think also that the “Finding Our Voice” part indicates that we’re not stopping here. Now that we’ve become brave and found our voice, there’s much work to be done.”

What was your inspiration for writing this book?
We never had the thought that the Oklahoma marriage-equality lawsuit was unique in the sense of being the only one, or even the first one, but as far as we know – and we’ve looked for contradictory evidence – it was the longest-running one. Part of that is because at the time my wife, Mary Bishop-Baldwin, and I filed our lawsuit, along with another lesbian couple, Sue Barton and Gay Phillips, a lot of the few LGBT activists who were fighting for marriage were fighting for legislative relief, not court relief. We always believed, though, that the courts were our only real hope, partly because Oklahoma’s Legislature has long been hostile to pretty much all marginalized communities but also because we know all too well that legislative victories can be taken away with the political winds. Court relief – especially Supreme Court relief – has staying power. It was exactly that staying power that we thought made our 10-year legal fight unique and interesting enough to write about.

This is my first book, and until mid-2013 or so, I never would have imagined that I would write a book. But we felt like we had a story to tell, and as career newspaper editors, Mary and I had seen a lot of good stories told poorly. We knew we could tell our story better than anyone, not only because of the mechanics of writing but because we lived it. And indeed, a large part of the story is about living for nearly 10 years with something as ominous-sounding as a federal civil rights lawsuit while still keeping up with the mundane life of cleaning the cats’ litter box and staying on top of the laundry.

Have you and your wife always been LGBT advocates?
Much like the nature versus nurture debate about homosexuality, I have long debated with myself about whether activists are born or made. And I think the answer is something like maybe 30 percent born and 70 percent made. Neither Mary nor I were raised to be activists, exactly.

Her home life was actually quite sheltered and conservative, and although mine was decidedly more liberal, the messages I received about doing what’s right and standing up for myself were still very person-focused. No one ever suggested I protest war or march for women’s rights. In fact, although we both had moments of speaking out on a variety of topics throughout our younger lives, I think it’s safe to say that the lawsuit made us activists, as opposed to us having filed the lawsuit because we were activists. So “Becoming Brave,” and the subtitle, “Winning Marriage Equality in Oklahoma and Finding Our Voice,” is about our greater awakening on a multitude of issues, not just same-sex marriage, and not even just LGBTQ issues, but social justice issues, issues of equality and compassion. I like to think also that the “Finding Our Voice” part indicates that we’re not stopping here. Now that we’ve become brave and found our voice, there’s much work to be done.

What was it like as older lesbians to be thrust into the limelight as LGBT advocates in Oklahoma?
Honestly, I think cosmic forces must have put us in the right place at the right time for this “mission.” As younger women, we lacked the confidence and self-assuredness that have been so important to us in especially these last few years of the lawsuit and immediately after marriage equality. I’m not sure that the younger me would have ever gotten a following, to begin with, and I don’t think she would have known what to do with it. But the 48-year-old me understands what we accomplished, even as I am uncomfortable with so many of the accolades. The older me also knows that the way forward is to use this limelight to rally the troops, especially the younger people, to continue the fight. Marriage equality never was the last lap; we have many laps to go. Although it seems baffling at times, what I know is that these two middle-age lesbians have the attention of the younger set, the young people who want to do something – anything – and just need direction and motivation. I can do that. I think I’m still on the front row and still carrying a flag. I might not be the person in the middle of the front row. That’s OK. I’m still vital, still contributing.

Another aspect of being older at this time of being in the spotlight is that I think a lot of middle-age and older straight Oklahomans found us acceptable and, fair or not, they might have resisted younger people. Again, right or wrong, much of society judges people on appearances. Although Mary and I never tried to “pass,” I think a lot of people looked at us and saw their friends, their neighbors, people they went to church with. That certainly had no bearing on the court victories, but I think we won some hearts and minds that way.

Have there been challenges you have experienced as such a public figure during the marriage equality movement?
One specific example has to do with when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to Tulsa in August 2014, right before the Supreme Court would be considering whether to take our case. Mary and I were invited to a private reception with the Justice, and as you can imagine, we desperately wanted to attend. But our lawyers cautioned us against it because Justice Sotomayor was as much of a shoo-in as exists for a vote to take our case. If she had met us and realized who we were – which was highly likely – she would have needed to recuse herself from that vote. One night of being in the presence of greatness could have scuttled our entire case. We had to consider the bigger cause and stay home. A lot of the challenges, although less specific, were similar in nature – recognizing that this case was bigger than us.

Sometimes we held our tongues because, as representatives of the LGBTQ community, diplomacy mattered. Sometimes we went to events we didn’t care strongly about because we knew we were there as representatives of a larger group. Even when we went joyfully – such as when we were invited to Vice President Joe Biden’s holiday party two months after we were married – we knew that we had a message to deliver on behalf of people beyond ourselves. I’m not a big fan of sports analogies, but it’s like being the ball carrier in a football game: Don’t think about personal glory; think about winning the game for the team.

What lessons do you hope people take from this book?
• You don’t have to be rich or powerful to change the world.
• There’s always work to do. Find your passion and roll up your sleeves.
• You don’t have to carry the flag to be a vital link in a movement. No ship sails with a captain alone.
• If you get a chance to carry the flag for a movement, always be humble. Few people will get that tremendous honor. To quote my co-plaintiff Sue Barton, quoting from the Book of Luke, “Of whom much is given, much is expected.” Similarly, keep your eyes open and remember everything. You’ll likely never pass this way again.

What words of wisdom do you have for older adults wanting to engage in LGBT advocacy?
You might be too old to march, but you’re never too old to speak or to listen. Young people need their elders, especially in the LGBTQ community, where their traditional elders might have been the people who kicked them out of the house. Make that connection. Find one young person or a group, and cultivate a relationship. Don’t expect them to listen to you if you can’t listen to them, too. Ask them about their worries and their problems. Then tell them about how those problems are similar to the ones you faced “back in the day.” All the youthful energy in the world is meaningless without the wisdom of age. We have to work together, the young, the old, and those of us somewhere in the middle.
And write or tell your story. If you can’t write, find someone with a recording device to record you telling your story. If you’re a bit younger and a bit more active, start a legacy project. Videotape all of the LGBTQ elders in your community telling their stories, or find a writer to interview them and write their stories. We know today that our history is priceless. Someday, the whole world will know. We have to preserve it.

Where can readers learn more about “Becoming Brave: Winning Marriage Equality in Oklahoma and Finding Our Voice”?

Stay updated on the book by liking its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BecomingBraveOklahoma/ . To contact Sharon directly about her work email: shmaryon@gmail.com