With a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality looming, Kimberly Kidwell and Katie Short decided to tie the knot on Saturday, June 22nd, in a very visible way: across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church, on the front lawn of the rainbow-painted Equality House.
The wedding wasn't legal in Kansas, or in their home state Arkansas, but the couple treated the high-profile event as their official ceremony anyway. Their wedding illuminates a tension in our current cultural climate: Can a same-sex wedding ever not be a political act? Plenty of queer couples just want to get married. But in places like the Bible Belt, LGBT folks often feel an obligation to use their wedding as a platform to change discriminatory politics.
Short, for instance, wasn't particularly hyped on the idea of a rainbow-house wedding. "I was super nervous about the media part of it," said Short. As a 27-year-old therapist who grew up in a small suburb of Little Rock, Short "just wanted to have a real wedding."
"I didn't understand the purpose of having it there. I was afraid of Westboro—that it wasn't going to be beautiful for us," she said, before the ceremony.
But when the couple saw an announcement that Equality House was looking to host a wedding as a way to bring attention to the upcoming Supreme Court rulings and to raise money for its anti-bullying initiatives, Short came around to her girlfriend Kidwell's argument that using their wedding at such a transitional time was crucial.
"If we don't stand up for our rights, who will?" said Short.
Upon arriving in Topeka Friday afternoon, about 24 hours until their very public wedding, brides-to-be Kidwell and Short only met the lesbian Baptist preacher who would be saying their vows a day before the wedding.
With the clock ticking, the details flew as Preacher Robin Lunn methodically drew out the couple's histories, eyeing their chemistry for insights to write into the homily. A practical question arose about what to pronounce the brides.
"Wife?" said Kidwell.
"Some prefer 'partners,' 'partners for life,' 'wife and wife,' " said Lunn.
"Wives for lives!" quipped a host, Equality House's outreach director and former Exodus International disciple Amelia Markham.
The room dissolved into laughter. The couple decided on wife and wife.
The timely wedding made national news over the weekend, but less known is the couple's backstory and what it was like for both to grow up queer in the south.
Kidwell, a 31-year-old certified firefighter about to begin paramedic training, grew up in Plano, Texas, and was expelled from high school after lashing out at a boy who regularly called her "dyke." One day, "Kim picked up a trashcan and whoop! Threw it right at him," Kidwell's twin sister Kris said during the wedding reception. The boy received no punishment, she continued. After her expulsion, Kidwell resolved to be a mentor to other teens who were struggling with their sexual identities.
Short's youth in Arkansas wasn't as openly turbulent. "I had a great childhood," she said, about spending summers at the lake house and playing in the school band. Even so, her private religious school was hardly progressive. "I grew up believing and thinking it was not OK to be gay," she said. "Whatever thoughts I had, I just ignored them… One of the students in my 10th grade class was pretty out, and when he officially came out he ended up getting kicked out of our school. They said it was for something else, but everybody knew."
These days as a psychologist, Short has decided to minimize the chances of that ever happening to anyone else. She helped establish a gay-straight alliance at a high school in her hometown of Sherwood, where one of the bigger issues she faces with teens, especially those who identify as LGBT, is bullying. "It's bad," she said. "I hear the kids saying 'faggot' all the time." When several students approached her last year to start a GSA, she agreed to help and recruited a few teachers. The principal signed off on it this year.
Short's family wasn't thrilled about the high-profile wedding at Equality House, either—like her, they were nervous about making a sacred ceremony into a spectacle, and especially worried about the hateful neighbors; relatives even offered to pay for their wedding someplace -- anyplace -- else. The ceremony went well, notwithstanding a few inflammatory signs hung out by Westboro parishioners, which hardly anyone noticed.
In fact, the crowd that gathered throughout the day spent more time mingling casually more than vocalizing concern about the neighbors. A pair of girls mocked one of the WBC's signs by mimicking its pose for a picture, and some other attendees held signs saying "God bless Katie and Kim." Other than that, the hate group was really an afterthought. One woman came by and put a $20 bill in Equality House founder Aaron Jackson's hand. "It's for the wedding," she said before running back to her car.
The buzz ebbed, though, when the pony-tailed harpist (also known as "Chiron the Bard") began to strum his strings, signaling the beginning of the procession. Nieces, nephews, friends, and family walked through a yard of spectators and local camera crews and then down an aisle of chairs festooned with colorful flags, flowers, and rose petals. Cars driving by honked their horns in solidarity.
The procession was a sparse bunch -- family members reportedly balked at the prospect of violence from the WBC and decided not to come.
So when the wedding started, only two rows were filled. But in an especially touching gesture – in a ceremony already brimming with moving moments -- Kidwell's friend stood up and waved all the public supporters to join the celebration. Like wallflowers flooding a dance floor, strangers filled the empty seats within seconds. One lesbian couple, as the ceremony progressed, inched their chairs closer together. They wrapped their arms around each other, and eventually started sobbing, quietly touching forehead to forehead.
The festivities finally wound down around 1 a.m. The brides moved down to the basement to collect their things and go back to the hotel. I asked Kidwell about an earlier moment in front of a camera. It was the only time I had seen her get visibly emotional during the weekend.
"The camera man asked me if there was anything I wanted to tell Topeka," she said.
She told him, "I just want to let the world know that our love is real and should be recognized."
Watch a video of the ceremony:
Photo credit: Megan Rogers.