Less than a mile from the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk’s office, where Kim Davis had made her last stand against gay marriage, my partner and I picked out wedding cupcakes at Artsy Tartsy, a bakery that also happens to sell home decor and children’s dresses. On the table in front of us, still in its protective brown envelope, was our official Kentucky marriage license, issued 40 minutes earlier. The long sheet of paper had our names on it, with blanks for the necessary signatures: us, an officiant, two witnesses. Where the county clerk’s name would have gone, it just said “Rowan County.”
My brother was taking pictures. “You should be happy,” he told us. “You look shell-shocked.”
Getting married in Kentucky, in a town swarming with bused-in anti-gay activists, had not been our first wedding plan. Allen and I had been together for seven years, and we’d gotten engaged a month ago after talking about eloping for a while. We’d discussed going to Las Vegas or Hawaii, maybe New York.
But then Davis began her campaign to push back against the Supreme Court’s marriage-equality decision. Her hatred, and her refusal to do her job as a result of it, gripped me. Born in Moldova and raised by Russian parents, I’m no stranger to homophobia, but I’ve lived in San Francisco for 24 years now—long enough that Davis, her office, and the entire county of Rowan (“it’s actually pronounced ra-vahn,” a local told me) seemed astonishing, impossible, a fantasy of backwardness become real.
The idea to go to Morehead and get married came to me in the middle of the night. Movements that start in liberal centers spill outwards, and conversely, what affects Kentucky affects us all. Davis had made her stand as a symbol of the homophobia that had permeated my past and the conservative dreams of retrenchment that threaten the future. Writing about her seemed pale in comparison to what her supporters were doing: descending in #KimWins shirts like prejudicial locusts, making a show of praying and crying outside the courthouse.
If Davis wanted to stop gay marriage in Rowan County, the thing to do was to start gay marriage there. Now here we were, with cupcakes and a videographer. Two hours from now, Davis would be released from jail, into a rally full of guns and Bibles. We would be there, too, and tomorrow we would be legally wed. Thinking of the movies, I picked up my cupcake and smashed it into Allen’s face. He retaliated, accidentally overturning our entire table just as a woman walked in with her toddler.
“Great,” I said. “How is she supposed to explain this to her child?”
“Welcome to Rowan County, a work in progress,” a sign had proclaimed as we drove into Morehead the day before, on a sunny afternoon that felt too hot for early September. Allen and I were in the car with my brother Yev, who’d come to be my best man. “It’s so beautiful,” we kept saying, as Disney-esque scenery streamed by the windows. Then a barn painted over with an enormous Confederate flag silenced us. But it got better, and soon afterwards we saw a Cracker Barrel. We joked that celiac-plagued Yev would have to go on a Morehead diet. Then, driving through town to our hotel, we saw a restaurant boldly announcing itself as GLUTEN-FREE.
It was the first of many times we would find our own prejudices contradicted. Morehead, to put it plainly, is not full of Kim Davises. Every local I spoke to said that the way their town’s been portrayed on television has been frustrating and embarrassing. “We’re not like that,” they said, over and over.
“This is just such a great place to live,” a Buffalo Wild Wings waitress told me, after telling me about the “Dancing Bear” cocktail, which I was only legally allowed two of. “We don’t hate gay people.” When I asked a woman named Autumn about the controversy, she said, “Bring back the baby pictures on Facebook. All I see is this Kim Davis stuff, and I want to see puppies.” She, like everyone else, just wants the town to go back to normal.
What is normal, exactly, for Morehead? Minutes away from Kim Davis’s desk is Morehead State University (MSU), a gay-friendly school according to the Pride Index, and although there’s no visible gay scene in town—no gay bars, no bookshop promising the latest in LAMBDA-approved literature—there was very little opposition and much celebration when people realized that Allen and I were in town to get hitched.
“Y’all got married?” a university student named Cassidy shouted when she overheard us discussing our plans at a cafe/bookstore called The Fuzzy Duck, where we’d stopped to have lunch after the cupcakes. “Oh my god, congratulations!” Without waiting for a response, she got up from her table and hugged each of us, including my brother and Allen’s best friend Darcie. “I love weddings,” she said. “Did you just do it today?”
We hadn’t, not yet. Getting the license itself had been simple enough to be anticlimactic: We went down to the clerk’s office as soon as it opened on Tuesday morning. Davis had been in jail for six days, and the area was empty. Two women who stood in the hot sun and wept while they prayed were the only reminders that anything controversial had ever happened in this building. Inside, the clerk’s office had no line. Deputy County Clerk Brian Mason was issuing marriage licenses to all who legally qualified.
Mason, looking exhausted, gave us our license with no hassle. He told me he didn’t know when Davis would return to work. Neither he nor “Missy” Thompson, who sits next to Davis, would be attending the rally that was happening that afternoon, 50 miles away in Grayson, where she was jailed. The only excitement occurred when an elderly woman walked in to update a record. Hunched over a metal cane, she looked around the office and told everyone in earshot that they should thank Jesus that no one had been shot in the past few weeks.
It was the wedding itself that was proving to be a problem. We’d thought it could be a one-stop process—straight from the clerk’s office to the county judge. But when we walked in, license in hand, the judge, a ponytailed former dentist named Walter “Doc” Blevins, said he wasn’t performing marriages anymore, hadn’t been for three months. “I just don’t have the time,” he said.
Doc Blevins proceeded to talk to us for 10 minutes, quietly expressing frustration that he’d been named in a complaint along with Davis. Rowan County had suffered a flood this year and Doc was annoyed that the culture war was what was putting Morehead on the map. “FEMA is still in town,” Doc said. “You should really talk to them.”
We would have to find our own officiant somewhere. In the meantime, we left the courthouse and took celebratory pictures at MSU, trying to look in love in the unbearable heat, openly anxious about our plans to drive to the rally in Grayson.
A woman passed by, wearing a rainbow shirt and a rainbow hair band, holding a half-finished poster that let everyone know that she had been “born this gay.” She was the first person I’d seen in full pride regalia. Despite Morehead’s relative liberalism, exemplified by its 2013 anti-discrimination ordinance, the support for Davis in town had been far more visible than the pushback.
“Are you going to the rally?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. A group of her friends were going, she said, to support the LGBT community and to send the message that what Davis was doing was not okay. “They had to close the high school in Grayson on Thursday,” she said. “One of her supporters called, supposedly, and said there was a bomb, all because Davis went to jail. They even had to cancel the football game the next night. And that’s sad, you know? Football is the only thing they’ve got.”
“Is Morehead better?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she responded. “I tell all my friends who are gay that they just need to get out of high school and Carter County. Just get here, I tell them,” she said seriously.
“Gay-friendly” in Kentucky has to be understood on a sliding scale. A woman named Liz told me she was afraid to protest or give me her last name because she didn’t know what Davis’s supporters might do to her. “I don’t want anyone to come to my job and spit at me for what I’ve said.” She explained the “mind your business” mantra that governed Morehead ethics: help someone out if they’re broken down on the side of the road, maybe, but otherwise keep to yourself.
Liz told me that two of her best friends are gay and had had to go to another county to be married. “I feel bad for them because they live in this town. They pay these taxes,” Liz said. “People know them by name. People greet them and are happy to see them when they come by. And still they have to go somewhere else to get married. They really didn’t make a celebration out of it.”
I asked her how they might feel knowing that she doesn’t feel safe standing up for them. I didn’t mean it harshly, but Liz began to cry.
“It’s not that I want to stand anonymous,” she said, “but I don’t have anything to fall back on. My job is the only job that I can get in Morehead. My friends know that. They told me, ‘You have to do what you have to do. So don’t worry about us.’ I’ve cried a lot about that and I’m not very religious, but I do actually pray about it sometimes. I may not want to put my face out there, but if something was ever to lay harm on them I would be the first person to stand in the way and take it for them.”
But then maybe Liz would get fired from her customer service position, and then what would be on the dinner table? She had to mind her business, a mandate that kept her safe and crippled her. The citizens of Morehead had, by all accounts, reached an uncomfortable gay-rights detente—a variation on “don’t ask, don’t tell”—but Kim Davis was making it difficult to continue that tradition. Some locals even worried that gays would soon overrun the town. And while not everyone agreed with Davis’s stance, lodging even a whisper of a complaint could cost them more than they had.
“It’s ridiculous what they’re doing to Christians in this country,” an elderly woman yelled at the cashier in a Grayson drugstore. She wore a glittery red shirt with a puppy on it and, like us, was purchasing supplies for the rally in honor of Kim Davis. It was strange to hear an opinion I’d previously only seen on TV in real life. More than strange—it made goosebumps stand at attention on my arms.
On the car ride over from Morehead, where Davis lives, to Grayson, where she had been jailed and where her rally would be held, Allen and I had steeled ourselves for the possibility that going to the town 50 miles away, might feel like going 50 years back in time. Marge, the proprietor of The Fuzzy Duck, had told us to be safe several times, because, she said, people were “on edge over there.”
We heard the warning, but we weren’t prepared for the guns on display—Yev pointed out a Davis supporter who toted two—or the fact that Confederate flags were on special at the mini-mart (situated near a video store-cum-tanning parlor), or the truck balancing out a “baby on board” sticker with another that read “SAY NO TO THE HOMO.” Even the scarecrow display in the drug store took on a menacing air, their grinning pumpkin heads warning us to get the hell out of there before someone got hurt. “Let’s all just try to butch it up,” Yev told us while we waited to buy our water. “Mark, you should just try not to speak.”
Walking into the rally, we looked for rainbows, but in terms of gay rights supporters, there was us, and just one lone woman standing on the side of the road. “You wouldn’t deny a man a meal,” her sign read, black ink on red posterboard. “Why would you deny him love?” Beside her was a baby sleeping in her stroller. Across the street, a man dressed as Joe Dirt held up a sign reading “Love’s a garden. Dig it.”
“Is this what Grayson is like?” I asked the woman with the stroller. “Or are these people all from out of town?”
“This is it,” she said. “There’s no such thing as tolerance here.”
“So these people all live here?” I asked, remembering that Liz had claimed that most of the protestors were coming from elsewhere. We had just passed a bus full of true believers from Hamilton, Ohio, and one woman waiting for the room marked “fillies” at the gas station had told new friends that she’d come from all the way from Florida.
“Most of them are local,” she responded, clarifying that by local she meant Grayson, not Morehead. “This is just what they’re like.”
In Morehead, it felt like the locals would at least be kind to you even if they disagreed with your beliefs or your sexual orientation; in Grayson, it felt like tolerance meant not being shot at. It was the first time I felt truly in danger, but when I moved to touch Allen’s arm for reassurance, he pulled away. He, too, was scared of what would happen if the people carrying signs comparing America to Sodom—some oddly plastered with collages of men kissing in various states of undress—saw two men holding hands.
As we pushed further and further into the crowd gathering outside the jail, the heat thickened unbearably and my shirt became soaked through for the third time that day. There was a medic tent; a man was handing out free waters and small bags of ice to anyone who wanted them, and a riot hose was set up near a fire truck, just in case the proceedings got too rowdy. I felt the taste of metal in my mouth, the first sign of a panic attack. But the policemen wandering around looked bored, and most other people looked delighted to be there. It was an older crowd, evenly split between men and women, with the occasional grandchild underfoot; several men, standing up on chairs, waved their Bibles like lighters at a show.
Snatches of Kim Davis apocrypha traveled through the crowd. The clerk’s actions had already become mythology. “You know what one of them deputies did?” asked a man in his sixties, wearing a pink shirt and a baseball cap, standing on a folding chair. “When he was bringing her into jail, he stopped and turned to his commander, and he asked, ‘Am I off duty?’ And do you know what he did when his commander told him he was? He put down his badge and gun and he went over to Kim and he gave her a big ol’ hug. And he said, ‘Thank you.’”
The woman next to him, in a fuchsia short-sleeved top and tight capris she couldn’t stop pulling at, nodded. “You know that’s right,” she said, clapping her hands in support. Throughout the rally, she alternated between staring out into the distance and shaking her head, and then snapping herself back to attention for a few moments with a loud “Amen.” A few moments into the show, when the sound cut out on Mike Huckabee’s microphone, she blamed Satan for it, but half-heartedly.
The rally, for all its predictability, nonetheless came as a series of shocks. Davis’s lawyer, Huckabee, and a parade of Baptist preachers took the stage, summarizing the history of the United States, marriage, and the Supreme Court with minimal historical accuracy. One speaker suggested that Davis replace all other American heroes on the covers of history books, and the people in the crowd buzzed with righteous indignation. Casey Davis, the other Kentucky clerk who didn’t want to do his job, asked the audience to take out any cash they had in their pockets. The people here today, he said, had the money to call a special session of the legislature even if the governor didn’t want it. This garnered a large round of applause. Other speakers claimed that Baptists had been tricked into slavery before, but they weren’t going to fall for something like it again. Another huge round of applause. The reference or the connection to Kim Davis escaped me. But that didn’t seem to matter. The crowd was just responding to keywords—Jesus, praise be, amen.
With every lie that came out of the speakers’ mouths—that Davis had followed the law in front of her, that the meaning of marriage had never been changed before, that the rally wasn’t about hate but about love for God and country—the crowd grew louder, more ready for action. Mike Huckabee pounded his chest and screamed that if anyone were to go to jail, it should be him. He would take Davis’s place, he shouted, if judges wanted to put someone behind bars for following their Lord. He would spend all eight years of his presidency behind bars if he had to. That’s just how much not being an oppressed Christian meant to him.
“You go to jail, Mike,” I screamed at him, allowing my rage to overtake me for the first time. The only other moment that I lost it was when a woman driving by after the rally stopped to ask me if I’d seen Kim. “Unfortunately,” I told her, before catching myself. “But she did real good.”
I couldn’t help thinking that maybe Davis had just let everything get away from her. In seventh grade, I’d faked a concussion because I didn’t want to go to piano lessons. I’d told my parents someone had pushed me down the stairs at school and then I spent three weeks at home because I couldn’t muster up the courage to tell them I’d lied. Was the same thing happening to Davis, just on a much grander scale?
Her attorney Mat Staver was moving the goalposts. Their demand that Davis’s name not be on any marriage licenses issued while she was in jail had been granted, and now they were demanding that any licenses without Davis’s name on it be invalid altogether. It seemed clear that Staver would fight for the licenses to be overturned, that Staver wouldn’t stop until the end. Was Davis just too scared to stop now or did she truly believe what she and the people claiming to speak on her behalf were spewing? And which was worse?
As we waited for Davis to be released, the speakers at the rally reminded us that thousands were watching, millions. I wondered if she felt like she was in control. I wondered what it would be like for her back in town, where she would forever be known as the woman who put Morehead on the map for bigotry, for breaking the unspoken vow of not meddling in the business of others, not making a scene.
Then she walked out on stage, a twisted icon, as “Eye of the Tiger” blared. I knew she would be celebrated, but I wondered: Would she be forgiven?
In the past several weeks, Davis has been painted as both a hero and a conscientious objector. At a press conference she threw for herself before going to work on Monday, Davis refused the first title, but she doesn’t fit into the second category, either. Conscientious objectors have a singular goal; Kim Davis seems to take media attention as her only absolute priority. The fact that she’s been jailed seems to have been more of a deliberate choice to invoke martyrdom than a legal mandate, too: As MSU professor Bernadette Barton points out in a piece for Kentucky.com, incarceration was a choice Davis made after being given many alternatives. And, crucially, Davis isn’t being told she can’t practice her religion—she’s just been told that she has to continue doing her government job without forcing her beliefs onto others.
April Miller, one half of a couple suing Davis for her refusal to grant licenses, elaborated on the extent of Davis’s alternatives in court. “It was proposed during the hearing that she be purged of jail time if she would agree to not interfere. She did not agree to that. She refused to issue a license herself. She refused to allow her clerks to do it. She refused to not interfere. That’s when she was taken out.”
Miller added that the judge posed that question again to her lawyers, who said that they could not “represent to the court that Ms. Davis would allow licenses” to be issued. “It was pretty shocking to me that she didn’t take any of the options given to her,” Miller said.
And yet, it was hard to hate Kim Davis as she stood on her makeshift stage and wept. It was much easier to hate the calculated treachery of Mike Huckabee as he explained what marriage was and would always be. It was simple to hate the The Benham Brothers, C-list celebrity bigots who had had their HGTV show cancelled due to their anti-gay and anti-Muslim views. It was particularly easy to hate Mat Staver, whose organization Liberty Counsel has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and who had lied to the crowd within seconds of appearing on stage, telling them that the Supreme Court had imposed their views on the people while violating the Constitution. Davis, in contrast, looked so grateful for the attention, so pathetically overwhelmed by the support, that not feeling sorry for her was an impossibility.
I also knew that, at least according to locals, she really wasn’t all bad. Her mother had been an excellent clerk for decades; people voting for Davis had assumed she’d be more of the same. Several people told me that she had been a town fixture, not only respected but liked.
Tim Scowden, a gay resident of Morehead completing his graduate work in secondary education at MSU, had been on a first-name basis with Davis. He’d even written her a letter after her initial refusal to authorize marriage licenses, telling her how much she reminded him of his mother, a woman who had been so devoted to her religion that she wouldn’t spend time with Scowden or his partner before she’d died because she was afraid of how God would react. Morehead’s veneer of politeness did not extend to family members who “transgressed,” necessarily, and that’s one of the reasons that Scowden believes Davis was elected. “She’s common,” he said, “and I don’t mean that in a negative way.”
Scowden didn’t believe that this was all a ploy for attention, or for the inevitable book deal or Duck Dynasty-style endorsement. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this 10 years ago, but I think I’m able to separate the personal from the political,” he said. “The Kim that I have gotten to know is genuinely nice. I never heard her say anything or saw her do anything that I thought was untoward. But she’s wrong, and it bothers me that she’s doing this, after all the gay community has fought for.”
“Will you say anything to her if you see her back at work?” I asked.
“You know, I might,” Scowden said, even-tempered. “If it’s in front of other people I’ll be nice. I’ll be friendly. If it happens to be just me and her standing there, I will say something about how I’m really disappointed in what she did. I know she has her reasons, but it was wrong.”
Scowden loves Morehead, but he agreed that homophobia remains a latent problem. He doesn’t hide his sexuality, but “doesn’t advertise it either.” Our interview, he said, would be the first time that he’d really be coming out to the town. Like Liz, who had been worried about losing her job, Scowden is a little concerned how people might take it. He’s working towards being a teacher and he wondered whether it would be difficult to be hired as an openly gay man in the county. He pointed to MSU’s liberalizing influence, as well as an inevitable disconnect between the town and the university.
I sat down with members of the school’s LGBT+ organization, Allyance, who said that coming out has caused problems for them. A member named David said that he’d just had to move because his roommate’s parents had found out he was gay and demanded that he go. Becca, an out lesbian, said that it’s hard to feel like homosexuality and being religious are mutually exclusive. “There’s so many of us that are on that fence where we believe this one thing but every time you go to church you get preached hate, hate, hate, hate.”
“It’s funny,” David said, “because a lot of people who come out here don’t really just abandon their faith or whatever they grew up with. You’re out here protesting and such, and you’re not protesting against strangers.”
He added, “These are your neighbors. These are people you would go to church with. People you work with and see on an everyday basis that you’re looking at and they’re saying terrible things to you. It’s really hard to completely distance yourself. You’re at a very personal level with people that you’re trying hard to change.”
“I was born Catholic too,” said a member named Dylan, who’s been with Allyance for several semesters. “I like my faith. And it’s nice to see other people who are in my shoes, who also try to find a balance between their beliefs and their sexuality. It doesn’t have to be like, choose one or the other. You can join tradition with today’s age.”
Members of the group agreed that there’s still much work to be done. Allyance has a growing presence at the university and in town—the group meets weekly to plan events and offer each other resources and support. When a member needs to find housing, as in David’s case, Allyance helps. They explained their situation by saying that Morehead was gay-friendly with an asterisk.
“The university is gay-friendly for rural Kentucky,” David said. “For rural Kentucky, it’s great.”
He added, “But it’s a very small town.”
An hour after the rally, we were back at Morehead State, getting married. I’d called a few churches, looking for an officiant, but no one had picked up. Another possible officiant I’d called was away in Cincinnati. Finally our videographer, Hayley, went online and got ordained through The Universal Life Church. She downloaded a short ceremony text and married us in front of a bell tower that stands in the middle of campus. The word “LOVE” was emblazoned on one side of the structure; “JUSTICE” glinted on another. Allen and I posed for pictures as my brother directed, reminding us that we should look like we were happy to be there.
It was strange to be married so soon after a rally devoted to ripping the right out of our hands. But it felt exhilarating, even fun. Neither of us felt like we had been activists, but both of us felt like we had stood up for ourselves. We talked about how, now that Davis was out of jail, maybe more gay couples would come into town to get married, to celebrate in front of the courthouse until the sight of them was just as normal as the sight of prayer circles. And that night, in our hotel room, we fell asleep as soon as we got into bed, too exhausted to do anything but hold hands as we passed out.
The next morning, we detached the appropriate part of our marriage license to keep for our records. We went to return the rest of it to the clerk’s office and collect a marriage certificate in return. This time, the building was a hive of activity. Kim Davis hadn’t yet returned to work—six days in jail will tire anyone out—but reporters from every station were there, hoping to see someone either obtain a license or be turned away. Missy Thompson smiled at us as we came in and handed our paperwork to Brian Mason, who was still on license duty.
We were, it turned out, the very first same-sex couple to complete the marriage process in Rowan County after Davis’s hiatus. Cameras rushed us as we tried to hand the certificate over, questions raining down from every side.
Shaken, I asked Mason, “Is it true you’ll continue issuing marriage licenses even if Kim Davis tells you not to?”
“Yes,” he responded. Davis, however, has been ordered not to interfere with her deputy clerks’ duties, though the rally suggested she would; as of Wednesday, her third day back at work, her office is not denying licenses.
Mason had to come out from behind the counter to issue us our temporary certificate. A man in a brown shirt, wielding an iPhone, asked us if we felt we’d disrespected the couples that lived in Morehead. Perhaps, he suggested, our trip over was just as much a part of the media circus as Kim Davis’s busloads of followers. “Have you talked to any of the couples?” he asked. “How would they feel about you being here?”
I felt a flood of embarrassment and guilt. But, later—married, those feelings fading—I realized that there was a difference. No one had questioned Davis’s fans for showing up; they were almost expected. But we saw few people from out of town protesting what Davis was doing in Morehead. The poster-wielding grannies sang hymns while weeping for my soul and only moments after I was married, a man came up to me to let me that I would burn in the fires of hell. We were all there asserting what we believe in—but only one group was questioning the others’ legal rights.
April Miller, one of the women suing Davis, reassured me that she was glad for the company. “Bring it,” she said when I asked what she thought of gays and lesbians flying in from all over the country to get married in Morehead. “We have great florists, a wonderful bakery.”
“Does that take away from you, though?” I asked, realizing how silly I sounded—how much the reporter’s rhetoric had echoed anti-gay rhetoric. Gay marriage takes away from straight marriage, people said; would my out-of-town gay marriage take away from the more permanent battles to be fought there? Was it not our place to get married in Rowan County? Were we treading on the good work that the good, God-fearing, American homosexuals of Morehead and their allies had done?
“No one owns marriage,” Miller said. The other day, she told me, she’d seen two men she didn’t know celebrating their marriage license in front of the clerk’s office. “I had to jump out of my car,” she said. “I went over and I hugged them.”
Morehead may not seem like a traditional wedding destination. It doesn’t have the sophistication of New York, Paris’s charm, or the opulence of Las Vegas. But it does have Cave Run Lake and a really great Italian place the locals swear by. Most importantly, though, it’s legal to get married there. My hope is that more people who believe in civil rights fly down to exercise that right.
That’s not to say I hope there’s more disruption—Morehead’s not backwards, but it is quiet, and spectacles are not looked upon with approval. But coming in to infuse the local businesses with cash (something Miller pointed out would be appreciated) isn’t a bad idea. It’s a reminder, in fact, that civil rights are for everyone, despite their sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political leanings. Near the end of my visit, I started to feel almost warmly towards Kim Davis. If we’d never heard of her or agonized over the way she’d martyred herself in the media, we’d never have thought about coming to Morehead to get married.
Allen and I plan to return for our first anniversary. April Miller’s asked us to look her up. Maybe, she said, we could all go out for dinner.
All photos by Yev Shrayber. Video shot by Hayley Karl.