NEW YORK -- This week, on a rainy day in a rural Tennessee county, Matt Griffin, Raymie Wolfe and a group of 50 or so supporters approached a classic Southern courthouse (white facade, ornate wooden portico, clock tower) and asked for a marriage license.
"The clerk was very respectful," said Wolfe, "but at the end of it, we were officially rejected, and I asked her to make a record of that, so that people could see that we tried and that we were here."
Griffin and Wolfe were participating in the 'We Do' campaign, a series of events organized by the Campaign for Southern Equality, a group based in Asheville, N.C., that is trying to change the conversation on same-sex marriage in the South. As other advocates have racked up victories for same-sex marriage in states like Maine, New York and Washington, most view the Southern states as unwinnable. Those at the Campaign for Southern Equality don't necessarily disagree with that premise, but they do disagree that Southern gay-rights advocates are powerless to advance their cause. In the hope of raising awareness of their demands, they've been applying for marriage licenses in states around the South -- and getting rejected.
"The South has often been written off," said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. "But we think we're uniquely positioned to tell a new story about what it means to be an LGBT person in the South."
The dominant story about same-sex marriage -- and gay rights more broadly -- in the South has been disheartening for activists everywhere, but particularly for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Southerners, like Beach-Ferrara, who have witnessed the rest of the country making big steps toward the mainstream while the South has not. Starting in 2004, less than a year after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples in the state had the right to marry, one Southern state after the next passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman. Even in the past year, as the country overall has shown signs of a major shift on same-sex marriage in polls and at the ballot box, the South appears not to have budged. In May, Beach-Ferrara's home state of North Carolina joined many of the other Southern states in banning same-sex marriage in their constitutions.
In 2011 and 2012, Beach-Ferrara stood witness as 38 couples in 10 cities across North and South Carolina sought marriage licenses and were rejected. Beach-Ferrara doesn't think same-sex marriage will be legalized in the South until a federal law is passed. Still, she said, there is value in their actions because each time a couple is rejected for a license, it shows "the reality of being a second-class citizen."
Griffin and Wolfe are part of the latest wave of couples to demonstrate this reality. During the last two weeks, 12 other couples from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi also made their way into courthouses as part of the 'We Do' campaign. Griffin and Wolfe decided to take part after seeing a blog post with a video of a lesbian couple applying for a license as part of the campaign.
"It reminded me of what Rosa Parks did," Wolfe said on Wednesday from his family farm, a couple of hours after leaving the courthouse in nearby Morristown, Tenn. "They knew that they were going to a counter where they weren't going to be served, but they went ahead anyway. I thought it was very profound."
Wolfe is 32 and works as an entertainer at an amusement park, and Griffin is 28 and works at Highlander, a progressive advocacy group. They met seven years ago at a bookstore in North Carolina where Wolfe was working. As they stood before the clerk, Wolfe said that he talked about his parents, who are both dead. "They were together for almost 40 years, and I think they would be sad, if they were living, that I can't have the things they had," he said. "I wanted to illustrate how similar our family is to the family that my parents had."
Tennessee does not have any protection in place to prevent employers from firing a person because of his or her sexual orientation, and Wolfe admitted to being a bit nervous that he might be fired. "We can be fired for being gay," he said. "So I do have a worry that this could effect my employment, but I thought that the cause was greater than that worry."