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Gay Marriage Fight Finds Unlikely Home In Rural Panhandle

Tom Urban
The News Service of Florida

Chipley, Fla. — Stephen Schlairet and Ozzie Russ have almost as much in common with their neighbors in the tiny Panhandle community of Chipley as the way of life that sets them apart.

They raise horses and dogs. They live on a 20-acre spread on the outskirts of town. They lend a hand for the annual back-to-school fundraiser. They help out with the United Way. They wear cowboy hats.

Schlairet and Russ are also an interracial couple. They're gay. And they're at the center of a heated legal battle over same-sex marriage, banned by Florida voters who put a prohibition into the state constitution six years ago.

The court fight has put Washington County, with a population of about 24,000 and with almost twice as many miles of dirt roads as paved streets, at the forefront of what some --- including Schlairet and Russ --- consider the most pressing civil-rights issue in the country today.

Sitting side-by-side in their spacious home, Schlairet and Russ are a typical couple in many ways. They finish each other's sentences, and reminisce over a photo album of their commitment ceremony nearly 15 years ago, a lavish affair on a yacht in Fort Lauderdale where both men wore white tuxedos.

They moved to Chipley, home to about 2,000 residents, a decade ago after Schlairet, now retired, got a job as an administrator at a local hospital.

Their presence in what they called a "sheltered" community over the years may have helped to open hearts and minds in one of the state's most conservative, Christian regions, if not to gay marriage, then perhaps to tolerance of a different kind of love than most of their neighbors had ever encountered before they met Schlairet and Russ.

"A lot of people have not stepped outside of this box that they live in. We're bringing something new to them and something that's not what they see on TV or what people tell them about who we are. I think what changed their minds about us was actually having us in their presence to see us, and hear us, and be around us. …We've kind of opened their eyes," Russ said.

Schlairet, 66, and Russ, 48, said they became plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Florida's same-sex marriage ban not only so they could be legally wed, but to help pave the way for millions of others as well.

"It isn't just that, though. It is the validation of our relationship. It is the validation that our feelings are just as important as yours. Isn't it Shylock in Shakespeare who says when you prick me, do I not bleed? What was he talking about? He wanted to be considered equal to other people. That's what this is. This is a civil rights issue for us," Schlairet, wearing a leather cowboy hat and a Harley-Davidson belt buckle, said during an interview this week at their home.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in August ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional and ordered the Washington County clerk of court to issue a marriage license to Schlairet and Russ. But Hinkle at the same time put a hold on his ruling pending appeals in other cases. Hinkle's ruling prompted Attorney General Pam Bondi to file a series of appeals, including a request to the U.S. Supreme Court to extend the stay. The high court refused, and the stay is set to expire at the end of the day Monday, meaning that Schlairet and Russ can obtain their marriage license next week.

Washington County clerk of court Lora Bell last week filed an emergency motion with Hinkle saying she would comply with the order to allow Schlairet and Russ to wed but asking for clarification about whether she would have to issue marriage licenses to other same-sex couples.

Lawyers representing gay couples in the lawsuit argue that Hinkle's ruling applies to all 67 counties.

Schlairet and Russ, meanwhile, say they likely won't get married on Jan. 6 because they want time to plan a wedding, although they will obtain a marriage license, which they would have 60 days to use.

For all the attention the federal lawsuit is getting elsewhere in the state and even around the country, Washington County residents seemed almost indifferent about the case, even though the majority of those questioned Monday objected to the idea of gay marriage, almost exclusively for religious reasons.

The rural Panhandle county is peppered with hay fields interspersed with oak trees dripping Spanish moss. Churches nuzzle up to horse pastures adjacent to mobile homes or sprawling ranch homes, all in various states of repair.

A few miles down the road from Schlairet and Russ' home, the pastor of an Assembly of God church at first refused to speak with a visitor who is not a Christian, before trying to convert her.

Outside a Wal-Mart on a drizzly, gray afternoon, most shoppers approached by The News Service of Florida who were willing to talk shared the same opinion as Larry Brese, an 80-year-old Baptist who lives in Chipley.

"It goes against the Bible," Brese said. But when asked if the issue was dividing the community, Brese said, "I haven't heard anybody talking about it."

Marvin Peterson, 87, agreed.

"I don't think the good lord wanted them to be that way. To me, that's not love," Peterson said.

Viki Macys said she moved to nearby Sunny Hills three years ago from Chicago to care for her ailing father.

"It's better to love somebody than to hate somebody," Macys said, but added, "I don't really believe in gayness. I just don't. I think it's against God."

Beverly Harris said she was not opposed to the idea of same-sex couples getting married.

"It's their life," Harris said. "If they want to live like that, that's their business. As long as they don't make a big thing out of it in public. Who's to judge?"

But she said that most of her neighbors did not share her view.

"I'm very open about things. I wish they were more open," Harris said.

Despite their misgivings about gay marriage and homosexuality, the people interviewed appeared almost nonchalant about the controversy brewing in their midst.

"Judge not, lest ye be judged," one elderly man who refused to give his name said. "Especially in a free country."

Main Street in the historic downtown area emanates a shabby charm found in similar small towns throughout North Florida. A post office, a florist shop and a restaurant or two are squeezed in among a growing number of vacant storefronts.

Pamela Harris, the owner of "Everything Must Go" on Main Street, said she was unaware of the gay marriage lawsuit until Sunday, when she heard about it at church.

"A lot of people are upset about it," Harris said. "I'm not upset about the fact that they want to do that. I'm upset that they're ignorant of the word of God. It's just an abomination to God."

Schlairet and Russ insist they have not suffered any retribution because of the lawsuit but instead have been surprised by the support they have received, especially from parents whose children are gay or lesbian and from gay veterans.

"This is where we live. We hope to shape this community for the better in whatever little part we can do. We're not activists. We're not. We're just ordinary people that saw that something that was wrong. We had an opportunity to fix it. So we said OK, put our name on it," Schlairet said.

The couple never envisioned getting married until they were asked to join the lawsuit earlier this year, Russ said.

"We thought we were going to have the commitment ceremony, be together, live and die. It feels good to have this effect, that we're able to make a change," Russ said.

For Schlairet, the lawsuit is a chance to shape history.

"A lot of people during the civil-rights era had the opportunity to stand up and say something and they didn't. This for us was an opportunity. I didn't want to have to, when I get to the end, have to say I had a chance once in my life when I could have made a difference but I copped out. That was important to me," he said.