Doug Brooks and Rusty Wolf struggle to hold on to their youngest son Alex as he fidgets to break free in the toy-strewn living room of the house they met at more than a decade ago. Nicholas, the middle child, shows off his stylish new fedora as eldest Sophie sits on the couch with her hands neatly clasped.
The family is much like any other in Atlanta. But before June 26, their family legally didn’t exist in Georgia. Brooks and Wolf filed separate state tax returns, were excluded from private family health insurance plans and had to have their children in California in order to get both of their names on the birth certificates.
All of that changed earlier this summer when, in a landmark decision decades in the making, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry in all 50 U.S. states. For the first time, more than 20,000 same-sex couples who chose to stay in Georgia despite the state’s anti-gay marriage stance have equal status with heterosexual couples under the law. Across metro Atlanta, they are expressing relief that the extra steps they had to take for family benefits and recognition are no longer required.
Doug and Rusty
Brooks and Wolf, who grew up in Georgia and got married 10 years ago while on vacation in Massachusetts, are right where they want to be now. They are happily married and Brooks owns a law firm. But it wasn’t always that way.
“I came out very late,” said Wolf, now 55. “I didn’t come out until I was 38 years old and the one thing that my mother was really upset about – and one of the things that probably kept me from coming out – was that I wanted kids a lot and I always assumed I would have kids. And at the time, being gay to me meant that you would not have kids.”
Wolf met Brooks in the same Virginia-Highland house they live in today. At the time, a mutual friend owned the property and introduced the two. They got married seven years later in 2005.
It wasn’t until they ran into a gay couple with an adopted son at a party that Brooks and Wolf really considered the possibility of having children.
“It suddenly dawned on us that we could we have kids, that we could have a family,” Wolf said.
After struggling with adoption agencies, the couple tried surrogacy. The result was Sophie, born in California in 2006. She was followed by two brothers – Nicholas in 2008 and Alex in 2010.
When asked what it’s like to have two dads, all of the children agreed the hardest part is explaining to their friends how they were born.
“I don’t really see any difference between having two dads and a whole family,” Sophie said. “Because we’re still a family because we love each other and all it takes is love to have a family.”
Avery and Rayshawn
Military couple Avery and Rayshawn Chandler’s marriage was recognized in their home state on their two-year wedding anniversary, but Rayshawn had to celebrate by herself in Jonesboro.
“Avery was still overseas on her deployment, so I was home alone that morning and I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I was screaming and laughing and crying and yelling.”
Avery, who is in the Army Reserves, was in Kuwait when the Supreme Court’s decision was announced. Before the ruling, the police officer couple – who met in the Atlanta Police Academy about five years ago and later married in Connecticut – was used to worrying about a backup plan.
“What steps are we going to take to make sure that we’re OK in case something happens to Avery in the line of duty or Avery when she’s on military leave?” Rayshawn said.
Now the couple enjoys the same rights as heterosexual couples, including survivor and Social Security benefits. And, as Rayshawn is pregnant with their first child, that peace of mind couldn’t have come soon enough.
“I think we’re going to feel the impact of it when our baby boy is born because we don’t have to go through second-parent adoption and all this paperwork that heterosexual couples don’t necessarily have to deal with,” Avery said.
For Avery and Rayshawn, the Supreme Court decision means they can cast aside what they call “the extra,” the obligations that came with being a married lesbian couple in the South.
“It’s no longer a fight, it’s no longer having to prove anything, it’s no longer having to give an extra explanation or extra documentation or extra paperwork or anything else,” Rayshawn said. “It’s just we’re legal, we’re married and that’s that.”
LeeAnn and Rebecca
LeeAnn Jones knew she had to marry Rebecca Sherrill once Sherrill’s mother, who was very supportive of their relationship, died.
“We didn’t get married in time for her mom, but we were like, ‘You know what, even though Georgia doesn’t recognize it, we’re going to get married while my mom’s still alive,’” she said, choking up.
They got married in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
As a previous board member of the Human Rights Campaign and a current member of the Bar of the Supreme Court, Jones has been at the forefront for LGBT equality issues for years. Both she and Sherrill grew up in the Atlanta area, later fighting a state amendment aimed at prohibiting same-sex unions together.
For Jones, the Supreme Court’s decision melded her professional passion with her own marriage.
“The action of the court allowed us to get full equality in my home state during my lifetime, and that’s a very big deal,” she said. “When I saw what the decision was, I was in tears.”
When Sherrill moved back to Atlanta in the 1970s after coming out and ending her marriage to an Ohio man,she got involved in pro-LGBT rights protests where she expected to get hurt and arrested.
“Georgia has changed a whole lot since then,” Jones said.
Jones said they can finally retire with the same government benefits that all married couples enjoy.
“Georgia is home,” she said. “So to know we don’t have to leave here when we retire – that was pretty cool.”
Chris and Shelton
Chris Inniss and Shelton Stroman have established their roots in Georgia. Now those roots go even deeper.
The couple, who have been together for 14 years, fell in love with the Peach State after they both went to college in the South.
“I decided this would be where I lived,” said Stroman, who was raised in North Carolina and attended the Art Institute of Atlanta. Inniss is originally from British Guiana.
A fast romance ensued after a mutual friend introduced the two men, and they later settled down together in Snellville. Inniss began working as a veterinarian and opened a pet daycare business with Stroman.
As plaintiffs for a federal lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal against Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban, they welcomed the Supreme Court’s marriage decision.
“The real reason why we didn’t get married somewhere else is because, when we came back to Georgia – it wasn’t legalized,” Stroman said. “It’d mean nothing.”
And for the couple’s 10-year-old adopted son, Jonathan, the recognition of his parents’ relationship means a lot.
“It was just really exciting for me because we’ve been fighting for this for most of the time in my life,” he said.
Inniss and Stroman said they plan on going to a justice of the peace to get married within the next year. Afterward, they will plan a larger celebratory wedding with their extended family.
“We can actually get married when we want to get married,” Stroman said. “I don’t have to be ashamed of where I live.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.