Webster University adjunct professor Kelley Harris checked her mailbox Tuesday, Nov. 11, and found an anonymous letter addressed to her partner Kelly Barnard. The letter suggested that Barnard had sinned and would be punished by God if she did not repent.
Harris and Barnard were among the first four couples to receive a marriage license at St. Louis City Hall after Missouri’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned Wednesday, Nov. 5. Harris said after being interviewed by the Associated Press, images of her, Barnard and her two children were on national news. She suspects that is why she received the letter.
“It’s intimidating because we don’t know the intentions of the sender,” Harris said.
When Harris saw the letter in her mailbox, she knew almost immediately what it was. The letter stated “As a righteous judge, God cannot overlook disobedience to His laws. The judgment for anyone who dies in their sins will be eternal separation from God in a fiery place called Hell.”
She felt uncomfortable and intimidated to receive a letter like that in the mail, but it was something she has felt before. Harris said she used to work at Planned Parenthood during the time when anthrax was being mailed to politicians and knew how to spot threatening letters. So, after seeing the partial return address from Omar, West Virginia, she was suspicious.
But since she offically married her partner last week, Harris has been surprised by the small amount of negative response she has experienced.
Harris and Barnard held a symbolic marriage ceremony 11 years ago in Missouri, since same-sex marriage was not legal at the time. Although she had been with Barnard for two years prior, it was important to both of them to get married in Missouri.
“When I first got married, I never, ever thought I would legally be able to get married in the United States, much less in Missouri,” Harris said. “To be able to have it legitimized by our local government meant so much to us that we never went to another state to get married.”
Earlier in the day on Nov. 5, she received the news that a ruling may be made on the marriage ban and was surprised to hear about the possibility of it being lifted in Missouri. She rushed to inform her partner and pick up her two children from school.
“I wanted my kids to be there and be a part of history. They don’t really understand now but one day they’ll understand the historical significance of it,” Harris said.
Harris thought the energy in the air was incredible because of the celebrations by newly-married couples, non-profit organizations and even people working downtown. At city hall, the marriage licenses hadn’t been changed and still had lines for bride and groom. The woman behind the desk wrote Harris’ name into the groom spot, which made her smile. Harris said between her and her partner, she is the more feminine one in terms of presentation and it was nice knowing that nothing was assumed about the two.
Her family then went to Tower Grove Park to renew their vows and take some family photos. She said the next day, she was so exhausted from the excitement that she cancelled all of her classes.
Students and colleagues
Harris teaches two classes at Saint Louis University (SLU) and two at Webster. She said her SLU students, who found out on Friday, were very supportive and excited for her. Some didn’t even know that same-sex marriage had been legalized. Her Webster students found out when she announced on Canvas, Webster’s online learning platform, that class was cancelled.
Webster freshman Paige Kilcullen is a student in Harris’ Introduction to Sociology class and was excited to hear that Harris had received her marriage license. She brought a card to Harris and congratulated her along with the rest of the class. Kilcullen said the class was excited to see the pictures of Harris and her family at city hall.
“I’m so excited to see somebody getting married, especially since a lot of my friends are gay,” Kilcullen said.
Her colleagues were just as happy to hear the news. Don Conway-Long, chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Webster hired Harris to teach at Webster in 2010 and said he was ecstatic to hear the news.
“She was glowing, smiling just as she should be,” Conway-Long said.
He said he never would’ve thought, even five years ago, that Missouri would legalize same-sex marriage.
“No way did I expect this to be happening in Missouri as fast as this just did,” Conway-Long said. “I’m so surprised by all of this, particularly in a time period where issues of race are awful, and issues of women’s reproductive rights are getting worse, and at the same time marriage equality is becoming real.”
Being a sociologist
While Harris was thrilled to legally be married and she believes all groups should have access to equal civil rights, she said LGBT couples have to remember that marriage itself can be an unequal institution. Harris said she doesn’t use the term “wife” when talking about her partner because it doesn’t assume anything about their roles as parents.
Harris said she has tried to set an example about homosexual couples not playing up typical male and female roles in relationships. It was really important to Harris and her partner to show that their commitment to each other and their children was just like any other couple.
As a sociologist, Harris also finds it interesting how married gay couples are taking each other’s last names.
“I’ve never wanted to take someone else’s name, no matter who I got married to,” Harris said. “I’m an individual and because I choose to couple with somebody, we can still be strong and separate while being committed to each other.”
With Missouri becoming the 33rd state to legalize same-sex marriage, Harris said LGBT couples need to remember that as they continue to fight for equality, they cannot narrow themselves into one category. She said that many people have an idea of “the normal gay,” which she describes as someone who is just like a straight person, but happens to be gay. To Harris, eliminating this idea is an important step towards equality for LGBT individuals.
“We fight for our equality but we try not narrow what it means to be gay or lesbian or anything else while we’re trying to fit into society,” Harris said.